Willa Cather, Edith Lewis & “Feminine Friendships”

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on May 6, 2013

Now that Willa Cather’s selected letters are finally out, it comes as no surprise that reviewers are again raising questions about Cather’s sexual identity and her attitude toward “feminine friendships,” a term she used in an 1892 letter to Louise Pound. Tom Perrotta in his April 25, 2013 review of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather in The New York Times Book Review points to the 1893 letter in which Cather exuberantly describes her “one-handed” driving feat through the hay stacks with Louise Pound. Joan Acocella notes in her April 9, 2013 review in The New Yorker online, she first got interested in Cather after reading an article by Sharon O’Brien discussing Cather’s attitude toward “feminine friendships” and was later taken aback by the perfect storm of “queer theory” criticism that followed O’Brien’s 1987 biography of Cather.

So what was Willa Cather really talking about?  Could she possibly have been aware of her own sexual identity as early as the 1890s in Nebraska? Of homophobia? Internalized, as O’Brien suggests, or not? What about in 1903 when she met Edith Lewis? Or in the 1910s and 1920s when she and Lewis were living together in Greenwich Village? For that matter, what about Edith Lewis? What did Lewis think about “feminine friendships” and peoples’ attitudes toward them?

The truth is that from their earliest days as veteran defenders in the social wars and feminist campaigns of Lincoln, Nebraska, both Cather and Lewis were well aware of the virulent attacks that could be waged against them. Cather immediately became infamous in Lincoln for her masculine manners and boyish haircut, and long before they met, both Cather and Lewis were closely allied with Sarah Harris, an outspoken feminist and suffragist. Sarah Harris had settled in Lincoln in 1872 with her husband and seven children. When her husband died two years later, Sarah, 53 years old, decided to stay on and take an active role in the community. She eventually became the publisher of The Courier, the “Official Organ of the Nebraska State Federation of Women’s Clubs,” and used its editorial column to wage campaigns for the betterment of society.[1] She also hired Cather as assistant editor and encouraged Lewis’ aspirations as a young writer.

Between 1896 and 1903, in the same issues of The Courier where Harris devoted one editorial after another to support for the New Woman, vociferously defending a woman’s right to vote, to go to college, and to retain her single status if she chose, she published more than a dozen short stories and an essay by Lewis, along with stories, poems, and a regular column by Cather.[2] In fact, Lewis’ stories, Cather’s columns, and Harris’s editorials provide abundant evidence that these women all questioned traditional gender and marriage roles, were fascinated by lives of unconventional women like women artists and their Bohemian friends, and placed high value on independence and self-sufficiency for women.[3]

These were exactly the sort of rebellious views, in fact, that sparked Lewis’ interest in Cather when they met for the first time in Sarah Harris’ parlor. Lewis had admired Cather for some time, she said, because Cather’s writing was so “daring, provocative, original, imaginative…it gave me a sense of being out in the world, among exciting and momentous things.”[4] In return, Cather found in Lewis a promising young woman of competence and courage. A published writer and recent graduate of Smith College, Lewis was at that moment about to embark on an adventure Cather had not yet dared for herself: go to New York City, get a job—“any kind of job” as Lewis described it—and rent an artist’s studio on Washington Square in Greenwich Village.

In the meantime, Lewis, Cather, and Harris were all aware of the sensational controversies over gender roles and sexual identity that filled the pages of Harris’ Courier and raged throughout the world of the 1890s and early 1900s: the general backlash of arguments against women’s suffrage and the New Woman; new concepts about homosexuality among sexologists in Germany, England, and France; and the London trials of the Marquis of Queensbury and Oscar Wilde.[5] But where all three Nebraska women defended new freedoms and opportunities for women and both Cather and Lewis flirted with positive treatments of lesbian themes, the much older and more conventional Sarah Harris drew the line at lesbianism, vehemently attacking “degenerates” and the “animalism” of Alphonse Daudet’s Sapho.[6]

