Reviews — From the May 2013 issue

Making a Scene

Willa Cather’s correspondence

Download Pdf
Read Online

Discussed in this essay:

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. Knopf. 720 pages. $37.50.

From an early age Willa Cather had a talent for making a scene. When an elderly judge dropped in at the family farm in Virginia and dared to address her in the cutesy tones he thought suitable for little girls, she corrected him straight away: “I’se a dang’ous nigger, I is!” In her teenage years she cut her hair short, took to wearing boys’ clothes, and began calling herself William Cather Jr., sometimes promoting herself to the more august William Cather, M.D. Christened Wilella at birth, she gave herself the nickname Willa, though later in life it didn’t satisfy. The creator of Ántonia, Thea, and Sapphira confessed to a fan in 1936 that “if I had known, when I first began to write, that my name would be printed about a good deal, I would certainly have changed it to Mary or Jane, or Janet.”

Willa was always in a hurry to grow up. As a child and adolescent in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a town about a hundred miles west of Lincoln, she formed her closest relationships with cultivated adults — the music teacher, the doctors, the local shop clerk who taught her Latin and liked to tinker in his home laboratory. Her earliest surviving letter, which she wrote at the age of fourteen, explains to an adult neighbor why she preferred the lab to the classroom. “Here I am ‘Miss Cather’ & govern, there I am a child & am governed,” she wrote. “That makes a great difference with frail humanity.”

“Frailty” was a complicated notion for the author of My Ántonia, Song of the Lark, and The Professor’s House, novels about tough pioneer women, ferociously single-minded artists, and rugged railwaymen and adventurers. For it’s not the individual Cather recognizes as frail — it’s humanity itself. Late in life, she recollected her family’s 1883 move from Virginia to the Nebraska Territory. The wagon rolled over an endless blank landscape, and she felt something like an “erasure of personality.” At the homestead, her grandmother’s steel-tipped hickory cane, used for stabbing rattlesnakes, caught her eye. “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.” From one point of view humanity is frail, even erasable. But like a pencil, a good sharp stick is enough to drum up a little interest.

While an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, Cather became the drama critic for the Nebraska State Journal. As the Journal’s managing editor remembered it, she had a reputation for “biting frankness.” When a production starring Lillian Lewis came to town in 1895, she asked, “and how was it with the rural, robust queen, the royal Kleopawtra? Miss Lewis walks like a milkmaid and moves like a housemaid.” Nor did Cather reserve her ire for the actors. The New York World, she complained in October 1894, “possesses two of the best dramatic critics in the country, but it also possesses a young woman who needs the worst kind of boycotting.” And lest the audience think itself safe . . . “The most obnoxious person at the theatre, after the woman with the crying baby, is the man who wants his neighbors to understand that he appreciates the play.”

It was backstage in a Pittsburgh theater, in Lizzie Hudson Collier’s dressing room, that Cather met her first great love, Isabelle McClung, daughter of a prominent local family and a supporter of the arts. The nature of Cather’s relationships with Isabelle and her second love, Edith Lewis, has caused scholars and critics a great deal of worry. First they gave us a prudish, spinsterish Cather; then an out-and-proud Cather. Now it’s thought that Cather was a woman who exclusively enjoyed the intimate company of other women, though she probably would not have recognized her sexuality as lesbian in the modern sense. Readers will not find it terribly useful to imagine her as a “closeted” person looking to be liberated. Cather’s biographers are not sure that she ever had sex, and despite her close friendship with the flaming dandy Stephen Tennant — one of Siegfried Sassoon’s lovers — she disapproved of Oscar Wilde’s “infamy.” She had few kind words for other female writers. Erotic life is seldom simple.

Cather worked as an editor in Pittsburgh and then as a high school English teacher, publishing stories and poetry, and in the spring of 1901 she moved into the McClung family home. Willa and Isabelle traveled together to France and England and seem to have been very happy together until the muckraking editor S. S. McClure, a fan of Cather’s fiction, asked her to come to New York to take a position at McClure’s magazine. She moved east in 1906, leaving Isabelle behind in Pittsburgh, and quickly worked her way up to managing editor. She began by renting a room in the house of her friend Edith Lewis — the two had met in Lincoln back in 1903 — and they lived together until Cather’s death. Edith was the classic literary wife. She even got a job as a proofreader at McClure’s, where she worked on all of Cather’s copy.

