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When we find ourselves on shipboard, among hundreds of strangers, we very soon recognize those who are sympathetic to us. We find our own books in much the same way. We like a writer much as we like individuals; for what he is, simply, underneath all his accomplishments.
Willa Cather, “Miss Jewett” (1936)
Willa Cather had little use for critics, preferring to have ordinary readers find and encounter her books without the mediating lens of the professional interpreter. Critics have, from time to time, returned the favor, consigning her to near-oblivion in the 1930s when they judged her to be out of touch with the painful social and economic realities of Depression-era America. Today, fortunately, her reputation with both lay and professional readers is secure, for she is widely read (the prestigious Library of America has two Cather volumes in its series, and My Ántonia has been reprinted in the Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century series), regularly taught (in a range of undergraduate and graduate courses in American literature, women's literature, and lesbian/gay/queer studies), and the subject of intense critical scrutiny and controversy. Those controversies have in recent years landed Cather on the cover of such influential middle-brow publications as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, where tabloid-style headlines demand to know “What have the academics done to Willa Cather?” or proclaim “Justice for Willa Cather,” as if the long-dead writer has been a hostage or a political prisoner who has finally gained her freedom.
The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather offers thirteen original essays by leading scholars of a major American modernist novelist. Willa Cather's luminous prose is 'easy' to read yet surprisingly difficult to understand. The essays collected here are theoretically informed but accessibly written and cover the full range of Cather's career, including most of her twelve novels and several of her short stories. The essays situate Cather's work in a broad range of critical, cultural, and literary contexts, and the introduction explores current trends in Cather scholarship as well as the author's place in contemporary culture. With a detailed chronology and a guide to further reading, the volume offers students and teachers a fresh and thorough sense of the author of My Ántonia, The Professor's House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop.