Book Review

Epistolary Cather

“I don’t like reading other people’s private correspondence in print, and I do not want other people to read mine.” So T. S. Eliot wrote to his mother in 1927, in one of his letters that all sorts of other people may now read, as volumes of them succeed one another. Willa Cather agreed with Eliot when she made her will, forbidding all publication of her letters in full or in part. Yet here they are, or rather a large selection from the three thousand of them known to exist.[1] The editors justify themselves for defying the will in favor of “the values of making these letters available to readers all over the world.” They state that hitherto the only permissible way a biographer or critic could proceed was through paraphrase, which they rightly point out has its own distortions and limitations. But readers eager for more insight into Cather’s “sexuality” (as academics have learned to call it) will surely be disappointed that the two women with whom she was closest over the years—Isabelle McClung Hambourg and Edith Lewis—are scarcely represented. Since Isabelle McClung’s husband returned about 300 of the letters Cather wrote to her, it’s clear that some effective destruction took place.

Certainly the strongest expression of love in the letters remaining occurs in one Cather wrote to Louise Pound when they were students at the University of Nebraska. She had given Pound, who was going away, a copy of “that Persian poem with a name which I have forgotten how to spell,” and proceeds to justify her infatuation with Pound by saying that “I suppose we will laugh at it all some day as other women do.” But she hopes this won’t happen and declares that she agrees with “Miss DePeu” (a rival friend of Pound’s) that “It is manifestly unfair that ‘feminine friendships should be unnatural.’” Her passionate feelings for Louise Pound come out again in a letter to Mabel Gere, another college friend, about what Pound’s leaving meant to her: “The fact is the thing I had been living for and in was torn away from me and it left just an aching emptiness in me. I don’t think the scar will ever heal.” Gere had been a great consoler to her for the loss, and Cather hopes that Gere will never need such a consoler: “It is a good thing to love, but it don’t pay to love that hard. It makes a fool and dupe of you while you are at it, and then it must end some time and after it is taken from you the hunger for it is terrible, terrible!” The next time we hear a comparable anguished utterance was twenty-one years later when her beloved Isabelle McClung was about to be married and Cather writes Dorothy Canfield Fisher that the marriage would make “an amazing change in one’s life . . . and on the best terms one can figure out, a devastating loss to me.” About some matters she didn’t, as they say, live and learn.

These two instances of love betrayed are enough to prove that Cather’s strongest sexual feelings were same-sex ones, especially since nothing resembling them was sparked by any man. I have nothing to contribute to the fervent discussion, sparked by Sharon O’Brien’s psychosexual biography of 1987, of how much difference Cather’s sexual preference does or doesn’t make to our sense of her books, and will turn instead to the letters themselves.[2] The editors in their introduction assert correctly that from her letters we deduce Willa Cather to have been a “complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being.” This seems as good a group of adjectives as one can put together, and I like especially the combination of “flinty” and “sensitive,” perfectly describing her presence in the letters. There is a wonderful one of 1905 to Witter Bynner telling him he can’t “imagine anything so bleak and desolate as a Nebraska ranch of eighteen or nineteen years ago.” In contrast to the beautiful Virginia valley from which she moved in 1883, there was, during that first year in the West, “one miserable little sluggish stream about eighteen miles from our ranch. It was perhaps ten feet wide in the Spring and in the late Summer it was no more than a series of black mud holes at the bottom of a ravine, with a few cottonwoods and dwarf elms growing along its banks.” She remembers that she and her little brothers “would do almost anything to get to this creek” in “almost absolutely treeless land.” On the eve of a trip to Italy with Isabelle McClung, she writes her brother Roscoe that Rome was the central fact of her life in Red Cloud, and as always “the Capital of one’s imagination”: “Rome, London, and Paris were serious matters when I went to the South ward school—they were the three principal cities in Nebraska, so to speak.” Referring to her important story of 1914 “The Bohemian Girl” (which she never collected), she speaks of its subject as “Bigness,” and how frightening the West felt to her and still feels somewhat when she returns to visit: “It is partly the feeling that there are so many miles between you and anything . . . and partly the fear that the everlasting wind may make you contented and put you to sleep. I used to be sure that I’d never get out, that I would die in a cornfield.”

