Posted: February 7, 2014
Willa Cather is an enduring figure in American letters—her works all in print, studied, anthologized, criticized, translated into many languages, and crowned with an impressive three-volume Library of America selection published from 1987 to 1992. A bestselling novelist during her lifetime, she appeared on the cover of Time in 1931. But as her reputation grew, some of the most notable American critics of their day—Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Louis Kronenberger, Granville Hicks, Maxwell Geismar, Clifton Fadiman, John Chamberlain (who wrote the introduction for William F. Buckley, Jr's God and Man at Yale), and more—could be counted among her detractors, a few of them ready to "go for me every time they can," as she saw it.
She did not believe in directly defending her work in print, although she did so indirectly at times, and that makes this magnificent and superbly edited selection of her letters especially valuable, for in many of them she reveals a great deal about her artistic aims, and takes on some of the criticism she received as well. Editors Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout present very good reasons for defying Cather's own stipulation that her letters not be published, and we can be very grateful that they do, for this collection is an absolute treasure. Not to make these exquisite compositions—full of color, insight, wisdom—widely available to Cather's readers would constitute a kind of literary crime. The more than 500 letters in this selection—spanning 1888, when she turned 15, to 1947, the year of her death—have been culled from about 3,000 or so that exist in archives around the world and that have been hitherto rendered for publication only in paraphrase. In them, she corresponds with people famous and obscure—family, friends, acquaintances, publishers, illustrators, musicians, artists, and other writers.
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Born in Virginia and later transplanted when still a child to the vast and level prairies of Nebraska, Cather grew up at a time when the frontier was still open, and when hard-working pioneers—often immigrants from Sweden, Norway, or Bohemia—struggled mightily to cultivate virgin land, as she depicts in two of her best loved novels, O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), which with The Song of the Lark make up her "prairie trilogy." The Song of the Lark appeared between these two books in 1915, and portrayed a young woman who rises from the immigrant prairie culture to become a famous opera singer. Not unjustifiably, many have seen Cather's own rise to prominence in that of her main character in that book, her own move from East to West constituting a kind of immigration in itself.
In Nebraska, Cather's father tried farming for a couple of years but transferred into insurance and mortgages when it proved too rough for him. The family, which grew to include six brothers and sisters after Willa, moved into the town of Red Cloud, where Cather lived until age 17 when she left for the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. After college she spent some time as an editor and a journalist, and then taught high school for a few years in Pittsburgh, living with the family of Isabelle McClung, a very close friend and avid supporter of her literary ambitions. Some of her very early writings of this period—poems, short stories, reviews—attracted the attention of S.S. McClure of the famous, muckraking McClure'smagazine. She moved to New York and served as his editor and mainstay from 1906 to 1912, when she left to devote herself to her fiction.
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In an article written years later Cather recalled a New York critic who voiced "a very general opinion" about her early novels when he said "I simply don't care a damn what happens in Nebraska, no matter who writes about it." But the novels of the prairie trilogy did garner elite approval from an earlier brace of critics, such as Randolph Bourne, Carl Van Doren, and even the acerbic H.L. Mencken, who saw them as a sign of American fiction coming into its own.
In the early years of the 20th century, the "novel of the soil" had not yet made its appearance in America, Cather explains. Polite fiction about smart people in upper class drawing rooms was the order of the day, in imitation of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Cather had taken her turn at this kind of fiction in her first try at a full length work, Alexander's Bridge (1912), which she virtually disowned when she found her true voice in O Pioneers!, her second "first" novel. She became the first writer to present immigrants in a rounded and human fashion in serious fiction, and she took pride in drawing readers toward something new by virtue of its truth. Even "people who can't write anything true themselves" can "recognize it when they see it," she writes in a letter. "And whatever is really true is true for all people."
Her allegiance to the truth of her experience was her guiding light, as these letters show. "I can write successfully only when I write about people or places which I very greatly admire; which indeed I actually love," when "people or places" have "taken hold of me in some very personal way. The characters may be cranky and queer, or foolhardy and rash, but they must have something in them which gives me a thrill and warms my heart." And, indeed, most of her characters were based on people she knew, or, later, whom she encountered, almost personally, in reading and research. And most of the important settings of her fiction are places to which she felt an intense and even mystical connection. "Nearly all my books are made out of old experiences that have had time to season," she writes. "Memory keeps what is essential and lets the rest go." And, she admits, "I do love to have my own folks like my stories." She reports with satisfaction that, of My Ántonia, the folks in Red Cloud said "yes, it was exactly like that; that is the way we remember it."
