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Willa Cather’s Queer Economy

© 2021 Johns Hopkins University Press

Economics and art are strangers.

—Willa Cather, “Four Letters: Escapism” (1936)

Whenever she found that monied interests were shaping aesthetic taste in American culture, Willa Cather decried the deleterious effects their contrary values had on what she called genuine art. In interviews, essays, stories, and novels written throughout the opening decades of the twentieth century, Cather’s critique of consumerism, in particular, took on what John N. Swift calls a “protest against a pervasive materialist commodity culture” and led her to create characters that Guy J. Reynolds claims “embody Cather’s suspicion of the corrosive impact of acquisitiveness, allied to her wariness about how economic modernism [was] producing an increasingly consumerist society.”[1] Swift reads the narrative structure of The Professor’s House (1925) as juxtaposing “Godfrey St. Peter’s claustrophobically material world of mean people and things against Tom Outland’s empty but redemptive Blue Mesa, the ‘world above the world’” (“Fictions of Possession,” 176).[2] Cather’s dismay grew as the economy expanded after World War I. Widespread prosperity—both real and speculative—was fueled by the availability of installment plans and lines of credit, financial instruments that induced consumers to buy things they might not otherwise have afforded.[3] Systemic changes in acquiring wealth lent an axiological dimension to Cather’s critique that raised her concern over the devaluation of certain kinds of craftsmanship, including her own.

For Cather, machine-made imitations compromised the dignity of hard-won material comfort and eroded good taste. In a 1923 essay about the changes transforming her adopted home state of Nebraska, Cather lamented “the ugly crest of materialism” that had overtaken “the old sources of culture and wisdom.”[4] She blamed easy prosperity for “too many moving-picture shows, too much gaudy fiction” coloring “the taste and manners of so many of these Nebraskans of the future” (Cather, “Nebraska,” 238). A younger generation appeared to have relinquished their heritage for “a frenzy to be showy,” cheating their “aesthetic sense by buying things instead of making anything” (238). Cather sometimes assumed a patrician tone in her contempt for Americans’ appetite for mediocrity, dismissing readers who bought cheap books to amuse themselves on commuter trains. They “haven’t yet acquired the good sense of discrimination possessed by the French,” she told one interviewer, explaining that the problem lay “in our prosperity, our judging success in terms of dollars.”[5] These comments are from a writer who began her career as the managing editor of a woman’s magazine dedicated to interior design, elegant dress, and fashionable gossip.[6] Cather’s engagement with these topics exemplifies what Jonathan Freedman has identified as the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement in America, which by the 1920s had established itself as a faux-aesthetic standard of taste.[7] As a result, the cultural role Cather assumed walked a “delicate line between insulting and indulging the middle-class audience who patronized [artists] with increasing avidity” (Freedman, Professions of Taste, xxv).

Cather’s antimaterialism is never quite free of ambivalence. Valentine Ramsay, the talented musician in “Uncle Valentine” (1925) is a divorced expatriate who learns his ex-wife—to whom he refers as “a common, energetic, close-fisted little tradeswoman”—plans to buy the land surrounding his home.[8] “[T]here are some things,” Valentine remarks, that “one doesn’t think of in terms of money” (Cather, “Uncle Valentine,” 243). He continues: “If I’d had bushels of money . . . it would never have occurred to me to try to buy Blinker’s Hill, any more than the sky over it” (243). As Mr. Harsanyi, the piano teacher in The Song of the Lark (1915), says of Thea Kronborg’s musical talent, “Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials.”[9] This is different, though, from her father’s calculation of his daughter’s abilities when he explains, “the sooner [Thea] gets at it in a business-like way, the better” (Cather, Song of the Lark, 94). He realizes the improbability of “Thea bringing up a family,” instead imagining a lucrative singing career as the most productive thing she can do. Thea herself distinguishes between wage labor and her art. She rejects money “people have to grin for,” claiming there is “money in every profession that you couldn’t take” (234). In “Uncle Valentine,” the title character’s lament about buying land represses knowledge of his family’s ownership of part of it. The imminent purchase only converts unowned land into someone else’s property, fixing its value in strictly monetary terms. These transformations reached into Cather’s creative life. New business realities and fiercer competition, for example, exerted pressure on publishers to balance literary merit and salability of their products. Such bottom-line concerns sharpened Cather’s skill at selling her work and drove a new phase of narrative experimentation that, as I argue, sought to reconcile the contradictions that began to trouble her personal, professional, and artistic conceptions of value.

The conditions that elicited Cather’s criticism were the same that brought her commercial success and literary esteem. Building upon years of experience as an editor, Cather’s marketing savvy helped her promote her own writing, a practice that accelerated in the 1920s.[10] James Woodress’s examination of “Cather’s revisions and corrections on typescripts and page proofs” discloses both her “extensive experience as an editor” and her knowledge about production, to which he attributes the author’s “intentions for her books that extended to their design and manufacture.”[11] By the early 1920s, she took control of marketing her books by switching from Houghton Mifflin to Alfred A. Knopf for the publication of Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920). She would remain with Knopf for the publication of her next books as well, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning war novel, One of Ours (1922), and A Lost Lady (1923). Erika Hamilton cites the “numerous complaints” Cather had voiced “about Houghton Mifflin’s handling of My Ántonia” as the reason she switched publishers.[12] According to Cather’s companion, Edith Lewis, Cather had hoped to receive 10,000 advanced orders for One of Ours, but her new publisher’s aggressive advertising campaign brought in 12,000 prepublication orders.[13] Knopf printed 15,000 copies of the book, immediately following that with a second printing of an additional 10,000 copies to meet demand (Hamilton, “Advertising Cather,” 23). Satisfied with the combination of good taste and commercial expertise of Knopf’s business model, Cather saw someone who was “more concerned with literary quality than market demand” (14).[14] As Hamilton concludes, “Cather’s insistence on literary quality required a publisher who not only valued quality and experimentation but gladly spent money to advertise it” (“Advertising Cather,” 20). Cather’s strategy paid handsomely. By 1923, her books on Knopf’s list alone earned Cather $19,000. The following year, Cather’s royalties from Knopf amounted to nearly $29,000 (Harris, “‘Dear Alfred’/‘Dear Miss Cather,’” 394).[15] Also in 1924, Knopf sold the film rights to A Lost Lady to Warner Brothers for $12,000 and Cather sold the serial rights to her next novel, The Professor’s House (1925), to Collier’s magazine for a sum lucrative enough to buy herself a mink coat (Willa Cather: Later Novels, 954).

Given these circumstances, Cather’s division of economics from art underplays how much the economy enabled her to flourish and how it reshaped the politics of her literary practice.[16] Scholars have generally taken Cather’s antimaterialism as the keynote of her later fiction. Anna Wilson, for example, reads The Professor’s House as “a critique of modernity” in which “the mesa becomes, in its . . . harmonious integration of art and life, mass culture’s other.”[17] Likewise, some queer readings of Cather also acknowledge her resistance to the soullessness of modern commodification. Heather Love reads Not Under Forty (1936) as expressing Cather’s “disdain for the new, the cheap, the fast, the mass-produced, and the ‘smart.’”[18] These interpretations share the assumption that Cather’s fiction relegates idealism to a place beyond the economic or material concerns of most Americans, rather than locating those values within irregularities of the dominant economy.

