Reviews — From the May 2013 issue

Making a Scene

Willa Cather’s correspondence

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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.

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


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