What got her out was sheer grit, along with art—the art of “The Bohemian Girl” and of the sketches that would make up O Pioneers! the following year. O Pioneers! is a wonderful piece of work, so pure and full of life’s beauty and sadness that (it could be argued) Cather never exceeded it. There is an arresting passage in which the heroine, Alexandra Bergson, lies late in bed on a Sunday morning and experiences “the illusion of being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by someone very strong”:

It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as easily as if she were a sheaf of wheat. She never saw him, but, with eyes closed, she could feel that he was yellow like the sunlight, and there was the smell of ripe cornfields about him. She could feel him approach, bend over her and lift her, and then she could feel herself being carried swiftly off across the fields. After such a reverie she would rise hastily, angry with herself, and go down to the bath-house that was partitioned off the kitchen shed. There she would stand in a tin tub and prosecute her bath with vigor, finishing it by pouring buckets of cold well-water over her gleaming white body which no man on the Divide could have carried very far.

This dream man, one of Wallace Stevens’ “major men” perhaps, could only be reduced and parodied by ordinary men; and, like Alexandra, Cather if she ever dreamed of such a phenomenon would (we imagine) angrily “prosecute her bath with vigor,” as does her heroine.

In the final, brief chapter of O Pioneers!, Cather indulges in what feels like a sentimental gesture, an ending in which Alexandra succumbs to marriage with her old friend from childhood, Carl Linstrum, opining that she is unafraid, even confident about their future: “I think when friends marry, they are safe. We don’t suffer like—those young ones,” she declares with a sigh, thinking of the love-death of her brother Emil and Marie Shabata. Cather pulls out all the stops—“I have been very lonely, Carl,” Alexandra says, leaning on his shoulder, and the book ends with an apostrophe to “the yellow wheat . . . the rustling corn in the shining eyes of youth!” This is quite a different presence from the one who animates these letters, where she is more likely to pour cold water over rapturous fantasies than to indulge them.

I knew that Cather admired Robert Frost enough to attend his fiftieth birthday dinner in 1925 (actually he was fifty-one), and Frost may have reciprocated the good feelings, although he certainly didn’t keep up with the fiction of his contemporaries. But I had not realized until these letters that ten years earlier, when Frost’s North of Boston was first published in America, Cather wrote her friend, later Frost’s biographer, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, a paragraph of praise for the book that deserves quoting in its entirety:

Isn’t “North of Boston” a real thriller? Such individual verse, and all made out of the cold twilight-zone stuff that one has always thought pale matter for poetry. (I don’t, of course, mean the avowed subject matter but the unavowed—Mr Frost’s own mental reactions.) The book is so important and so devoid of splendor. Out of this shabby, ungrammatical new bunch it’s so amazing to find some one who can write verse, and such real, tight, tough verse as it is! Individual syncopation, individual intervals, queer swell in the middle of the line, and then a dreary flattening out of words to off-set it. The atmosphere (the mental atmosphere, I mean, not New England) is a little like Tchekoff, don’t you think? Awfully damp, marshy mind, with June bugs. Lots of cheerfuler things, too. But he’s a really, truly poet, with something fresh to say, and it’s fine that he has come along.

A few months later she wrote Frost twice, deploring members of the Poetry Society as “fuddled by the democratic idea of ‘free verse,’” and joined him in dispraising Edgar Lee Masters, the free verse of whose Spoon River Anthology had just been published.

What makes Cather’s praise of North of Boston something more than routine is the originality of her language. Surely no one before her or since has referred to this book of poems about New England people as a “thriller,” or described its material as “cold twilight-zone stuff.” Yet when you think of the ambiance of “Home Burial” or “A Servant to Servants” the words seem appropriate. No reviewer of the book that I know of looked at its blank verse closely enough to detect “individual syncopation, individual interval, queer swell in the middle of the line and then a dreary flattening out of words to off-set it.” Is this an insight into the rhythms of Frost’s prosody? At least a reader is incited to test it by listening more closely. The comparison with Chekhov (again an original one) is an insight. I don’t know what to say about her description of Frost’s mind as “marshy” and “damp” and with “June bugs,” but it is a shrewd way of touting the poet as having something fresh to say.

The affinity between these two great American writers—both poets, I should say—may be noted in the critical dissatisfaction each provoked in the 1930s from critics of the Left, aghast at the contemporary American poverty and suffering they each ignored. Granville Hicks for one declared Cather could not face the truth of harshness in American life and so had retired into the sentimental posture tinged with romanticism of Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. Comparably, Frost announced in one of his letters that he didn’t want the world (American society, for example) to be improved, but just held in place as it was so he could “do it” in poetry. One of Cather’s most shocking, indeed outrageous, declarations comes when she writes Elizabeth Sergeant that there is no place in her scheme of life for the “unlucky”: “People who go and have grotesque accidents are clowns, and I feel toward them exactly as the people who used to go from London to Bedlam felt toward the sport they went to behold. I can’t share the tender feeling of our time toward the abbreviated. People minus their leg or their hair are roaringly funny and ought to be laughed at and exhibited, not coddled.” Now it’s true that she herself had just had her head shaved after a blood infection; yet a stronger adjective than “flinty” needs to be found for this extravagance of animus.