Rethinking Aesthetic Impurity

These assessments have not been without skepticism about the contradictions in Cather’s fiction. Swift, for instance, points out that “she deliberately cultivated a persona of pained alienation from the corrosive daily worlds of commerce, politics and social struggle,” a persona that was “focused resolutely, if nostalgically, on the simple purity of great art” (“Fictions of Possession,” 175).[19] Likewise, Janis Stout reminds us that despite the question Cather raises in “The Novel Démeublé” (1922) about whether financial issues have “any proper place in imaginative art,” the three novels she published in the wake of this assertion are all about “money and the gaining or losing of wealth.”[20] Stout names A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, and My Mortal Enemy (1926) as having “a great deal to do with the effects of money management and asset gathering, and not a little [to do] with the processes themselves” (The Writer and Her World, 189).

Other scholars have noted alterations Cather made to the source material for the narrative section entitled “Tom Outland’s Story” in The Professor’s House. This long middle section is a romanticized version of the discovery of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, an event Cather began to investigate in 1915. When she visited Mesa Verde National Park, it was an important archaeological site and tourist attraction managed by a guide named Richard Wetherill, one of the men credited with discovering the Cliff Palace that prefigures Tom Outland’s “Cliff City” in the novel. Paula Kot argues that having heard the man’s narrative about that discovery, Cather proceeded to “[launder] Dick Wetherill’s story when she depicts it [in the novel] as a departure from the routine of work; she knew that serving tourists was the focus of . . . . the Wetherills’ Mesa Verde experience.”[21] Kot’s disclosures suggest a symptomatic conflict that threads itself throughout Cather’s handling of economic themes, producing what Swift describes as “distortions in the narrative” (“Fictions of Possession,” 179). Hence Kot reads the complications in Tom’s character as stemming from “his complicity in the economic forces driving expansion” (410).[22] Such readings indicate how integral Cather’s contradictions are to understanding the way her literary innovations exploit aberrations she detected within the moneyed economy and its concomitant discourse of value. Her fiction thus demonstrates the capacities of literary discourse to redistribute and reassert the standards of monetary value out of which Cather’s sense of genuine art emerged.

Cather’s Queer Economy

Cather’s most astute insights addressed the degree to which the material rewards and punishments of the capitalist system could become criteria for determining social, individual, or artistic worth throughout other levels of American culture, and within fields of human endeavor having little to do with investment, profits, and competition. She understood how monetary value could exaggerate or threaten to extinguish whole areas of personal worth, erasures that could distort even the most formative elements of personal identity, social value, and self-esteem. The threatened values I discuss are those displayed in some of Cather’s most accomplished fiction. From “Paul’s Case” (1905) to The Professor’s House, Cather depicts characters whose ethical and personal crises are made comprehensible within a landscape of economic values that curtail the expression and worth of their most intimate relationships, intellectual commitments, and desires. Foremost are unconventional sexual and affective attachments that resonated with Cather’s own complicated experience of same-sex intimacy and that appear in her work most at risk of succumbing to the regulatory norms of a society organized around production and consumption. Cather’s involvement in the economic and artistic spheres of American culture made her aware of the closeness between the two, a complicity that belied her insistence upon their estrangement at the same time it created a fresh set of terms for expressing and affirming queer desire.

Cather’s lived experience of this contradiction led her to understand capitalism as a system more or less synced to the “fluid and flexible” organicism of “any living, growing, expanding society” (“Nebraska,” 238). Her exploitation of economic fissures had its own creative development in the 1920s, but even the earlier stories reveal unexpected sources of value that merge with her idiosyncratic conception of economics. I locate Cather’s anticonsumerism within the ambiguities of the late nineteenth-century aesthetic movement, tracking how “economy” comes to represent a range of meanings that circumvent the effects of consumerism. Her understanding of economics, I argue, lies in principles governing the spending and accumulation of time and energy, moments of depletion and renewal, instances of waste and conservation of resources, and struggles over profit and debt. For Cather, these forces lend themselves to literary treatment, especially with regard to character and thematic development. The intersecting economies in her work, from the biopolitics of reproduction to gambling and other forms of speculation, constitute what I call Cather’s “queer economy.” It is queer in the sense of Cather’s elliptical style, which enabled her to craft a language of interpersonal desire that anticipates and challenges the precepts of queer studies. I focus on Cather’s conviction that literary representation itself is a mode of value formidable enough to counter claims of worth propagated by the dominant economy, and that selling such representations constitutes an act of cultural insurgency.

In particular, same-sex intimacies and personal attachments to nonprocreative forms of production percolate up through the veneer of Cather’s tightly wrought prose style. These relationships are often the most emotionally resonant ones in her work. Opaque and fragile as they may appear, the value of such relations is recouped in the form of what Jonathan Goldberg has called “energies that exceed conformist compulsion,” incorporating them into a discourse that does not so much dispense with the vocabulary of monetary value as it adapts it to adversarial literary and social objectives.[23] Those objectives clear a literary space for the inclusion of queer characters and queer relationships, imbuing them with a visibility and sense of purpose. That purpose is made all the more manifest, I believe, because Cather aligned it with a populist appeal to Americans who shared her disenchantment over consumer capitalism.

Capitalism and Queerness

In recreating such experiences, Cather’s work discloses reserves of productive energy that inhere in queer bodies, queer labor, and queer relationships, the value of which often runs afoul of the constraints, conventions, and standards of the dominant economy. To speak about the regulatory effects of capitalism upon homosexual identities may seem to challenge the scholarship that locates the emergence of these identities within the conditions of wage labor and socialized production. In John D’Emilio’s landmark analysis, for example, capitalism’s progressive drive towards innovation divested “the household of its economic independence and [fostered] the separation of sexuality from procreation,” creating “conditions that allow some men and women to organize a personal life around their erotic/emotional attraction to their own sex.”[24] Such insights appear to run counter to what I am calling the heteronormalizing pressures exerted upon the queer attachments in Cather’s fiction, for as Rosemary Hennessy has argued, “Capitalism is progressive in the sense that it breaks down oppressive and at times brutally constraining traditional social structures and ways of life.”[25]

The intersection of historical materialism and queer theory remains a starting point for any serious inquiry into the representation of queerness, but I want to draw a distinction between the macroeconomic conditions that enabled the expression of alternative sexual identities, and Cather’s culturally specific permutations of queerness lived under a particular phase of capitalism. I follow Hennessy’s qualification “that cultural and economic processes in capitalist production are never isolated from one another. Their historical interaction is often a complex of overlapping and contradictory discourses and practices” (Profit and Pleasure, 14). This suggests a method for understanding how Cather both acknowledges the integration of cultural and economic processes at the same time it fashions something entirely new. Absorptive, amalgamating, and synthesizing, literary discourse shows us what that historical interaction looks like, and what forms queerness can assume at a particular moment in its evolution.

