Roughneck Literature Queen of Prairie and Sagebrush ‘The Selected Letters of Willa Cather’

In this era of texting and emailing, do novelists still write real letters? I wondered as I read those of Willa Cather. What a wonderful experience! It’s like sitting with your favorite author as she watches a documentary about her life and makes intriguing, sometimes snarky comments while the story unfolds.

Cather was a best-selling, much-honored novelist when she died in 1947 in New York City at the age of 73. Her reputation today as one of the greatest fiction writers of the early 20th century is secure. These 566 letters can only enhance that reputation, even though she never wanted them to be made public.

In their introduction, scholars Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout suggest that keeping her letters private was part of “her long-held desire to shape her own public identity.” She was, they note, a “skillful self-marketer” who had a hand in every aspect of the publication of her books, right down to type fonts. She could be “a drama queen” about household duties and literary events alike.

Throughout the letters, the editors provide just enough connective information on what was going on in Cather’s life as the letters were written. Cather, they say, “is now part of our cultural history… It is time to let the letters speak for themselves.”

And speak they do, in her singular voice. Her style is more informal than her fiction. Sometimes she is charming; occasionally she is exasperated; and here and there she is imperious. What comes across most powerfully is her high-spirited, serious enthusiasm for a life devoted to her art.

If you love O Pioneers! and My Antonia, you will be fascinated to read how she felt about Nebraska, where she was brought up. If you adore Death Comes for the Archbishop, which she said was her masterpiece, you will be thrilled to read about her first encounters with the American Southwest, a touchstone for her creative life.

Born in Virginia, Cather was nine when her family moved to Nebraska. After graduating from the University of Nebraska she got a job at a magazine based in Pittsburgh, moved on to work for a newspaper, taught high school there and finally settled in New York City in 1906. When she became managing editor at McClure’s, a leading national magazine, she was “arguably one of the most powerful women in journalism,” according to the editors.

Cather was not able to write fiction full-time until she was 25, because she had to support herself and help her family back home. After that she was remarkably liberated in a time before women won the right to vote. Her “cosmopolitan life” included trips to Europe and throughout North America. She went to the theater and to concerts. She socialized and corresponded with authors, opera stars and friends old and new.

Those seeking answers about her sexuality won’t find them here. Cather lived with and traveled with women friends, particularly Isabelle McClung and Edith Lewis. The editors call these two relationships “the most profound” of her life but only a tiny few letters to them survive.

Perhaps it’s time Cather scholars stopped being stuck on the lesbian issue. Growing up in Nebraska, she was not particularly feminine and sometimes signed her name “William”. To her brother Roscoe, a lifelong correspondent, she was “Willie”. In one college letter she writes to a female classmate, “It is manifestly unfair that ‘feminine friendships’ should be unnatural.” Who knows what that meant in 1891?

The external landscape was always important to her. Cather often traveled back to Red Cloud to see her Nebraska clan, yet she compared a “bleak”, “desolate”, “treeless” high plains ranch unfavorably to the beauty of Virginia’s Shenandoah valley in which she was born. In O Pioneers! and My Antonia she used Nebraska to demonstrate the hardships faced by Scandinavian and East European immigrants who made the unforgiving Western plains the final frontier.

A visit to her brother Douglass in Arizona in 1912 changed her life, because she saw the Southwest for the first time. In New Mexico she found “the most beautiful country I have ever seen anywhere.” Its colors were “brilliant”, its Indian villages “wonderful”. The desert exerted “a strong pull,” she wrote, setting “the stage so splendidly there” that France’s Rhone valley was “nothing” by comparison.

Much has changed in a century. Cather visited many places on horseback. She saw the Grand Canyon when there was nothing there but two hotels, “the silence and ‘the wonder.’” For anyone who ever has been overwhelmed by a Southwestern vista, these letters are a supreme gift. Cather was able to express the immensity of Southwestern landmarks that still inspire first-time visitors. She summed up her happiness by writing “I feel as if my mind had been freshly washed and ironed, and were ready for a new life.”

