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The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

Willa Cather



  The letters of Willa Cather copyright © 2013 by The Willa Cather Literary Trust

  Introduction, annotation, commentary, and compilation copyright © 2013 by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada, Limited, Toronto.

  eBook ISBN: 978-0-307-95931-7

  Harcover ISBN: 978-0-307-959300-0

  Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Cather, Willa, 1875–1947.

  The selected letters of Willa Cather / edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.—1st ed.

  p. cm.

  “This is a Borzoi book.”

  ISBN 978-0-307-95930-0 (hardcover)—ISBN 978-0-307-95931-7 (ebook)

  1. Cather, Willa, 1873–1947—Correspondence.

  2. Novelists, American—20th century—Correspondence.

  I. Jewell, Andrew (Andrew W.)

  II. Stout, Janis P. III. Title.

  PS3505.A87Z48 2013 813′.52—dc23

  [B] 2012036882

  Cover photograph: Willa Cather in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, 1920s, probably taken by Edith Lewis. Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries.

  Cover design by Megan Wilson

  Manufactured in the United States of America




  Title Page



  Note on Editorial Procedures


  PART ONE The School Years: 1888–1896

  PART TWO The Pittsburgh Years: 1896–1906

  PART THREE The McClure’s Years: 1906–1912

  PART FOUR Finding Herself as a Writer: 1912–1916

  PART FIVE Becoming Well Known: 1916–1918

  PART SIX A Change of Publishers and One of Ours: 1919–1922

  PART SEVEN Years of Mastery: 1923–1927

  PART EIGHT Years of Loss: 1928–1931

  PART NINE A Troubled Time: 1932–1936

  PART TEN Years of Grieving: 1937–1939

  PART ELEVEN The Culmination of a Career: 1940–1943

  PART TWELVE The Final Years: 1944–1947

  Biographical Directory

  Note on Archives Holding Original Cather Materials

  Note on Works Cited and Consulted


  Photographic Credits

  A Note About the Editors

  Other Books by This Author


  BEFORE WILLA CATHER DIED, she did what she could to prevent this book from ever existing. She made a will that clearly forbade all publication of her letters, in full or in part. And now we flagrantly defy Cather’s will in the belief that her decision, made in the last, dark years of her life and honored for more than half a century, is outweighed by the value of making these letters available to readers all over the world.

  Why did she put such restrictions in her will? Various answers have been proposed. Some believe that Cather was guarding her privacy, perhaps worried that the letters she dashed off over the years, not thinking of herself as a public figure, would compromise her literary reputation. Some have wondered if she sought to conceal a secret buried in her years of correspondence, some sign of an indiscretion or uncontrolled passion. Many people, following James Woodress’s characterization of her in Willa Cather: A Literary Life, are convinced that Cather was obsessed with her privacy and that the will—together with her supposed systematic collecting and burning of letters—was simply an expression of a personality seeking to control all access to itself. Many have believed she actually did burn all her letters, or almost all, and the will was a kind of backstop.

  Our research on Willa Cather’s letters calls into question all of these assumptions about Cather, her character, and her motivations. Except for an isolated incident or two, there is no evidence that she systematically collected and destroyed her correspondence. This claim is overwhelmingly demonstrated by the large volume of surviving documents: about three thousand Cather letters are now known to exist, and new caches continue to appear. If Cather or Edith Lewis, her partner and first literary executor, really and systematically sought to destroy all correspondence, would so many letters have survived? Moreover, at the end of Cather’s life, people who were quite close to her and would have undoubtedly known about any preference for wholesale destruction did not destroy the letters in their possession; on the contrary, they were concerned, as her niece Virginia Cather Brockway wrote, to be “very careful of everything of Aunt Willies” and protect it from “fire or something unexpected.”1 Indeed, some of the largest and richest collections of existing Cather letters are those that have been protected for decades by members of her family. The episodes of destruction that have given rise to the supposition that Cather destroyed her letters—for example, Elizabeth Sergeant’s report in her memoir that all of the letters Cather wrote to her dear friend Isabelle McClung Hambourg were shoved into her apartment’s incinerator after Hambourg’s death2—appear to be isolated incidents rather than part of a larger pattern of obliteration.

