Willa Cather and the American idiom

Li Zhu, Marquette University


Cultural and language contact in North America is a unifying theme in all Cather's major works. Cather not only examined the regional, social and dialectal diversity in North America but also reflected on how North American civilization was enriched by expressions from multiple cultural traditions. I situate Cather's eight novels, one collection of stories and one collection of essays within the historical contexts of the debates concerning American national identity and language from the colonial period to after the First World War. Drawing from the New Historicism, Bakhtinian dialogism, sociolinguistics, and stylistics, I argue that Cather developed from an enthusiastic student of diverse languages and cultures into an accomplished artist who fabricated a rich multidialectal and multilingual American prose style, and became a conscientious advocate of cross-cultural dialogue. The "Introduction" explores how Cather's life and education led to her sympathy toward the cultural, social and linguistic "others." Chapter 1, focusing on O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918), demonstrates that Cather agreed that immigrants should assimilate themselves into the mainstream American culture, but she respected their rights to preserve their linguistic and cultural heritages and pass these heritages on to their children. Chapter 2 shows that Cather, in One of Ours (1922) and The Professor's House (1925), endorsed the increasing interest in the American language immediately after the First World War, but criticized nativist efforts to suppress other languages and cultures. Chapter 3 discusses that in order to refute the mounting postwar nativism and the exclusive language laws, Cather, in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Shadows on the Rock (1931), examined how Old World language myths were transformed in New Mexico and Quebec respectively. Chapter 4 argues that Cather's efforts to preserve the native idioms of America, in Obscure Destinies (1932) and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), reflect her cultural pluralism rather than the alleged nativism. The "Conclusion" traces the development of Cather as an American artist as reflected in Not Under Forty (1936), the only collection of essays selected by herself.

Recommended Citation

Zhu, Li, "Willa Cather and the American idiom" (1998). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9842443.