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Shaping Literary Lives

ISSUE:  Autumn 1987
Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. By Sharon O’Brien. Oxford. $24. 95.
Wallace Stevens: The Early Years, 1879—1923. By Joan Richardson. Morrow. $21. 95.

In the spring of 1906, Willa Cather, age 33, arrived in New York to assume the managing editorship of McClure’s Magazine. She had spent a decade in Pittsburgh, her first remove from Nebraska, working as magazine editor, newspaperwoman, and schoolteacher while writing poems and stories in her spare time. Attracting the notice of S. S. McClure, she gained an influential patron who published her stories in his magazine, then brought her to New York, where her job would put this University of Nebraska graduate at the center of American literary life and encourage her in her creative apprenticeship. People who met her described her forcefulness. She was “buoyant,” “exuberantly boyish.” She had an “almost masculine personality,” whatever that conveys of manner and authority. To one new friend she conjured up images of “crude oil, red earth, elemental strength and resolution.”

Wallace Stevens in 1906 was also struggling to live and to write, but one would not think of him as crude or elemental or even resolute. In New York since Harvard, he had tried his hand at journalism, then succumbing to the pressures of his father’s practicality and his own more cautious nature had enrolled in law school rather than travel to Europe. Six years Gather’s junior, 1906 found him in the tenuous position of a fledgling 27-year-old lawyer. Not yet either the insurance executive nor the “major man” poet, he wrote sonnets at his office “surreptitiously,” spent Sundays on 30-mile solitary walks into New Jersey, read prodigiously, and was in love with Elsie Moll back in Reading, Pennsylvania. Largely through letters he sought to merge Elsie as his partner in “this solitude of self” and worried like a good Puritan about his various indulgences in rum, cigars, ice cream, and the “ladylike” habit of writing verses.

In this sketch of the two personalities, Cather bursts with the brash confidence of turn of the century America, whereas Stevens seems burdened with its anxieties and doubts. Of course, it is he who would emerge as the figure of greater creative authority. When we read his appreciative 1940 commentary on Willa Cather, it helps to put them on a more equal footing in terms of literary standing:

You may think she is more or less formless. Nevertheless, we have nothing better than she is. She takes so much pains to conceal her sophistication that it is easy to miss her quality.

To couple Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens as the subjects of recent biographies is in major respects a study in contrast. To be sure, the facts of their lives, specifically of their early lives as presented, respectively, in Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O’Brien and Wallace Stevens: The Early Years, 1879—1923 by Joan Richardson, offer points of confluence. They were contemporary Americans, Cather born in 1873 in Back Creek, Virginia, the home of her first ten years before transplantation to Nebraska, Stevens in 1879 in Reading, Pennsylvania. Grounded in a Protestant ethic and, to use Stevens’ phrase, in “the intelligence of [their] soil,” they were heirs of Emerson and Walt Whitman, and they became modernists in craft. On the way to literary maturation, both attended college, worked as journalists, and wrestled with issues of gender and creativity: Stevens discomfited before his “man-poet” father figures—Dante, Milton, Wordsworth—as well as worried about the manliness of writing poetry at all; Cather, lesbian and strongly male-identified, needing to resolve connections between female gender and authorship before she could emerge in her own satisfactory voice. Both authors had a penchant for sartorial finery and gourmandise. Both read the now forgotten poems of Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey. Finally, both were late bloomers. Stevens was 44 at the time of publication of Harmonium, his first dazzling collection, though not at the time well received, Cather 39 when she hit stride with her second—and successful— novel, O’Pioneers. It is to the point of creative declaration, the genius of the future assured, that each biographer brings the subject, a fitting conclusion to the first half of a literary life.

What makes the juxtaposition of Cather and Stevens most interesting, however, is not such points of cultural, literary, and psychological kinship. More importantly, the juxtaposition functions to highlight the marked and striking difference in the relation of their living to their writing. The difference is that Cather’s life and work seem of a piece and Stevens’ do not, and this becomes a significant distinction in assessment of the two biographies. In Cather’s case we come to some understanding of the way that events—familial, psychosocial, cultural, historical—led to her creative emergence. We can glimpse, as Richard Ellmann has suggested can be the contribution of good biography, “the intricacies with which [a] mind negotiates with its surroundings to produce literature.” In Stevens’ case the life and the work remain as separate mysteries. Though we gain massive and detailed knowledge about such matters as Stevens’ voracious and recondite reading, about as Richardson puts it, “the connections the poems have to the real facts of his life” (—for example, a childhood prank climbing a painted green streetlight outside neighbors’ windows at night is a source for the imagery in “Disillusionment at Ten O’clock”), about psychic polarities and their genesis in parental legacies, pulls between the poetic and the practical, imagination and reality, the personae of the Puritan and the dandy, in Stevens’ phrase all the vacillations “up and down between two elements” which inform the poetry, the growth of the man remains stubbornly unconnected to the growth of the poet.

