Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

See more online stores - The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

Buy now from Random House

See more online stores - The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

Buy now from Random House

See more online stores - The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

Written by Willa CatherAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Willa Cather
Edited by Andrew JewellAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Andrew Jewell and Janis StoutAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Janis Stout

eBook

List Price: $19.99

eBook

On Sale: April 16, 2013
Pages: 752 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95931-7
Published by : Knopf Knopf
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
  • Email this page - The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
  • Print this page - The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE PRAISE
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

**Time Magazine 10 Top Nonfiction Books of 2013**

Willa Cather’s letters—withheld from publication for more than six decades—are finally available to the public in this fascinating selection. The hundreds collected here range from witty reports of life as a teenager in Red Cloud in the 1880s through her college years at the University of Nebraska, her time as a journalist in Pittsburgh and New York, and her growing eminence as a novelist. They describe her many travels and record her last years, when the loss of loved ones and the disasters of World War II brought her near to despair. Above all, they reveal her passionate interest in people, literature, and the arts. The voice is one we recognize from her fiction: confident, elegant, detailed, openhearted, concerned with profound ideas, but also at times sentimental, sarcastic, and funny. A deep pleasure to read, this volume reveals the intimate joys and sorrows of one of America’s most admired writers.

Excerpt

Introduction

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 avail- able 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.” (See the full letter from Virginia Cather Brockway to Meta Schaper Cather on page 676.)
 
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 Ham- bourg’s death (Elizabeth Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992) 275) —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” (See page 588). 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” (Willa Cather, will dated April 29, 1943, Paragraph Seventh). 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” (Norman Holmes Pearson, “The Problem of Literary Executorship,” Studies in Bibliography 5 (1952–53), 8).
 
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. Second- hand 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 (See page 190)?
 
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 some- thing 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” (See page 413). 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 inter- view 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 (“Willa Cather Talks of Work,” in Willa Cather in Person, ed. L. Brent Bohlke (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 10).
 
 
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 editor 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.” (Willa Cather, “My First Novels (There Were Two),” in Willa Cather on Writing (Lincoln, NE: Univer- sity of Nebraska Press, 1988), 93). 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.
 
As the letters in this collection reflect, Cather was sustained throughout this extraordinary life by many deep and long-lasting relationships. She was close with certain members of her family, especially her parents, her brothers Douglass and Roscoe, and several nieces and nephews. She maintained friendships from her early years in Red Cloud, Lincoln, and Pittsburgh for many years and also enjoyed new friendships. Though some of the people she befriended were fellow luminaries, like Robert Frost, Sarah Orne Jewett, Yehudi Menuhin, S. S. McClure, and Alfred Knopf, she seemed to get the deepest satisfaction out of old friends with whom she shared a long history. Unfortunately, the two relationships that were likely the most profound in her adult life—Isabelle McClung Hambourg and Edith Lewis—are not well rep- resented in her correspondence. Only a small handful of letters from Cather to these two women are known to survive.
 
Though the missing letters to Lewis and McClung Hambourg are a disappointing gap in the record, we are incredibly lucky in the range and richness of Cather letters that did survive. Thanks to the stewardship of dozens of archives around the world (please see note about archives, page 691) thousands of letters written by Willa Cather are now available to us. The attitudes, emotions, and voice of Cather’s letters are as diverse as one would expect from any human being over the course of sixty years. Yet in another way, there is a consistency of personality throughout all of them, a tang of Cather’s character that one can sense in all of her prose. It is difficult and perhaps fruitless to try to define this quality, but one might call it frankness or self-possession. Cather is always vitally herself, even when she confesses anxious self-consciousness, and in spite of her habit of writing falsehoods about trivial matters. Her voice in her letters, as in her fiction, emerges from an emotional and intellectual commitment to what it is she has to say. Her writing is not pretentious and does not seem, as Cather said about the work of another writer, “as if she were packing a trunk for someone else, and trying conscientiously to put everything in” (See page 517). Instead, when reading Cather’s letters one can feel the force of a vibrant, individual personality deeply interested in things.
 
