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‘The Selected Letters of Willa Cather’ edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout

‘The Selected Letters of Willa Cather’ edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout

Author: Ken Harvey

May 24, 2013

Willa Cather would have hated this review. As editors Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout explain in their preface to The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (Knopf), in her will Cather forbade publication of any of her letters. (It was long assumed that Cather had collected and burned her letters; this volume of over five hundred letters–out of about three thousand letters found–clearly disproves that assumption.) If publishing them was–quite literally– against her will, so too might be critiquing them. She wanted her work to be enjoyed rather than studied. In a letter to a Mr. Meromichey (the only letter to this man in the collection) Cather writes, “To be quite frank with you, I always shrink a little from the idea of my books being read in schools. At least, I don’t like to feel that they are ‘assigned’ to students as part of the grind. If young people read me, I would like it to be because they want to–I would even like to be read on the sly.”

The editors of this volume make a convincing case that Cather’s desire for privacy is “outweighed by the value of making these letters available to readers all over the world.” I, for one, am immensely grateful they came to this conclusion, for the letters not only read as an intellectual and emotional autobiography of one of our most important writers, they also chart the career of a savvy and exacting businesswoman. In these letters we discover a woman who is a passionate advocate of her work in a publishing world that was (and to a great extent still is) dominated by men.

Cather began her literary career as a magazine editor, first of the Home Monthly Magazine in Pittsburgh, where she met lifelong friend Isabel McClung, and then of MacClure’s Magazine in New York City, where she rented an apartment in the same building as Edith Lewis, with whom she would become a lifelong partner, both professionally and personally (Lewis was a copywriter with whom Cather lived for thirty-nine years.) Readers looking for new insight into Cather’s personal relationship with Lewis will be disappointed; only one letter and a postcard between the two remain. Yet Cather’s casual referencing of “Edith and I” in her correspondence underscores how accepted the two were as a couple.

Some of the most revelatory letters are those written to her two major editors, Ferris Greenslet of Houghton Mifflin and Alfred A. Knopf, founder of the eponymous publishing house. In her letters to Greenslet, Cather refers to her novels as “stories,” despite the fact that one of those “stories,” The Song of the Lark, is over four hundred pages long. “I will say, however, that I don’t believe you publish a story like this every day,” she writes him of her novel about an opera singer. Her words reveal confidence as well as her insistence on the word story rather than novel. We see a hint of the writer who, to the wife of a literary critic, writes, “I for one am tired of ideas and ‘great notions’ for stories. I don’t want to be ‘literary.’ Here are a lot of people I used to know and love; sit down and let me tell you about them.”

The letters to her two editors also bring to light Cather’s deep involvement in all aspects of book production and advertising. She weighed in on the size and type of font  (she wanted “big plain type” for Death Comes to the Archbishop) and cover design (she wrote to Greenslet that the initial cover for Oh, Pioneers would “pain” her “as long as the book existed”). She objected to the paper quality of a reprint of My Antonia. Cather resisted having her photograph used in publicity, believing not only that the work should stand on its own, but also that the custom might work well for singers and actresses, but “authorines, for the most part, possess countenances that do but discourage one with their wares.”

Yet for all her professional acumen and pragmatism, Cather’s personal relationships were anything but businesslike. In one of her last letters, she writes, “Now I don’t care about writing any more books. Now I know that nothing really matters to us but the people we love.” What’s striking about Cather’s declaration is not that she made it, but that she felt as if she had to make it at all. It’s hard to believe these words were a revelation for her. No one reading these letters could have any doubt that personal and familial relationships were at the core of Cather’s life. She was extremely close to her siblings, especially brothers Roscoe and Douglas, and her friendships–especially with women–were marked by passion, generosity, and gratitude. One particularly moving letter is written to Annie Pavelka–the prototype for Cather’s most famous heroine, Antonia –expressing Cather’s delight that Pavelka used the money she sent her to buy an electric washer.

The final letters read as a series of exits of people we have come to know throughout the collection. Some of these letters are heartbreaking.  The death of Cather’s family and friends strikes her so hard that she begins to wonder if she should have done more to protect herself emotionally. In one of her last letters to her beloved brother Roscoe she writes, “As for me, 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.” Losing those near to her very nearly did break Cather, but it is our great fortune that she let herself care as much as she did.



The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
Edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout
Hardcover, 9780307959300, 715 pp.
April 2013

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About: Ken Harvey

Ken Harvey is the author of two award-winning books as well as a novel, The Book of Casey Adair, which is forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press.

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