Willa Cather and the search for identity
Chelsom, Elinor C. B.
For Willa Cather, the world "fell apart" about 1922.1 She was disillusioned about the direction in which society tended to develop following the first world war, and felt that the values and the lessons of the past were being forgotten. So alienated was she from her own milieu that, in 1936, she wrote a book of essays addressed specifically to readers "Not Under Forty". Yet despite the fact that some critics have typed her as an "elegist of the past", her work has a curious relevance for the generation of the sixties. Some college students, reading "Paul’s Case"; consider her to be more "modern" than Steinbeck or Hemingway. These members of the "beat" generation recognize the timeless truth of her portrayal of the frustrations of youth. Though her style is traditional and her plots thin, her concern with the problem of alienation makes her work contemporary. Each of her central characters from pioneer settler to professor, priest, or artist is struggling to orient himself in his particular world and attempting to achieve some sort of total commitment. Each is searching for his identity. . . . All of Willa Cather's protagonists are conscious of being pushed by pressures beyond their control, but their reactions differ widely. Some struggle to escape from a sterile, drab existence into a world of aesthetics which offers challenge and fulfiIment ; some seek to root themselves more firmly in an environment which represents unchanging order --to possess the land and achieve "at-oneness" with nature; some struggle to recover a lost youthful self which has been imprisoned by the bonds of adult demands and conventions. Still others look to the past, hoping to find stability, strength and sustenance in truths which have endured the ravages of time. Each of these groups which seem to represent stages in the author's own search for identity will be considered in turn.