Of course the main payoff of these letters is their encouraging us to revisit the novels and stories. After My Ántonia was published, she acknowledged the critical reception of it as more “artistic” than her previous books but writes to her brother Roscoe that she prefers The Song of the Lark “because there is more warmth and struggle in it.” No doubt that these qualities are found in Song, but she may be a bit too eager to downgrade the “artistic” when she says that a critic has written of My Ántonia as existing “in an atmosphere of its own—an atmosphere of pure beauty.” (The editors have failed to locate this critic.) Cather says, bluntly, “Nonsense, it’s the atmosphere of my grandmother’s kitchen and nothing else.” This is bracing, but really not true when you encounter passages like the following, as near the end of the superb Book 1, when there is a thunderstorm that Jim (the narrator) and Ántonia experience from the roof of the chicken-house:

Half the sky was checkered with black thunderheads, but all the west was luminous and clear: in the lightning-flashes it looked like deep blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it; and the mottled part of the sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid seacoast city, doomed to destruction. Great warm splashes of rain fell on our upturned faces. One black cloud, no bigger than a little boat, drifted out into the clear space unattended, and kept moving westward. All about us we could hear the felty beat of the raindrops on the soft dust of the farmyard.

That “felty” beat of the raindrops, along with so many other vividly rendered sensations in the book, makes it something else than grandmother’s kitchen.

In one of Edmund Wilson’s best essays, “Is Verse a Dying Technique?,” he compared Virgil with Flaubert to show how, in the nineteenth century, prose took over “poetic” qualities that had formerly been the province of verse. Wilson called Flaubert “the first great writer in prose deliberately to try to take over . . . the delicacy, the precision, and the intensity that have hitherto been identified with verse.” Cather deeply admired Flaubert, also Turgenev, Ibsen, Henry James—writers whose “realism” is shot through with the figurations of poetry. But her effects, as in the passage above, are so directly presented, in such an even tone, that critics have been tempted to take the figurations for granted and concentrate instead on matters of gender and related thematics. Her prose doesn’t need to be “unpacked” in order for its brilliance of observation to be felt, and she linked this with listening to music, insisting that the good reader is one who has “instantaneous perception and absolute conviction about quality.” It’s like having an ear for music: “You can tell when a singer flats, or you cannot tell. You cannot be taught to distinguish that error.” It is unsurprising that two of her novels, Song of the Lark and Lucy Gayheart, as well as the story “Coming, Aphrodite,” should be filled with music, especially of the vocal and operatic sort.

My sense is that her novel of 1925, The Professor’s House, has most attracted recent attention, attention centered on aforementioned matters of gender, homoerotic energies, the professor’s romance with his student, Tom Outland, and the odd positioning of Tom’s narrative of discovering the Blue Mesa as a narrative flashback. Cather herself professed to be surprised at the reception the novel received: “Now why do you suppose ‘The Professor’ is going better than any other book of mine? . . . I thought it a nasty, grim little tale, but the reviewers seem to think it’s a cross-word puzzle. It’s certainly not my ‘favorite’ of my own books.” Those reviewers have now been replaced by professors of literature dedicated to solving the crossword. The exaltation of Tom’s narrative of discovery, the depression of Professor Godfrey St. Peter as he realizes his work is done, his marriage a thing of the past, his life over—these are full of the strong feeling Cather deprecated in reducing the book to a grim, nasty one. It may have been her way of holding off a despair she couldn’t quite acknowledge.