Cather herself identified this ability to be interested as the source of her strength as a writer. In a 1938 letter to her brother Roscoe, she wrote, “As for me, I have cared too much, about people and places—cared too hard. It made me, as a writer” (See page 561). What she called in the same letter “the heat under the simple words” is present throughout her correspondence, from the funny reports of Red Cloud life she wrote when she was a teenager in the 1880s to the painful letters of the 1940s when she despaired at her own worn-down body and the heartbreaking destruction of a world at war.
The voice of Cather’s correspondence is in many ways strikingly consistent with the voice of her fiction: it is confident, elegant, detailed, openhearted, and concerned with profound ideas without relying on heavily philosophical language. In other ways, the style of her voice in the correspondence is significantly different than the polished voice of her fiction: one senses that the letters are Cather’s voice without the refinement of the revision process. The letters sometimes reveal Cather as a rather histrionic character. Her correspondents get regular tirades about poor health, challenges of work and housekeeping, and exhaustion. She can be, in modern parlance, a drama queen. This results in claims that are not measured or deliberate, but instead made for dramatic rhetorical effect. For example, in a 1916 letter to her brother Douglass, she discusses some conflict she had with him and the rest of her family and huffs, “I think I’ve had my belting, and it has taken the fizz out of me all right—and I’ll tell you this, it’s positively shipwreck for work. I doubt whether I’ll ever write anything worth while again. To write well you have to be all wrapped up in your game and think it awfully worth while. I only hope I’m not so spirit- less I won’t be able to make a living” (See page 225). But Cather’s hyperbole, though it can be misleading—another letter written on the same day to a different brother reveals excitement about an idea for a new novel—is not exactly dishonest. Rather, it is consistent with her straightforward emotional experience of the world.
 
 “I am sure you realize,” she wrote Carrie Miner Sherwood in 1945, “that things have always hit me very hard. I suppose that is why I never run out of material to write about. The inside of me is so full of dents and scars, where pleasant and unpleasant things have hit me in the past. . . . Faces, situations, things people said long ago simply come up from my mind as if they were writ- ten down there. They would not be there if they hadn’t hit me hard” (See page 647). She felt things keenly, and her letters are one of the chief records she left of that feeling. In some respects, that is what makes Cather’s letters such a pleasure to read. She is wrapped up in whatever emotion she wished to communicate: when she is angry, she lets fly with specific, strongly worded scoldings that almost make one wince; when she is ill, one practically feels the pain and lethargy with her; and when she is excited, when she is consumed with the pleasure of creative work, or when she wants to let someone know that she cares deeply for them, the glow of that emotion is felt, even across all these years. That is, in the end, why Cather’s letters should be published. She was a great writer, and these words of hers deserve readers.
 
--
 
TO ROSCOE CATHER
 
Thanksgiving Day [November 28, 1918]
New York City
 
My Dear Roscoe:
 
Your nice letter deserved a speedy answer. I am so glad that you and father and mother liked this book. Most of the critics, too, seem to find this the best book I have done. I got quite a wonderful letter about it from France today, and it will be published in France very soon. Personally, I like the book before this one better, because there is more warmth and struggle in it. All the critics find “Antonia” more artistic. A man in the Nation writes that “it exists in an atmosphere of its own—an atmosphere of pure beauty.” Nonsense, its the atmosphere of my grandmother’s kitchen, and nothing else. Booth Tarkington writes that it is as “simple as a country prayer meeting or a Greek temple—and as beautiful.” There [are] lots of these people who can’t write anything true themselves who yet recognize it when they see it. And whatever is really true is true for all people. As long as one says “will people stand this, or that?” one gets nowhere. You either have to be utterly common place or else do the thing people don’t want, because it has not yet been invented. No really new and original thing is wanted: people have to learn to like new things.
 
[Unsigned]
 
Cather’s quotations in the letter above are a bit of a mystery. The passage she claims to quote from the Nation does not appear in the review published there on November 2, 1918, and no published or unpublished remarks about My Ántonia by Booth Tarkington have been located. However, Tarkington does use the comparison “as simple as a country church—or a Greek statue” in a letter to S. S. McClure praising McClure’s Autobiography (see Lyon, p. 347).
Introduction
􏰎􏰧
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 avail- able 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.” (See the full letter from Virginia Cather Brockway to Meta Schaper Cather on page 676.)
 
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 Ham- bourg’s death (Elizabeth Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992) 275) —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” (See page 588). 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” (Willa Cather, will dated April 29, 1943, Paragraph Seventh). 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” (Norman Holmes Pearson, “The Problem of Literary Executorship,” Studies in Bibliography 5 (1952–53), 8).
 
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. Second- hand 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 (See page 190)?
 
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 some- thing 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” (See page 413). 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 inter- view 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 (“Willa Cather Talks of Work,” in Willa Cather in Person, ed. L. Brent Bohlke (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 10).
 
 
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 editor 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.” (Willa Cather, “My First Novels (There Were Two),” in Willa Cather on Writing (Lincoln, NE: Univer- sity of Nebraska Press, 1988), 93). 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.
 
