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Willa Cather: A Lost Lady and My Mortal Enemy

June 2 - July 14, 2024, Sundays, 5:00-7:00 p.m. (six sessions, no meeting July 7)


Willa Cather (1873–1947) is one of the most beloved writers in the American canon and is one of those writers whose works are embraced both by a mass audience and by scholars within the academy. Over the course of the past 40 years Cather’s work has been claimed and fought over by such a variety of readers and scholars—Catholics, leftists, conservatives, queer theorists, feminists, etc.—that their various disputes have earned the sobriquet, “The Cather Wars” and are compared to the ongoing disputes over the work of Jane Austen. What is clear is that Cather stands, more than ever, as a central figure in American literature. Many readers will be most familiar with Cather’s early novels, which are set in an indelible landscape that she made her own—that of the Midwest and of the Great Plains: The Song of the Lark, O Pioneers!, My Ántonia. And, yet Cather’s luminous, crystalline, plainspoken prose, elegant as Shaker furniture, coupled with her lyricism often causes readers to overlook the complexities and dark undercurrents marking her fiction. As biographer Hermione Lee put it: “Since her death in 1947, many readers still take her to their hearts as the standard-bearer of a sentimental nostalgia for vanished American values. It is an appropriation at odds with the harshness, violence, and cold truthfulness that run like dark steel through the calm, lyric simplicity of her writing.” Or as Cather herself put it: “It’s the heat under the simple words that counts.”

In this Delve we will examine this “other” Willa Cather by exploring darker, subversive, far less nostalgic currents in her work. We will focus on what has been called “Cather’s great middle period, her tragic period” by focusing on two short novels from that period: A Lost Lady (1923) and My Mortal Enemy (1926), and several of her powerful short stories, such as “Neighbour Rosicky,” “Paul’s Case,” “A Wagner Matinée,” and others. She constructed her shorter fiction around strong core themes that she works out through character and tragic consequences. Many of her leading characters are strong, ambitious women to whom marriage forecloses opportunities so that their lives are tragically narrowed. Furthermore, her works focus on class position (and how easily one can slip from wealth to poverty), gender, sexuality, and queerness. Readers will experience the writing of one of our most stunning prose stylists and will be surprised by Cather’s sharp, shrewd view of beauty unlooked for, even in life’s darkest moments, and the great range of subjects and lives Cather takes on.


Willa Cather, Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (Library of America)
Willa Cather, A Lost Lady  

Access Program
We want our writing classes and Delves to be accessible to everyone, regardless of income and background. We understand that our tuition structure can present obstacles for some people. Our Access Program offers writing class and Delve tuitions at a reduced rate. Most Delves  have at least one access spot available.

Please apply here for access rate tuition. Contact Susan Moore at susan@literary-arts.org if you have questions.

Liaison position
Every in-person class and seminar at Literary Arts has one liaison position. Liaisons perform specific duties for each class meeting. If you are a liaison for a class or seminar, the full amount of your tuition is covered by Literary Arts.

Apply here for the liaison position.

Delve Cancellation Policy
If you register for a Delve and need to cancel your registration, here’s a link to our refund policy for Delves.


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Bennett Gilbert

Bennett Gilbert teaches history and philosophy at Portland State University. He is the author of A Personalist Philosophy of History.
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