Willa Cather and the Southern genteel tradition



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Texas Tech University


Biographers and critics have noted the facts of Willa Gather's Southern background, but they have underestimated, misinterpreted, or failed to explain its significance. Though many have recognized her ambivalence toward her heritage, none has offered a satisfactory explanation because most biographers and critics do not understand the axiology of the Southern genteel tradition nor how it shaped Gather. This study examines this tradition and shows its influence on Gather's life and fiction. Chapter I describes the characteristics of the Southern genteel tradition and traces its roots to the English gentry. The chapter also places the Southern genteel tradition in the context of Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Chapter II establishes Gather's family within the Southern genteel tradition in Virginia, and Chapter III discusses the socioeconomic changes the family experienced after the move to Nebraska and the effect these changes had on Gather and her feelings about the Southern genteel tradition. Although Gather did not write overtly about the South until her last novel, many of her works are influenced by her Southern heritage. Chapter IV explains how Gather used the Southern lady as the model for the aristocrat and the actress in Alexander's Bridge and for the pioneer woman in 0 Pioneers 1, whose acquisition of property elevates her to upper-class status. Chapter V focuses on My Antonia, showing how Gather realized that the frontier enabled women to become economically independent and autonomous but at the price of refinement. Chapter VI presents a darker picture of the tradition in A Lost Lady because it demonstrates how the ideology which elevates the lady also deprives her of the ability to be economically self-sufficient, therefore making her dependent on men. In My Mortal Enemy, the subject of Chapter VII, Gather explores the negative impact a leisure class system predicated on personal wealth has on people. Chapter VIII discusses Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Gather's last novel, which reveals the depth of her understanding of the Southern genteel tradition, its relationship to slavery, and its strengths and weaknesses.