Reviews — From the May 2013 issue

Making a Scene

Willa Cather’s correspondence

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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.”

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

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