Cather and the Aesthetic Tradition

For Cather, that moment was defined by materialist excess, a cultural crisis to which she responded by crafting an economical style. The spareness of Cather’s prose is found almost everywhere in what Goldberg has referred to as the “laconic” trademark of Cather’s work (“Willa Cather and Sexuality,” 94). Cather’s technique suggests her affinity with modernists like Ezra Pound, whose poetry centers upon a commitment to le mot juste. Pound’s poetry often addresses the cultural rot of Western civilization that precipitated World War I. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), for example, savages cheapness and shoddy craftsmanship that reduces art to sham:

The “age demanded” chiefly a mould in plaster,

Made with no loss of time,

A prose kinema, not, not assuredly, alabaster

Or the “sculpture” of rhyme.[26]

Both writers curate language in ways that preserve its clarity against the obfuscations of mass production. For Cather, “economy” signifies an object of scorn for which art is the antidote, and a literary practice devoted to using words for their maximal power. Consequently, the term straddles two registers of value, both of which draw upon the precepts of scarcity and abundance that underlie the general laws of economy. That equivocation, I argue, lends Cather’s work a creative flexibility that allows her to reimagine stores of value that lie within and without the profit-oriented system of monetary exchange. Her work does this by emphasizing forms of production, expenditures of resources, and accumulations of energy that go into the making of art, the conducting of research and thinking, the appreciation of high culture, and the preservation of time used to contemplate and resist the dominant economic system upon which all these possibilities depend. Cather likely derived her brevity from British aesthetes whose writing salvaged art’s value by seeming to reject commodity culture. As Freedman claims, socially conscious intellectuals “exerted a diffuse but powerful influence on American culture and society . . . between 1870 and 1920” (Professions of Taste, 82). That influence included “a well-defined ideological structure” that helped shape Cather’s attitude “not only toward art but also toward the role of high culture in a mass, consumer society” (80).

Within that ideology, the finer arts, as well as artists themselves, could not avoid commodification. As Freedman puts it, objects of high culture became available for purchase by the status-conscious through “a complex market economy for the earnest production and avid consumption of austere, self-regarding, art” (xxvii). The aesthetic principles guiding the literary elite were materialized in the esoteric expertise thought to distinguish their work. That expertise came from an ability to discern ever more nuanced sensations of beauty. For consumers, the creative process lent a cultural authority to artists who embodied this aesthetic sensibility. As purveyors of artistic value, they played an important role in a culture that put their products into competition with other manufactured items. The aesthetes’ critique of consumerism endowed “advertisers and retailers with a marketing strategy that enabled them to put the icons of high culture to work vending commodities” (80). Appropriating the “cultural” and the “aesthetic” as slogans allowed merchandisers to “at once glorify and efface the act of consumption itself by grounding even the most mundane acquisitive choices in the nonmaterial realm of transcendent value designated by the aesthetic” (109).

Engaged with these contradictions, Cather’s fiction at once acknowledges and obscures the role spending and acquiring plays in the valuation of the arts. Essentially, she faced the same incongruity many writers of a previous generation did, joining them in “registering, shaping, and critiquing a society whose cultural institutions [were] increasingly devoted to inciting, celebrating, or inducing the act of consumption” and “finding that [their] critical impulses [were] wholly subsumed within . . . the confines of the historical moment” (58). But as a writer whose work is also committed to representing unconventional gender roles and forms of desire, Cather’s involvement in this dilemma took a different direction. In the decades following Oscar Wilde’s conviction and imprisonment for acts of “gross indecency” in 1895, the efficacy of the aesthetic sensibility as a counter to mass consumption began to seem riskier and more dubious. The effeteness attached to “art for art’s sake” reoriented Cather’s critique away from the retreat into decadence. This transformation imperiled both the defense of art, as well as the literary artist’s freedom to render a humane, complex, and appreciative account of queerness that could escape the classifications of criminality and abnormality that devalued such representations.

“the text was not there—but something was there, all the same”

Cather’s spare style expanded its artistic and ideological underpinnings beyond their indictment of materialism. It did so by evolving into a language of absences and omissions that adumbrate a reserve of queer valuation impervious to the distortion of words. “Art, it seems to me,” wrote Cather, “should simplify. That, indeed, is nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were there in type on the page” (“On the Art of Fiction,” 102). This artistic process describes equally well her method of addressing controversial issues of sexuality and gender.

Readings of Cather indebted to Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1990) see these elisions as indices of her immersion in a web of clinical, sexological, criminological, and vernacular terms for nascent sexual identities.[27] “Paul’s Case”—perhaps Cather’s most explicit attempt to represent a queer character—exemplifies the ways Cather negotiated the vocabulary of sexual difference. Sexology “enabled Cather to characterise Paul as a homosexual without naming his condition—and she could assume,” as Jane Nardin points out, that “some [of her] readers would get the point” (“Homosexual Identities,” 35). The story features a boy whose appearance marks him as a blend of the two kinds of homosexuals Christopher Nealon identifies in Cather’s work: “the failures, especially effeminate men, whose flaws are passivity, stupidity, and reflexive sensuality, and the vigorous dreamers, the malcontents who are moved to wrestle with their odd position.”[28] Hysterical, dandyish, opera-loving, and prone to self-dramatization, Paul looks like a stereotypical gay male. He is also rebellious in a way that criminalizes his queerness. Paul suffers the disdain of his neighbors and high school teachers. He is surrounded by childbearing heterosexuals who make up “the flavourless, colourless mass of every-day existence.”[29]

Although multiple forms of signification were available to a writer who “learned from American novels to use displacements, code phrases, cryptic allusions, and other strategies of subtle indirection to represent the love that dared not speak its name,” Cather chose Katherine Mansfield as someone who “communicates vastly more than she actually writes” (Nardin, “Homosexual Identities,” 33).[30] Goldberg speaks of Cather’s style as attempting to capture the “all-but-unnameable, ‘unrecognized pockets of value and vitality that can hit out in unpredictable directions’” (“Willa Cather and Sexuality,” 94). In “The Novel Démeublé,” Cather speaks of generating something “felt upon the page without being specifically named there . . . [i]t is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed” (41–42). Allusions to textlessness routinely appear in Cather’s discussions of writing. Of Mansfield’s stories, Cather remarks, “the text is not there—but something was there, all the same—is there, though no typesetter will ever set it” (“Katherine Mansfield,” 111). This abstruseness is akin to Raymond Williams’s “structures of feeling,” in which the “unmistakable presence of certain elements in art which are not covered by . . . other formal systems is the true source of the specializing categories of the ‘aesthetic,’ ‘the arts,’ and ‘imaginative literature.’”[31] Williams claims that such elements have a “presence” that literature makes palpable in its expansion of narratability. Cather’s style thus achieves a greater, albeit more oblique proximity to the lived experience of queerness, an experience expressed in the shadow of language, where meaning lies in the residue of excised words.

Reading Queerness in Cather

In praising Mansfield for “the hazy sort of thing that almost assuredly lies behind and directs interesting or beautiful design,” Cather was reasserting an aesthetic that had become associated with queerness before and during the time when “queer” came to designate a sexual identity (“Katherine Mansfield,” 119). As Marilee Lindemann has noted, the term was used “as a signifier of aesthetic originality” before it “achieved new salience and ideological power” between 1890 to 1920, a time that “coincides with Cather’s sexual and literary coming-of-age. During this period ‘queer’ became a way of marking the differences between the still emerging categories of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality,’ and the word acquired a sexual connotation it had lacked in nearly four hundred years of usage” (Queering America, 84, 2).[32] Hence new artistic forms, as well as the sensibility needed to appreciate them, implied a nascent homosexual identity, one that repositioned production and consumption outside the utilitarian imperatives of capitalism. Even so, Cather’s work differentiates between makers and consumers of art, suggesting her own affiliation with a certain kind of productive queerness that distances itself from the pejorative associations of effeteness and hypersensitivity we see in Paul. In “Paul’s Case,” the eponymous character is drawn to the kind of beauty that has nothing to do with “the natural,” which for him “nearly always [wears] the guise of ugliness” (“Paul’s Case,” 179). Art that he does not produce becomes the object of Paul’s desire; the theater, for instance, draws him in with “the allurement of a secret love” (179). In the absence of terms to designate the queerness Cather had in mind, her literary ingenuities themselves came to constitute the kind of originality that was becoming a byword for queerness.

