Willa Cather, the Greatest American Novelist?

January 26, 2009 | 2 books mentioned 6

covercoverI’ve sampled Willa Cather recently after a knowledgeable friend suggested she might be a sleeper candidate for the greatest American novelist. Well, after reading My Antonia and The Professor’s House I have to say, I don’t see it. There are particular things about both books that did not grab me, but to sum up my reaction, I’ll borrow a concept from Harold Bloom, who wrote in his introduction to The Western Canon that one quality shared by all canonical texts is their fundamental strangeness, their unlikeness to anything that came before them. I just did not find there to be much at all strange about either Cather novel.

I did, though, find her writing to be affecting and original when depicting the landscapes of her stories – the American southwest in The Professor’s House and the Nebraska plains in My Antonia. She has a talent for melding her characters with their surroundings, so that their lives appear as consequential, and as fleeting, as a summer’s growth of corn. From My Antonia:

The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or a great idea. I recognized every tree and sandbank and rugged draw. I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modeling of human faces.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at growingsideways.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. Read Shadows on the Rock (about the settling of Quebec) or Death Comes to the Archbishop (about the settlement of New Mexico). Cather's a titan–a gifted stylist who captures the American West in the transition between wildness/frontier and civilization in a way no other American novelist has. In The Song of the Lark she also offers one of the few triumphant female artist-heroines of world fiction. No small feat, though one a male reader might not notice.

  2. Having only read "My Antonia", I can't really say, but I certainly remember enjoying the book quite a bit. There's something frustrating to the very question, though. I personally cannot compare Theodore Dreiser to John Steinbeck, but acknowledge the greatness of both.

  3. I find there's always something off or troubling about her male characters. If you like The Great Gatsby, Cather's A Lost Lady might be worth checking out as it was supposedly Fitzgerald's inspiration for Daisy Buchanan

  4. Death Comes to the Archbishop is both a magnificent and intimate portrait of an American building a new world. Just in Santa Fe I could feel the presence of the ambitious and pious archbishop (based on an historical figure) making his way through and putting his own stamp on this wild land. Willa Cather is undoubtedly one of our great authors, and maybe even the best.

  5. Anyone who states that Cather is the greatest American novelist will get no argument from me…my daughter, Antonia, is to be wed next month, and she knows that she was named years before she was born.
    The crowd I’ve found myself hanging with in my advanced age is not given to questions such as this, but to my way of thinking the two greatest American novelists are Cather and Faulkner…polar opposites in style, but both uniquely American in their art, and the truth inherent therein.
    So often when one reads about her these days, it is in reference to Antonia, Pioneers, or Archbishop. As if she were nothing but an historian of the American West.
    I was glad to see Ms. Wilkinson comment on Shadows, a book I have read more than a few times.
    I once read an essay re: “The Professors House” illustrating that the entire book was in fact analogous to Cather’s own life..Tom Outland’s Story was her own story, and that’s the obvious part.
    I think that, to me, what Willa Cather illustrates is how mastery of a craft – such as writing – can create true and lasting art.

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