As the letters in this collection reflect, Cather was sustained throughout this extraordinary life by many deep and long-lasting relationships. She was close with certain members of her family, especially her parents, her brothers Douglass and Roscoe, and several nieces and nephews. She maintained friendships from her early years in Red Cloud, Lincoln, and Pittsburgh for many years and also enjoyed new friendships. Though some of the people she befriended were fellow luminaries, like Robert Frost, Sarah Orne Jewett, Yehudi Menuhin, S. S. McClure, and Alfred Knopf, she seemed to get the deepest satisfaction out of old friends with whom she shared a long history. Unfortunately, the two relationships that were likely the most profound in her adult life—Isabelle McClung Hambourg and Edith Lewis—are not well rep- resented in her correspondence. Only a small handful of letters from Cather to these two women are known to survive.
 
Though the missing letters to Lewis and McClung Hambourg are a disappointing gap in the record, we are incredibly lucky in the range and richness of Cather letters that did survive. Thanks to the stewardship of dozens of archives around the world (please see note about archives, page 691) thousands of letters written by Willa Cather are now available to us. The attitudes, emotions, and voice of Cather’s letters are as diverse as one would expect from any human being over the course of sixty years. Yet in another way, there is a consistency of personality throughout all of them, a tang of Cather’s character that one can sense in all of her prose. It is difficult and perhaps fruitless to try to define this quality, but one might call it frankness or self-possession. Cather is always vitally herself, even when she confesses anxious self-consciousness, and in spite of her habit of writing falsehoods about trivial matters. Her voice in her letters, as in her fiction, emerges from an emotional and intellectual commitment to what it is she has to say. Her writing is not pretentious and does not seem, as Cather said about the work of another writer, “as if she were packing a trunk for someone else, and trying conscientiously to put everything in” (See page 517). Instead, when reading Cather’s letters one can feel the force of a vibrant, individual personality deeply interested in things.
 
Cather herself identified this ability to be interested as the source of her strength as a writer. In a 1938 letter to her brother Roscoe, she wrote, “As for me, I have cared too much, about people and places—cared too hard. It made me, as a writer” (See page 561). What she called in the same letter “the heat under the simple words” is present throughout her correspondence, from the funny reports of Red Cloud life she wrote when she was a teenager in the 1880s to the painful letters of the 1940s when she despaired at her own worn-down body and the heartbreaking destruction of a world at war.
The voice of Cather’s correspondence is in many ways strikingly consistent with the voice of her fiction: it is confident, elegant, detailed, openhearted, and concerned with profound ideas without relying on heavily philosophical language. In other ways, the style of her voice in the correspondence is significantly different than the polished voice of her fiction: one senses that the letters are Cather’s voice without the refinement of the revision process. The letters sometimes reveal Cather as a rather histrionic character. Her correspondents get regular tirades about poor health, challenges of work and housekeeping, and exhaustion. She can be, in modern parlance, a drama queen. This results in claims that are not measured or deliberate, but instead made for dramatic rhetorical effect. For example, in a 1916 letter to her brother Douglass, she discusses some conflict she had with him and the rest of her family and huffs, “I think I’ve had my belting, and it has taken the fizz out of me all right—and I’ll tell you this, it’s positively shipwreck for work. I doubt whether I’ll ever write anything worth while again. To write well you have to be all wrapped up in your game and think it awfully worth while. I only hope I’m not so spirit- less I won’t be able to make a living” (See page 225). But Cather’s hyperbole, though it can be misleading—another letter written on the same day to a different brother reveals excitement about an idea for a new novel—is not exactly dishonest. Rather, it is consistent with her straightforward emotional experience of the world.
 
 “I am sure you realize,” she wrote Carrie Miner Sherwood in 1945, “that things have always hit me very hard. I suppose that is why I never run out of material to write about. The inside of me is so full of dents and scars, where pleasant and unpleasant things have hit me in the past. . . . Faces, situations, things people said long ago simply come up from my mind as if they were writ- ten down there. They would not be there if they hadn’t hit me hard” (See page 647). She felt things keenly, and her letters are one of the chief records she left of that feeling. In some respects, that is what makes Cather’s letters such a pleasure to read. She is wrapped up in whatever emotion she wished to communicate: when she is angry, she lets fly with specific, strongly worded scoldings that almost make one wince; when she is ill, one practically feels the pain and lethargy with her; and when she is excited, when she is consumed with the pleasure of creative work, or when she wants to let someone know that she cares deeply for them, the glow of that emotion is felt, even across all these years. That is, in the end, why Cather’s letters should be published. She was a great writer, and these words of hers deserve readers.
 
