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Canonical in the 1930s: Willa Cather's death comes for the archbishop in the modern library series

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posted on 11.03.2016, 14:38 by Lise JaillantLise Jaillant
In 1931, the Modern Library series reprinted Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop and sold it for only ninety-five cents.1 For Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, the young owners of the Modern Library, this was a victory after years of unsuccessful attempts to include Cather titles in their series. However, Archbishop stayed only five years in the Modern Library. At Cather's insistence, Alfred Knopf, the original publisher, refused to renew the contract, and Cerf and Klopfer had to drop the novel from their list. While Sharon O'Brien has argued that "Willa Cather possessed canonical status during the 1920s only to lose it in the 1930s" (111), my essay contends that some of Cather's works became canonical in the early 1930s-when these texts were included in cheap series of reprints such as the Modern Library and Houghton Mifflin's Riverside Library, and marketed to a large audience of students and their professors. As John Guillory puts it, "canonicity is a function of the reproduction of a work over time, and the market for such reproduction is the school" (53 n5). The canonicity of Archbishop and other Cather titles was indeed the product of the education system (the principal canon maker for Guillory) but also of reprint series, which made these titles easily available to the school market. At the time when the study of American literature was being institutionalized in universities, many instructors selected the inexpensive editions of Cather titles for classroom use. Cather's opposition to such dissemination of her fiction had long-term consequences: As she was increasingly attacked by a new generation of Marxist critics, Cather made little attempt to reach the academics that continued to admire her work. She was competing with other American writers whose novels were easily available in the Modern Library and other cheap series, and yet, she underestimated the importance of these series in canon making. © 2013 Project MUSE.



  • The Arts, English and Drama


  • English and Drama

Published in

Studies in the Novel






476 - 499


JAILLANT, L., 2013. Canonical in the 1930s: Willa Cather's death comes for the archbishop in the modern library series. Studies in the Novel, 45(3), pp. 476-499.


© 2013 The Johns Hopkins University Press


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This article first appeared in Studies in the Novel, 45(3), 2013, pp. 476-499. the definitive version can be found at:





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