Whether in selling books or making them, Cather’s conception of what she was doing was finally inseparable from her grasp of the economic processes that guided her work ethic and identity. Cather’s spare style was, by her own account, also the product of waste and excess, the very things her economy was intended to counter. “A good workman,” she wrote, cannot “be a cheap workman; he can’t be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise.”[33] The analogy invokes value-added labor and implies a market primed for selling the kind of high-end goods Cather associated with her literary productions. Waste was a measure of a book’s quality. “Writing,” she explains, “ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values” (“On the Art of Fiction,” 103). While Cather differentiates between commercial and artistic values, she frames that difference as a matter of “market demand” rather than markets per se.

The distinction matters for reading queerness in Cather in a way different from noting silences and elisions. The queer characters in Cather may be identified as much by their relationship to the economy as by the coded language that describes them. They are prone, for example, to spending or saving only what they have gratuitously acquired, or irregularly obtained, outside of the regular wage labor of the dominant economy. In addition, queer characters emerge in their resistance to economies organized around normative forms of reproduction. Nealon, for example, reads The Professor’s House as organized around “heterosexual relations [that] are merely economic, merely ‘cruel biological necessities.’ Because they are also merely teleological . . . . [h]eterosexuality is work—at once biological and economic” (“Affect-Genealogy,” 26). Lindemann extends Cather’s queer economy to the author’s relation to her writing and her publishers, claiming “that the most significant professional decision she ever made [between Houghton Mifflin and Knopf] was undertaken with considerable guilt and anxiety, as the image of fiction-making as an enterprise that is both textually and sexually generative suggests that the writer in some sense condemned herself of both baby-selling and prostitution” (Queering America, 90). This is a queerness constituted differently from the linguistic markers typically used to situate Cather within queer literary histories.[34] Cather’s representation of queer lives requires elaborating upon the aesthetic, sexological, and economic discourses that go into their creation, even though the question of what counts as “queer” remains largely unsettled.

One thing seems clear, however: talking about Cather as a “queer” writer means learning to read her circumventions. As Love states, “she never identified . . . with any emergent modern homosexual subcultures. In fact, she was consistently hostile toward public expressions of same-sex desire” (Feeling Backward, 74). Love sees Cather’s queer affiliations from the point of view of friendship, which “is . . . noninstrumental; its lack of a determinate end is one of the main factors in distinguishing it from eros” (77–78). She argues that friendship is “the most promising way of understanding the idiosyncratic intimacies that define Cather’s fiction,” but she also focuses on an “alternative trajectory of queer friendship marked by impossibility, disconnection, and loss” (74, 75). There is a material component to this paradigm that joins queerness to adversarial economic activities. Love’s broken intimacies foreclose certain forms of social reproduction, while they also presage an imbalance of emotional energies between individuals and their objects of desire that arrests the possibility of a thriving affective economy.

The Queer Economics of “Paul’s Case”

The prominence Cather gives to her queer characters’ irregular monetary transactions aligns their claims to value with their disruption of consumerism. At the same time, disruptions galvanize forms of recompense meant to restore the tacit logic of monetary exchange. When the father in “Paul’s Case” learns his son has stolen money from his employer to go on a lark in New York City, he finds himself compelled to compensate the man for the loss his son’s theft has incurred. Curbing his son’s desire by keeping a tight rein on the boy’s allowance, the father ultimately pays far more for Paul’s pleasure than he could anticipate, losing both money and his son’s life in the process. Indebtedness burdens Paul’s middle-class father, but his repayment repairs a rupture that conscripts him into footing the bill for his son’s indulgences. These reparative monetary transactions bridge disproportionate economies: a privileged one dedicated to biological, social, and material reproduction, and a marginalized one dedicated to splurging on the sensation of beauty and the cultivation of sensibility. In doing so, attributions of value—at best grudging and fleeting—are conferred on those like Paul whose strongest aspirations appear to run to waste and dissipation. Crucially, these transactions remain nonreciprocal; Paul’s labor does not factor into the windfall that allows him to escape the fate of the young clerks his father so admires. There is little hope that Paul, like them, will ever “curb his appetites and save the loss of time and strength” by marrying and having children “to share his fortunes” (“Paul’s Case,” 177–78).

These monetary transactions may appear to offer little purchase on Cather’s conception of queerness, but “Paul’s Case” also recuperates an archaic sense of the connection between homosexuality and money. The economic sense of “queering” emerges in the boy’s absconding with his employer’s profits. An echo of this sense of “queer” is found in “Queer Street,” slang for an imaginary place where people in financial difficulties reside. In mid-nineteenth-century England, “queer” referred to people with money troubles, usually indebtedness, insolvency, or counterfeiting.[35] References to monetary transgressions in the word “queer” often melded into the idea of suspicious activity, impropriety, or peculiarity of character. “Queering” has to do with defaulting on financial obligations or failing to obey the rules regulating the exchange value of money. That designation made it possible for judicial and law enforcement officials to police the concomitant social value of persons by evaluating the fungibility of their assets in the marketplace of commodities. Most relevant to “Paul’s Case” is the degree to which the boy’s desire to accrete a value commensurate with his self-worth waffles between “the glaring affirmation of the omnipotence of wealth” and his resistance to middle-class striving for which that affirmation is the ideological goal (“Paul’s Case,” 184).

Paul’s movements across the noncontiguous spaces of social class signifies his illicit desire in the form of directionless mobility. Terrell Scott Herring identifies Paul’s “tramping” in New York City with “Bohemianism,” which was an antidote to the “ascetic, pleasure-killing bourgeois mentality” stifling the creativity of misfits like Paul.[36] “The artist’s creative mobility,” writes Herring, “based on the mind’s capacity to wander into foreign locales—thus replaced the bourgeois citizen’s social mobility in a strategic combination of decadent modernity and low-lifestyle” (Herring, “Willa Cather’s Lost Boy,” 93). Bohemianism became part of the discourse of psychological abnormality emerging around the study of male adolescents. Herring cites G. Stanley Hall’s concern about such deviance: “As these troubles have far more . . . grave forms,” wrote Hall in Adolescence (1904), “we probably see the effect of their taint in hoodlums, rowdies, hoboes, vagrants, vagabonds, dudes, spendthrifts with no money sense, ne’er-do-wells, egoists, cases of moral insanity, juvenile criminals, and hosts of people whose early life promised well” (quoted in Herring, “Willa Cather’s Lost Boy,” 94). Paul’s movements do not exactly trace an urban demimonde of sexual subcultures, but they do bind physical places to illicit spending. A component of this nascent discourse of gay sexuality appears in Hall’s catalog of boys who, for one reason or another, have “no money sense.” Overspenders may find themselves hiding out in the dangerous byways of the city, concealing their unpayable debts. While those associations do not quite coalesce into the modern sense of “queerness,” they prefigure a way of conceptualizing suspect desires by way of sussing out the illicit sources of capital that fund those pleasures.