In 1896, Cather was feuding with Harris and found herself exiled from Lincoln and her position as assistant editor of The Courier to what she called the “Siberia” of Red Cloud. From “Siberia,” Cather defended “degeneracy” and belittled its primary opponent Max Nordau, calling his conservative treatise “ponderous and on the whole [a] rather stupid volume.”[7] Nordau had labeled any challenge to artistic conventions and differences from traditional, masculinist norms of behavior as fin de siècle decadence and insanity. In his 1892 Degeneration, translated from the original German and published in America in 1895, Nordau celebrated male dominance, heterosexuality, rationality, will power, discipline, and scientific observation. He dismissed as signs of neurasthenia, madness, and degeneracy everything from female equality to homosexuality, mysticism, emotion, intensity, and intuition. Nonsense, according to Cather.  She immediately joined others, including George Bernard Shaw, to defend “Bohemian” behavior and the artistic integrity of Romantics, Pre-Raphaelites, French Symbolists, Decadents, Aesthetes, and the budding generation of Modernists—all of whom Nordau condemned, singling out for special contempt a list of artists that ran from Wagner, Ruskin, Ibsen, Nietzsche, and Zola to Oscar Wilde. Especially Oscar Wilde.

Cather never tackled the subject of homosexuality directly, but “Bohemia” became her shorthand for it, and her letters and articles during that time are full of references to it. About Bohemian artists, she declared: “A man begins by defying the accepted standards of art; if he is a great man he will stop there, and if he is a very great man he will revolutionize art.”[8] Oscar Wilde she criticized not for his “crimes against society” but crimes “against literature.” For Cather, Wilde’s artificial language and superficial characters were his Unpardonable Sin: “The sins of the body” she declared, “are very small compared with that.”[9]

In the summer of 1896, when Cather moved to Pittsburgh and took over the editorial duties of the staid and proper Presbyterian-owned Home Monthly, she dared to print her own “Tommy, the Unsentimental” and “The Count of Crow’s Nest,” stories in which she toyed with irony and coy approval on the topics of same-sex attraction and passionate friendship. Playing off James Barrie’s popular Sentimental Tommy, for instance, Cather’s Tommy seems to be part of a conventional triangle in which a clever tomboy loses her unworthy beau to her best friend, one of those pretty young things who chases him until he catches her. But as Cather biographer Phyllis Robinson realized, “Only a very subtle shift of emphasis is required…to perceive the characters in a somewhat different triangle, one in which a clever girl is attracted to a clinging maiden, introduces her to a man of her acquaintance and loses her to him.” Cather was not only aware of her story’s ambiguities, Robinson guessed, “she intended them and even took a wicked satisfaction in them.”[10]

Edith Lewis’ awareness of same-sex attraction and her positive attitude toward lesbianism during the same period is suggested by “Virginia,” one of her Courier stories, published in 1898. “Virginia” depicts a joyous moment in which a Lamia-like emotional seduction and sensual connection between women takes place. In this experimental, humorous sketch, a young woman named Virginia appears on a stormy night at the door of her friend’s study. Virginia is sensibly dressed in mackintosh and golf cap but possesses the requisite “bright eyes” and “bright hair” for a night of “witchery.” She lures her friend into a stormy “elf land” where “drunk in the intoxication of the night,” they welcome spring’s arrival. Moments later, the spell passed, Virginia returns to her customary demure behavior and her embroidery.[11]

If Lewis and Cather were playful about these subjects, Harris was not. Harris was 75 when she feuded with Cather in 1896 and 82 when she introduced the 21-year-old Edith Lewis to the 29-year-old Willa Cather in 1903. In 1900, Cather and Harris had actually taken opposite public positions over “degeneracy” and Daudet’s Sapho. Daudet’s 1884 French novel features Fanny Legrand, a character drawn in the grand tradition of the Romantic’s Sapphic-femme fatale school of men’s imagining. Nicknamed Sapho, Legrand is an older, “experienced” woman who reverses traditional gender roles when she seduces, lives with, takes charge of, and finally abandons the hero Jean Gaussin, leaving him devastated. After Daudet revised his novel for the stage, it played to rave reviews in Paris, but in 1885 he canceled plans to bring a translated version to New York because of its “objectionable” material.

