Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and the Place of Culture


Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and the Place of Culture

Julie Olin-Ammentorp

396 pages
19 photographs, 2 illustrations, 2 maps, index


October 2019


$60.00 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

October 2019


$60.00 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

October 2019


$60.00 Add to Cart

About the Book

Edith Wharton and Willa Cather wrote many of the most enduring American novels from the first half of the twentieth century, including Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome, and The Age of Innocence, and Cather’s O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Yet despite their perennial popularity and their status as major American novelists, Wharton (1862–1937) and Cather (1873–1947) have rarely been studied together. Indeed, critics and scholars seem to have conspired to keep them at a distance: Wharton is seen as “our literary aristocrat,” an author who chronicles the lives of the East Coast, Europe-bound elite, while Cather is considered a prairie populist who describes the lives of rugged western pioneers. These depictions, though partially valid, nonetheless rely on oversimplifications and neglect the striking and important ways the works of these two authors intersect.

The first comparative study of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather in thirty years, this book combines biographical, historical, and literary analyses with a focus on place and aesthetics to reveal Wharton’s and Cather’s parallel experiences of dislocation, their relationship to each other as writers, and the profound similarities in their theories of fiction. Julie Olin-Ammentorp provides a new assessment of the affinities between Wharton and Cather by exploring the importance of literary and geographic place in their lives and works, including the role of New York City, the American West, France, and travel. In doing so she reveals the two authors’ shared concern about the culture of place and the place of culture in the United States. 

Author Bio

Julie Olin-Ammentorp is a professor of English at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. She is the author of Edith Wharton’s Writings from the Great War.


"This book makes a compelling and convincing argument on the meaning of beauty and place in the lives and work of Wharton and Cather and contributes to the fields of literary studies and especially comparative studies. Olin-Ammentorp's Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and the Place of Culture is essential reading for all who are invested in the work of American women writers."—Emily Orlando, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

“The parallel careers and lives Olin-Ammentorp explores here shape a stunning synthesis of the biographical, the cultural, and the literary. Wharton and Cather, together here, capture the Modernist moment. While the two never met, their writing defined, this book well shows, the place of culture through the culture of place.”—Robert Thacker, coeditor of the Willa Cather Review

Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and the Place of Culture dispels oversimplifications that have positioned Cather and Wharton as opposites. In rejecting such traditional characterizations of the two, Julie Olin-Ammentorp beautifully demonstrates that they are in fact comparable and complementary. If the book stopped here it would be truly valuable, but it goes further, exploring concepts such as place, culture, home, and even that most elusive of ideas, beauty. . . . Olin-Ammentorp develops provocative rereadings of texts we thought were familiar.”—Janis Stout, author of Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World and Cather Among the Moderns

“A splendid meditation on place, culture, and beauty. Olin-Ammentorp takes the reader on a journey of discovery through the lives and works of two beloved American authors, demonstrating that, although they may seem to inhabit different worlds, in fact the two share many crucial concerns. With a particularly sensitive attention to language, the book is filled with rich insights and nuanced readings of both Wharton and Cather, and it builds a convincing argument about the centrality of beauty and of place in the lives and writings of both.”—Irene Goldman-Price, editor of My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann and Selected Poems of Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and the Place of Culture is a game changer, opening up the ways we look at two of the most famous American writers (male or female) of the early twentieth century. Olin-Ammentorp combines a masterly grasp of the big picture alongside the nuance and detail of close analysis and invites new ways of thinking about the writers’ interconnectedness, their sense of place, geography, culture, beauty, and language. . . . [This] will be a touchstone reference text for a whole new generation of scholars.”—Laura Rattray, editor of Edith Wharton in Context and The Unpublished Writings of Edith Wharton

“That Wharton and Cather lived lives seemingly so different yet so profoundly parallel makes for an endlessly compelling analysis. This work also speaks more broadly to the careers and global interests of women writers whose experiences of place, travel, geography, nationality, and postwar identities shaped their careers in ways distinctive to the early twentieth century. . . . Clearly the product of deep knowledge, this work promises to contribute to comparative studies; to studies that focus on geography, place, and travel; and to literary interpretations of both authors’ works.”—Melanie Dawson, coauthor of American Literary History and the Turn toward Modernity and president of the Edith Wharton Society

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Wharton, Cather, Place, and Culture
Part 1. Contexts and Intersections
1. The “Literary Aristocrat” and the Plainspoken Pioneer
2. The Land of Letters, the Kingdom of Art
Part 2. The Place of Culture
3. New York City: Beauty, Business, and Hothouse Flowers
4. The West: Provinciality, Vitality, and the “Real” America
5. The Idea of France
6. Questions of Travel and Home

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