Last week, I did a not-so-definitive ranking of one of my favorite authors, William Faulkner, a master of the Southern Gothic and stream-of-conscious styles in literature. Today, I’m going to give another less-than-complete ranking of an author’s output: that of Willa Cather.
Even though she only spent a small part of her life in Nebraska, the Cornhusker State treats her like the celebrity she should be (I’ve seen her childhood home in Red Cloud!), and I hope with this post to bring more attention to her works. She’s America’s most underrated novelist, but some day–some day–she’ll be just as well-known and remembered as her contemporaries. What follows is a 100% opinion-based ranking of four of her novels. Also, please check out her many outstanding short stories, like “Paul’s Case”!
#4. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1928)
I raved about this book in a Tweet I sent last November, and while I’m not going to contradict myself and say that this novel is in any way bad or even mediocre (because . . . it’s not), my view of Death Comes for the Archbishop has soured a little since then.
Cather’s works are incredibly low in terms of action, but that’s not the issue here: instead, this book is too episodic as it pieces together the time spent in 19th-Century New Mexico by a French-born bishop. In addition, the descriptions of the Southwest in all its grandeur start to pile up after a while. Others, though, have raved about this work. So I would put my ranking of Archbishop as a rather hot take.
#3. O! Pioneers (1913)
Cather’s first installment in the famed Prairie Trilogy of novels set in Nebraska in the late 1800s, O! Pioneers, like my #4 pick, is episodic at times because Cather splits it into five parts. Still, this novel, showing the struggle and simultaneous triumph of Swedish immigrants to southern Nebraska is much more cohesive and gives a startling realistic view of human relationships and the many pitfalls they face. Alexandra Bergson, a heroine and yet not really a heroine, stands out as one of Cather’s most memorable characters, standing tall amid the drama, heartbreak, and eventual violence that trouble her loved ones.
#2. The Professor’s House (1925)
In case anyone had doubts, this is the work that cements Cather’s perhaps trademark emphasis on characters over action, a quality of her writing that has always appealed to me.
The Professor’s House is a fascinating look at an academic, Godfrey St. Peter, in the early 1900s wondering where he fits in a world emphasizing change and growth, and on a more personal level, how he deals with his family after the death, in World War I, of his close friend and future son-in-law Tom Outland. Cather’s decision to let Outland narrate the latter third of this novel, where some of her most gorgeous and awe-inspiring descriptions are found, instantly made me admire The Professor’s House. Structural changes in narrative like that give me goosebumps!
#1. My Ántonia (1918)
The first Cather novel I read (back in March 2016, as part of high school), and still my favorite. I talk a lot about its plot in one of my earliest posts, so I’ll reserve this space to say why it’s my #1 choice here:
-No other novel I’ve read has come close to depicting the wonders and problems of human memory as Cather does here
-Cather avoids what would’ve made a quite predictable romance by having her two main characters, Jim and Ántonia, drift off in the directions their lives give them, which I found to be much more realistic
-As usual, Cather has incredible descriptions, comparing the Nebraska prairie to an ocean and including a memorable scene where a plow appears superimposed on the evening horizon
-Finally, this novel surpassed every expectation I had of it to the point where I knew, before I’d even finished it, that this was always going to be a book close to my heart.
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