Laura Dzubay: LGBTQ writers and the literary canon

Sunday, September 17, 2017 - 12:20pm

When you hear “Willa Cather,” you might think, "Oh yeah, I had to look up My Ántonia on SparkNotes in high school." Or, if you’re a big literary fan, you might recall some of her other monumental and frontier-focused novels, "O Pioneers!," "Song of the Lark" and "One of Ours." Or maybe you’re just thinking, I’ve never heard of Willa Cather before today.

But one thing a lot of people aren’t aware of, even if they are familiar with her groundbreaking achievements in literature, is that Cather was likely a member of the LGBTQ community.

Of course, the idea of a famous writer being LGBTQ is hardly a groundbreaking one. So was Oscar Wilde, so were Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, Allen Ginsberg, W. H. Auden — maybe even William Shakespeare, if you’re ever in the mood to go down that road. But what’s interesting about Cather — at least in part — is how long it took for the public to start admitting it.

I started down this path of discovery one day when I was bored and started reading famous people’s biographies on Wikipedia. On Willa Cather’s page, I scrolled through long passages about her life and career before stumbling across the information that during college, Cather often went by “William” and wore traditionally masculine clothes. Several of her works, including her early short story “Tommy, the Unsentimental,” seem to critique and discount traditional gender roles and conventions, and positively portray main characters who undermine them. Cather also seems to have had several same-sex relationships, most notably with editor Edith Lewis, with whom she lived for the last thirty-nine years of her life.

For some reason, though, the matter of whether or not Cather was lesbian, trans or otherwise queer is still a matter of much contention among scholars. Of course, Cather was also a very private person. She’s been dead for seventy years now and never explicitly came out during her lifetime, and my purpose here isn’t to make undue presumptions about her or to direct attention away from the quality of her writing itself. Rather, it is to make a point about LGBTQ writers in general, particularly female LGBTQ writers, and the ways in which they are represented (and omitted) in contemporary literary discussion.

For instance, remember the writers I listed a few paragraphs ago? You may have noticed that they’re all white men. I refer to them because they were the first people to come to my head, and even now I can’t think of any canonized LGBTQ writers to add to the list who aren’t either white, a man or both. By “canonized,” I mean non-contemporary writers whose work is often taught, often anthologized, and considered deeply impactful to English literary traditions. I’m sure there are some, but there certainly aren’t enough for me to be able to think of them easily.

However, it must be added here that even gay white men draw the short straw when you put them up next to straight white men. Of those above, Rimbaud and Verlaine probably don’t count as canonical, and some secondary schools don’t even teach Wilde and Ginsberg due to concern from parents over subject matter. As for Shakespeare, I’ve seen people defend his straightness as vehemently as if they were defending their own.

So what’s the deal? Is there a dynamic in which a famous writer can be recognized either as influential and worth teaching or as queer, but not both? Cather is somewhat recognized in English literature, but even she is taught far less regularly than James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, and many of her other countless contemporaries. This is particularly surprising in American schools, where no doubt Cather’s profound and beautifully composed accounts of American frontier life and immigrant experiences are more relevant than European-set and focused works like Dubliners.

The web of LGBTQ representation in the writing world is a tangled one, but the list of LGBTQ writers who are considered “classic” begs some questions. Either there just weren’t that many queer writers until very recently, or (more likely) there have been a lot, who have been poorly represented in history. This is particularly true of writers of color and of female writers like Cather. They have always existed, but something has always been swept under the rug: their sexual or gender identity or their writing itself, and in some cases both.

Of course, the skewed leanings of the English literary canon where LGBTQ writers are concerned have been apparent for quite some time now, and Cather is only one example in a sea of others whose accomplishments and/or personal identities have been sidelined by the narrative of scholars over time. But it isn’t useful to simply complain about the way writers’ identities have been handled in the past; what is useful is to examine these patterns critically and to acknowledge the impact that LGBTQ writers have had on literary traditions, so that this subject may receive more attention in the future.