In an 1895 article included in Willa Cather’s Reviews and Essays, she attacks Mark Twain in no uncertain terms. Ten years after the publication of Huckleberry Finn, she says, "he is not and never will be a part of literature." Furthermore, "His works are pure and suitable for children, just as the work of most shallow and mediocre fellows."
Twain wrote a negative review of a book she liked, Outre Mer, by French author Paul Bourget, and then he became embroiled in a literary spat with another reviewer, Max O’Rell. Cather joins the fray, and Twain receives her suffering-no-fools commentary.
Twain "shows himself little short of a clown and an all around tough." Twain, "like all members of his class, and limited mentality," [ . . . ] "cannot criticise without becoming personal and insulting. He cannot be scathing without being a blackguard. He tried to tried to demolish a serious and well considered work by publishing a scurrilous, slangy and loosely written article about it."
She continues. Twain "is neither a scholar, a reader, or a man of letters and very little of a gentleman." What is worst of all for Cather, "His ignorance of French literature is something appalling." In Cather’s view, except for Meredith, Hardy and James, "the great living novelists are all Frenchmen."
A couple of years later, Cather published another piece in which she praises Twain as a children’s writer. On receiving a letter from a little boy who had just inhaled Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and was looking for something similar to read, she writes, "What a red-letter day it is to a boy, the day he first opens Tom Sawyer. I would rather sail on the raft down the Missouri again with Huck Finn and Jim than go down the Nile in December or see Venice from a gondola in May." She calls Twain’s Prince and Pauper "that dearest of children’s books."
Cather’s book reviews show strong opinions. She loves what she loves, but then she rips the rest to bits. The essay that introduced me to literary realism as practiced on the European continent, William Dean Howells’s "My Literary Passions," Cather dismisses as the naive raving of youthful enthusiasm. Walt Whitman "was a poet without an exclusive sense of the poetic, a man without the finer discriminations, enjoying everything with the unreasoning enthusiasm of a boy. He was the poet of the dung hill as well as of the mountains, which is admirable in theory but excruciating in verse." She does concede that "however ridiculous Whitman may be there is a primitive elemental force about him." Well, at least she noticed. "Enthusiasm" puts a writer in Cather’s bad graces, it seems, if that is all she sees in the work.
Of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, she says "I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme." The world did not need another--a Creole--Madame Bovary opines Cather.
Although she writes adoringly of some of Stephen Crane’s other work, she says of War Is Kind, "There are seldom more than ten lines on a page, and it would be better if most of those lines were not there at all."
And so who else did she admire? Henry James, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Edgar Allan Poe, Maupassant and numerous other French writers. She surprised me by writing enthusiastically about Frank Norris’s McTeague: a Story of San Francisco (1899). The gritty subject matter would not seem to be up Cather’s street, but she responds to his realism. "He sees things freshly, as though they had not been seen before, and describes them with singular directness and vividness, not with morbid acuteness, with a large, wholesome joy of life." Eric von Stroheim based two films on McTeague, including Greed (1924).
Cather seems to prefer high art, dismissing writers whose topics or low tastes disgust her, but then she turns around and lavishes praise on a sordid crime story. As much as I love Cather’s writing, she clearly misjudges Twain and Chopin. Whitman she is incapable of understanding; he neglects standards she believes to be essential to artistic creation. Cather’s reviews show her to be rather more straight-laced, class-bound, and intolerant of the great unwashed than I had understood her to be. Literary realism only works for her if she can detect French models; she hears echoes of Zola in McTeague. Some aspects of home-grown American style do not impress her, although I think of her as one of the most American of fiction writers.
I read these reviews on the Kindle in The Essential Willa Cather Collection.