After the first of her major novels, O Pioneers!, got positive reviews. Cather was able to gloat. Referring to a now-forgotten “big stuffed shirt and checked pants” writer, she said, “I know more about the real west than you do, but I could never make anybody believe it, because I wear skirts and don’t shave.” Now, she said triumphantly, “people do believe it.”

She was both self-confident about her books’ worth and totally pragmatic about their marketing. When The Song of the Lark, the second novel in what came to be known as her “Prairie trilogy” appeared, she urged her publisher to publicize it more, because “I want to sell a good many copies.” In the same letter she said “When I am old and can’t run about the desert anymore, it will always be here in this book for me. I’ll only have to lift the lid.”

In 1916, her friend Isabelle McClung got married, which Cather called “a devastating loss to me.” Cather was already sharing an apartment in Greenwich Village with Edith Lewis, her companion for many decades to come. McClung, however, was an indispensable reader. The two stayed close until McClung died in 1938.

My Antonia, published in 1918, was almost universally praised. Cather then switched publishers, choosing Alfred Knopf, a 26-year-old who had founded his own company, because she felt he would show more enthusiasm for her books. She was right; her first Knopf book, a collection of stories, made her more money in six months than she had made in a year on My Antonia. Her letters to Knopf reveal a growing bond between author and publisher that extended to his wife Blanche.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, a novel based in part on a cousin killed in action in World War I. But Cather found that becoming famous was “inconvenient”, with reporters bothering her for interviews and photos. Eminent writers such as Sinclair Lewis, the quintessential Midwesterner, paid tribute to her. He thought A Lost Lady, her 1923 novel, was one of the best American books ever. When Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he said he thought she was a worthier candidate. To her brother Roscoe, she dryly wrote that she could not disagree with Lewis, but was happy he had won it if she did not.

As her stature grew, Cather became friendly with an even wider circle of correspondents including Thomas Mazaryk, the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, and the family of violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin. She remained practical – when she got a gold medal from the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters for Archbishop, she wrote that she planned to have it weighed so she knew how much it was worth.

After a summer of horseback riding in New Mexico, she declared that although she loved Paris, “I wanted the sagebrush more. I have a regular Zane Gray mind; roughneck and low-brow is the name for me.” She delighted in creating fiction out of her experiences. Books, she wrote to the Knopfs, “are like children – never so much fun after they grow up and are finished as they are when they are merely things to play with and all your own.”

As she aged, Cather grew protective of her public self and her work. She turned down many requests for appearances, and she fumed over the “stupid, brutal” abridgment of My Antonia that her first published proposed to issue. She could also be generous – during the depression she helped Nebraska neighbors pay their mortgages.

Cather suffered two major blows in 1938. First, Douglass died and then Isabelle McClung died too. “You can understand that living will never be the same for me again,” she confided to McClung’s sister.

Toward the end, she poignantly stated to her brother Roscoe that her emotions were what gave her work its enduring quality: “I have cared too much about people and places – cared too hard. It made me, as a writer. But it will break me in the end.” At the same time, she became aware that some of the people back in Nebraska, including her sister Elsie, felt she had exploited them or else were jealous of her success.

Yes, the landscape mattered, but feelings mattered more “If a story has any real vitality, if it goes on being printed and sold in half a dozen languages, the root of it must be a real feeling… The strong feeling….that comes out of the living heart is the thing most necessary – and most rarely found” she wrote one friend.

During World War II, Cather was pained both by the sorry state of the world and by her own physical maladies, including a hand injury that prevented her from writing. In the book’s final letter, her niece Virginia described Cather’s quick death. Virginia expressed sympathy for Edith Lewis’s loss. “I will be very careful of everything of Aunt Willies,” Virginia promised her mother, “books, pictures, letters.”

RATING 10 / 10