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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism

Willa Cather and
the Politics of Criticism

Joan Acocella

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To purchase Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism

Title: Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism
Author: Joan Acocella
Genre: Literary Criticism
Written: 2000
Length: 94 pages
Availability: Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism - US
Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism - UK
Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine introduction to Cather, and fun commentary on the inanities and insanities of critics

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 24/2/2001 .
London Review of Books B+ 14/12/2000 Terry Castle
National Review A+ 20/3/2000 Terry Teachout
The NY Rev. of Books A+ 30/11/2000 A.S.Byatt
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 2/4/2000 Christina Cho
Partisan Review . (4)/2001 Robert Leiter
The Rev. of English Studies . 5/2002 Judy Simons
Virginia Quarterly Rev. . Spring/2002 Roberta Silman

  Review Consensus:

  Sharp, fun, generally correct.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(S)ane and sometimes very funny critique of the critics." - The Economist

  • "At the heart of Acocella's enterprise -- and this feature seems more noticeable the second time around -- is the satirist's morbid intolerance for human error: the kind of error so necessary, paradoxically, to intellectual exchange. This intolerance gives her argument its delectable polemical edge (what a glorious bunch of dunces inhabit English departments!) but also limits her ability to compel unalloyed assent." - Terry Castle, London Review of Books

  • "This devastatingly concise book isn't going to win its fearless author any prizes -- she marches through the ranks of Cather scholars the way Sherman marched through Georgia -- but anyone who has had it up to here with political correctness should buy a copy of Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism and get ready to cheer, long and loudly." - Terry Teachout, National Review

  • "Acocella's book(...) shines with good sense. (...) When I read Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism I realized I had gloomily expected that it was virtually impossible these days to write, or to publish, so sensible a book." - A.S.Byatt, The New York Review of Books

  • "(Acocella's) achievement (...) lies not so much in what she says about Cather as in her use of the critical response to Cather's work as a perspective from which to trace the changing preoccupations of a nation rewriting its identity." - Christina Cho, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Not only does it discuss the criticism; it is also a stimulating, sensible, insightful appreciation of Cather as well. (...) Her arguments are impressive, and her concern tactful (.....) How bracing it is to have Acocella's intelligent commentary on Gather's work now. It should bring everyone up short, and send them back to the work, which is not easy to explicate." - Roberta Silman, Virginia Quarterly Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Joan Acocella's short book is a slightly expanded version of an article written for and published in The New Yorker in 1995. Acocella provides an overview of Cather's life and work, and -- succinctly and devastatingly -- the critics' reaction to it.
       The immensely popular and very talented Cather almost never fit neatly into literary movements or trendy critical schools of thought. Acocella does not go into dry academic detail, but she gives a good sense of the general critical attitude to and estimation of Cather's work, from the earliest days (when her work was highly praised by H.L.Mencken) through to the present day (when she has been elevated to lesbian-icon status). Acocella shows why, for most of the century, Cather's works did not neatly fit the expectations (or demands) of critics -- from the Marxists to the feminists -- making for a good summary of the state of much of literary criticism in the US throughout the 20th century.
       For Acocella the issue is how critics focus on matters that are (or should be) irrelevant in considering art. What she writes about the political criticism of the 1930s is equally applicable to later schools of thought:

What really suffered was literary discussion, which was less and less about literature, more and more about "whose side are you on" Cather's is merely a representative case, but a sad one.
       After the Marxists it was the feminists that didn't know what to do with her. Cather was initially difficult for feminist critics to deal with, and she and her work were often disparaged for not fitting neat feminist-critics' ideals. This antipathy was replaced by a hearty embrace when it was decided that Cather must have been a lesbian -- which allowed critics to see her work in a whole new light (and apparently to determine that it was worthy after all).
       Acocella offers a useful overview of Cather's life, and she addresses the question of was she or wasn't she (a lesbian, that is) at some length. Some of the evidence suggests that she was, but Acocella is correct in pointing out that much of the evidence used by the critics in purporting to establish Cather's homosexuality is taken out of context -- or simply misguided.
       Acocella sketch of Cather's life is useful and interesting, showing how the author herself made it difficult for the critics to read her work in a specific way. Among the more amusing sidelines is also Cather's insistence that nothing from her letters can be quoted directly (leading to a mess of complications and misreadings as scholars -- including Acocella, whose hands are tied like everybody else's -- struggle to restate what Cather wrote).
       Acocella gets the critics good. From the sound of it a lot of them deserve it (though they probably deserve a right of reply before the final judgement is made). Acocella has gone to great pains to go through vast amounts of Cather-related writing -- a painful enterprise from the look of the quotes she supplies the reader with. Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, though serious (and despite the title), is not overly scholarly in tone or jargon-laden. It is, in fact, a very good read, with the many examples of the critics' comments and writing in turn hilarious, depressing, and scary.
       Acocella seems a great Cather fan, and she offers her own reading of a variety of Cather's work -- sensible ones, and useful in the context they are presented. There is perhaps a bit too much of an emphasis on the populist appeal as Acocella contrasts the (bad) critics and the (good) common reader, and the last chapter -- a return home to Red Cloud for a Cather conference, where there are still cheap hotel rooms and good, honest folk -- is too cloying, but overall the book is an impressive effort.
       Acocella correctly points out that the power of the critics is a dangerous one, warning already of the forewords some of them are penning for the new, cheap paperback editions of Cather's work that are being published as her work loses its copyright protection. Her emphasis on a literary estimation and analysis of the works is certainly welcome (though she should perhaps allow for the possibility that there is some value in political, social, feminist, and other analysis).
       It's always fun to read attacks on critics, and Acocella's razor-sharp assault is recommended for that alone. It is also a very good little introduction to Cather and her work. Recommended.

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Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism: Reviews: Willa Cather: Books by Willa Cather under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Joan Acocella writes for The New Yorker.

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