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Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism [Paperback]

Joan Acocella
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 15 2002
In this brilliant, impassioned and controversial book, New Yorker critic Joan Acocella argues that twentieth-century literary critics from the Left and Right have misused Willa Cather and her works for their own political ends, and, in doing so, have either ignored or obscured her true literary achievement. In an acute and often very funny critique of the critics, Acocella untangles Cather's reputation from decades of politically motivated misreadings, and proposes her own clear-headed view of Cather’s genius. At once a graceful summary of Cather's life and work, and a refreshing plea that books be read for themselves, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism will also inspire readers to return to one of America's great novelists.

Product Details

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Expanding her 1995 essay "Cather and the Academy," New Yorker dance critic Acocella wittily charts decades of politically influenced Cather criticism and suggests an approach that balances politics with "a sustained attention to what the artist is saying." In the 1910s and early '20s, Acocella says, the author of My Antonia (1918) was considered by Mencken and others to be part of the new "antiestablishment, democratic" American fiction of poor rural people. By the 1930s, she was seen by Granville Hicks and others as a backward romantic unwilling to join the movement to "destroy and rebuild" American society. In the 1950s, Acocella continues, Cather became the "Classical/Christian Idealist." Since the 1970s, Cather has been outed as a lesbian in essays and a "dreaded psychosexual biography," allowing her to be "captured by the Left." Such politically oriented criticism, Acocella concludes, is ephemeral and limiting, yielding only "one-note criticism: all excoriation, all easy triumphs." She bemoans: "Is this the most important question we can ask artists of the past: whether their politics agree with ours?" Pointing to another method, Acocella examines patterns in Cather's life to determine her unabashedly unpolitical (and overlooked) "tragic vision" of an unfair but possibly dignified life. Acocella is pointed and funny in her analysis (on current critics: "No tree can grow, no river flow, in Cather's landscapes without this being a penis or menstrual period") and compelling in her request to move beyond politics. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


A first-class book, a landmark of sorts. . . . Cather emerges as what she really is, a person of great literary accomplishment, a true cultural
beacon. --RWB Lewis

“She is…a marvelous, canny writer.”–Terry Castle, London Review of Books

"Acocella’s book shines with exemplary good sense. . . . She is a sure witted judge of books." A.S. Byatt, The New York
Review of Books

“As a study of the politics of literary reputation [this book] is exceptional; as a serene appreciation of a great writer's life and work, it is poetic; as a reminder to critics of a the function of criticism, it is harrowing. This book needs to be read."
--Robert Thacker, American Literature

“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 . . . and get ready to cheer” — Terry Teachout, National Review

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Death Comes for the Arch-theorists Feb. 10 2001
With great economy and acerbic wit Joan Acocella takes on the Amazons of feminist theory and vanquishes the lot. Her research is detailed and her sources impressive, and for once we have a critic who loves literature and the people who make it more than the ideologies they represent or the dogmas they profess. Acocella skewers anti-scholarly scholarship and retrieves one of America's great writers from the dark grip of the dogmatists. Her account of Cather's early life and preparation is concise and filled with understanding; what's more in the briefest space she tells the story of that life in the context of the age and gives us Cather's achievement without the burden of spurious literary theories. Students of literature and literary criticism must read this as an example of good writing and clear thinking. Excellent bibliography, marvelous notes!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant May 3 2003
By A Customer
As the previous reviewers have noted, this is a clever, wonderfully written book that makes sense of Cather and mincemeat of decades of politically oriented criticism. It is disheartening to read of all the absurdity that has been written about Cather (and, by extension, so many other wonderful writers)and realize the amount of dreadful criticism, narrow thinking and senseless writing that is being generated and propagated by the academic presses. This book is a breath of fresh air, showing that the Emperor of Academia really has no clothes.
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5.0 out of 5 stars There's Hope for Criticism After All May 14 2000
By A Customer
Joan Acocella casts a witty and penetrating eye on Cather's wildly varying treatment at the hands of both right-wing and left-wing literary critics. This book is a must-read for anyone who's weary of pretentious, precious academic criticism that strays alarmingly far from the text in order to claim an author for a particular political camp. Acocella is a wonderful writer; every thought, every sentence in this book is a delight. Best of all, she makes you want to re-read Cather, which of course can only make you happy.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Case Study in the Politics of Books June 13 2000
In a lucid, readable style Acocella explains how in the field of Cather studies, common sense has left the building and the lunatic fringe has set up camp. To many, it does not matter how fine a author Cather was but whether she was enough of a lesbian and leftist to qualify as an Approved Writer for the academy. Acocella explains with great panache how one can be a Republican and self-styled old maid like Cather and still be a great American writer. Riveting reading.
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5.0 out of 5 stars a must-read for Cather students June 1 2000
By A Customer
Joan Acocella has written a cogent and witty review of past and current Cather criticism. If you are tired of critics imposing their political agendas on Cather's work (whether from the left or the right) you will enjoy this book. My only criticism: this was originally a New Yorker article, and although it's been expanded, it is still rather slim. More, Joan, we want more!
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