But if Cather’s life and work seem to cohere and Stevens’ do not, does this speak to the nature of the factual evidence or to the construction, the vision of the interpreter? We face a confusion—a conflation of subject and treatment. Are we dealing with the issue of the biographer’s insight and narrative skill or with intractable realities of the subject? It may be that such matters cannot easily be untangled and that the whole notion of a coherent self is a construction of convenience. Sharon O’Brien addresses this point when she pauses in her introduction to worry whether biography may not be a “problematic genre” and to proffer what is almost an apology for her traditional biographical assumptions:

For those who reject the liberal humanist view of a unified, coherent self and envision in its place an unstable, shifting configuration of forces, biography—insofar as it portrays a stable, knowable self—seems to offer the reader a deceptive certainty. In this book I do not intend to represent my subject’s core, essential self, a futile project since the self is always changing, always in the process of self-creation. But some patterns can be discerned linking an individual’s many selves, and in this biography I trace these patterns by describing the fictions Willa Cather used to imagine and create a self.

These fictions, O’Brien tells us, are “the American story of self-transformation, the romantic notion of self-discovery.” But if these are the organizing structures available to Willa Cather or her contemporary, Wallace Stevens, they are also the structures available to their biographers. Alfred Kazin has noted that the question, “Who are you?” is what Americans keep asking one another and that in a country where each person is “constantly making up the progress report of his own life, . . . not equality but identity becomes the condition of life.” As essentially traditional biographers despite their critical currency and sophistication, O’Brien and Richardson subscribe to notions of growth, evolution, emergence, coherence (though coherence can encompass vacillation); and both set out, as O’Brien puts it, “to use the notion of the unique essential self to explain . . . literary and personal development.” The concern, however, is whether such an approach . serves them equally well.

Stevens’ unpromising nature as a biographical subject has often been remarked upon. Particularly about his early life there is a dearth of documentation, though Richardson’s painstaking analysis of journal entries and letters—e. g. , what psychological imperatives are at work when he asks Elsie to wear a particular dress?—make much of what little there is. More to the point is what Richard Ellmann calls Stevens’ “anti-autobiographical” nature, his urge “to conceal and fall silent,” so that neither in the poetry nor in the journals and letters does he give much about himself away. Richardson observes his habit of retreat from feeling into metaphor: whenever recollections become too intimate, he will break off to initiate a new kind of speech, resorting to trope to distance from the personal. But then one must ask, how much is there for Stevens to give away? His life is almost defiantly noneventful, so much so that, as Alan Filreis has noted in the pages of this journal (Summer 1986), Stevens worried that his inactive life would make him a man absolutely “without interest.” The sense of inaction grew stronger later in life. But the early years foreshadow and lead up to this. As we struggle through them in Richardson’s account, they reveal the efforts of a strangely muffled and covert figure, “a most inappropriate man/In a most unpropitious place” to settle certain questions of social and personal reality. The account of his life, at least of his nonpoetic life, is to a large and depressing extent a progress toward ossification: his settling after timorous adventure—Harvard, a few years on his own in New York, a memorable trip to British Columbia, the epistolary passion for Elsie Moll—into the entrenchments of employment by the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Corporation and the unfulfillment of his marriage. It is at the point of these entrenchments that Richardson ends her study. We finish the volume with an overriding sense of Stevens’ essential solitude and also his essential inaccessibility.

Stevens himself made a distinction between the self he commanded “on paper” and the self he presented “in reality.” The challenge for Richardson is to connect the two, and this is difficult. The most important self on paper is of course the author of the poetry. In the documentation of Stevens’ poetic development, Richardson ends her book on the exultant note of his immersion in the role of “The Comedian as the Letter C,” a poem which she claims stands as “a secular sacrament of praise,” a “celebration not of God but of experience in the master key of C,” a reflection of Stevens’ “new acceptance of self and things around him.” But how is this so? What self is being accepted? Though Richardson’s declared aim in the biography is “to trace the evolution of Stevens’ consciousness,” the distinction between a self on paper and self in reality thwarts her purpose. In the end she admires the poet though without particular illumination of his creativity. (Her tendency is to understand this reductively: e. g. , the flight into metaphor becomes refuge from pain or the role of the comic actor a protection “from tragically failing to meet . . . desires.”) As for the man, unintegrated with his talent, he cannot seem other than deficient. Richardson grows increasingly severe toward his insularity, particularly his progressive withdrawal from “poor Elsie.” Perhaps the intensity with which every piece of evidence connected with the relationship is subjected to scrutiny leads to inevitable irritation that it is so impoverished. What Richardson has not done—and Stevens has not helped her out—has been to bring understanding of his distinctiveness. Certainly we gain no sense of an identity for Stevens that encompasses the man “without interest” and the poet.