In 1916 Isabelle married the violinist Jan Hambourg, an event Cather found devastating. “Isabelle has married a very brilliant and perfectly poisonous Jew,” she wrote to her brother Roscoe. “Not one of her old Pittsburgh friends can endure him. Nice situation for me.” She eventually accepted Jan and visited and traveled with the Hambourgs many times, both with Edith and without. Throughout her life she wrote frequently and lovingly, and somewhat longingly, of Isabelle, who was one of the first to take Cather seriously as a fiction writer. (When she lived with the McClungs, they gave her a special writing room.) She took a leave from McClure’s in 1911 to finish her first novel, and never returned to the office.

More formative than the writing of that novel, Alexander’s Bridge — which Cather later dismissed as “very shallow” — was the trip she took while on leave to Santa Fe, where her brother Douglass was living. “Those weeks off in the desert with my big handsome brother — six feet four, he is — and his wild pals, are weeks that I shall never forget,” she explained to McClure.

They took all the kinks and crumples out. I feel as if my mind had been freshly washed and ironed, and were ready for a new life. I feel, somehow, confident; feel as if I had got my second wind and would never torture my self about little things (like the ART DEPARTMENT!) again.

As a priest says in Cather’s late novel Shadows on the Rock, “No man can give himself heart and soul to one thing while in the back of his mind he cherishes a desire, a secret hope, for something very different.”

Cather has often been praised for restraint, even as her novels meander, sometimes formlessly, toward sudden emotional cliffs. Her sense of irony is modern and almost amoral. (She agreed with Rebecca West’s assessment that “[D. H.] Lawrence is the Puritan reformer, for all he’s habitually indecent, and I am the Pagan, for all I’m stupidly decent!”) Cather treats the terrors of adulthood — regret, separation, the price of ambition, compromise — as well as its consoling friendships unsensationally and plainly. She is one of the many canonical American authors who ought never to be assigned to high school students — they will only think she is boring, and they will be right, insofar as to an adolescent the perspective of middle age is and ought to be a dull one. Even as a young woman Cather wrote looking into the rearview mirror. She wanted to grow up fast, and she did.

Until now, researchers have been permitted to read the archive of her correspondence but have not been allowed to quote it, resulting in scholarly wars of paraphrase as heated as they are absurd. Edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather is therefore a major event — though not one that reveals the author to have been among the wittiest or most entertaining correspondents in the American tradition. All but four pieces of correspondence she wrote to Isabelle and Edith were destroyed. The other 716 pages are replete with updates on her whereabouts, writing progress, and health issues. On the occasions when Cather divulges a negative opinion or a smidge of gossip, she urges her correspondent to a level of secrecy more often associated with state subterfuge. The steamiest moment is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to fun times with her college crush Louise Pound: “I am pretty well now,” she writes to a friend,

save for sundry bruises received in driving a certain fair maid over the country with one hand, sometimes, indeed, with no hand at all. But she did not seem to mind my method of driving, even when we went off banks and over hay stacks, and as for me — I drive with one hand all night in my sleep.

She added, “You can read all of this letter to Ned and Frances except the last part, as I dont [sic] wish to corrupt them by spooniness.”

But it’s not Cather’s spooniness that could corrupt a modern reader — it’s her personality. Her letters are pushy, annoying, affectionate, overbearing, frankly immodest, and falsely modest. They brim with wide-eyed gosh-me self-promotion, health complaints, the occasional paranoiac insight (for color), and insults (for the recipient’s own good). The playwright and poet Zoë Akins comes in for the worst of it. “If I told you I liked [your new book of poems] as much as I like your first book of verse written long ago, you’d know I was lying. For you yourself know it’s not so good.” Having gotten the poetry out of the way, she tells Zoë not to “play into [the] hands” of the New York reviewers who have it in for her by publishing any kind of credo or manifesto. And forget about waiting to be defended by her powerful friend.

If one is consistently silent where one’s own self is concerned, one must be silent when one’s friends are attacked. They reflect one’s point of view, one’s admirations — to speak for them is, in a manner, to speak for one’s self.

Akins’s response? She sent flowers.

Well into her thirties Cather was exuberant, tripping over her own heels with crushes — on opera singers, actresses, and the handsome Mexican guide named Julio she met on her first trip to the Southwest. She also played the grande dame of a circle of fans and protégés, including the grateful Akins, the journalist Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Tennant, and, of course, accommodating Edith herself. Cather and Edith traveled to the Southwest and Paris, among other places, but Edith was never invited to the family home in Red Cloud.

