Charlotte Salley is writing her MPhil dissertation in the Faculty of English, researching the later novels of Willa Cather (1873-1947).
After the grand adventures in Willa Cather’s Midwestern prairie trilogy, two of her later novels – The Professor’s House (1925) and Shadows on the Rock (1931) – turn quietly inward, toward more muted and moody discoveries. It’s from an attic atelier, an ancient cliff dwelling, and snowed-in Quebec City that each character can, should they wish, look out at the world. But Cather, ever an authorial enigma, presents a dimensional paradox. The protagonists’ coming of age (or ageing) experiences are tempered by a confined environment. My dissertation examines how one can learn and grow from within a hemmed-in scenario. What are the lasting effects of an outside-in rite of passage, where bound spaces either encourage or hamper educational development?
At the turn of the twentieth century, nearly thirty years before Cather published these two popular novels, she was herself in a confined environment: she spent five years teaching high school. Biographers have given limited attention to this period, but I’m discovering that, corralled as she was within the academic calendar, watching so many students grow up, left an impression. It’s odd, though, that Cather’s later characters learn through experience instead of traditional classroom work, which was her teaching style. I’m using the works of progressive contemporaries John Dewey (the Laboratory School) and Dorothy Canfield Fisher (Montessori education) to help differentiate between Cather’s pedagogical and fictional character development – is the contrast ironic, paradoxical, or just a belated trickle-down consequence?
From Cambridge – 5,000 miles away from these educational contradictions – I have a broad vantage point, but I’m still able to burrow into Cather’s fiction and life. It’s a learning process for myself, as well, sitting in the Clare Hall library, looking out at the wider world.