December 4, 2010 Leave a comment
Forgive me for spoiling this week’s “puzzler” from Dr. Mardy:
THIS WEEK’S PUZZLER:
On December 7, 1873, this woman was born in Gore, Virginia. At age nine, she moved with her family to Nebraska. Her life on the frontier inspired many later novels, including her famous “Prairie Trilogy,” which included “O Pioneers” (1913), “The Song of the Lark” (1915), and “My Antonia” (1918). One of America’s most respected female writers, she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1922. In 1930, shortly after Sinclair Lewis was selected for the Nobel Prize, he said that he would have been pleased if she had been chosen for the award instead of him. In “The Professor’s House” (1925), she had a character say:
“The heart of another is a dark forest, always,
no matter how close it has been to one’s own.”
Who was this famous writer?
This week’s puzzler has me remembering fondly the release of Paul Cantor and Stephen Cox’s book Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, which is where I first heard of Willa Cather. I postponed reading the chapter called “Willa Cather’s Capitalism” until I had read her novel O Pioneers!, which I loved. It’s the only Willa Cather I’ve read so far. I hope to rectify that.
“Economics and art are strangers.”
So said Willa Cather in an essay written deep in her last period of authorship.
For once in her life, Cather was wrong — though she was wrong for sufficient reason. Leftist critics had been hounding her about her novels’ alleged lack of relevance to current industrial and social problems. She responded by arguing that art must not be reduced to such partial and temporary terms. If this is “economics,” she suggested, then art should have nothing to do with it.
But “economics” need not be treated merely as a solvent for other modes of human experience. If one adopts a nonreductive view, the falsehood of Cather’s declaration about the estrangement of economics and art becomes obvious. Her own art was economic in every useful sense of the term. It was economic in its practical concern with buying and selling, prices and investments. It was economic in its analysis of the framework of institutions that supports the capitalist or market system. Finally and most importantly it was economic in its application of certain essential principles of choice and valuation that are crucial to an understanding of the capitalist system but that long remained obscure even to professional economists. Cather, a mere novelist, discovered them through her art.