Greatness never precluded self-pity. “I shall always be sorry that I went home last summer,” Cather wrote to her brother Douglass in 1916,

because I seemed to get in wrong at every turn. It seems not to be anything that I do, in particular, but my personality in general, what I am and think and like and dislike, that you all find exasperating after a little while. I’m not so well pleased with myself, my dear boy, as you sometimes seem to think. Only in my business one has to advertise a little or drop out — I surely do not advertise or talk about myself as much as most people who write for a living . . . I can’t see how it would help any of my family any if I lay down on my oars and quit that rough-and-tumble game.

She goes on, promising not to “sit around and weep” if Douglass is “grouchy”; she vows selflessly, “I won’t expect too much.” She insists that she’s changed for the better: “I’ve grown a good deal milder in the last year . . . Three friends died during the winter . . . perhaps the disapproval I got at home last summer has been good for me. I am quite a meek proposition now, I can tell you.” At the end she twists the knife: “I only hope I’m not so spiritless I won’t be able to make a living.”

Keep in mind that Douglass was, along with Roscoe, one of her favorite siblings. (Willa was the eldest of seven, but these three were closest in age and shared the attic bedroom when they were children.) If you think things with Douglass were difficult, consider what it was like with her little sister Elsie. In 1945 Cather confided to Roscoe’s widow: “An old friend of mine who lives in Lincoln wrote me ‘why does Elsie let her jealousy of you spoil her life? It has become an obsession with her, and embarrasses her friends.’ ”

Though Cather’s work was initially well received by critics, she became increasingly press-shy, wounded by the likes of Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson. Her fiction was not on the vanguard of the left; it ignored urban-industrial masses; it was not obviously experimental; it was unfashionable. And then there was the other reason to want privacy. Take an episode from 1924, when the newspaper in Red Cloud was full of rumors that the Cather family was hiding a local woman, Marjorie Anderson, who was afraid that her husband, who had abandoned her, would return. Cather told her mother that

all that newspaper publicity about Margie was harder on me than on any of the rest of you, and it was needless. If you hadn’t been so foolish about never letting anyone see her, there would have been no “mystery.” But that is past and gone. I wasn’t angry about it. I thought you had been unwise, and the result of your mistaken judgment made a good deal of ugly talk about me.

In their introduction, Jewell and Stout argue that Cather’s clear wish never to publish her letters had to do not with a principle of privacy or a need for secrecy but with “her desire to shape her own public identity.” If Willa or Edith had really tried to destroy the record, they write, “would so many letters have survived?” Such logic is self-serving. A savvy Cather who wants to be in control of her “brand” is a Cather we can know. A Cather who might fear exposure is more distant to us, and an ambivalent Cather, who wants to have her privacy but doesn’t go so far as to torch everything in her wake, is inconveniently inconsistent.

They are right that Cather liked steering her publishing machine. She was good at it. She was trained as an editor, after all, and always retained an editorial sensibility. She had definite ideas about jacket copy and typefaces. She dealt with art departments and publicity departments. She lived with a woman who had worked her way up from proofreader to assistant managing editor to professional advertising copywriter, and she knew a thing or two about what sold. “I am not wholly happy about the cover [of The Song of the Lark],” she wrote passive-aggressively to Ferris Greenslet, her publisher at Houghton Mifflin, “but I shan’t be stubborn about it. You’ve never given me a cover I’ve liked. I’ve only borne them patiently.” Two years later she dropped the act: “Do let me know when you come to New York. I want very much to talk to you about the physical make-up of the next book. I want to try something a trifle new in color of the binding and jacket.” She did try something new: she published it with Alfred A. Knopf, with whom she had a close and amiable relationship for the rest of her career.

Cather had the feminine talent for a sideways attack. “I am very stupid in business matters,” she wrote insincerely, or diplomatically, in a letter informing her English publishers that she had switched houses. When she had a complaint for Greenslet about the Riverside Press edition of My Ántonia, she didn’t mention it until the postscript. “This seems a foolish personal request to make when I really care so little about personal things just now,” she wrote (in reference to the war). But:

I was shocked to find on what poor, thin paper the book is now printed. The trouble is that since the letters on page 5 show through the paper and cloud the text on page 6, the book is now very hard to read.

