Arriving at Shenandoah University for the 17th International Willa Cather Seminar, scholars were greeted by the incongruous sounds of revving Harley-Davidson motorbikes and bagpipes. For one week in June, the small town of Winchester, Virginia, played host not only to the Willa Cather Foundation’s biennial seminar, but also to the Virginia Piping and Drumming School’s summer meet and the 2019 HOG (‘Harley Owners’ Group’) Rally. While that meant that accommodation choices in town were limited, the celebratory atmosphere befitted the fact that, for the Cather group, this conference was something of a homecoming.
Cather is most famously associated with Nebraska, but she – like her most famous narrator, Jim Burden – was born in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and transplanted to the Midwest at the age of nine. Consequently, from the very first panel, ‘Virginia Roots and Histories,’ speakers took inspiration from the conference’s location and examined the impact that Cather’s Virginian childhood (as well as her later move West) had upon her fiction; the fascinating ideas derived from this biographical approach to Cather’s work proved to be a major theme throughout the conference.
Andrew Jewell (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), for example, offered a tantalising preview of his forthcoming Cather biography in a paper exploring the role of disease (specifically tuberculosis) in driving the Cather family West – something that Cather later reflected on in her poem ‘Macon Prairie’ (1923). Meanwhile, Daryl Palmer’s (Regis University) close reading of Cather’s father’s journals sparked an absorbing discussion about how moving from Virginia to Nebraska enabled Charles Cather – an important model for many of the loving but somewhat ineffectual fathers in Cather’s fiction, for example Mr. Templeton in ‘Old Mrs. Harris’ (1932) – to ‘refashion’ himself from a ‘tenderfoot’ into a ‘pioneer.’ These new insights into Cather’s southern roots were supplemented by a visit to Willow Shade, Cather’s first home and the setting for her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940).
Sapphira, which is set on a Winchester estate in 1856, is Cather’s only Virginia-based novel and the first plenary session of this seminar was devoted to exploring how new perspectives from archaeology and history might help to answer the important question of ‘how accurately Cather depicted the lives of the text’s enslaved African American characters.’ The overwhelming answer was ‘not very.’ Drawing upon archival research conducted in Winchester’s Handley Library, Ann Romines (George Washington University, emerita) revealed that the story of Matilda Jefferson – the real life African American women who inspired the character Till – was much ‘more complex than the one Cather depicted on the page.’ Comparing passages of Sapphira with archaeological evidence from a recent dig at a nearby plantation, Belle Grove, Matthew Clarke Greer (Syracuse University) concurred that Cather’s descriptions of enslaved life – and, in particular, the ways in which enslaved people used the yard space outside their accommodation – were highly idealised.
Similarly, Jonathan Noyolas (Shenandoah University) demonstrated that Cather’s fictional representation of African American characters’ treatment in the aftermath of the Civil War rarely corresponds with the reality of life in the Shenandoah Valley as described by contemporary historical sources. Finally, Adeela al-Khalili from the Josephine School Community Museum and Clarke County African-American Cultural Center gave insights into what life was like for African Americans in Winchester during the time period that Cather described in her novel. Overall, this was an illuminating plenary which clearly demonstrated the benefits of including specialists from a board range of disciplines, from archaeology to history as well as literature, in discussions about Cather’s work.
Although Cather’s Virginian past was a significant topic of discussion throughout the conference, conversation was by no means limited to the immediate locale. Indeed, one of the stated aims of the seminar was to ‘unsettle’ Cather by examining ‘differences and dislocations’ throughout her oeuvre. In the panel ‘Tuning in to Linguistic Diversity,’ for example, Andrew Wu (University of Pennsylvania) and I explored how Cather’s characters (especially her immigrant characters) navigate differences of language, and we argued for the benefits of a sociolinguistic approach to Cather’s work.
Meanwhile, other scholars turned their attention to Cather’s ‘unsettling women’ and differences of gender expression in her novels and short stories. Hunter Plummer (Texas A & M) investigated depictions of working women in Cather’s short fiction, arguing that the ideal Catherian businesswoman combines tradition and modernity. Elizabeth Foulke (University of Rhode Island), meanwhile, proposed that, in her radical rejection of childbearing and typical married gender roles, the protagonist of O Pioneers! (1913), Alexandra Bergson, is an increasingly relevant figure for modern female readers. Foulke’s presentation complemented that of Geneva Gano (Texas State University), who identified unexpected parallels between Lena Lingard’s avoidance of marriage and childrearing in order to pursue a career in My Ántonia (1918) and anarchist Emma Goldman’s vision for women’s liberation. All of these presentations made a case for Cather’s ongoing relevance in the era of ‘having it all.’
In addition to unsettled gender roles, the seminar also explored the prevalence of ‘unsettled bodies’ in Cather’s fiction. In his plenary presentation, Guy Reynolds (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) argued that the five senses are crucial to Cather’s work. Focusing on touch and embodiment, he persuasively demonstrated that Cather was deeply ‘interested in bodies in transition’ and that ‘sick, disabled and damaged bodies’ catalyse the plots of novels like Sapphira and Lucy Gayheart (1935). Developing Reynolds’s point in the subsequent panel entitled ‘Body Matters,’ Diane Prenatt (Marian University) also examined sick and ‘medicalised bodies’ in Cather’s work. Neatly drawing together the themes of ‘unsettled bodies,’ ‘unsettled gender roles’ and, from Jewell’s earlier presentation, disease, Prenatt argued that the ‘diphtheria micronarrative’ in Sapphira (the subplot in which Mary Blake saves herself from diphtheria by drinking soup against Dr. Brush’s advice) reflects the novel’s wider themes of female agency and women deciding what happens to their own bodies.
Although this conference began by looking to the past and Cather’s origins, it ended by looking to the future. In a lively session entitled ‘Wild for Willa’ (a reference to the Cather Archive’s popular Twitter hashtag) scholars gave informal mini-presentations about their latest projects and indicated that 2020 would be a promising year for new Cather books. In a panel discussion on ‘Letters and Writing,’ Gayle Rocz and Simone Droge, two undergraduates from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln working as editorial assistants for the Cather Archive, discussed their role in helping to digitise Cather’s letters for online publication – an eagerly-anticipated project scheduled for completion in 2022. The turnout for this panel as well as the Willa Cather Foundation’s provision of generous scholarships and travel grants for both undergraduate and research students is testament to the Cather community’s willingness to include new as well as established voices in their discussions. This, as well as the diversity of panels on offer (and, of course, the presence of friendly bagpipers and HOGs), made the 17th International Cather Seminar a pleasure to attend. Here’s to the 18th Seminar in 2021!