The Chronicle Review

Willa Cather in Her Own Words, at Last

Craig Chandler, University Communications

Willa Cather's letters are being made public for the first time. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, due out next month, is edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout and features about a fifth of the writer's 3,000 known letters.
March 22, 2013

In November 1938, buffeted by the death of her dear friend Isabelle McClung Hambourg, Willa Cather poured her heart out to her brother Roscoe in a letter. She sent it from the Shattuck Inn in New Hampshire, a spot Isabelle had first taken her years earlier.

"You cannot imagine what her death means to me," Cather wrote. "No other living person cared as much about my work, through 38 years, as she did. As for me, I have cared too much, about people and about places—cared too hard. It made me, as a writer. But it will break me in the end. I feel as if I couldn't go another step."

Many living people have cared a great deal for Cather's work since she sent that cri de coeur 75 years ago. But it has been next to impossible for scholars or anyone else to quote from the thousands of letters the author wrote to Roscoe and other family members, friends, publishers, and other correspondents. Cather died in 1947, and her will made it clear she did not want her letters published or her works dramatized. The Willa Cather Trust, created to manage her intellectual property after her death, enforced her wishes. That restriction put the letters, rich in detail about the writer's creative, personal, and business lives, out of quotable reach.

"All of us Cather scholars have become very skilled in paraphrase," says Ann Romines, a professor of English at George Washington University and an expert on Cather's work. "It was very destructive to Cather scholarship for many years."

Romines and other Cather scholars need paraphrase no more. In April, Alfred A. Knopf brings out the Selected Letters of Willa Cather, a nearly 700-page volume that begins with Cather's teenage years in Red Cloud, Neb., and ends right before her death. Two Cather scholars, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, edited the book, granted permission by the Cather trust after the death, in March 2011, of Charles E. Cather, the author's nephew and last designated literary executor.

For researchers, the arrival of the Selected Letters "is possibly the most important transformation of Cather since she died," says Guy J. Reynolds, a professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the general editor of the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, part of Nebraska's extensive Cather Project. "It's almost the equivalent of finding a new manuscript. It's going to bring massive documentation into the public realm."

Why did Cather resist the idea that the public might someday see her correspondence? In their introduction to the Selected Letters, Jewell and Stout recount theories that have circulated over the decades. Cather's most intimate attachments were to other women, and some people have speculated that she "sought to conceal a secret buried in her years of correspondence, some sign of an indiscretion or uncontrolled passion," the editors write. "Most scholars, following James Woodress's characterization of her in Willa Cather: A Literary Life, are convinced that Cather was obsessed with her privacy and that the will—together with her supposed systematic collecting and burning of letters—was simply an expression of a personality seeking to control all access to itself."

Their own research on the letters "calls into question all of these assumptions about Cather, her character, and her motivations," Jewell and Stout write. They say they have found no evidence that Cather or Edith Lewis, her longtime partner and first literary executor, set out to destroy all the letters they could find.

One of the great mysteries of Cather scholarship, however, is what happened to the letters that Cather probably wrote to Lewis over their decades-long relationship. The two women lived together for many years; it seems likely that they would have corresponded, at least when one of them traveled. Except for one letter and a postcard, any epistolary exchanges, along with Cather's correspondence with Isabelle McClung Hambourg, have been destroyed or lost. (One acquaintance reported in her memoir that Cather incinerated the Hambourg letters after Isabelle's death.)

Whatever became of those letters, Jewell and Stout do not think Cather's desire to keep them private "emerged from a need to shield herself or to protect a secret, but instead was an act consistent with her long-held desire to shape her own public identity." Cather took her art and her career very seriously, as the letters show.

Did Cather hope to keep her sexuality hidden along with her letters? There might be some truth to that theory, Stout says. More powerful, she thinks, was the writer's desire to shape her literary reputation. According to Stout, "She didn't want things that she just dashed off casually, as we often write our letters, to be constructing that reputation for her."

Although it is edited by two academics, the Selected Letters is designed to appeal to a general readership curious to learn more about the author of such classics as My Antonia, O Pioneers!, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. "We wanted to create a good reading text," says Jewell, associate professor of digital projects at the library at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. The book does not have footnotes or much in the way of a scholarly apparatus. At some point, the editors would like to see a complete, online edition of the letters be part of the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition.

The Selected Letters flow chronologically, with short, italicized notes interspersed to help the reader understand what was happening in Cather's life at the time. A biographical dictionary identifies some of the people who turn up most often in Cather's wide-ranging correspondence. Jewell and Stout, an emerita professor of English at Texas A&M University, wanted readers to experience Cather's voice "without a lot of heavy-handed editorial intervention," Jewell says.

And it's a lively voice, full of what Jewell calls "frankness, this sense of self-possession." Those qualities are already on display in Cather's first known letter, written on August 31, 1888, in Red Cloud, the town famously associated with her prairie childhood. The 14-year-old Cather complains to a neighbor that school is about to start and that she's disinclined to leave her "little laboratory & dissecting outfit & my stuffed animals" at home. "Then here I am 'Miss Cather' & govern, there I am a child & am governed," she writes. "That makes a great difference with frail humanity."