  Nevertheless, Cather’s testamentary restriction on the publication of her letters was clearly driven by a desire to restrict the readership of them. We do not believe that desire emerged from a need to shield herself or protect a secret, but instead was an act consistent with her long-held desire to shape her own public identity. In her maturity, Cather was a skillful self-marketer, and a major element of her marketing strategy was to limit her publicly available texts to those she had meticulously prepared. She did not fill shelves with hastily written novels or fleeting topical essays, but toiled over each book until it succeeded to the best of her ability. Sometimes she delayed the publication of a novel by months or even years in order to achieve her artistic goals. She even contributed to the design of the physical books, considering each element that might communicate something of her work to the reader. She specified her margin preferences for My Ántonia, had ideas about the font type for Death Comes for the Archbishop, and thwarted most efforts to create paperback editions during her lifetime. Her strategy was extremely successful. By positioning herself not as a “popular” writer but as a literary artist, she was able to give herself the space to be such an artist while also financially succeeding in the marketplace. Her lovely, quiet, episodic novel about seventeenth-century Quebec, Shadows on the Rock, was one of the top-selling books of 1931. It was not a success because readers were rushing to read a novel about colonial Canada, but because the novel was written by the celebrated author Willa Cather.

  We can guess that Cather may have believed that an edition of her letters would shift focus away from her novels and onto her private self. She was impatient with writers who managed to sell their books by constructing dramatic images of themselves. Although she did at times contribute to publicity efforts by providing stories of her early life, her goal was to create a persona that practically disappeared behind the work; she sought to meld the art and the artist into one indivisible package. She wrote to her brother Roscoe in 1940 that she was satisfied to do what James M. Barrie and Thomas Hardy did: they “left no ‘representatives’ but their own books,—and that is best.”3 In this way, the resistance to the publication of her letters was consistent with her resistance, in her later years, to lecturing, interviews, and other forms of exposing her self to the public.

>   Cather’s suppression of the publication of her letters may indeed have helped cement her reputation as a true artist, and today that reputation is virtually unchallenged. In the nearly seven decades since her death, her works have continued to be read, studied, and celebrated, and both general readers and contemporary writers as diverse as A. S. Byatt and David Mamet celebrate her fine artistry and her absolute dedication to her craft. And rightly so: many of Cather’s novels and stories are among the finest writings of the twentieth century, rich and complex in their meaning-making, yet elegant and pristine on their surfaces. She manages both to enchant readers with her prose and to move them with her insights into human experience.

  We fully realize that in producing this book of selected letters we are defying Willa Cather’s stated preference that her letters remain hidden from the public eye. But even her will itself envisions a moment when her preferences would not rule the day; acknowledging her inability to govern publication decisions indefinitely from beyond the grave, it leaves the decision for publication “to the sole and uncontrolled discretion of my Executors and Trustee.”4 Observing this part of Cather’s will, Norman Holmes Pearson noted more than half a century ago that the document recognizes “certain difficulties in regard to the future.” “The future must make its own decisions,” he wrote. “All Miss Cather could do was to make the future as remote as possible.”5

  The concerns that we believe motivated her to assert her preference are no longer valid. Cather’s reputation is now as secure as artistic reputations can ever be, and her works will continue to speak for themselves. These lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation. Instead, we can see from our twenty-first-century perspective that her letters heighten our sense of her complex personality, provide insights into her methods and artistic choices as she worked, and reveal Cather herself to be a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being. Such an identity is far more satisfying—and more honest—than that of a “pure” artist, unmoved by commercial motivations, who devoted herself strictly to her creations and nothing else.

  In the past—unless they were lucky enough to have sufficient resources of time and money to travel to the almost seventy-five archives that house the letters themselves—readers and scholars interested in Cather’s life and works were able to read only summaries and paraphrasings of her letters, not her actual words. Having ourselves summarized thousands of letters for the original or the expanded Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather, we can attest to the inadequacy of such paraphrases. Substituting our words (or anyone else’s) for Cather’s own expressions of her meaning is never satisfactory. Secondhand approximations can never precisely convey what she said herself. Could a summary ever communicate the cheeky, alliterative fun of a postscript like “Fremstad flees on Friday to the inclement wood of Maine,” at the end of a 1914 letter to Elizabeth Sergeant?6 Cather’s restrictions in her will, then, by making paraphrases the only option available to scholars and biographers, created a situation that even Cather herself would surely consider far worse than the publication of her letters. Readers have been forced to encounter what she “said” in her letters through words supplied by scholars seeking to convey what they understood her to mean. Now we will all be able to read and interpret her letters for ourselves. We will also be able to draw more accurate connections between the letters and the fiction. By forcing a delay of many years in publishing a volume of her letters, Cather’s restrictions did, however, ensure that there is no longer any possibility of harming or embarrassing the people who appear in her correspondence.

  Cather is now a part of our cultural history. Her works belong to something greater than herself. It is time to let the letters speak for themselves.

