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Willa Cather

1873-1947

 

In 1931 the University of California awarded an honorary degree to lesbian novelist Willa Cather during Charter Day ceremonies held at the Greek Theatre. In his introductory remarks University President Robert Gordon Sproul praised Cather as a ďself-controlled and elevated delineator of life on the western plains and in the Spanish southwest, who at a time when literature is prevailingly matter-of-fact has not lost sight of idealism and nobility; [a] writer of novels which are beautiful and true, and not merely enlargements on back door gossip, police reports, and treatises on psychiatry, [a] creative artist.Ē It was common for elite visitors to Berkeley to be welcomed as the guests of President and Mrs. Sproul at University House on campus. Years after Catherís visit, Marion Sproul Goodin remembered the rich and famous who passed through her parentís home:

Athletics, however avidly followed, were not the only excitement of our life on campus; there was the constant parade of house guests: the Charter Day speakers and other prominent visitors to Berkeley; princes and princesses, presidents and prime ministers, sultans and shahs. We children were not included in the great state occasions. Nonetheless, we were living in the same house and did encounter each at more unbuttoned moments. We often ate breakfast together. The library at tea time in late afternoon was a common ground. And finally, added to what we could ourselves observe, there was the added fillip of the backstage gossip of the maids. Thus we learned that Willa Cather was exceedingly shy and very precise in her requirements. She requested breakfast in her room and did not appear at tea time in the library. Her tea was taken very late in the evening, in her room, and she gave the maid exact instructions as to the making up of her bed.... These contacts, however fleeting, opened up to us the world beyond Berkeley and gave us a sense of what sort of men and women moved on that larger stage.

Catherís lesbianism was not widely known, and it is possible ó perhaps likely ó that President Sproul knew nothing at all about her personal life. Certainly his introductory remarks reveal a conservative taste in modern literature. There were no such official accolades for Gertrude Stein when she visited the campus only four years later. Steinís visit, however, sparked much more interest among faculty and students than did Catherís. By 1931 Willa Cather was viewed by the campus literary avant-garde as old-fashioned and stylistically conservative.

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  • Daily Californian, 24 March 1931
  • There was Light: Autobiography of a University: a Collection of Essays by Alumni of the University of California, Berkeley, 1868-1996, edited by Jean Stone (Berkeley : University of California, 1996)
 
 

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Copyright 2002 Regents of the University of California. Email: benemann@law.berkeley.edu.