“Paul’s Case” thus maps the deviations along which other people’s legitimately earned profits pay for luxuries that restore Paul’s social, psychological, and emotional self-worth. Roaming a landscape bounded and surveilled by the cost of things, Paul discovers pockets of expensive anonymity such as the suite in the Waldorf Hotel he secures, where his loot expresses its true value for him. Negotiating surpluses and deficits subjects Paul to the uncertainties of an unbalanced economy that at times leaves him cowering in his father’s cellar, or shivering “in the black night outside” (“Paul’s Case,” 175). These involuntary emplacements—“the shadowed corner, the dark place into which he dared not look”—are the result of Paul’s having to connive pleasures from a father who “did not like to hear requests for money, whether much or little,” instilling a disgust for the “petty economies” of a parent whose stinginess curtails Paul’s expressivity and compromises the integrity of his body (178, 175). The strict economy of Paul’s father is ill-suited to his son’s temperament and needs. Paid employment dissipates Paul’s energies, exacting a cost made apparent in the somatic distortions and psychological imbalances that afflict the boy’s queer body. Paul’s deformities suggest a metonym for a social body starved by inequities in the allocation of human worth and individual freedom. His “high, cramped shoulders and . . . narrow chest”; his “nervous trembling”; his “abnormally large” pupils and the “hysterical brilliancy” of his eyes wrench his muscles “tighter and tighter” to the point of self-suffocation (170, 171, 183). His father’s unwillingness to equate the value of his wage labor with the cost required to satisfy his son’s desires is cloaked in the punitive terms of thrift and a strangling sort of cheapness that passes for duty.

The paradox is that Paul’s fixation on “the glaring affirmation of wealth” returns us to the consumerism that so rattled Cather. Paul’s extravagance resembles the conspicuous consumption practiced by Louie Marsellus and his wife in The Professor’s House, whose expenditures prompt Godfrey St. Peter to recoil from what he labels—in erotic terms, no less—their “orgy of acquisition.”[37] The first thing Paul does in New York is buy new clothes “with endless reconsidering and great care” (“Paul’s Case,” 182). The difference, though, is that the Marselluses spend resources grounded in the legal and social privileges of heterosexual marriage. Paul spends stolen money to release him “from the necessity of petty lying” and to “restor[e] his self-respect” (186). Stealing differentiates the value of Paul’s money from that of the Marselluses. Consequently, his crime is symptomatic of the inequities of economic value, just as it reinforces those inequities by marshaling the regulatory controls that reinstate his transgressive difference. Paul’s “astonishingly easy” robbery belies the real violence necessary to rebalance the conventional apportionment of value. Unlike the investments the Marselluses make to distinguish their country home and enhance their social capital, Paul’s spending buys the nonchalance that makes him indistinguishable from the upper class. Restoring him to both society and to himself, Paul’s stolen money confers an illusory authenticity that no longer requires the boy to “assert his difference” by way of “boastful pretensions” (186). Nardin reminds us that Paul’s solution to his identity problem partakes of the logic of consumerism, “with its tacit promise that a man can actually be whatever his possessions imply that he is” (“Homosexual Identities,” 42). She categorizes Paul as “the middle-class, urban gay man, who consumes both sexual and material pleasures” (42). But Paul’s intention in stealing is to escape the surveillance of the middle class, and his spending is motivated by a desire to buy his way out of conventions inimical to his emerging identity.

Anonymity is another way to understand what makes Paul’s theft liberating. Herring investigates this by focusing on the way anonymity allows Paul’s disidentification from “classificatory regimes” of sexuality, which means that when Paul’s money runs out his disabled “will-to-invisibility” leads to self-destruction (“Willa Cather’s Lost Boy,” 111).[38] However, while the story’s queer protagonist does die, the story’s queerness does not die with him. Herring reads the stages of Paul’s “self-divestiture,” “public erasure,” and “self-dissolution” somewhat against Paul’s own assertion that his actions “had paid indeed!” (111–12; Cather, “Paul’s Case,” 187). Herring understands this as an expunging “from the cultural record” of Paul’s queer life and a consequent loss to history, but that conclusion risks reading the story as introducing a queer character only to expunge it from the text (“Willa Cather’s Lost Boy,” 111). Paul is not so much paying to disappear, as it were, as he is purchasing the restoration of a body that can feel what it desires instead of straining with the kind of “physical aversion” he experiences when his teacher tries to guide his hand at the chalkboard (170). Feeling “at peace with himself” at last in New York, Paul’s “[h]yper-consumer capitalism” purchases his manliness, as well as a debauch with a Yale undergraduate that commences with “the confiding warmth of a champagne friendship” (Cather, “Paul’s Case,” 186; Herring, “Willa Cather’s Lost Boy,” 110; “Paul’s Case,” 186). Even Paul’s clothes fit better, and he feels in New York “that his surroundings [explain] him” (185).

Having secured his queer embodiment, Paul preempts having to sell his labor in a market that offers him few rewards. His consumption-as-embodiment fulfills the logic of his adversarial relationship to wage labor, but it also expresses his aestheticism. As Freedman notes, the root meaning of “aesthetic” means “the perfection of the act of perception, particularly visual perception, wrought most frequently, but not exclusively, by a work of art” (Professions of Taste, 10). Paul wants nothing to do with making art, but everything to do with seeing and feeling. Although he loves the theater, Paul has “no desire to become an actor, any more than he [has] to become a musician. He [feels] no necessity to do any of these things” (Cather, “Paul’s Case,” 180). What he does want is “to see, to be in the atmosphere, float on the wave of it . . . away from everything” (180). Even Paul’s former job is to usher theatergoers to their seats, a function that fits him as well as his uniform. Whereas other young men are held up as models of responsibility, Paul takes comfort playing “a model usher” who guides the uninitiated into a world of beauty and leisure. Paul’s flight to New York releases time from the instrumentality of the productive process. While his earlier job requires separating the wage labor of ushering from leisurely consumption, the reveries he enjoys at the Waldorf suggest he has managed at last to convey himself to his own seat.

Paul’s pleasure thus derives from an irruption in the system of commodity exchange. A resource freely taken—like the money Paul steals—affords him time to spend without accountability. Among other effects, Paul’s robbery deprives his employers of the funds to pay for the services of other boys who, like Paul, are made to curb their consumption of pleasure as a condition of their employment. Paul steals the time “to look on and conjecture, to watch the pageant” (185). The surveillance to which the boy’s queerness has been subjected is thereby turned against itself in his watching and deciphering the meaning of the world outside his own. The stolen time of reading this other world mirrors the “stolen” time one spends reading a story like “Paul’s Case,” the payoff of which is the drama of queer personhood asserting itself under the duress of invisibility.

The Homoerotics of Style

Ambiguous linkages to “Paul’s Case” structure the homoerotic attachments intimated in Cather’s later novel, The Professor’s House, the emotional center of which is arguably the relationship between Godfrey St. Peter and his brilliant student, Tom Outland. Both texts share a common origin in an even earlier story Cather published in 1902 called “The Professor’s Commencement,” which features a protagonist on the verge of retirement from high school teaching named Emerson Graves. “Nominally he was a Professor of English Literature,” says the narrator, “but his real work had been to try to secure for youth the rights of youth; the right to be generous, to dream, to enjoy; to feel a little the seduction of the old Romance, and to yield a little.”[39] Graves teaches in “a vast manufacturing region given over to sordid and materialistic ideals,” where he commits himself to preserving and imparting aesthetic values against “the reign of Mammon” (Cather, “The Professor’s Commencement,” 483). This environment is modeled upon the Pittsburgh area in which Cather taught the prototype of her character, Paul: “a nervous, jerky boy who was always trying to make himself ‘interesting’, and to prove that he had special recognition and special favours from members of a stock company then playing in the town theater.”[40]