  BECAUSE OF THE PREVALENCE of Nebraska settings in her fiction, most readers know Willa Cather as a Nebraskan. In fact, she was born in Virginia and spent her childhood on a sheep farm near the town of Winchester. She told University of Virginia professor Stringfellow Barr in 1928, “I always feel very deeply that I am a Virginian.”7 She was nine years old in April of 1883 when her family moved to Webster County, Nebraska, where they joined other family members who had gone before. It was an enormous change to go from the green hills of northern Virginia, where the family had been established for generations, to the nearly treeless prairie of central Nebraska. In a 1913 interview in the Philadelphia Record, Cather recalled the jolt of her arrival:

  I shall never forget my introduction to it. We drove out from Red Cloud to my grandfather’s homestead one day in April. I was sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on to the side of the wagon box to steady myself—the roads were mostly faint trails over the bunch grass in those days. The land was open range and there was almost no fencing. As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything—it was a kind of erasure of personality.

  I would not know how much a child’s life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been jerked away from all these and thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron. I had heard my father say you had to show grit in a new country, and I would have got on pretty well during that ride if it had not been for the larks. Every now and then one flew up and sang a few splendid notes and dropped down into the grass again. That reminded me of something—I don’t know what, but my one purpose in life just then was not to cry, and every time they did it, I thought I should go under.

  For the first week or two on the homestead I had that kind of contraction of the stomach which comes from homesickness. I didn’t like canned things anyhow, and I made an agreement with myself that I would not eat much until I got back to Virginia and could get some fresh mutton. I think the first thing that interested me after I got to the homestead was a heavy hickory cane with a steel tip which my grandmother always carried with her when she went to the garden to kill rattlesnakes. She had killed a good many snakes with it, and that seemed to argue that life might not be so flat as it looked there.8

  Some of the first people she became acquainted with had immigrated to the Great Plains from Sweden, Norway, and Bohemia. These people were extremely interesting to her. She said in the same interview, “I have never found any intellectual excitement any more intense than I used to feel when I spent a morning with one of those old women at her baking or butter making. I used to ride home in the most unreasonable state of excitement; I always felt as if they told me so much more than they said—as if I had actually got inside another person’s skin.”

  These immigrant women—and others she knew in Webster County and the town of Red Cloud, Nebraska—would remain in Cather’s memory and imagination until the end of her life. They populate much of her fiction. Indeed, the town of Red Cloud, where Cather lived from about age eleven until not quite seventeen, when she went away to school in Lincoln, served as a model for many small towns in her fiction: Black Hawk, Moonstone, Sweet Water, Hanover, Skyline, Haverford. Her life there as a child, reinforced by many long visits home over the years, made Red Cloud central to Willa Cather’s life and self-conception.

  When she went to Lincoln, to the University of Nebraska, in 1890, she planned to study science (she had befriended some of the doctors in Red Cloud and on one occasion reportedly helped administer chloroform during an amputation); however, she soon turned to writing and literature, editing the campus literary magazine and writing for the Nebraska State Journal. Her columns and reviews for that newspaper, which she began with gusto at age nineteen, started her on her first career as a journalist. After graduating from college, she got a job as the managing editor of a national magazine, the Home Monthly, and in 1896 moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After the magazine collapsed, she worked for Pittsburgh newspapers and then as a high school teacher, spending nearly a decade in Pittsburgh in all. In 1906 she moved to New York City to join the editorial staff of McClure’s Magazine. She soon became managing edi
tor of this highly popular and important periodical and, until she left the position in 1912, was arguably one of the most powerful women in journalism.

  She left McClure’s because what she really wanted to do was to be a professional writer. During her years in Lincoln, Pittsburgh, and New York (which remained her permanent address until her death in 1947), she wrote and published many short stories in magazines, published a book of poems (April Twilights), and released a book of short fiction (The Troll Garden). Her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, appeared in 1912, the same year as her long short story “The Bohemian Girl.” These two successes in the same year, along with a life-changing trip to the American Southwest, led to O Pioneers!, the 1913 novel that she said “was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding.”9 After O Pioneers! Cather dedicated her working life to writing. Between 1913 and 1940 she published fourteen books, many of which—My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor’s House—are considered among the finest works of American literature. All of her novels and collections are engaging, ambitious works of art. She was honored with a Pulitzer Prize, a Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Prix Femina Americain, numerous honorary doctorates, and many other awards. She became, and remains, one of the most eminent of American writers.

  Throughout her working years, Cather led an active, cosmopolitan life. She loved theater and, especially, music, devoting much time (and much of her fiction) to music, singers, actors, and actresses. She traveled to Europe many times, and, a lifelong Francophile, stayed for extended periods in France. She traveled often to Arizona and New Mexico, to New England, and to Canada. She loved to go horseback riding and hiking in the open country. In the 1920s, she and Edith Lewis purchased the only property she ever owned: a cottage on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy. This little cottage near a cliff that overlooked the Atlantic became an important refuge for Cather, a private space away from the congestion and heat of New York City.