The novel made Daudet internationally famous, and as early as 1891 Cather giggled with friends at the University of Nebraska over her copy of Sapho with its sensuous illustrations by Rossi. In 1892 she complained to Louise Pound over the fact that society considered “feminine friendships…unnatural.”[12] And sometime during those Lincoln years, Cather must have loaned her copy of Sapho to Sarah Harris, because while “exiled” to Red Cloud in 1896, Cather asked another friend to help her retrieve the book, fearing that Harris would never give it back.[13]

When discussing this episode in Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, Sharon O’Brien noted that Daudet’s Sapho represents a “lesbian viewed through male eyes…the male construct of woman as Other, an embodiment of erotic power whose autonomy made her ‘unnatural.’” O’Brien also recognized that “Cather did not fully or uncritically internalize the emotionally crippling definition of lesbianism as ‘sick’ or ‘perverse.’” Yet in spite of this acknowledgement, O’Brien opined that Cather “simultaneously could not help accepting it” and was therefore crippled and silenced, if not by self-loathing then by homophobic “ambivalence.”[14] In 1990, however, Erik Ingvar Thurin suggested in The Humanization of Willa Cather that Cather’s reaction to Daudet was more complex than O’Brien surmised.[15] My analysis goes even further: what censored Cather in this case was not “homphobic ambivalence” but Sarah Harris’ explicit homophobia.

In 1898 Harris printed Cather’s assertion that Sapho was Daudet’s single claim to greatness.[16] Daudet had just died and his artistic reputation had by then achieved a certain level of respectability. But in 1900, when Sapho gained renewed notoriety and scandal after it was adapted for the American stage by Clyde Fitch, Cather and Harris returned to earlier sparring positions. Generally supportive of everything Cather wrote, Harris normally re-ran Cather’s reviews from the Pittsburgh Leader as part of Cather’s “Passing Show” column in The Courier. But when Cather rejoiced in the Leader that even a “passably good” adaptation of Sapho had reached the American stage and praised its star, Olga Nethersole, for catching the main character’s unique “shades and semitones and complex motives,” Harris refused to print Cather’s review.[17]

No private record apparently remains of what they said to each other about Daudet or “degeneracy,” but where Cather had teased about Sapho’s ability to corrupt and applauded Fitch’s theatrical adaptation, Harris publicly denounced the novel as “repulsive” and damned Fitch’s play as “a celebration of animalism.”[18] Harris’ hostility to Sapho was spontaneous, angry, and overtly homophobic, and her use of the word “animalism” is particularly interesting because three years later she would use similar language to disparage April Twilights, Cather’s first book of poetry.[19] Cather bristled at the charge in 1903, and she must have been furious when Harris censored her review in 1900.

A month and a half later, immediately after Nethersole was arrested during a performance of Sapho in New York City and charged with obscenity, Harris crowed in The Courier that Nethersole’s arrest served as a lesson in decency and fervently hoped that Sapho would be universally suppressed. When Nethersole was acquitted and returned for another fifty-five performances, Harris fumed:  “Decaying animals in the streets do not accomplish so much harm as the constant presentation on the stage of degenerate types of men and women,” and added a final fillip, “the bubonic plague is more written and telegraphed about but it threatens less.”[20]

Harris’ hyperbole represents one extreme in the general landscape of American attitudes toward homosexuality at the turn of the century. Cather attempted to take the critical highroad and refocus the discussion of homosexual writers (Oscar Wilde) and characters (Fanny Legrand/Sapho) by insisting they be judged on the basis of artistic merit rather than morality but made little headway.[21] Once Cather joined Lewis in New York, however, she could at least be certain of finding friends who shared her views. Among their close women friends in the Village, for example, was Zoe Akins, the Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist and short story writer from St. Louis whose “great friend” was the actress Jobyna Howland. Akins scandalized her fellow Missourian, the poet Sara Teasdale, by talking about homosexuality as though it were a normal part of everyday life: for Akins and her friends it was.[22]

But with growing acceptance of Freudian interpretations of sexuality in the 1920s and renewed insistence on women’s return to her “place” in the home, especially after World War II, Bohemianism and scandal lost their appeal. Akins moved to California, film scripts, and eventually to marriage; Cather and Lewis moved to Park Avenue. But whether the year was 1890, 1903, or 1923, when the Pulitzer Prize catapulted Cather to international fame, or even 1972, the year Lewis died, few feminists—and no one else—dared to make positive public statements about lesbians. Despite significant numbers of women who continued to live quietly with partners of the same sex and the thriving existence of “underground” lesbian communities in this country and Europe, the only feasible public positions to be taken on “sapphism” were discreet silence or outright condemnation.