I may not be alone in finding the Cather novels most difficult of access to be Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and Shadows on the Rock (1932). Neither reads at all like a conventional novel with plot, characters, and a lively narrative voice to keep us entertained. Cather was fully aware of that fact of what she was not after in these books. She wrote to a literary agent, trying to sell serial rights to Archbishop, that the book was “not a love story . . . simply not that sort of story at all,” rather, concerned with the “picturesque” conditions of Catholic missionary life in the Southwest. The latter part of the book was to have “a much deeper tone and a deeper, graver color.” There is narration, as it were, but no narrator, at least not one we can endow with any human characteristics or varied tones of presentation. After it was published she used words like “legend,” “sort of New Testament calm,” a “new form with no solid drama,” and found in it “a lovely kind of poverty—and richness, a deep content.” About none of her other works did she speak so warmly, perhaps because she worried that it might be found chilly. Readers didn’t find it so; it was reprinted twenty-four times in its first four years. As for Shadows on the Rock, it was “no world-beater,” she declared to Blanche Knopf, but would be “very quaint and dry.” She admired the great French novelists because, unlike their English counterparts, they abstained from taking “a professional tone toward the reader, a joviality a good deal like that of a landlord welcoming guests at an inn” (think Fielding, think Thackeray). By contrast she found in the French something “nervous and direct and supple, their range of interest a wider one.” Shadows would consist mostly of “Quebec weather and Quebec legends”—no geniality or joviality there. Perhaps it’s because I’m so out of sympathy with her promotion of the French novel at the expense of the English one, but more than any other of her creations Shadows is an acquired taste and is a little slow in yielding up its pleasures. She referred to Archbishop as “a kind of writing that is colored by a kind of country, like a folk-song.” This seems to me even more apt a way to describe the narrative of Shadows, and also suggests perhaps that its “color” is more likely to inspire respectful admiration than warm responsiveness. Hermione Lee in her excellent chapter on the novel calls it “a children’s book for adults,” and I don’t think she means to condescend to Cather but to highlight a certain purity of tone and vision in the book.

But however one feels about the “special kind of thing” that both Archbishop and Shadows illustrate, there is absolutely no doubt that the three stories she collected in 1932 in Obscure Destinies—“Neighbor Rosicky,” “Old Mrs. Harris,” and “Two Friends”—show Cather at her very best, returning to the country where she was most at home, the farms and towns of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado. It may be that these stories are familiar mainly to devotees of Cather, and a little off the beaten track for those who know her through My Ántonia or A Lost Lady. They are about endurance, aging, the premonition of death, the beauties and perils of friendship (“Two Friends” is especially moving in this last regard) and are written in a manner absolutely natural, as if the writing were there only to put you in touch with landscape, people, sensuous richness. She wrote back to an admirer of these stories, telling him they were “very dear to my heart, for personal reasons,” and that she hoped they would help to overcome American prejudice against “the long short story.” She cites Conrad’s Youth as an example of this sort of genre, one that holds a more dignified place in French literature than in English. The personal reasons they were near to her heart must have had much to do with the death of her mother in 1931 after a lingering illness. About “Two Friends” she thought it the best of all her stories, a judgment that may very well be correct.

Flannery O’Connor once remarked, in answer to a query about whether academic courses in the university were likely to “stifle” creative writers, that she wished more of them could be stifled. Cather agreed with her two decades previously in scorning what she called Creative Writing courses. To someone who mentioned the subject she called such courses “sheer nonsense” and suggested instead that it would be more than sufficient if students could be taught to write “good, sound English sentences” that avoided hackneyed words like “colorful.” Her summing-up has a satisfyingly ultimate feel about it: “Nothing whatever should be done to stimulate literary activity in America.” (Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin are applauding from their graves.) In another letter she spoke of receiving hundreds of letters from college students whose writing was less than articulate: “They seem convinced that friendly and enthusiastic clauses need have no particular relation to each other or to the main stem of the sentence.” To speak of clauses as enthusiastic in their dishevelment is but one example of Cather’s subtle and inventive way with words, often a humorous subtlety, as when she writes her brother Roscoe—to whom many good letters are addressed—that while looking up the word “caribou” in the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, she “saw something that looked familiar on the left-hand page. It really was my name—rather startled me.” A small example among many of her own distinctive brand of “creative writing.”


[1] THE SELECTED LETTERS OF WILLA CATHER, ed. by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. Alfred A. Knopf. $37.50. All the letters selected are presented in their entirety, a very good editorial principle.

[2] Most of my sense of the Cather debates is taken from Joan Acocella’s short, incisive Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism (Lincoln, 2000). Acocella traces the progress by which Cather’s credentials as a liberal humanist writer have been called into question by feminists, gender critics, deconstructionists, multicultural perspectivists and the like. Acocella doesn’t dismiss all of it, but ticks off some egregious examples of what she calls “wild-eyed academic writing,” and has justifiable scorn for many of the “readings” by those who presume to know better than Cather what she was really up to. I have found extremely useful, sensible, and sympathetic Hermione Lee’s critical biography, Willa Cather: Double Lives (New York, 1991).