Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather - ed by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout

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 available to readers all over the world.

This is how Andrew Jewell & Janis Stout begin their Introduction to this volume of the letters of Willa Cather. My first reaction was to think, Well, they would say that, wouldn't they? Then again, if I was going to take the high moral ground, I would have closed the book immediately & returned it to the library the next day. Instead, I read every word & loved it. Jewell & Stout go on to write that Cather may have wanted to prevent the reputation of her work being overshadowed by her private life. She was always careful to protect the two most important emotional relationships of her life, with Isabelle McClung & Edith Lewis, from prying eyes. As it is, very little of Cather's correspondence with either woman survives. In this book of over 600pp, there are only a couple of short notes or postcards to each of them. She also left the ultimate decision about publication in the future to her Executors & Trustee. Jewell & Stout believe that "These lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation." which is certainly true.

Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1875 & moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska as a child. After attending university in Lincoln, Nebraska, she worked as editor of McClure's magazine in New York, travelled several times to Europe &, more productively for her fiction, to Arizona, New Mexico & Quebec. While working at McClure's, she began publishing her own work & working on the magazine, often filling the pages herself, was a wonderful apprenticeship. She remained close to her parents & her elder brothers, Roscoe & Douglass; girlhood friends such as the Miner sisters; fellow writers, especially Dorothy Canfield Fisher, & her publisher, Alfred Knopf. All these relationships are well-represented in the letters.

Cather's growing reputation led to correspondence with readers & critics which often leads to fascinating stories about the origins of her novels. The friendship with singer Olive Fremstad that was the inspiration for The Song of the Lark; her memories of her immigrant neighbours in Red Cloud that inspired stories like The Bohemian Girl & the novels O Pioneers! & My Àntonia. The trip to New Mexico & her reading about the French Catholic missionaries that became Death Comes for the Archbishop; the childhood memory of a day at her grandmother's house in Virginia that was the beginning of Sapphira and the Slave Girl. She was also interested & knowledgeable about every aspect of the production, presentation & promotion of her work from the font type & size, the bindings & illustrations to the copy written by the publicity department of her first publisher, Houghton Mifflin.

Cather lived in New York for many years but always tried to leave the city during the heat of summer. She had several favourite places, from Jaffrey, New Hampshire to Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, where she & Edith Lewis owned a cottage. She also spent considerable time in France & New Mexico.

The editors have left Cather's wayward spelling as a young girl alone & it gives a picture of  impetuous enthusiasm about books, music & the theatre as well as an intense interest in everything that was happening to friends & family. Although her spelling improves, her love of literature & music is with her all her life. Cather was a loyal & generous friend, never forgetting S S McClure, who had given her the opportunity of editing his magazine. She also went home to Nebraska frequently & always remembered friends & neighbours at Christmas & especially during the hard times of the Depression years. Her own success meant that she had the ability to help in practical ways as well as with kind thoughts & sympathy.

I always enjoy reading about the elements that go into fiction & the way that writers can take the seed of a story from life, a scene briefly glimpsed, a person known in childhood & transform it into something new. Cather explained to her friend Carrie Miner Sherwood about the characters in her story, Two Friends,

You never can get it through peoples heads that a story is made out of an emotion or an excitement and is not made out of the legs and arms and faces of one's friends or acquaintances. Two Friends, for instance, was not really made out of your father and Mr Richardson; it was made out of an effect they produced on a little girl who used to hang about them. The story, as I told you, is a picture; but it is not the picture of two men, but of a memory. Many things about both men are left out of this sketch because they made no impression on me as a child; other things are exaggerated because they seemed just like that to me then. January 27, 1934

I also enjoyed her responses to critics' opinions of her work. Margaret Laurence wrote a chapter on Cather's work &, in a letter to Carrie Sherwood, Cather praises Laurence for her understanding of her craft,

She seems to understand that I can write successfully only when I write about people or places which I very greatly admire; which, indeed, I actually love. The characters may be cranky or queer, or foolhardy and rash, but they must have something in them which gives me a thrill and warms my heart. June 28, 1939

She also had trenchant views about the value of trying to teach creative writing (in a letter to Egbert Samuel Oliver, who had written to her asking for her views),

I think it is sheer nonsense to attempt to teach "Creative Writing" in colleges. If the college students were taught to write good, sound English sentences (sentences with unmistakable articulation) and to avoid hackneyed woman's-club expressions, such as "colorful", "the desire to create", "worth while books", "a writer universally acclaimed" - all those smug expressions which really mean nothing at all - then creative writing would take care of itself. December 13, 1934

Cather's last years were made difficult by ill health. She damaged her right wrist & this restricted her ability to work. She writes that she learned to dictate her letters but could never dictate her work. She also had several operations. The deaths of those close to her, especially her parents, her brothers & Isabelle McClung, hit her very hard. She writes movingly of the loss of her father (& Dorothy's mother) & the ill-health of her mother to Dorothy Canfield Fisher,

But these vanishings, that come one after another, have such an impoverishing effect on those of us who are left - our world suddenly becomes so diminished - the landmarks disappear and all the splendid distances behind us close up. These losses, one after another, make one feel as if one were going on in a play after most of the principal characters are dead. September 30, 1930

This feeling intensified as those closest to her died, especially those who were far away. Isabelle McClung was living in France with her husband, Jan Hambourg, when she died of kidney disease in 1938. Cather wrote to her niece, Margaret,

Isabelle knew very little about books, but everything about gracious and graceful living. We brought each other up. We kept on doing that all our lives. For most of my life in Pittsburgh (five years) Isabelle and, I think, your father (Cather's brother, Roscoe), were the only two people who thought there was any good reason for my trying to write ... Isabelle has always been my best and soundest critic ... I have sent Isabelle every manuscript before I published (part missing?) were always invaluable. Her husband is returning to me three hundred of my letters which she carried about with her from place to place all the time. She had lived abroad for fourteen years, but I often went to her, and in mind we were never separated. Now we have no means of communication; that is all. 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. November 8, 1938

Reading an author's letters always takes me back to the work & I've been rereading some of Cather's short stories. I bought this Virago edition of the stories, edited by Hermione Lee, in the late 1980s. I've read The Bohemian Girl, Two Friends, A Wagner Matinée & Coming, Aphrodite! & will probably go on to read the rest of the book, as well as the novels I haven't yet read.


  1. This sounds wonderful. I love Cather's thoughts on writing.

    1. It was so interesting to read how she wrote her books, where the inspiration came from & how involved she was with the production etc.

  2. I love Willa Cather and this has been on my wish list for ages. Great review. I wonder what she would have really thought about the decision to publish her letters?

    1. I think she'd have been horrified but I think she also realised that, ultimately, she would have no control over what happened to them in the future. She must have destroyed over 300 letters to Isabelle that her husband returned to Cather after her death. There's certainly no trace of them now.