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This fidelity to the truth of experience as well as the openness, honesty, and generosity of her nature as evidenced in these letters force one to conclude that all that ink devoted in recent years to her supposed hidden homosexual inclination was a royal waste of time. These letters are anything but the product of a repressed or secretive person. Cather enjoyed life, cherished friendship, relished experience, travelled widely, and eagerly shared her responses to everything. And she was quite feminine—liked clothes and being well dressed (treated herself to a mink coat following the success of one of her books), took an interest in housekeeping (albeit with help when available), liked to entertain, and became a good cook. She enjoyed the company of men as well as women and evidently even had a couple of proposals of marriage. She didn't marry, but lived companionably with a friend, Edith Lewis, for a great part of her adult life.
Child of the prairie, she could also be the rugged outdoor girl. As an adult she roughed it on extensive camping and riding trips in the Midwest and in the very pre-touristy Southwest of the early 20th century, the landscape which figures importantly in The Song of the Lark and is the setting for Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Though she lived for years in Greenwich Village, she was anything but bohemian—to have to eat in one's parlor would be the height of wretchedness. She stayed close to her extended family, which eventually included a passel of nieces and nephews, and kept in touch with the people back home and with life on the prairie. She visited often, sent money, clothes, and even boxes of food to help people out in hard times. "I had to live among writers and musicians to learn my trade," she wrote, "but I do think my heart never got across the Missouri river." In response to lofty critical pronouncements about the "atmosphere" for My Ántonia, she retorted, "Nonsense, it's the atmosphere of my grandmother's kitchen, and nothing else."
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This is not to say that she was unsophisticated. She loved art, theatre, music, opera, Europe, and was friendly with many accomplished and cultivated people. Her personality and artistic aims differed from her time, however. It wasn't that she never had to struggle with her writing, but she could say that she wrote "for pleasure more than vanity" and objected to the "legend" that grew about her "of a pale creature who has sacrificed her life to art."
She didn't "want to be ‘literary,'" she asserted. "Here are a lot of people I used to know and love, sit down and let me tell you about them." Her concern was less for "clever writing" and more for "a simple and faithful presentation." Of the modernist experimentations of the time, she felt "these stunts, while they are very exciting, seem to leave nothing behind.... They go up, and out, like rockets." And, she notes, readers lap up the great European novels even in bad translations, so something other than formal perfection must be at work.
For her part, she developed a pure, uncluttered, "low tone" style, retaining what she considered "essential," and letting the rest go—"art simplifies," she insisted. It's a mesmerizingly simple style—quite modern in its own carefully chiseled way—that has put her on many a high school as well as college reading list. But she claims she "never conscientiously paid much attention to language," for "[w]hen one cares enough, the language for that feeling comes."
In fact, she had something of a disdain for the glittery literary scene of her day. She did not care for the idea of the artist as celebrity, such as "poor D.H. Lawrence," as she calls him—who trailed behind him a bevy of hangers-on, eager to exploit their proximity to him. She congratulated herself fairly late in her career for avoiding the things she "violently did not want...too much money, noisy publicity, the bother of meeting lots of people." She once broke her rule and attended a string of New York "literary" dinners, and was abashed at writers who think they have to "grin for a living."
When Pat Knopf, the son of Alfred Knopf, one of her publishers, ran away from home in the spring of 1937 after failing to gain admission to Princeton, Cather applauded. "I'm glad he is back again, but more glad that he ran away," she writes. Of what some might think an enviably advantageous background, Cather remarks: "There is good material in ‘Pat', but he has been under very poor teachers and had the misfortune in early boyhood to be thrown among a lot of very showy and rather clever people." ("Clever" is never a positive in Cather's lexicon.)
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But what was it that set off her "haters," as she calls them—an overly forceful word, since even her critics usually had to acknowledge her gifts. We can see already that she swam against a lot of the currents that began flowing in the 20th century, and that flowed ever more forcefully after the Great War.
