Edith Wharton and Willa Cather write
Edith Wharton and Willa Cather while writing. Courtesy of The Willa Cather Foundation

Willa Cather and Edith Wharton’s books overlap and communicate with each other through narratives, themes and characters, according to a New York author. 

Julie Olin-Ammentorp, author of “Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and the Place of Culture,” discussed her book, the lives of the two beloved authors and answered questions during a virtual book talk held by the Willa Cather Foundation on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m.

Olin-Ammentorp is a professor of English and the director of Gender and Women’s Studies at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. She also serves on the National Willa Cather Center’s board of governors.

“Despite their status and popularity, they have rarely been studied together,” Olin-Ammentorp said. “That is because they are looked at as very different, both socially and geographically.” 

In the book, she talks about the lives of two authors and how they are more similar than people believe. 

“There is some legitimacy with the class and status differences, but it has distracted people from the connections of their works and their lives as a whole,” she said. “Teaching the two novels during my classes nudged me to look at them together stylistically.”

Olin-Ammentorp’s book, “Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and the Place of Culture,” is a comparative study of both Wharton and Cather which combines biographical, historical and literary analysis with a focus on place and aesthetics. It reveals the two authors’ parallel experiences of dislocation, their relationships to each other as writers and the similarities of their fictional stories. 

“They shared many literary views and articulated their stories in the same way,” she said. “Cather had times where she wrote like Wharton and vice versa. There are even moments in their novels when you see Wharton’s novel step into Cather’s and communicate the same points and narratives between themes and characters.” 

According to Olin-Ammentorp, the authors’ novels even communicate with one another. 

“In many ways, their books provide perfect examples that sometimes, books talk to each other,” she said. “Their works really resonate with each other and respond to the narratives within their created stories.”

Olin-Ammentorp spoke about the importance of geographical place in relation to both Wharton and Cather, and how the places heavily affected their writing style, book characters and storylines. 

“Place is often disregarded in novels,” Olin-Ammentorp said. “But both authors experienced the struggle of changing geographical places from a young age, and they used this personal experience in their novels to create storylines that relied heavily on where the characters were located and how that affected them.” 

She is the author of a variety of books, a member of the Board of Governors of the Willa Cather Foundation and a past president of the Edith Wharton Society. She teaches a wide range of topics in American literature , — including “Literary Paris,” “Literary New England,” “Women as Art/Women as Artists,” and “American Ethnic Literatures,” — and she has a passion for women in literature, especially Edith Wharton and Willa Cather.

Olin-Ammentorp continues to teach about Wharton and Cather’s lives and the importance of place to authors and their novels.

“Where things happen is critical to know why and how things happen,” Olin-Ammentorp said.

Ashley Olson, executive director of the Willa Cather Foundation, opened up the book talk with excitement about the engaged group of listeners, even with the talk being a virtual format.

“I love seeing many familiar faces as well as those attending for the first time,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see such a strong audience.”

olin ammentorp - Willa Cather and Edith Wharton enthusiasts virtually learn about beloved authors
Julie Olin-Ammentorp, author of Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and the Place of Culture. Courtesy of The Willa Cather Foundation
ADPR and Journalism double major from Norfolk, Ne.