As we turn to Willa Cather, the case is altogether different. It is Sharon O’Brien’s observation that “Willa Cather did not make it easy for her biographers.” But if similar to Stevens in the wish to control interpretation—both had a go at the destruction of letters—she left sufficient evidence to ease the biographer’s task, and more to the point is the nature of the evidence. Unlike Stevens, Cather declared herself. She wrote about herself. She acted. She was given to flamboyant gestures. She wore her psyche on her sleeve, though occasionally remembering to say, “Don’t look.” O’Brien takes the central biological, biographical fact of gender and tries to understand its relation to creativity. And her subject, Willa Cather, seems to yield quite readily to this exploration.

For one thing, Cather’s conflicts are vivid. She was dramatic in her rebellions. As a small child, for example, brought into the living room by her attractive and imperious mother to be presented to a Southern gentlemen, she horrified both mother and gentleman by exclaiming, “I’se a dang’rous nigger.” At age 14, in response to the “hateful distinction” between options for boys and girls, including the stories thought appropriate for them, she cropped her hair, donned masculine clothing, and renamed herself William Cather, Jr. , or, reflecting her career interests, William Cather, M. D. O’Brien sees the creation of William Cather, a persona Cather sustained for the next four years, as a child’s last-ditch rebellion against the loss of freedom that came with female adolescence. William Cather was left behind when Cather set off for the freedoms of intellectual study at the University of Nebraska. But if reconciled to female garb, she still affirmed allegiance to the masculine. Homer, Tolstoy, and Kipling were her literary heroes. She imagined the artist as manly warrior, conqueror, or knight. She defended the brutality of football in pieces she wrote for the local newspaper.

It is O’Brien’s thesis that to find her own creative voice, Cather had to come to better terms with her own gender and past and to “fashion a female self that could be compatible with the artist’s role.” Describing this as “a far more radical act than the young woman’s male identification,” O’Brien goes on to detail the “social, psychological and literary contexts” that helped Cather in this refashioning. We follow Cather in her career, her travels, her love affairs, her conflicts, reflected in early stories, about parents, the Midwest, the role of the artist. We follow, as well, her gradual discovery of compelling female voices—in opera singers whom she admired, in writers such as her friend and mentor, Sara Orne Jewett, to whom she dedicated O’Pioneers, in the female Indian potters of the Southwest, where she traveled in 1912, who in Cather’s words “dreamed the fine geometry of the designs and made beautiful objects for daily use out of river bottom clay,” in the remembered female story tellers of her own youth.

When Joan Richardson, at the end of her study of Stevens, speaks of his “new acceptance of self and things around him” and its reflection in the poetry, there is little basis to her statement in what we have learned of Stevens’ life. In the case of Willa Cather, on the other hand, the biography is structured so that maturation of the work and of the life come plausibly together. Back from the Southwest, “at peace with herself, with her femaleness, with her literary imagination,” Cather set to work on the novel that in her words “almost wrote itself” and became O Pioneers! She found her “own material” and returned to her “own country.” Her creative force after years of apprenticeship was fully unleashed. Drawing on her own “memories, affections, fears and experience,” she knew, says O’Brien, “what stories to tell and how to tell them.” The biography as a whole supports this statement, for the entire book has functioned first of all to define and explore the connection of self, gender, and literary imagination and second, to bring the subject to this climactic point of reconciliation of conflicts.

A conclusion to be drawn from the foregoing discussion is that Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice is a better ordered, more persuasive book than Wallace Stevens: The Early Years. Cather is clearly the more accessible and tractable subject, but there is also the question of each biographer’s insight and control in the shaping of a narrative. In an essay on biography, Leon Edel evokes Virginia Woolf sitting down to write her life of Roger Fry and asking the question, “How can one make a life out of six cardboard boxes full of tailor’s bills, love letters and old picture post cards?” She does so, Edel contends, by brilliantly shifting “from the art that imagines its facts to the art that imagines the form into which the facts must be put.” If Joan Richardson’s book is the less successful study, her failure is a failure of insight and a failure of form. Essentially Stevens’ life remains packed in boxes. We see his biographer sifting through them, even making an inventory of their contents, but then failing to transfigure them into her own creation of a life.

There are a number of telling indications of this, not the least of which is in the relation of voices—the biographer’s to the subject’s. In contrast to Sharon O’Brien who explains that “having . . . listened to Willa Cather over the past several years, I now tell her story in my own language, hoping that her voice will be heard by my reader,” Joan Richardson decides to let the phrases from Stevens that have unwittingly crept into her prose stand as a part of it. Rather than deleting them, she writes:

I wanted to see what kind of pattern, if any would emerge, and I wanted to stop doing violence to my consciousness which I had come to realize had simply learned to speak Stevens, as it were.