Cather and Lewis lived independent of the stereotypic gender roles and heterosexual hierarchies that both women questioned, but the fact that they were unmarried women living together imposed constraints on choices about how to present Willa Cather and her work to the public. No matter who made the decisions—Cather, Lewis, or someone else concerned with Cather’s literary reputation—the “problem” that arrived with Cather’s fame never receded. But as Cather’s published letters now make clear, Cather and Lewis were successful, sophisticated, intellectually mature women, knowledgeable about the craft and business of fiction, who chose to intermingle their lives and afterlives. And Cather’s presumed ambivalence and later “isolation” are better understood as an intentional ruse: they used elusiveness to cope with fame. In their private, personal lives they celebrated, not avoided, their own “feminine friendship.”

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[1] Back to Post. Because Cather and Lewis made humorous remarks about Harris’s firm opinions and outspoken activism, scholars generally dismiss her relevance in their lives, except to remember that it was she who first introduced them in 1903. But Harris was also important to them for who she was: in Lincoln’s staid society, all three women had the distinction of daring to think for themselves and challenging convention. Scholars have also misunderstood Harris’ Courier to be a rival newspaper to the Nebraska State Journal, for which Cather also worked as a columnist and in which her “Passing Show” column had appeared. Even before Harris bought it, however, The Courier concentrated on society and club news. Under Harris’ editorial control, it became the “Official Organ of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs.” During the years Lewis and Cather contributed to it, The Courier consisted primarily of Harris’ editorial “Observations,” club news, social activities, and theatrical reviews, with fillers including poems, stories, essays, and articles from local writers and other publications. Harris did use her editorials to speak out on Lincoln politics and would attack State Journal writers whenever they ventured into her territory with opposing views—as she did, for instance, when A. L. Bixby took an anti-feminist position during the twenty-first annual Nebraska Woman Suffrage convention, which met in Lincoln in November 1901.

[2] Back to Post. Lewis’ contributions to The Courier have been ignored, but Cather’s publications in The Courier are well known to Cather scholars. Many of them are reprinted in Bernice Slote, ed., The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather’s First Principles and Critical Statements 1893-1896 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966) and William M. Curtin, ed. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather’s Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902, 2 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970). Cather scholars owe a debt to Slote and Curtin, whose collections provide access to Cather’s early journalistic columns, but here as elsewhere in Cather scholarship, students should exercise extreme caution in drawing conclusions based wholly on the material quoted in their volumes. Both present only selected portions of Cather’s early work, taken out of context with no acknowledgement of voice (pseudonym) or audience, and thematically rather than chronologically arranged.

[3] ­Back to Post. See particularly “Sunflower” (June 18, 1898) 11, “The Portrait She Painted” (September 24, 1898) 9, “Bohemia” (December 31, 1898) 9, and “The Proposal” (June 16, 1900) 10, in The Courier.

[4] Back to Post. Lewis, Willa Cather Living, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), xxxvi.

[5] Back to Post. For further information about these controversies, see Ruth Brandon, The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex and the Woman Question [in Britain] (London: Secker & Warburg, 1990) or Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (New York: Penguin, 1990); for more about their impact on lesbians and women in America, see Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985) or Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).

[6] Back to Post. Originally published in French in 1884, Sapho caused an immediate sensation.

[7] Back to Post. Willa Cather, “The Passing Show,” Nebraska State Journal (February 2, 1896), 9.

[8] Back to Post. Cather, “The Passing Show,” Nebraska State Journal (April 5, 1896), 16.

