Inside the heart of Willa Cather

“The Selected Letters of Willa Cather,” edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (Alfred A. Knopf, 715 pages, $37.50)

If Willa Cather had had her way, you would never read these letters. She expressed this wish in her will, although she acknowledged the future inevitability of publication. The editors believe that Cather’s desire was not intended to shield her or protect a secret but was “an act consistent with her long-held desire to shape her own public identity.” Indeed, her letters reveal an author who had very specific ideas about how her works should be printed, published and presented, including preferences for fonts and margin size, illustrators and marketing. Did she fear that publication of her letters would redirect the focus from her novels to her private life?

In a letter to her brother, Cather expressed her agreement with what authors James M. Barrie and Thomas Hardy had done: “They left no ‘representatives’ but their own books – and that is best.” It is in respectful disregard of her wishes that the editors of “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather” present this intimate insight into her writing methods, artistic decisions and the lively, engaged and sensitive personality she revealed to her privileged correspondents.

The editors’ excellent introduction sets the stage for readers to delve into Cather’s world, beginning with her first known letter when she was 14 years old. The letters appear chronologically with explanatory and contextual editors’ notes. In addition to a general index, a helpful biographical directory identifies Cather’s lesser-known correspondents.

Although most readers of Cather’s works associate her with Red Cloud, Neb., she was born in Virginia and moved to Nebraska at the age of 9 in 1883. There in the vast expanse of prairie, Cather became acquainted with settlers from Sweden, Norway and Bohemia. In a 1913 interview, Cather said, “I have never found any intellectual excitement 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.”

These connections remained strong in Cather’s memory and imagination and informed much of her fiction. In a 1914 letter after a visit to Red Cloud, she wrote: “All those people are like characters in a book to me. I began their story when I was little and it goes on like ‘War and Peace,’ always rich and various, always so much stranger than any invention of man.”

Cather’s correspondence reveals a person who experiences life on a deep level and vividly describes her feelings. She clearly understood that her emotional reactions to the vicissitudes of life and to a sometimes cataclysmic world fed and formed her fiction with substance and artistic merit. In a 1945 letter to a childhood friend, she wrote, “The inside of me is so full of dents and scars, where pleasant and unpleasant things have hit me in the past. … Faces, situations, things people said long ago simply come up from my mind as if they were written down there. They would not be there if they hadn’t hit me hard.”

This sensitive nature also revealed itself in exaggerated complaints, wounded feelings and depressive capitulation in the face of world unrest, wars and change. This sensitivity did not, however, prevent her from being brutally forthright in her criticism when she disapproved of the latest work of friends and fellow authors.

Dedicated students of Cather might be disappointed not to learn more about her sexuality from these letters. However, readers may glean some significance from a schoolgirl crush on a classmate and two adult relationships. One is a close lifelong friendship she formed with socialite Isabelle McClung, and the other is Cather’s relationship with her companion and housemate for nearly 40 years, Edith Lewis, a professional advertising copywriter. Only two pieces of correspondence are known to exist from Cather to McClung. The editors also include the only known surviving full letter from Cather to Lewis.

Travel to Europe, Canada, the American Southwest or home to Red Cloud soothed and invigorated Cather. A change of scenery could put her in an optimistic frame of mind. Her first trip to Arizona and New Mexico in 1912 proved to be a turning point. The intensity of emotion she experienced in this unique landscape gave her confidence to try a different style of writing. This resulted in several books featuring the Southwest as well as a newfound interest in writing about people from her childhood in Nebraska, what she called her “home pasture.”

After her first trip to the Southwest, she wrote, “I feel as if my mind had been freshly washed and ironed, and were ready for a new life.” In later years she continued to cherish time spent in the Southwest, proclaiming, “It’s the happiest feeling I ever have.”

Loss and poor health changed Cather’s outlook in her last years. An injury to her right hand required frequent rest or the wearing of a splint. This infirmity affected her habit of writing first drafts by hand, and she lamented having to dictate personal letters for a secretary to transcribe. The deaths of her two favorite brothers along with the illness and death of her good friend McClung dealt her a debilitating blow from which she never fully recovered. “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.”

In a time when handwritten letters were the norm, Cather kept three suitcases full of special, cherished missives culled from a larger aggregation of letters she had received. Her letters to various critics reveal her sometimes thin-skinned concern for their opinion or her self promotion of newly published works. Still, she could accept her fame with humor and equanimity. In 1931 she wrote to her mother, “I’m sorry that horrible picture of me got onto the front page of the magazine called ‘Time,’ but I couldn’t help it. One just has to grin and bear such things. If I mourned about accidents like that, and about the things jealous, disappointed newspaper men write about me, I could just mourn my life away – which I don’t intend to do. When (‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’) first came out, all the reviews were unfavorable and many of them savage. Now those same newspapers call it a ‘classic.’”

Cather had no desire for her correspondence to be published, but, understanding the consequence of fame and success, she recognized that it would probably happen. Readers, especially Cather fans, will be glad that it did as they are enriched, entertained and enlightened by this glimpse into the life and heart of one of America’s finest writers.