--
 
TO ROSCOE CATHER
 
Thanksgiving Day [November 28, 1918]
New York City
 
My Dear Roscoe:
 
Your nice letter deserved a speedy answer. I am so glad that you and father and mother liked this book. Most of the critics, too, seem to find this the best book I have done. I got quite a wonderful letter about it from France today, and it will be published in France very soon. Personally, I like the book before this one better, because there is more warmth and struggle in it. All the critics find “Antonia” more artistic. A man in the Nation writes that “it exists in an atmosphere of its own—an atmosphere of pure beauty.” Nonsense, its the atmosphere of my grandmother’s kitchen, and nothing else. Booth Tarkington writes that it is as “simple as a country prayer meeting or a Greek temple—and as beautiful.” There [are] lots of these people who can’t write anything true themselves who yet recognize it when they see it. And whatever is really true is true for all people. As long as one says “will people stand this, or that?” one gets nowhere. You either have to be utterly common place or else do the thing people don’t want, because it has not yet been invented. No really new and original thing is wanted: people have to learn to like new things.
 
[Unsigned]
 
Cather’s quotations in the letter above are a bit of a mystery. The passage she claims to quote from the Nation does not appear in the review published there on November 2, 1918, and no published or unpublished remarks about My Ántonia by Booth Tarkington have been located. However, Tarkington does use the comparison “as simple as a country church—or a Greek statue” in a letter to S. S. McClure praising McClure’s Autobiography (see Lyon, p. 347).
Willa Cather

About Willa Cather

Willa Cather - The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
Willa Cather was probably born in Virginia in 1873, although her parents did not register the date, and it is probably incorrectly given on her tombstone. Because she is so famous for her Nebraska novels, many people assume she was born there, but Willa Cather was about nine years old when her family moved to a small Nebraska frontier town called Red Cloud that was populated by immigrant Swedes, Bohemians, Germans, Poles, Czechs, and Russians. The oldest of seven children, she was educated at home, studied Latin with a neighbor, and read the English classics in the evening. By the time she went to the University of Nebraska in 1891–where she began by wearing boy’s clothes and cut her hair close to her head–she had decided to be a writer.

After graduation she worked for a Lincoln, Nebraska, newspaper, then moved to Pittsburgh and finally to New York City. There she joined McClure’s magazine, a popular muckraking periodical that encouraged the writing of new young authors. After meeting the author Sarah Orne Jewett, she decided to quit journalism and devote herself full time to fiction. Her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, appeared in serial form in McClure’ s in 1912. But her place in American literature was established with her first Nebraska novel, O Pioneers!, published in 1913, which was followed by her most famous pioneer novel, My Antonia, in 1918. In 1922 she won the Pulitzer Prize for one of her lesser-known books, One of Ours. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), her masterpiece, and Shadows on the Rock (1931) also celebrated the pioneer spirit, but in the Southwest and French Canada. Her other novels include The Song of the Lark (1915), The Professor’ s House (1925), My Mortal Enemy (1926), and Lucy Gayheart (1935). Willa Cather died in 1947.
Praise

Praise

“This prodigious editorial feat gives readers a glimpse for the first time into the mind of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of O Pioneers! . . .  Throughout, Cather emerges as a humorous, profound, and difficult personality whose cosmopolitan life and commitment to crafting a successful public persona should challenge mis-conceptions.”—Publishers Weekly, Pick of the Week, starred review
 
“By turns effusive, despairing, mischievous, vain, and bighearted, Selected Letters unfolds like an epistolary autobiography, teeming with rich period detail and the savvy observations of a complicated artist at the height of her powers.”—Hamilton Cain, O Magazine
 
“A revealing, even revelatory collection of correspondence from Willa Cather . . . A splendidly edited, generous gift to lovers of Cather and American literature.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
 
“The editors maintain a fine balance, providing useful illustrative material, but knowing, too, when to fall silent and let Cather speak for herself. And speak she does, in a voice that’s alternately eloquent, determined, respectful, erudite, affectionate and wise—and sometimes cantankerous and cranky. Combined the letters compose a portrait of an artist, a woman who crafted some of the finest fiction of the 20th century. A writer to read—and never neglect.”—Dan Dyer, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
 
“If Selected Letters tells us something profound about Cather, it is this: She was too active, too interesting and too alive to keep herself a secret forever. It has always been inevitable that, one day, one way or another, this would be proven in Cather’s own words.”—Craig Chandler, The Daily News

"Jewell and Stout have performed a valuable service with this book, from which Cather emerges as a strong and vivid presence, a woman at once surprisingly modern and touchingly--if not always sweetly--old-fashioned. . . . As a pure prose stylist, she ranks with Hemingway; as a self-made American artist and feminist pioneer, she traveled a far greater distance--from tiny Red Cloud to Manhattan--than Fitzgerald did when he made the leap from middle-class St. Paul to Princeton. These letters bring her fuzzy image into much sharper focus, and for that we owe Jewell and Stout a debt of gratitude."--Tom Perrotta, Front cover, New York Times Book Review
 
 

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: