Aesthetics, Values and Autobiography in the Works of Willa Cather and Marguerite Duras

by Erna Cooper (Author)
©2018 Monographs XIV, 290 Pages


Although separated by language and geography, Willa Cather and Marguerite Duras both explored the lives of women and children across the tumultuous twentieth century by drawing on their own experiences. This comparative critical study of Cather, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and Duras, winner of the Prix Goncourt and Cannes Film Festival award, reveals the blurring of fiction and autobiography in their works, focusing on their concerns for women, children and the socially marginalized. Relying on a corpus of novels, plays, films, letters and interviews, the study highlights questions about power and authority relevant to the study of feminism and women’s writing during and after the world wars.
Dominant themes include female adolescence and creative emergence, poverty, racism, immigrant and postcolonial life, psychosexual trauma, adult narcissism and child exploitation. The works explored also serve to examine the authors’ respective theories of art and changes in narration and genre that took place in twentieth-century women’s writing. This book highlights particular aesthetic elements and narrative strategies that are keys to missing knowledge about the writers’ childhoods, personal relationships and changing values, which when combined establish a poetics of loss.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • A Note on Sources
  • Cather’s Writings
  • Duras’s Writings
  • Secondary Sources and Other Publications
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Maternity and Landscape
  • Chapter 2 The Mirror Cracked: Reflection, Twinning and Separation
  • Chapter 3 Economics, Value and Compromise
  • Chapter 4 The Question of Autobiography
  • Chapter 5 Woman and the Frame: Sight, Sound and Perception
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Literature
  • Feminist Literature and Literary Theory
  • Biographies, Memoirs and Interviews
  • Collections, Essays, Plays, Screenplays and Short Stories
  • Films and Video
  • Published Letters
  • The Huntington Library Archives: Ephemera
  • Index

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This book began as my thesis at the University of Oxford, where I was in residence at Wadham College. When I began my research, Oxford had no women’s studies programme or comparative literature faculty. As such, I was supervised jointly within Modern Languages and English. I am grateful to my supervisors, Malcolm Bowie and Elisabeth Jay, for working together to guide this work through to fruition, and for believing in its contribution to the interdisciplinary study of women’s writing, literary theory and psychoanalysis. Many thanks also go out to Alex Hughes and Alison Finch for their words of encouragement, when this was first presented to them for examination, and for suggesting that I revise and publish it.

A few libraries allowed me to access resources that were not readily available or in the public domain, when my research was in the early stages of development. These include the Bodleian Library, the English Faculty Library, the Taylorian Institute and the Maison Française, at Oxford University; the Huntington Library, in Pasadena, California; and the François Mitterand Library, at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. I thank them for granting me permission to access their books, ephemera and multi-media archives. I also thank Gallimard, Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for granting permission to refer to parts of their publications in this book.

A few people lent their support or were otherwise helpful to me in the development or completion of this work, and I am grateful to them, as well. They include: my parents, Ben and Esther Cooper, Paul Collier, Matt Fawcett, and Paul Borg Olivier, who kindly adjusted the dpi of my cover design. I would also like to thank my editor, formerly at the University of St Andrews, Helen Chambers, for her useful comments and helpful suggestions, in this work’s transition from thesis to scholarly edition, and my commissioning editor, Laurel Plapp, for her guidance throughout the publication process. My deep gratitude goes out to Alex Mathew, without whose faith and generosity this book would not be complete. ← ix | x →

Last, but not least, I would like to acknowledge the inspiration drawn from two very brave women in my family: my paternal aunt, Bert Maron, whose career as a radio dramatist, in Hollywood, was tragically cut short during the McCarthy Era; and my maternal grandmother, Margaret Dane, who studied French in Grenoble, but whose pursuit of higher education was sadly precluded by the outbreak of the Second World War. Grandma Dane was loving and generous, encouraged me to travel and sparked my interest in foreign languages and women’s history.

I hope that this book encourages others to study the works of Willa Cather and Marguerite Duras, that it opens an aperture within the fields of modern languages and comparative literature, and corrects the written record of female contributions to art, culture and intellectual life.

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A Note on Sources

Many of Willa Cather’s novels exist in scholarly editions through the University of Nebraska Press, in the United States, some of which I have used for my research. In some instances, when citing later or foreign editions of works, the publisher’s name has been included as the abbreviated form of the edition. However, later editions have also been abbreviated and are included in the list below. Cather’s short stories have been abbreviated individually and cited from The Library of America scholarly edition of her collected writings or from Youth and the Bright Medusa.

Duras’s works have been cited from the French standard editions, and all audio-visual material, in French, was originally viewed at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, though quoted from printed books or screenplays. Some ephemera belonging to Willa Cather was accessed at The Huntington Library, in Pasadena, which includes cards and letters subsequently published and listed in the bibliography.

Cather’s Writings

ALL A Lost Lady [1923] (New York: Random House, 1972)

CA ‘Coming, Aphrodite!’ [1920], in Cather: Stories, Poems and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992)

Chron Chronology, in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992)

DM ‘The Diamond Mine’ [1916], in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992) ← xi | xii →

EH ‘Eric Hermannson’s Soul’, in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992)

KOA The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather’s First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893–1896, ed. by Bernice Slote (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966)

LG Lucy Gayheart [1935] (London: Virago, 1996)

My Ántonia [1918] (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994)

Madwoman The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979)

NR ‘Neighbor Rosicky’ [1928], in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992)

NUF Not Under Forty [1922] (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1988)

OD ‘On the Divide’ [1916], in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992)

OMH ‘Old Mrs Harris’ [1932], in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992)

One One of Ours (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922)

OP O Pioneers! [1913] (London: Virago, 1995)

OW Willa Cather on Writing [1949] (New York: Knopf, 1968)

PC ‘Paul’s Case’ [1905], in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992)

Penguin The Song of the Lark [1915] (New York: Penguin Books, 1991)

PH The Professor’s House [1925] (London: Virago, 1995)

Room A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas [1929] (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992)

Shadows Shadows on the Rock [1931] (London: Virago, 1992)

SOL The Song of the Lark [1915] (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1965)

SSG Sapphira and the Slave Girl [1940] (London: Virago, 1986)

Stories Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992) ← xii | xiii →

TBY ‘The Best Years’ [1945], in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992)

UV ‘Uncle Valentine’ [1925], in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992)

WCPM Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Education Foundation Newsletter and Review (2000)

WM ‘A Wagner Matinée’ [1904], in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992)

Duras’s Writings

Barrage Un barrage contre le Pacifique (Paris: Gallimard, 1950)

CDN L’Amant de la Chine du nord (Paris: Gallimard, 1991)

EC L’Eden Cinéma [1977] (Paris: Mercure de France, 1986)

EL Emily L. (Paris: Minuit, 1987)

HMA Hiroshima mon amour (Paris: Gallimard, 1960)

IS India Song (Paris: Gallimard, 1973)

LC Le camion (Paris: Minuit, 1977)

LD La douleur (Paris: P. O. L., 1985)

LVC Le Vice-consul (Paris: Gallimard, 1966)

LVM La Vie matérielle (Paris: Gallimard, 1987)

LVS Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein (Paris: Gallimard, 1964)

NG Nathalie Granger. suivi de La femme du gange (Paris: Gallimard, 1973)

NN Le Navire Night, in Le navire Night – Césarée – Les mains négatives – Aurélia Steiner – Aurélia Steiner – Aurélia Steiner (Paris: Mercure, 1979)

Parcours Duras: Romans cinéma, théâtre, un parcours 1943–1993 (Paris: Gallimard, 1997) ← xiii | xiv →

Secondary Sources and Other Publications

Devices Michael Sheringham, French Autobiography, Devices and Desires (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993)

Différence Jacques Derrida, L’Écriture et la difference (Paris: Seuil, 1967)

Duras, Narboni and Rivette

Marguerite Duras, Jean Narboni et Jacques Rivette, ‘Marguerite Duras: La destruction, la parole: entretien avec Marguerite Duras par Jean Narboni et Jacques Rivette’, Cahiers du cinema [‘Marguerite Duras: destruction, speech: interview with Marguerite Duras by Jean Narboni and Jacques Rivette’, Notes on Cinema], 217 (1969)

EV Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice [1987] (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1997)

LP La révolution du langage poétique: L’Avant-garde à la fin du XIXè siècle: Lautréamont et Mallarmé (Paris: Seuil, 1974)

LSU Willa Cather: A Life Saved Up [1989] (London: Virago, 1997)

ML Magazine littéraire, no. 278, June 1990

SR ‘Self-Reliance’ [1841], in Essays and Poems (London and Vermont: Everyman, 1996)

Wolves Clarissa Pinkola-Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves (London: Rider, 1992)

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The discipline of comparative literature frequently compares writers of different nationalities, native languages, generations and/or schools of thought. I have chosen a transatlantic study as my subject, comparing the lives and works of Willa Cather, who wrote in America and in English,1 between the turn of the century and 1947,2 and Marguerite Duras, who wrote in France and in French, between 1943 and 1995.3 This covers two continents, two world wars, and two or more languages and generations of writers – from the late Victorians to the postmodernists. ← 1 | 2 →