The “practical, provident, unimaginative, and mercenary” teenagers Graves describes constitute the community that so oppresses the boy in “Paul’s Case,” but the correspondences do not stop there (Cather, “The Professor’s Commencement,” 484). Graves goes on to recall a special student who “had come in the person of his one and only genius,” a “restless, incorrigible pupil with the gentle eyes and manner of a girl, at once timid and utterly reckless, who had seen even as Graves saw; who had suffered a little, sung a little, struck the true lyric note, and died wretchedly at three-and-twenty in his master’s arms” (486–87). The description matches St. Peter’s assessment of Tom Outland as the “one remarkable mind” he ever encountered “[i]n a lifetime of teaching” (The Professor’s House, 62). The ur-student introduced in “The Professor’s Commencement” thus combines traits Cather retains, but segregates, between the queer femininity of the boy in “Paul’s Case” and the masculinized adventurousness of Tom Outland, both of whom die young. While there are correspondences between the two fictional teachers, Emerson Graves of “The Professor’s Commencement” and Godfrey St. Peter of The Professor’s House, both characters may also be seen as emanations of Cather’s own psychic and emotional investment in the role of mentorship and the transmission of cultural values. Perhaps the most telling component in these configurations, though, is the triangular desire suggested by St. Peter’s offhand allusion to Anatole France’s novel Monsieur Bergeret à Paris (1922). In preventing the seamstress Augusta from removing dress forms from the attic workroom they share, St. Peter’s reference to M. Bergeret evokes a scene from France’s novel in which an unhappily married professor comes upon his prized student making love to his wife. Enraged, he smashes the wickerwork dress forms that remind him of his unfaithful wife. In a variation on this theme of jealousy and disaffection, it is St. Peter’s wife Lillian who blames the appearance of Tom Outland for the chill that has come over her marriage, even as she herself expresses a flirtatious attachment to both her sons-in-law. The point is that this displaced eroticism establishes the conditions for understanding St. Peter’s intense identification with Outland, as well as their mutual desire “to feel a little the seduction of the old Romance” (“The Professor’s Commencement,” 484).

Overlaying these homoeroticized tensions is a subtler sign of St. Peter’s attraction to Outland: his aesthetic appreciation of the young man’s economical style. As he prepares to annotate and introduce the fieldwork diary Outland has left behind after his death, the professor observes that:

this plain account was almost beautiful, because of the stupidities it avoided and the things it did not say. If words had cost money, Tom couldn’t have used them more sparingly. The adjectives were purely descriptive, relating to form and colour, and were used to present the objects under consideration, not the young explorer’s emotions. Yet through this austerity one felt the kindling imagination, the ardour and excitement of the boy, like the vibration in a voice when the speaker strives to conceal his emotion by using only conventional phrases. (The Professor’s House, 262)

St. Peter’s emotional response to Outland’s style exceeds the merely aesthetic because it acknowledges an adversarial stance against the meretriciousness of the dominant culture. It is nevertheless strange to think the lucidity of Outland’s writing can elicit the erotic charge it does, but Cather’s account insists upon just that. The sensation of the young man’s “ardour,” the “vibration” of concealed feeling, and the palpable excitement conveyed by the diarist concentrate the professor’s attention on the “austerity” of Outland’s utterance. Given the way the professor frames his approbation, that concentration appears to be the result of Outland’s having channeled his store of verbal resources away from excessive emotions or cheap sentiments, investing his words with a flatness that jettisons those flourishes off the page. Clear and opaque at the same time, such ambiguous writing opens both the diary and the novel to a range of emotional states and erotic connections that fall outside the conventions of literary sentiment. If St. Peter’s appreciation is an index of his own anticonsumerism, it also answers the question of why Tom Outland exerts such a hold on his memories and desires.

St. Peter’s repugnance for materialism is rendered differently in his marked disdain for the vulgar way his daughter Rosamond has so quickly accustomed herself to the luxuries of having enormous wealth. Expected to marry Tom Outland, Rosamond is made his legal heir before he enlists in the army and is later killed on the battlefield in World War I. Rosamond inherits a fortune when the man she does marry, Louie Marsellus, devises lucrative commercial applications for the scientific patents Outland has left to her in his will. As the novel begins, St. Peter laments not just his own newly built house, but also the high cost of Rosamond’s extravagant purchases made to furnish a country house that she and Louie plan to name “Outland.” The Marselluses’ expensive tastes repel St. Peter in a way that throws into relief his own ambivalence about the benefits of money. While he bristles at the couple’s extravagance, he is not displeased with what their money can buy. “It’s only young people like you and Louie who can get any fun out of money,” he concedes to Rosamond, while in the same breath he appears to endorse an idea about money’s exchange value that reduces to one equitable standard of compensation even claims of decency and moral indebtedness. He reminds Rosamond that having enough money to purchase luxury goods is also sufficient for covering “the fine, the almost imaginary obligations” (64).

St. Peter’s appeal to his daughter to recognize the implicit debt she and Louie owe to Outland’s impoverished and disabled collaborator, Professor Crane, suggests he thinks his daughter’s duty involves her willingness to pay for Crane’s labor. St. Peter’s advice not only contradicts his spirited defense of scholarship, learning, and the arts, but also troubles the meaning of value as such. Does the worth of Professor Crane’s theoretical prowess express itself fairly in the cash value it eventually generates, or in what Rosamond and Louie deem adequate compensation for his having educated Tom Outland? Alternatively, does the value of Professor Crane’s collaboration with Outland transcend money, accruing an intangible worth indistinguishable from self-esteem, the advancement of knowledge, or intellectual generosity?

Surplus Value in The Professor’s House

As in “Paul’s Case,” Cather conveys queerness in The Professor’s House in part by positioning characters within and against a remunerative system determined by commodity exchange. In both texts, illicit or surreptitious gains find their way into adversarial currents of value. Theft, gambling, and uncompensated intellectual labor reap a special compensation for those whose desires are incommensurate with biological reproduction and profit-making. The professor comes into “what were called rewards” for his scholarly work, receiving the Oxford Prize in history worth £5,000, which purchases a house “into which he did not want to move” (34). His dissent unravels the fungibility upon which commodity exchange depends. Reifying his mental labor by “owning” the new house assumes an equivalency of value that the professor suppresses; his reluctance to inhabit the monument to domesticity his prize has financed preserves an untapped value that underwrites the genuine worth of his intellectual accomplishments. The professor’s reluctance to “own” the house queers, rather than normalizes, his sexual and gendered relationships to his family. Both his wife and former landlord think him perverse for insisting upon editing Outland’s diary in the attic of his vacated rental property. Lillian asks: “don’t you think it’s a foolish extravagance to go on paying the rent of an entire house, in order to spend a few hours a day in one very uncomfortable room of it?” (96). Likewise, his landlord’s acquiescence to the professor’s request to stay in the empty house prompts Appelhoff to worry that the professor’s occupation violates the insurance company’s designation of the building as “for the purposes of domestic dwelling.” Appelhoff’s discomfort persists when the professor praises the landlord’s fruit trees, to which the German archly responds, “I don’t like dem trees what don’t bear not’ing” (52).

