The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Freedom to Love

We look at LGBT Pride month through the eyes of 21st-century citizens. Things have changed since the Stonewall riots in 1969. There is a wide belief that everyone deserves basic rights, deserves to be treated with equality. The literature world is filled with protagonists of all sexualities, and many writers talk openly of their sexual orientation. But in the time before the riots, sexuality was taboo. It was not something you spoke about. This was the world in which Willa Cather lived.

Cather, author of Big Read title My Ántonia, recently made headlines when a new anthology of her private letters was published. Although she has been dead for 66 years, Cather lived an extremely private life and expressly forbade anyone from printing her correspondence. The decision to publish them against her wishes has caused a stir, but the information found in the letters gives readers a more definitive sense of who, exactly, Willa Cather was.

One aspect of her personal life she kept private was her relationship with Isabel McClung, widely speculated to be her lover. The two wrote many letters back and forth, but after Isabel died her husband gave them to Cather, who burned them. Although thought of as the love of Cather’s life, McClung was not Cather’s only alleged partner---she spent the last part of her life living with Edith Lewis, who was also her literary executor. There is only one surviving letter between the two women, a letter which suggests, though does not state, their romantic relationship.

During her lifetime, Cather vehemently shied away from all labels, and we are not able to know if she would have celebrated her sexuality if she was writing today. Many authors keep personal details private because they want to be known for their words, not for their lives. There have been many discussions about gender roles and societal expectations in Cather’s novels, especially My Ántonia, which deals with lust and love through the perspective of a male narrator. But 100 years later, we cannot deny that today’s society is different from Cather’s. In an age where there are over 200 million tweets per day, privacy is hard to maintain. In a country where the majority of citizens support gay marriage, it is becoming easier to be proud of one’s sexuality. Perhaps Cather, were she alive today, would embrace the freedom of the modern age.

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