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Archive for December 30th, 2016

willa

by Sam Juliano

Question:  What female writer, one of America’s greatest literary figures, was born shortly after the end of the Civil War, is most famously known for writing novels about growing up on the prairie and of the indomitable women who overcome the challenges of an arduous existence, usually wrought with some level of impoverishment? 

At least nine out of ten respondents wouldn’t blink as they intone the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  This much-translated woman of letters was after all born in 1867, and her “Little House” books have sold millions of copies around the world.  Surely there can be no question of her preeminence as the prime purveyor of the simple life, growing up in log cabins, and overcoming a series of tragic events that are woven into books that are largely autobiographical.  Yet, Wilder authored her books for elementary school students and her themes, though genuine and affecting, are one-note.  That she is an exceptional writer who continues to be read widely cannot be challenged.  But no, she can’t be considered one of the nation’s greatest literary figures.  The correct answer to the above question is Willa Cather, who was born in 1873 in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, near the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Her Plains Trilogy (O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, My Antonia), her Pulitzer Prize winning One of Ours and her later Death Comes for the Archbishop are always mentioned on lists of the greatest American novels ever written, and her superlative of short stories The Troll Garden includes one of the most celebrated of all short stories, “Paul’s Case.”  In all probability Cather’s only equal would be Edith Wharton, though arguably short story masters Flannery O’ Connor and Kate Chopin and one-hit wonder Harper Lee can be broached in these terms.  Like all the greatest writers, Cather’s themes were often psychologically complex, her world view rarely attuned to all around her. (more…)

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