[9] Back to Post. Cather, “The Passing Show,” The Courier (September 28, 1895), 6-7.

[10] Back to Post. Phyllis Robinson, Willa: The Life of Willa Cather (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1983), 78-79. For different readings of “Tommy, the Unsentimental,” see Jeane Harris, “A Code of Her Own: Attitudes toward Women in Willa Cather’s Short Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies, 36 (Spring 1990), 85-86; O’Brien, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, 229-230; Woodress, Willa Cather: Literary Life, 56, 120-121; Marilyn Arnold, Willa Cather’s Short Fiction (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984), 9-10; or David Stouck, Willa Cather’s Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975), 79-80.

[11] Back to Post. Edith Lewis, “Virginia,” The Courier (July 13, 1898), 13. As readers of “Virginia” will no doubt note, Lewis makes a point of saying that the girls do not actually touch. Touch is unnecessary for this experience.

[12] Back to Post. Cather to Mariel Gere July 16, 1891 and to Louise Pound [June 15, 1892], Nebraska Historical Society.  The wording is Woodress: in Willa Cather: A Literary Life (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 85; it is also Cather’s. In 1993, in Cather Studies II, Woodress took up the question of Daudet’s influence on Cather only to find Sapho a surprising book for “a good Baptist from Red Cloud” to read: he concluded that Sapho‘s primary influence on Cather was the idea that artists should never marry but remain devoted only to their art.

[13] Back to Post. Cather to Mariel Gere, January 2, 1896, Nebraska Historical Society.

[14] Back to Post. O’Brien, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, 136-137.

[15] Back to Post. Erik Ingvar Thurin, The Humanization of Willa Cather: Classicism in an American Classic (Sweden: Lund University Press, 1990), 56-69.

[16] Back to Post. Willa Cather, “The Passing Show,” The Courier (January 22 1898), 3.

[17] Back to Post. Pittsburgh Leader (January 9, 1900), 4. Fitch’s play opened in Pittsburgh a month before New York.

[18] Back to Post. Cather to Mariel Gere, July 16, 1891 and January 2, 1896, Nebraska Historical Society; Cather’s review of Fitch’s adaptation of Sapho appeared in the Pittsburgh Leader (January 9, 1900), 4; Sarah Harris’s remarks appeared in “Observations,” The Courier (February 24, 1900), 2.

[19] Back to Post. Cather to Dorothy Canfield [Fisher], [May or June, 1903], Bailey-Howe Library Special Collections at the University of Vermont.

[20] Back to Post. Sarah Harris, “Observations,” The Courier (February 24, 1900), 2, and (April 14, 1900), 2.

[21] Back to Post. Understanding Cather’s comments in this context, with Daudet and Nordau as points of reference, serves as a corrective for those who view Cather’s attitude toward Oscar Wilde’s sexuality as negative, her comments about Wilde as revealing of her own homophobia, or for that matter, her treatment of the main character in “Paul’s Case” as an attack on Wilde. (See, for instance, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Across Gender, Across Sexuality: Willa Cather and Others,” South Atlantic Review 88:1 (Spring 1989), 53-71.) In an earlier diatribe against Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, Cather had also reversed Nordau’s arguments and attacked Wilde on aesthetic, not sexual, grounds (see “The Passing Show,” The Courier (May 19, 1895), 12).

[22] Back to Post. For further information on Akins and Teasdale, see William Drake, Sara Teasdale, Woman & Poet (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1979) and Phyllis Robinson, Willa: The Life of Willa Cather (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1983), 184. Equally cosmopolitan was Viola Roseboro’, “female bachelor,” raconteur, short-story writer, and fiction editor for McClure’s. Roseboro’ worked with Cather and Lewis at McClure’s and for many years lived a few doors from them on Bank Street. Similar sophistication and openness were evidenced by members of Heterodoxy (a women’s club in Greenwich Village frequented by others among Cather’s and Lewis’ friends, including Zona Gale and Mabel Dodge Luhan), but so was homophobia. See Judith Schwarz, Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy, Greenwich Village 1912-1940 (Norwich, Vt.: New Victoria Publishers, Inc., 1986).