Cather’s queer economy comes into clearer focus in “Tom Outland’s Story,” the second and longest part of The Professor’s House. As much a male-male romance as a tale of youthful adventure, this section opens with a confrontation between the orphaned Outland and the itinerant laborer Rodney Blake, who will later sell off the artifacts both men have excavated from an ancient Anasazi site in the American Southwest to a German dealer for $4,000 without his friend’s consent. In response, Outland tries “to make Blake understand the kind of value those objects had had for [him],” and tells Rodney he had no right to deposit the proceeds of the sale in his name (244). Outland recognizes the symbolic worth the artifacts have in his historically-minded imagination, but their actual worth wavers between their aestheticization as museum objects and their archival potential for unlocking new scholarly knowledge. Traveling to Washington, DC to persuade Smithsonian archaeologists to “interpret all that is obscure to us,” Outland’s idealism belies another way of cashing in on the value of the artifacts. The evaluation Outland seeks means “[reviving] this civilization in a scholarly work” with the potential of “[throwing] light on some important points in the history of [the] country” (220). Outland’s failure to keep the artifacts from being sold speaks to Cather’s critique of commodification, but had Outland succeeded, the Anasazi would have been co-opted into the history of United States civilization, fulfilling Outland’s wish to aggrandize his personal and national lineage. Moreover, converting the artifacts into archival fodder invites the kind of intellectual labor performed by the professor in writing his history of the Spanish “adventurers” in North America. The compulsion toward narrative intelligibility imperfectly squares with Cather’s aesthetic of the thing not written, and underplays the way the professor’s career-long translation of obscure documents finally produces a prize worth £5,000.

It’s worth noting that the capital that initiates these transactions comes from outside the system of monetary exchange, as Cather’s brilliantly choreographed scene of Outland’s first encounter with Blake demonstrates. Money is exchanged, but its value derives from how it was acquired and the way it mediates the undercurrent of same-sex intimacy between the two men. Blake advances Outland $600 to travel to the nation’s capital after they complete their work on the mesa. That sum is withdrawn from the “jack-pot” account they have earlier deposited (at Outland’s insistence) in a Pardee, New Mexico bank after Blake wins $1,600 in a poker game over a long night of drunken gambling. The “unusual accident, or string of accidents” that results in this bounty coincides with Outland’s serendipitous meeting and immediate attachment to Blake, generating a queer narrative that parallels and counters the heteronormative marriage described in the novel’s first part, called “The Family” (177). Employed as a railroad call boy, Outland’s job is to warn brakemen of where they ought to be according to the timetable of arriving and departing freight cars, keeping in mind the men can be fired for gambling on company time. Cather collapses the distinction between work and leisure, wage labor and gambling, by emphasizing the peculiarity of Blake’s remaining dressed in his dirty work clothes before sitting down at the poker table. His unwashed hands mark the cards, creating the suspicion of cheating. The scene suggests an ill-gotten surplus of unearned money that arrives “just after pay day,” in a place that “didn’t open into the saloon proper”—a place Outland accesses through a “back alley” (177).

The character most drawn to the possibility of same-sex intimacy is also the one most vigilant about the boundary between gambling and wage labor. Outland suspects Blake’s “irregular” behavior and “problems at home” lie behind his compulsiveness at the poker table, suggesting something more fundamentally queer about Blake’s family life. Outland recognizes and shares Blake’s family brokenness, but at the same time deflects that irregularity onto a pejorative judgment of gambling. In doing so, he joins two ostensibly different, but similarly disrupted economies: the capitalist and the biopolitical. With regard to the former, Cather’s choice of gambling draws from a discourse of speculation that circulated during the cultural moment in which she wrote. Whereas the influential author of The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) diagnosed and named the condition of conspicuous consumption that informs Cather’s portrayal of Louie Marsellus and his wife, Thorstein Veblen also understood gambling as a primitive attraction to luck that persisted within and among other, more determined economic transactions. “Both as a whole and in its details,” he writes, “the industrial process is a process of quantitative causation. The ‘intelligence’ demanded of the workman, as well as of the director of the industrial process, is little else than a degree of facility in the apprehension of and adaptation to a quantitatively determined causal sequence.”[41] Gambling rejects this kind of productive causation. It only expresses an irrationality at odds with rationalized economic processes, but also represents “an archaic habit which belongs substantially to early, undifferentiated human nature” (Veblen, Theory of the Leisure Class, 278). Given the way Cather represents Blake’s windfall, a symmetry arises between the sublimated erotic energies expressed in his speculative impulses at the poker table, and his loosely differentiated sexuality—a wayward, uncommitted receptiveness to Outland’s adoring desire for his companionship.

In stuffing other men’s lost banknotes into his pockets, and then sweeping the remainder of their bets into his “big red neckerchief,” Blake’s body becomes a receptor of surplus value that enhances his attractiveness as a mark for the other men. Intoxicated and vulnerable, Blake is followed home by the protective Outland, who hears his friend’s “gold in his baggy overalls pockets [clinking] with every step he [takes]” (The Professor’s House, 180). What follows is a bedroom scene in which Cather translates homosexual desire into the symbolic terms of orgasmic release. Passing out on his back on the small bed of his cabin, Blake’s “gold [runs] out of his pockets and [rolls] over the bare floor in the dark,” prompting Outland to empty Blake’s pockets and collect “the coins that lay in the hollow of the bed about his hips” (181). Outland puts the money into Blake’s grip sack, later persuading him to deposit it in a bank account for safekeeping. The climax of this homoerotic intimacy engenders a seminal “jack-pot” of surplus value that remains on deposit until it is withdrawn to pay Outland’s college tuition. Like the sexual imagery of male ejaculation without the consequence of heterosexual conception, the windfall that is first spilled and then retrieved in this scene does not merely redirect the illicit profits back into the regulatory economy for future investment, but arrests the telic fungibility of money’s exchange value. The purchasing power of that money is suspended, that is, just long enough to intimate a corresponding value of queer, nonprocreative love, the ultimate symbol of which is perhaps the remains of the ancient, brutalized woman named “Mother Eve,” whose excavated bones symbolize the end of reproduction at the same time their accidental loss over the cliff forecloses Blake’s commercial plan to sell them for a profit. Consequently, Cather’s critique of art and economics finally had less to do with the irreconcilability of these opposed currents of value than it did with helping her discover the degree to which the improvisations made possible by their interrelation unlocked a new vocabulary for describing what queer embodiment might look like, and what it might be worth.


I thank the Americanist Research Colloquium at UCLA and the organizers of the 17th International Willa Cather Seminar for inviting me to present earlier versions of this article. Special thanks to the anonymous readers at Modernism/modernity, as well as to Marilee Lindemann, Christopher Looby, and Helen Deutsch.

[1] John N. Swift, “Fictions of Possession in The Professor’s House,” in The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather, ed. Marilee Lindemann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 175–90, 177; Guy J. Reynolds, “Willa Cather as Progressive: Politics and the Writer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather, 19–34, 24. James Woodress points out that Cather’s critique of materialism originates in her “own character,” and finds it in her earliest stories, including “The Professor’s Commencement” (1902). Woodress concludes that the “national worship of Mammon, which culminated in the Roaring Twenties, may well have been a significant reason for the alienation Cather felt in that era and made her feel that the world had broken in two” (James Woodress, “Historical Essay,” in The Professor’s House, ed. James Woodress, Kari Ronning, and Frederick Link [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002], 291–325, 301–2).

[2] The Professor’s House divides the narrative of Godfrey St. Peter’s family crisis into two parts, inserting a first-person account of Tom Outland’s discovery of the Cliff Tower in the years before his death. Her reasons included two possibilities, one that modeled “the arrangement followed in sonatas in which the academic sonata form was handled somewhat freely,” and another that followed certain “old and modern Dutch paintings” she had seen in Paris (Willa Cather, “On The Professor’s House,” in Willa Cather On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art [Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1988], 30–32, 31). Those paintings featured “warmly furnished” domestic interiors in which an open window was visible that looked out upon the masts of Dutch merchant ships on the sea beyond. Cather intended the analogy to evoke the professor’s house as “rather overcrowded and stuffy with new things; American proprieties, clothes, furs, petty ambitions, quivering jealousies—until one got rather stifled. Then [she] wanted to open the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, and the fine disregard of trivialities which was in Tom Outland’s face and in his behaviour” (32).