To begin with, Cather was frankly patriotic and clearly believed in what came to be called American exceptionalism. "We can literally save Democracy—or lose it—for the whole world," she writes. When she speaks of the soldiers who poured into the city on their way home after the war, it is almost with a schoolgirl's enthusiasm:
[O]ne meets lots of them about now, in theaters and hotels, and oh Elsie [her friend and fellow writer Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant] they are so jolly and modest and amused at everything—so just all that one could want them to be. They are not conceited...and they don't think they won the war...the French boys were awfully fine fellows—but ours were so wonderfully, so unsuspectedly picturesque and they seemed so more alive than anything one had ever seen before!
"I do nothing but run around with soldiers," she reports, and she also visited the wounded at the Polyclinic Hospital in downtown Manhattan. "I have been seeing as much of them as I can. They like to talk to almost anyone who will talk to them about France."
One of Ours (1922) is the story of Claude Wheeler, a Nebraska farm boy who dies heroically in battle in France. It was based on the life and death of Cather's cousin, Grosvenor P. Cather, who never found his place in post-pioneer Nebraska, enlisted in the Army, died in battle, and "was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for bravely climbing a parapet and directing fire," as the editors inform us. This novel won her a Pulitzer Prize and was a bestseller, yet garnered the harshest criticism of her career to that time from the more sophisticated commentators. She was lambasted for glorifying death in war, for being ignorant of the realities of battle, and, to cut to the chase, for violating the reigning air of postwar disillusionment, as Joan Acocella details in Willa Cather and The Politics of Criticism (2000). And yet she clearly had hit on a truth that resonated with many people who were not ready to surrender to the futility coming across in other postwar novels and commentary. She still believed in and portrayed heroism when heroism was being painstakingly deconstructed, and many Americans were with her on that.
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Her answer in these letters to all the criticism is what it always is—what she wrote was the truth of the experience as she understood it; she wasn't writing a war novel but the story of this one boy; she really understood her cousin's life and death in that light, and labored mightily to render it real in fiction. And, indeed, this is borne out when she conveys her beautifully expressed sympathy to Grosvenor's mother, in the same vein as the novel, on the day of the Armistice, when bells were ringing all over the city.
Critics of One of Ours seem willing to concede that its first part is successful, set as it is in Nebraska and the prairie life that Cather knew so well, but they judge the second part concerning the war to be an aesthetic failure. This assessment needs to be challenged. One of Ours is a mesmerizingly magnificent novel, one of the best World War I novels I have ever read, perhaps the best. The early section is indeed powerful, but the parts set in Army life in America and in France are also vivid, convincing, and involving, and the development of Claude's interior life is unspeakably moving. Those hours spent talking with the boys really paid off, and I'd venture to say that not only did Cather capture the doughboy experience in its highs, lows, and in-betweens, but she may well have inspired later war novels. Cather was no fan of the new woman, either, and One of Ours contains one of the most devastating portraits of female selfishness, with a particularly modern twist, ever captured in fiction.
Be that as it may, the gap began to widen between her and her present moment, and more and more she was seen as old-fashioned, old-ladyish, overly genteel. In 1936 she published a collection of essays deliberately aimed at readers Not under Forty, in which she famously stipulated in a brief author's note, "The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts, and the persons and prejudices recalled in these sketches slid back into yesterday's seven thousand years." It's no accident of course that 1922 was the year of One of Ours and also the year she and her parents left the Baptist Church and became Episcopalians. (Religion is a quiet but clear presence in her life; she loved to recite the Nicene Creed to herself, thinking it through: "There is such authority and majesty in it.") That year also saw the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses and T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, exemplifying the most experimental aspects of literary modernism in English.
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Much of her subsequent work, all of it hugely successful with the public (and generally praised by more mainstream critics), looks to the past and directly or indirectly contrasts it with a meaner present. A Lost Lady (1923) portrays the decline of an honorable pioneering railroad man of the post-Civil War generation amidst a tawdry present. In The Professor's House (1925), the story of a college teacher who has lost the savor of life is interrupted for the insertion of an almost magical tale of a young man of the professor's acquaintance who years before discovered the ruins of an ancient civilization in the Southwest. Shadows on the Rock (1931) consists of vignettes about the implantation of French culture in 17th-century Quebec. And of course there was probably her greatest novel, the sublime Death Comes for the Archbishop, which appeared a few years before Shadows, and which, to the younger sophisticated critics, was about "[a] couple of old nineteenth-century priests riding their donkeys through the desert," as Acocella amusingly sums up their response.
