Willa Cather's early stories and clues of the life behind them

Willa Cather: Early Novels and Stories, edited by Sharon O`Brien. New York: Library of America. 1,336 pp. $27.50. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, by Sharon O'Brien. New York: Oxford University Press. 464 pp. $24.95.

A straightforward, smiling Willa Cather looks out from the book cover of this Library of America collection of her early works. Photographer Edward Steichen was a master, and he caught a confidence, a vigor in her eyes that is reflected in the characters of these novels.

In ``O Pioneers,'' Cather tells the story of capable Alexandra Bergson, who makes a success of the family farm left to her management when her father dies. In this passage, Alexandra's childhood friend remembers ``exactly how she looked when she came over the close-cropped grass, her skirts pinned up, her head bare, a bright tin pail in either hand, and the milky light of the early morning all about her. Even as a boy he used to feel, when he saw her coming, with her free step, her upright head and calm shoulders, that she looked as if she had walked straight out of the morning itself.''

In ``The Song of the Lark,'' opera singer Thea Kronberg describes the man who helped her make a success of herself. ``Thea looked slowly up at her companion's good-humored face. His eyes, sometimes restless and sympathetic in town, had grown steadier and clearer in the open air. ... The pleasant vigor of his person was always delightful to her, something to signal to and laugh with in a world of negative people. With Fred she was never becalmed. There was always life in the air, always something coming and going, a rhythm of feeling and action, stronger than the natural accord of youth.''

We see much of Cather in her portraits, and in portraits of her. But biographer Sharon Olds would go farther. She uses ``a range of methods - biographical, historical, psychological, literary - in seeking to connect Cather's life and fiction.''

Unfortunately, while Cather would sit still for a photographer, she positively runs from the biographer. Cather destroyed letters, asked her friends to do likewise, and she wrote a will that prevented any remaining letters to be published.

But Cather's reticence has not stopped the scholars. A large part of the splash this book is making comes from a conclusion O'Brien reaches from the material she cannot show us. O'Brien says Cather's letters to her friend, Louise Pound, were ``love letters,'' and they convince her that Cather was a lesbian. (O'Brien has no hint that Cather's relationships with women were sexual.)

The trouble is that O'Brien is working from spotty material and she is constrained from presenting what she has. There aren't enough facts here to support conclusions about Cather's thinking, conscious, subconscious, or unconscious. We hardly know this about ourselves, much less about another in a different time.

What O'Brien does do successfully is explain the early obstacles to Cather's success: the gap she felt between being a woman and being an artist, and her need to find her subjects in Red Cloud, Neb., rather than in Henry James's Boston.

Still, complimentary as O'Brien means to be, sturdy, conservative Willa Cather would have abhorred this book. ``One likes to read about sound, active, healthy men of the world sometimes,'' she wrote, ``and not always about a collection of melancholy freaks.'' We can only be glad she gives us the unusual pleasure of reading about sound, active, healthy women of the world as well.

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