[3] Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (1931; rpt., New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2010).

[4] Willa Cather, “Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle,” The Nation 117, no. 3035 (1923): 236–38, 238.

[5] Rose C. Feld, “Restlessness Such as Ours Does Not Make for Beauty,” New York Times Book Review, December 21, 1924, 11.

[6] On Cather’s editing career at the Home Monthly, see Peter Benson, “Willa Cather at Home Monthly,” Biography 4, no. 3 (1981): 227–48.

[7] Jonathan Freedman, Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 106–7.

[8] Willa Cather, “Uncle Valentine (Adagio non troppo),” in Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1992), 209–49, 220. The story was first serialized in Woman’s Home Companion beginning in February 1925.

[9] Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark (1915; rpt., New York: Vintage, 1999), 421.

[10] Cather’s editorial training began when she moved to Pittsburgh in 1896 to edit the Home Monthly, a women’s magazine designed to compete with the Ladies’ Home Journal. In 1908 she became managing editor of McClure’s Magazine. These years coincided with Cather’s literary apprenticeship, in which she published fiction, poetry, and reviews in the Overland Monthly, the Home Monthly, Cosmopolitan, the Saturday Evening Post, Scribner’s, McClure’s, and others.

[11] James Woodress, preface to The Professor’s House, ix. Marilee Lindemann points out that as “early as 1915 [Cather] took an active interest in how her books were marketed and promoted (Willa Cather: Queering America [New York: Columbia University Press, 1999], 87).

[12] Erika Hamilton, “Advertising Cather During the Transition Years (1914–1922),” Cather Studies 7, no. 1 (2007): 13–26, 13.

[13] Edith Lewis, Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1976), 115. Richard C. Harris numbers the pre-publication orders at 11,000, but concludes that the “success of the first two [Alfred] Knopf books [Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920) and One of Ours (1922)] and continued sales of her other works assured Cather’s financial comfort for life.” See “‘Dear Alfred/‘Dear Miss Cather’: Willa Cather and Alfred Knopf, 1920–1947,” Studies in the Novel 45, no. 3 (2013): 393–94.

[14] See also Matt Lavin, “Intellectual Warfare in Collier’s Magazine: Art versus Advertising in Cather’s Serialized Novel The Professor’s House,” Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter 49, no. 2 (2005): 31–32.

[15] While Cather was distressed by negative reviews that claimed she had romanticized the war, One of Ours was a commercial success, with 40,500 copies in print by November 1922, and another 20,400 in 1923. A Lost Lady was even more successful, with 50,000 copies in its sixth printing by December 1923. See “Chronology,” in Willa Cather: Later Novels (New York: The Library of America, 1990), 941–60, 953–54.

[16] Cather’s negotiation of commercial and artistic interests in her later literary career exemplifies Lawrence Rainey’s contention that modernist writers often produced and distributed their work through a combination of coterie and mass-cultural publishing practices. See Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).  

[17] Anna Wilson, “Canonical Relations: Willa Cather, America, and The Professor’s House,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 47, no. 1 (2005): 61–74, 64.

[18] Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 72.

[19] See also Granville Hicks, “The Case Against Willa Cather,” The English Journal 22, no. 9 (1933): 703–10. Hicks describes Cather as a writer who “shares her unwillingness to face the harshness of our world.” His position on economics and social justice in the early 1930s led him to conclude that Cather “never once tried to see contemporary life as it is” (708).

[20] Willa Cather, “The Novel Démeublé,” in Willa Cather On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art, 35–43, 38; Janis P. Stout, Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 2000), 189.

[21] Paula Kot, “Speculation, Tourism, and The Professor’s House,” Twentieth-Century Literature 48, no. 4 (2002): 393–426, 402.

[22] Kot cites Susan J. Rosowski’s observation that Outland’s actions on the Mesa amount to “a brutal invasion” which “develops out of his speculative instinct—an integral part of Dick Wetherill’s, Tom Outland’s, and Cather’s historical matrix that critics have not yet fully explored” (“Speculation, Tourism, and The Professor’s House,” 410). See Susan J. Rosowski, The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Romanticism (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 133.

[23] Jonathan Goldberg, “Willa Cather and Sexuality,” in The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather, 86–100, 91.

[24] John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), 467–77, 470.

[25] Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism (New York: Routledge, 2000), 29.

[26] Ezra Pound, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” in Poems and Translations (New York: The Library of America, 2003), 548–63, 550.

[27] See Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), Edward Carpenter, Love’s Coming of Age (1896), Havelock Ellis and John Addington Symonds, Sexual Inversion (1897), Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), and Magnus Hirschfeld, Homosexuality of Men and Women (1914). For Cather’s response to these materials, see Jane Nardin, “Homosexual Identities in Willa Cather’s ‘Paul’s Case,’” Literature and History 17, no. 2 (2008): 31–46.

[28] Christopher Nealon, “Affect-Genealogy: Feeling and Affiliation in Willa Cather,” American Literature 69, no. 1 (1997): 5–37, 20–21.

[29] Willa Cather, “Paul’s Case,” in Collected Stories (1905; rpt., New York: Vintage, 1992), 170–89, 175.

[30] Willa Cather, “Katherine Mansfield,” in Willa Cather On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art, 106–20, 110.

[31] Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 133.

[32] On “queer” as a category of sexual identification, see George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 2019).

[33] Willa Cather, “On the Art of Fiction,” in Willa Cather On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art, 100–4, 103.

[34] Queer studies in the wake of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1985) and Sharon O’Brien’s Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (1987) have drawn attention to Cather’s life and writing, but such readings have not been without challenges posed by restrictions on access to her letters, as well as by disagreements about Cather’s place in literary history. About these disagreements, see Wilson, “Canonical Relations: Willa Cather, America, and The Professor’s House.” See also Joan Acocella, Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 2000).

[35] The Oxford English Dictionary dates “Queer Street” from the early nineteenth century, attributing it to “Carey Street in London, site of the bankruptcy court” (OED Online, April 2021, s.v., “queer, adj.1”). More likely, “queer” comes from the Latin quaere, from which the English “query” derives. In law, quaere denotes an inquiry ought to be made of a doubtful thing (John Bouvier, “Quare,” Bouvier’s Law Dictionary [Philadelphia, PA: 1856], 406). It also derives “from the mark—the quaere (Latin for ‘inquiry’)—made in financial ledgers next to the names of any persons believed to be insolvent” (Jennifer Mooney, “Notes” in Charles Dickens, Bleak House [New York: Modern Library, 2002], 885).

[36] Terrell Scott Herring, “Willa Cather’s Lost Boy: ‘Paul’s Case’ and Bohemian Tramping,” Arizona Quarterly 60, no. 2 (2004): 87–116, 93.

[37] Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (1925; rpt., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 152.

[38] Herring’s claim is that Paul’s spending affiliates him with “nascent homosexual subcultures,” rendering him “faceless, unidentifiable, and indeterminate,” thus moving him “past regimes of sexual surveillance and . . . beyond queer visibility” (“Willa Cather’s Lost Boy,” 110–11).

[39] Willa Cather, “The Professor’s Commencement,” New England Magazine 26 (1902): 481–88, 484.

[40] Willa Cather, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (New York: Vintage, 2014), 614.

[41] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Penguin, 1994), 282–83.