Richardson hopes the result will be “beautifully fugal.” But when we read of “the holy hush of ancient sacrifice announced by [Stevens’ neighborhood] church bells ringing” or concerning his handwriting that “just as his fingers on the page made the music haunting their imagined world, the music played on his spirit too,” the appropriation of Stevens’ phrases seems at best awkward and derivative and at worst confusing and banal.

Even without the handicap of “speaking Stevens,” Richardson is not a good writer. Her prose is turgid; her explanations belabored. As a single example, here is her description of the influence of Stevens’ Harvard teachers:

For Stevens and his generation, these figures were like waves of influence that broke into the more visible foam of everyday conversations with contemporaries and instructors. Thus “what Harvard meant” was not confined to formal lectures. Intellectual exchange permeated even the homeliest activities. Because of this, associations developed between ideas and commonplaces. Thinking about the most exalted realms became fixed in lasting memories of lived experience. For example, although Stevens never had a formal course with Santayana, a close friend of his was one of the philosopher’s students.

How can a writer with such little adeptness herself at figurative language succeed as the biographer of a poet?

A further problem is Richardson’s lack of a sense of proportion. There is too much attention to such matters as Stevens’ handwriting or to the analysis of his journal entries and letters or to the influence of minor writers. Richardson tries to justify her choices: If it took Stevens six to seven hours to write a four-to-five page letter, the letter warrants close attention. If the focus is on minor influences, this is because other critics have dealt with the major ones. If she gives disproportionate emphasis to parts of the life, this is in keeping with Bergson’s temporal categories—le temps et la durée. The overall effect, however, is one of clutter and confusion. For all its impressive scholarship and serious intentions—to recount the events of Stevens life, to establish biographical sources of the poetry, to place Stevens in the cultural context of his times, to bring psychoanalytic understanding to bear on his inner life, this is a biography that staggers under the weight of injudicious selectivity and shaping and fails in interest and vitality. We can only await the second volume, shortly forthcoming, with reservations.

In a respect, Sharon O’Brien’s undertaking is less ambitious, and it is certainly less diffuse. O’Brien defines one specific, crucially important objective: to look “fully and seriously” at interconnections between gender and creativity in the effort to understand Gather’s literary emergence. Doing so, she draws on a range of methods—biographical, historical, psychoanalytic, and literary—which, in contrast to essentially the same range of methods used by Richardson, are well integrated with one another. The book is gracefully fluent and coherent; it also seems somewhat single-minded in its focus and in its consistent and explicit feminism. It is feminist scholarship which helps to formulate the biography’s questions and support its key insights—(e. g. , on the subject of literary influence, where Richardson will cite Harold Bloom to discuss Stevens’ anxiety about predecessors, O’Brien will refer to Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar to stress Cather’s need to forge, not break chains of inheritance and legitimacy). Also it is feminist values—models of female power and capacity—which provide the basis for assessments and judgments. This is an ample framework and one which seems entirely appropriate to the enrichment of our understanding of Willa Cather. The point is simply that we have a strong awareness of the biographer’s point of view and of the tenets which help to determine the shape of her narrative.

The consequence might be a sense of imposition on the subject, but it isn’t. O’Brien maintains a judicious balance between the vivid, seemingly unmediated re-creation of Cather’s experience on the one hand and her own conceptual frameworks on the other, between closeness to the subject and distance, sympathy and detachment. Above all, she is a good reader, both of Cather and of Cather’s fiction. We feel confident about her insights into the meaning for Willa Cather of her own life and about the biography’s speculations, conjectures, hypotheses that attempt to connect disparate elements of that life. O’Brien draws persuasive connections, for example, between the significance for Cather of various landscapes—Virginia, Nebraska, the Southwest—and the subject’s conflicting desires for vastness and enclosure. She develops an intelligent context for the discussion of Cather’s lesbianism, noting that “if lesbian is to be a cognitive and emotional category, lesbianism must be a category in the social environment” as it became in the 1890’s. She makes vivid the psychic risks of being a creative writer, the risks of yielding to that part of the self “where dreaming, symbol making and creativity can take place.”

It is O’Brien’s thesis that Cather’s emergence as a writer depended on the overcoming of self-distrust and the resolution of conflicts concerning separation from and connection with others. Only then could she immerse herself in her material with a fruitful balance of self-forgetfulness and control. The question of separation and connection also enters into the achievement of the biographer. Joan Richardson’s relation to Wallace Stevens is at the same time both too close and too remote. She is overwhelmed by him but fails to understand him. Sharon O’Brien, on the other hand, achieves a poised relation to the subject, and the result is rewarding—our deepened understanding of the creative process, our glimpse of the intricacies with which a mind negotiates with its surroundings to produce literature.


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