Cather had plenty of readers to worry about. Her books, even her short-story collections, were bestsellers, and in 1931 she had been featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Being an audience brought her pleasures as profound as having an audience. As she wrote to Elsie Sergeant of her trip to Maine with the opera singer Olive Fremstad, a source (along with Cather herself) for the singer in The Song of the Lark:

While I was in Fremstad’s camp we did things every mortal minute except when we were asleep, and even then I dreamed hard. She fished as if she had no other means of getting food; cleaned all the fish, swam like a walrus, rowed, tramped, cooked, watered her garden. I was not much more than an audience — very little help, but it was the grandest show of human vigor and grace I’ve ever watched. I feel as if I’d lived for a long while with the wife of the Dying Gladiator in her husky prime, in deep German forests.

She described Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian Nobel Laureate in Literature, as

just all a great woman should be — and on a giant scale. She is a wonderful cook, a proficient scholar and has the literature of four languages at her fingers [sic] ends. There is nothing about wild flowers and garden flowers that she doesn’t know, and she is able to make plants thrive and bloom in her very humble and gloomy little hotel rooms. . . . She combines in herself the nature of an artist, a peasant, and a scholar. She is cut on a larger pattern than any woman I have ever known, and it rests me just to sit and look at the strength that stood unshaken through so much. Of course, of her son’s murder in a German concentration camp, she never speaks.

Do not read that “of course” as a “but” — silence, whether tactful or traumatized, is part of Undset’s greatness in Cather’s eyes. It is typical of Cather that not speaking the major story of one’s life would be a sign of strength. She was always faithful to the credo of “the thing unnamed,” which she laid out in her essay “The Novel Démeublé”:

Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there — that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.

She mentioned something similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who feared Cather would think he had stolen aspects of her novel A Lost Lady in his portrait of Daisy Buchanan. “I suppose everybody who has ever been swept away by personal charm tries in some way to express his wonder that the effect is so much greater than the cause,” she assured him. “After all, the only thing one can tell about beauty, is just how hard one was hit by it.”

In Cather’s thing unnamed, modernism and Mallarmé meet the strong, silent American type. With reason, it has become an idée fixe in the criticism on Cather, used to justify reading her work for queer themes and again not reading her work for queer themes. What’s important about the unnameable or the enigmatic is not that it separates Cather from the world but that it brings her closer to the world and to other people. “One can never tell the why of particular affinities,” she wrote to Roscoe. Why was Isabelle an object of beauty and desire? Why Edith? Why Olive? Cather’s fiction is unrelentingly scathing on the subjects of social obligations and norms, including marriage, praising instead “the double life” or “secret self.” But this secret self always comes out through original contact with another self; when left alone, as in The Professor’s House, it becomes nihilistic, suicidal. Her best novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, contains hangings, near-starvation, Indian wars, blizzards, and the gold rush, but Cather uses the word “adventure” to describe something at once far quieter and more consequential: the moment the two priests first meet as children. “There was something about the baker’s son that had given their meeting the colour of an adventure.”

Cather measures lifetimes by intensity of feeling; the things that matter may last only a few weeks, or a summer. A certain amount of solitude, though, is necessary to intimacy. As Father Hector puts it in Shadows on the Rock, “Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship. Others have their family; but to a solitary and an exile his friends are everything” — they provide “the feeling of being with one’s own kind.” This is why the friendships in her novels so often occur between musicians, who are bound by their pursuit of beauty, or between priests. (Cather was not a Catholic, and had a Catholic friend check her manuscripts to make sure she had the details right.) As she matured, she was increasingly drawn to characters who also forgo conventional attachments, who are entirely devoted to their vocation, and whose work provides sufficient compensation for whatever loneliness or isolation they endure. “To fulfill the dreams of one’s youth,” one bishop says to the other in Death Comes, “is the best that can happen to a man.”

Cather is a pastoral writer, but her Arcadia is not a place; it’s a moment, guarded by the people who lived it with her. “We brought each other up,” Cather wrote of Isabelle after the catastrophe of her death. “One can never form such a friendship twice. One does not want to. As long as she lived, her youth and mine were realities to both of us.” This is why partings, breakups, estrangements, and death are so difficult to bear. “Things happen to our friendships; that’s the worst about living,” the singer Sebastian says to his beloved student in the novel Lucy Gayheart. “Young people can’t know what it means.” To lose a friend is always to lose part of oneself.

