Browsings — April 17, 2013, 9:00 am

The Lady in Rose-Colored Glow

Willa Cather’s sole surviving full letter to Edith Lewis

The Selected Letters of Willa CatherBelow is the only known surviving full letter from Willa Cather to Edith Lewis, excerpted from The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (Knopf), edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. In 1906, Cather rented a room in Lewis’s house in New York, and the pair lived together until Cather’s death. In her May 2013 review of Cather’s letters, Christine Smallwood writes:

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. . . . Erotic life is seldom simple.

Two of Cather’s short stories are also available in the Harper’s Magazine archive.

Sunday 4:30 P.M. [October 5, 1936]
Shattuck Inn, Jaffrey, New Hampshire 

My Darling Edith;

I am sitting in your room, looking out on the woods you know so well. So far everything delights me. I am ashamed of my appetite for food, and as for sleep — I had forgotten that sleeping can be an active and very strong physical pleasure. It can! It has been for all of three nights. I wake up now and then, saturated with the pleasure of breathing clear mountain air (not cold, just chill air) of being up high with all the woods below me sleeping, too, in still white moonlight. It’s a grand feeling.

One hour from now, out of your window, I shall see a sight unparalleled — Jupiter and Venus both shining in the golden-rosy sky and both in the West; she not very far above the horizon, and he about mid-way between the zenith and the silvery lady planet. From 5:30 to 6:30 they are of a superb splendor — deepening in color every second, in a still-daylight-sky guiltless of other stars, the moon not up and the sun gone down behind Gap-mountain; those two alone in the whole vault of heaven. It lasts so about an hour (did last night). Then the Lady, so silvery still, slips down into the clear rose colored glow to be near the departed sun, and imperial Jupiter hangs there alone. He goes down about 8:30. Surely it reminds one of Dante’s “eternal wheels”. I can’t but believe that all that majesty and all that beauty, those fated and unfailing appearances and exits, are something more than mathematics and horrible temperatures. If they are not, then we are the only wonderful things — because we can wonder.

I have worn my white silk suit almost constantly with no white hat, which is very awkward. By next week it will probably be colder. Everything you packed carried wonderfully — not a wrinkle. And now I must dress to receive the Planets, dear, as I won’t wish to take the time after they appear — and they will not wait for anybody.


I don’t know when I have enjoyed Jupiter so much as this summer.

Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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More from Willa Cather:

From the January 1917 issue

A gold slipper

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October 2015

Lives by Omission

Lifting as We Climb

Cattle Calls

Getting Jobbed

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