There are other distinctions that make this study unique. Willa Cather grew up a Methodist, like her artistic heroine, Thea Kronborg, and she believed fundamentally in the idea of art as community building, particularly in wartime. Cather’s works, such as Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927) and Shadows on the Rock (1931), marked her as a religious and ethical writer, though her principles slipped slightly when she procured bottles of port during American Prohibition. In contrast, Duras was an atheist existentialist and borderline anarchist. However, much like Cather, Duras’s political commitment included supporting the rights of women, children and minorities. These strengths persisted throughout her writing career, despite the depths of her later-life alcoholism and gradual disillusionment with communism and party politics. However, unlike Cather, who narrowly pre-dated feminism and American women’s suffrage, and who never experienced war at first hand (though she lost family in First World War), Duras actively worked alongside François Mitterand in the French Resistance, during Nazi occupation, at which time she was interrogated by the Gestapo. She subsequently helped to influence, if indirectly, the student and intellectual revolts of May 1968 as well as French feminism.4

Despite these differences between the authors’ roles in revolutionary activity – Cather’s being philosophical rather than active participation – both Cather and Duras have considerable points of intersection, which influenced their respective writing lives and literary subjects. Both lived through and wrote about wartime, immigration, poverty, racism and the education of young women, much as George Sand had done in the nineteenth century. Sand was an author who strongly influenced both writers, as well. She addressed issues of legislation (specifically, divorce laws) improving the rights and lives of women. However, Cather and Duras clearly diverge to the extent that they belong, within their respective countries, at different points within the twentieth century. Cather largely follows an American tradition of writing that reaches back through the politics and philosophies of Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, although she also read Proust and began writing fiction with an unfinished ← 2 | 3 → short story about chivalry in medieval Avignon. Despite this early French influence upon her life as an author, Cather is better known for incorporating classical themes and motifs from Shakespeare, Milton, Virgil and Ovid, while her hybrid technique finds its native style and hue through a friendship with New Englander, Sarah Orne Jewett5 and an imaginative romance with her version of American naturalism.

Duras’s early writing, like Cather’s, includes the Bildungsroman, a genre evident in her novel, Un barrage contre le Pacifique [The Sea Wall], but in the late 1950s and 1960s, her work began to resemble the nouveaux romanciers,6 in the post-Proustian, Mallarméan French tradition. This trend, in Duras, began with novels such as Détruire, dit-elle [Destroy, She Said] (1969) and her alignment with postmodernist writers, such as Nathalie Sarraute continued throughout her career, with works such as Moderato cantabile (1958) Baxter, Vera Baxter (1977) and 10:30 du soir en été [10:30 on a Summer Night] (1960). Duras’s work is also hybrid stylistically, rhetorically, and in terms of contributing to multiple genres, including journalism, avant-garde film and erotica such as Hiroshima mon amour [Hiroshima, My Love] (1960) and L’Amant [The Lover] (1984).

Duras’s idiosyncratic style also became a phenomenon and subject of interest to noteworthy intellectuals, such as French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Duras may even have fascinated Lacan, as his theories of loss strongly resemble the mechanisms involved in Duras’s work. Marguerite Duras was also a contemporary of Jacques Derrida, whose theories of literary production explain the peculiar psychological mechanisms involved in narrative and poetic representation, evident in Duras’s novels, such as Emily L. (1989), Destroy, She Said and Les Yeux bleus, cheveux noirs [Blue Eyes, Black Hair] (1986). In these works, themes of separation and destruction reflect postmodern (specifically, poststructuralist) notions about language ← 3 | 4 → and narration (‘[où l’amour] a tout pris et qui est impossible’ [where love has taken everything and is impossible]).7


XIV, 290
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (October)
women’s writing theories of autobiography aesthetics in literature and film
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. XIV, 290 pp.

Biographical notes

Erna Cooper (Author)

Erna Cooper pursued her postgraduate studies in French and English literature at the University of Oxford, where she was nominated «proxime accessit» for the Rex Warner Literary Prize at Wadham College. She has published short stories with Levure Littéraire, contributed to an encyclopaedia series on French–American relations, and written on Irish, English and French poetry as well as medical and trauma narratives for such publications as World Literature Today and Cultural Weekly. She has also produced theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, written and directed a short-subject film that debuted at Pathé Studios in Paris, and worked as a French-to-English translator for The Washington Post.


Title: Aesthetics, Values and Autobiography in the Works of Willa Cather and Marguerite Duras
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