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Willa Cather: A Hidden Voice

Philip L. and Helen Cather Southwick Collection, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries
Willa Cather with a fellow passenger aboard the SS Noordland on her way to Europe, June 1902

In her imagination, Cather was always revisiting her past. In life, she found it difficult to go back home, as she says in this letter to her brother Douglass in 1916:

I want to stay at home for a month or two, if it is agreeable to everybody, but I won’t stay after I begin to get on anyone’s nerves. I shall always be sorry that I went home last summer, because I seemed to get in [it?] 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…. Be sure to meet me somewhere if you can. I think you’ll find me easier to get on with. Time is good for violent people.

The often turbulent relationship with her family parallels her mixed feelings for her natural subject, the landscape and people of the American Midwest and Southwest. There are vivid examples of this tension in these letters, common to writers—Mansfield, Joyce, Lawrence—who have left their home landscape behind them and then return to it compulsively in their writing. Here she is writing in 1912, from Arizona, to her dear friend, also a writer, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, while she is working on O Pioneers! It is sixteen years since she has left the Midwest for Pittsburgh and New York:

“Bigness” is the subject of my story. The West always paralyzes me a little. When I am away from it I remember only the tang on the tongue. But when I come back [I] always feel a little of the fright I felt when I was a child. I always feel afraid of losing something…. I never can entirely let myself go with the current; I always fight it just a little…. It is partly the feeling that there are so many miles—wait till you travel ’em!—between you and anything, and partly the fear that the everlasting wind may make you contented and put you to sleep. I used always to be sure that I’d never get out, that I would die in a cornfield. Now I know I will get out again, but I still get attacks of fright.

Where she “got out” to—newspaper offices in big eastern cities—is very fully illustrated here. We get a lively picture of her as a professional editor and writer in her twenties and thirties. She writes some tough letters to would-be contributors, and some proud letters about her own efficiency. To Roscoe, in 1910, she wrote:

From Sept. 1908 to Sept 1909, the first year that I have had charge of the magazine, we made sixty thousand dollars more than the year before. I say “we”; I don’t get any of the money, but I get a good deal of credit.
Watch for the March number, I’ve taken such pains with it.

In that context, we feel the full force of her decision, in her late thirties, under the influence of her journeys to the Southwest and the advice of Sarah Orne Jewett, to jump free at last of the day job and dedicate herself only to writing. The correspondence with Jewett is a well-known part of Cather’s story, but it is still moving to be able to read the 1908 letter to Jewett that describes how “deadening” and “diluted” and “superficial” her work in journalism makes her feel: “I feel all the time so dispossessed and bereft of myself.”

As her sense of confidence and her reputation as a writer strengthened, so her opinions and directives about how her work should be treated became more definite. She was given to emphatic pronouncements about her own work: “It’s the heat under the simple words that counts”; “I never did like stories much, and the older I grow the less they interest me.” From the huge success of My Ántonia in 1918, to the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours in 1923, the ecstatic reception for Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1927, the big sales for her last novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl in 1940, and the endless anthologizing of late stories such as “Neighbour Rosicky,” Cather was, for over twenty years, one of the most admired and most read novelists in America.

She was extremely fastidious about how her work should reach her public. She was demanding from the start with Ferris Greenslet, her editor at Houghton Mifflin: “I think this book [O Pioneers!] ought to be pushed a good deal harder.” Much irritation was to come: “You’ve never given me a cover I’ve liked.” “I have to insist on an occasional use of the subjunctive mode, and the copy-reader belongs to that ferocious band who are out to exterminate it along with the brown-tailed moth.”

Eventually she left Greenslet for Knopf, whom she felt was much more sympathetic to her kind of work. She had a proper pride in her achievement. She complained about her trawl of honorary degrees and literary prizes as interruptions to her writing life, but she liked them, too. When she went to get a degree from Columbia University in 1928 she boasted to her mother, touchingly: “I really got a great deal more applause than any one else.”

She could be brusque and cross about modern America, its vulgarity, its advertising, its ridiculous creative writing classes: “Nothing whatever should be done to stimulate literary activity in America!” But not belonging was also an imperative for her: she deeply wanted to preserve the independence she needed to write her books. She wrote to Dorothy Canfield Fisher:

My familiar spirit is like an old wild turkey that forsakes a feeding ground as soon as it sees tracks of people—especially if the people are readers, book-buyers. It’s a crafty bird and it wants to go where there aint no readers.

These are not witty, dramatic, especially stylish, or startlingly revealing letters. They are often taken up with details of family or professional business of interest only to Cather devotees. But they are absorbing, and often moving, because they show, over and over again, what matters to her. They are concerned with an extraordinary range of people, from the Bohemian women farmers of Red Cloud or the Mexicans in the Arizona railway towns to Tomáš Masaryk, president of Czechoslovakia, or the young Yehudi Menuhin. They are full of her passions: for Housman’s poetry and his English Shropshire landscape, for Robert Frost, for Paris and Provence and Italy, for the big Nordic Wagnerian opera singer Olive Fremstad, for the soft rolling Nebraskan landscape of her childhood, above all for the country of the Southwest, the mesas and the deserts, where she placed some of The Song of the Lark, the central part of The Professor’s House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop: “a country that drives you crazy with delight.”

She is a writer who took a long time to find her way but who, once she started, knew exactly what she wanted to do and how to do it. There are some misunderstandings about her own writing. She is sentimentally overattached to her war novel, One of Ours, and rates it more highly than she should; she thinks better of The Song of the Lark than anyone else, because it has so much personal feeling in it. But mostly she knows what she is doing, and how and why—for instance in this sentence to an old Red Cloud friend about The Professor’s House: “It was such a satisfaction to me to have you read [the book], dear Irene, and to see that you got at once the really fierce feeling that lies behind the rather dry and impersonal manner of the telling.” Or here, to Alfred Knopf, of A Lost Lady:

It’s a little, lawless un-machine made thing—not very good construction, but the woman lives—that’s all I want. I don’t care about the frame work—I’ll make any kind of net that will get, and hold, her alive.

The letters show her concern for authenticity, for creating real figures, for shaping memory into imaginative art, for classical austerity, and for a transparency of language. Every so often the voice of the books, that wonderful voice that mixes rigor and tenderness, harshness and longing, precision and breadth, comes through in these emphatic, practical letters. Here she is writing in 1927, to her English friend Stephen Tennant, harking back to her essay “The Novel Démeublé” of 1922, where she wrote about the need to empty the fictional room of furniture and aim at simplicity:

Nearly all my books are made out of old experiences that have had time to season. Memory keeps what is essential and lets the rest go. I am always afraid of writing too much—of making stories that are like rooms full of things and people, with not enough air in them.

And here she writes to a very old Red Cloud friend, Carrie Miner Sherwood, in 1934, about My Ántonia, speaking of the anecdote that inspired the suicide of Mr. Shimerda in the novel:

As for Antonia, she is really just a figure upon which other things hang. She is the embodiment of all my feeling about those early emigrants in the prairie country. The first thing I heard of when I got to Nebraska at the age of eight was old Mr. Sadalaak’s suicide, which had happened some years before. It made a great impression on me. People never stopped telling the details. I suppose from that time I was destined to write Antonia if I ever wrote anything at all.

She is echoing the voice of her narrator Jim Burden, who ends his story with these melancholy, elegiac, consoling words:

For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
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