Cather was an aesthete who did not surround herself in luxury. She did not need a lot, but she liked for things to be of high quality; she liked them to be useful, and to last, and be kept well. This is a persistent theme in her novels: Bishop Latour “had a very special way of handling objects that were sacred [and] extended that manner to things which he considered beautiful.” As a seventeenth-century French colonist thinks in Shadows on the Rock,

These coppers, big and little, these brooms and clouts and brushes, were tools; and with them one made, not shoes or cabinet-work, but life itself. One made a climate within a climate; one made the days — the complexion, the special flavour, the special happiness of each day as it passed; one made life.

Things, like friends, are the keepers of what used to be. This is just what her old crush Julio, the Mexican guide, didn’t understand about Cather’s passion for the lost Pueblo towns. “Cliff Dwellers bore him awfully,” she confided to Elsie Sergeant. “ ‘Why,’ he says raising his brows, ‘do you care for Los Muertos? We are living.’ ”

In 1927, a new subway line exiled Cather and Lewis from their home on Bank Street; they kept an address at the Grosvenor Hotel for five years, until they found a place on Park Avenue. Cather liked to write in New Hampshire and traveled in Canada, France, and California. Still, she enjoyed coming home. “I remember the pleasure Willa Cather got from being reunited with all the rather humble things buried so long in storage vaults, and also in getting a few new furnishings for the new apartment,” Edith wrote in her memoir of their life together. As for Willa, she celebrated the publication of The Professor’s House — a novel in which the masculine scholar Godfrey St. Peter excoriates the shallow materialism of his daughter, and whose climax comes when he finally abandons the hope of having anything to live for at all — by purchasing a fur coat. “Professor St. Peter has just gone and bought me a grand mink coat!” she gushed to her friend Irene. “Isn’t he extravagant?” She intended to take good care of this coat. She asked Irene’s husband, an insurance agent, to come round at the end of the week. “I’m afraid I’ll lose it just because it’s the first ‘valuable’ I’ve ever had.”

I am afraid that I have a rather bad reputation in my family,” the sixty-seven-year-old Cather wrote to Roscoe, “a reputation for howling about my ills.” Not that there weren’t things to howl about. She was hospitalized for a month for blood poisoning she got from a hatpin scratch. She spent three weeks in the hospital for a sore throat that never turned all the way to quinsy. In 1940, three days autographing 500 books left her with an inflamed tendon in the thumb, from which she never quite recovered. It caused another three weeks in the hospital, and she eventually had to wear a large metal glove that reached up to her elbow. For the last years of her life, writing longhand was very painful. Since she couldn’t compose her fiction by dictation, the doctors advised her never to write her own letters or even sign her name, and to preserve all her strength for her manuscripts.

Then her gallbladder and appendix had to be removed.

I weighed one hundred and twenty-six pounds when I went into the hospital and I came out weighing a little under one hundred and ten. For most of the month of August and all of September, I was lying in bed, in the apartment, too ill to move, and the heat was outrageous. To make matters worse, it rained every day.

For the archbishop, death is the great culmination, in which every image returns and one sees everything and everyone that has been: “There was no longer any perspective in his memories . . . he sat in the middle of his own consciousness.” But where imagination runs ahead, inside the eye of eternity, letters run out. Cather died, quickly, of a cerebral hemorrhage, at home in April 1947. The collection ends with a new voice. The last letter is from niece Virginia to her mother Meta, Roscoe’s widow, and it’s more mundane than magisterial. Edith had upset Elsie by choosing a Unitarian minister for the funeral. “However she felt better when she saw that he wore a very rich & elaborate vestment. She thought they were against such trappings.” There is high Victorian comedy in this scene. Cather, who always loved Thackeray, would have liked reading it.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year. Or purchase this issue on your iOS or Android devices for $6.99.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Single Page
’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Mental Weather,” appeared in the November 2012 issue.

More from Christine Smallwood:

New books From the September 2015 issue

New Books

New books From the July 2015 issue

New Books

Reviews From the May 2015 issue

New Books

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada


October 2015

Lives by Omission

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Lifting as We Climb

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cattle Calls

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Getting Jobbed

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Please enjoy this free article from Harper’s Magazine.