Cather increasingly lost the favor of elite and intellectual opinion, the Freudians and the Marxists, exponents of those movements that helped usher in the modernist irony that would govern the century, always searching for the selfishness behind the morality that she still straightforwardly portrayed. But the feeling was mutual. You can almost catch the sting of the slap when she has to defend Sarah Orne Jewett and Louisa May Alcott from accusations of some kind of "sex-starvation." In a century that saw the "Freud fanatics," as she calls them, and other psychologizing forces dissolve the idea of virtue, she still prizes it, and quipped to a fellow writer that "the vanishing conception of Sin" will "leave people of our profession bankrupt." She admired character and her sense of character was unembarrassedly traditional. When she had to visit California on family matters, she observed dryly "that there are a great many idle, drifting, shallow people there."
In the ultra leftist 1930s she simply could not see the primacy of politics and economics. "One knows that our actual lives are very little made up of economic conditions," she writes.
They affect us on the outside, but they certainly are not what life means to you or to me or to the taxi driver, or to the elevator boys and hall boys (all of whom I know very well) in the house where I live.... Most, if not all of these students who burn with zeal to reconstruct and improve human society, seem to lose touch with human beings and with the individual needs and desires which make people what they are.
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Here is where the attacks on her really heated up. The Marxist (and sometime Communist Party member) critic Granville Hicks, charged that Cather had "fallen into supine romanticism because of a refusal to examine life as it is," and is thus unequal to "the task that has occupied most of the world's great artists, the expression of what is central and fundamental in her own age." Actually, Hicks seems a little nonplussed, in that he has to admit that Cather does not stint from showing the sometimes harsh and desolate reality of her characters' lives, yet still manages to preserve a certain integrity in them, and shows no inclination "to destroy and rebuild."
Cather understood the dark side, that "cruelty and rapacity," in Hicks's phrase, were part of life, and she portrays it vividly, but she sees beyond it. It cannot utterly negate what is best in human life, what still shines in the darkness. As she puts it, "the world has a habit of being in a bad way from time to time." The thing for the artist is to see properly, to
see that the straight thing and the crooked thing are not the same.... That mere perception is the thing that counts: without it human life would be too unutterably dull and filthy. If all the great "loyalties" are utter lies—why then, they are simply ever so much better than the truth. And that was what brought ideals out of the dung heap in the first place—because creatures weren't content with dung, though it is always there and, in a sense, more "real."
Those scare quotes she puts on "loyalties" and "real" should also be around "truth."
She is not negative about life, just about contemporary life, whereas for many 20th-century writers and critics it was often the reverse. They are actually enjoying their own time and their own place immensely, but wanting to see life at large in nihilistic terms. In addition, her genius is to present mood and feeling more than action. Her technique, if it can be called that, is more vertical than horizontal. Common things reveal as much as grand things. When she was faulted for failing to portray the historical events surrounding early Quebec, she boldly declared that "a new society begins with the salad dressing more than with the destruction of Indian villages." A culture can be grasped in things large and small, whether in building railroads or churning butter. In an interview she once famously said,
I have never found any intellectual excitement any more intense than I used to feel when I spent a morning with one of those old women at her baking or butter making. I used to ride home in the most unreasonable state of excitement; I always felt as if they told me so much more than they said—as if I had actually got inside another person's skin.
It is often those moments when such things are realized that she captured especially and luminously. "Our great enlightenments always come in flashes," she writes in a letter. In My Ántonia, it occurs when the plough is seen perfectly outlined against the setting sun for a few moments and Ántonia cries out in happiness at feeling part of something larger. In O Pioneers! it's when Alexandra feels that sudden surge of love for the land. In The Song of the Lark it's when Thea recognizes in the ancient pottery of the Southwest how art is meant to capture the beauty of life before it flees. In The Professor's House, it's when Tom, the young man whose narrative is interpolated in the novel, gazes on the ruins of an ancient Southwest civilization and sees it as a sacred spot, a place where humanity rose above sheer brutality. And it doesn't matter if these settings are in the past, because such illumination is the perennial possibility of human experience.
This is why she is especially incensed when in another piece Hicks accused her of exploiting the remoteness of the past to beguile her readers. Deeply offended, she writes a rare complaining letter to his editor. "You must know that I am not an opportunist or a trickster." A person's life, a culture's life, including its past, is always present, and sometimes it flashes out and is felt in startling immediacy. This is what she wanted to convey. And she knew when she had succeeded: "When I wrote about the people I loved and the places I loved, they came back to me so vividly, that it was like having them all over again."