This article locates the place of Willa Cather’s work in literary history by revealing its relation to a central tradition of aesthetics. If at times her work has seemed to waver between romanticism and realism, if today it seems destined to be associated with modernism, yet another set of terms is more appropriate for defining it: by pursuing the sentimental, Cather’s work produces an advanced form of the naive. These terms emerge from an aesthetic tradition that ranges from Friedrich Schiller through Hegel, Emerson, and Ruskin to Theodor Adorno. Applied across Cather’s work, they reveal a mode of perception in her narration that not only elucidates the dialectical relationship between her romanticism and modernism but also offers a dialectical perspective on the relationship between her elegiac tendencies and her visions of empire..

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