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Sigrid Undset and Willa Cather: Literary correspondences

Sherrill Martin Rood Harbison, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation is a comparative study of the work and ideas of the Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882-1949) and the American Willa Cather (1873-1947). Their mutual admiration and written correspondence began in the 1920s and culminated during Undset's World War II refugee years in New York, when the two women met and developed a warm friendship. While several scholars are aware of their personal connection, no one has ever examined it.^ I do not claim that the writers influenced each other's work. Instead I examine the thematic and historical issues that most influenced them and attracted them to each other. Both had a very early devotion to nature, and both contemplated a career in science. At puberty both suffered a traumatic loss--death of a parent for one, removal from Virginia to the prairie for the other--which had a profound impact on their personal and artistic development, particularly around issues of sexuality, commitment, and love.^ I then explore the ways Undset's and Cather's early writing wrestled with the power of the erotic impulse, its effect on the artist's need for autonomy, and the conflict between the artist's life and socially expected female roles. I discuss the significance of their personal choices--which were reflected in choices made by heroines of their early novels--and place them in the context of Symbolist responses to the social disruptions of the late Victorian era. These include changing attitudes toward sexuality, feminism, art, and idealism, particularly the effect of thinkers like Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud on social attitudes; the apotheosis of Romanticism in the Decadent movement; the emergence of an increasingly mystical politics as the authority of religion waned; and the moral shattering of Western civilizations by World War I. The dissertation concludes at this point, when both women were faced with ruptures in their personal lives, both formally changed their religious affiliations, and both entered the decade in which they produced their most powerful work.^ Appendices include previously untranslated and unpublished texts (in both languages) of tributes each woman wrote about the other during the last years of their lives. ^

Subject Area

Comparative literature|German literature|Women's studies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Harbison, Sherrill Martin Rood, "Sigrid Undset and Willa Cather: Literary correspondences" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9709603.