About 3,000 of Cather's letters are known to exist, scattered among 75 or so institutions, Jewell estimates. More than a thousand have come to light just in the last decade, he says, and more are probably out there to be found. According to him, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln holds about 700, thanks in part to donations over the years from members of the Cather family.

The Selected Letters contain about one-fifth of Cather's known correspondence. "At some point, we kept saying to one another, 'Every cut is painful,'" Jewell says of making the final selection.

It helped that both he and Stout had worked with Cather's letters for years, even if they couldn't quote from them. "A lot of the big decisions and research were accomplished ahead of time," he says, back when it was only possible to read the letters in archives or in private transcriptions. Jewell wrote his dissertation on Cather and edits the online Willa Cather Archive, a freely available collection of scholarly material and editions of out-of-copyright works. The site gets anywhere from 70,000 to 80,000 unique visitors a year, he says, a testament to Cather's persistent popularity.

Stout began to hunt for Cather letters when she was at work on the literary biography Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World (University of Virginia Press, 2000). "I searched and searched for letters," she says. Even in the last decade or two, "you were still reading statements that she burned all her letters, that there were very few letters. I knew there were some," Stout says. "I followed my nose, looking for letters, and transcribed them word for word on my laptop."

All in all she collected something like 1,800 letters, she estimates. "I had them on my computer for use, which was a great pleasure," she says. "It showed me sides of her that I could never have seen otherwise."

Limited by the terms of the will, though, Stout could only describe or summarize what she found. She put together A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather (U. of Nebraska Press, 2002), all paraphrased, "as a kind of interim measure, when the letters themselves could not be published."

After she and Jewell crossed paths, Stout offered to share her transcriptions, and they talked about how much they'd like to see a published edition of the actual letters someday.

Charles Cather's death eased the prohibitions in Cather's will, according to the Willa Cather Trust, a partnership among the Willa Cather Foundation, the University of Nebraska Foundation, and the Cather family. The parties "collectively agreed that granting access to Willa's letters would only enhance the lively academic and scholarly discourse about her life and work and would renew the public's interest in her work," Kimberly Peschka Bilder, associate general counsel for the university foundation, says in an e-mail.

"They were very scholarly minded," Jewell says. The trust felt that "the world had moved on, and they gave us permission to publish the letters."

"There wasn't a hesitation," says Leslie C. Levy, executive director of the Cather foundation, which organizes conferences and educational outreach and preserves and manages several buildings in Red Cloud associated with Cather. (Royalties from the writer's work go to the Cather trust.) "There was definitely a good, thoughtful discussion about the pros and cons and the ramifications."

It helped that scholars, including Guy Reynolds of the University of Nebraska, are part of the Cather Trust. It's "quite unusual" that scholars who study a writer have some say in that writer's estate, Reynolds says. "These questions of who actually handles the estate have become tremendously complex in the world of modern American writing in particular." He points to the delays in getting access to the correspondence of T.S. Eliot as a notable example.

The situation with the Cather trust is more straightforward, according to Reynolds. "We've got a very clear system set up so that, along with our colleagues in Red Cloud, we are handling the estate," he says. "We've been very happy with the communications and the help and guidance of Cather's family," which has been "very actively interested in making sure a wide readership gains access to this material."

Still, scholars like Robert Thacker, a professor of Canadian studies and English at St. Lawrence University, have been forced to wait for this moment a long time. Cather scholars "had long become accustomed to the limbo between having seen letters and knowing what the language was and knowing how she wrote, and this proviso in the will which handcuffed us," he says. In most cases, "requests from run-of-the-mill academics were simply ignored. I speak as a run-of-the-mill academic who was ignored on more than one occasion."

Thacker has had an essay on Cather's relationship with her first editor languishing on his desk "for about five years, because it had too many quotations in it," he says. "Now I've revised it, and it's in the pipeline to be published next year."

Being able to quote from the letters "is a game changer," says Reynolds. "It doesn't invalidate the scholarship that's come before, but it will make the new way of scholarship more complex and interesting." The letters alone will keep annotators busy for quite some time. In the last few years, as more archival material has come to light and researchers have looked more closely at all of Cather's writings, including her journalism, "there's been a voluminous expansion of the material we have to work with," Reynolds says. That's created more interest in understanding the making of a literary life like Cather's.

The letters show the workings of that life from the inside. They reveal Cather as a writer who "paid very careful attention" to the art and craft and to the business of writing, says Romines of George Washington University, who's editing a special issue of the Willa Cather Newsletter & Review on the letters. "You don't have a full view of Cather as a writer until you see the letters."

In 1908, Cather was in her mid-30s, living in New York City and working as the managing editor of McClure's, a high-flying job for any writer but especially for a female journalist of the day. In a letter to the writer Sarah Orne Jewett, whom Cather admired, she reports that her boss, S.S. McClure, says "he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories, that I am a good executive and I had better let it go at that."

Cather worries he's right. In "things about the office," she says, "I can usually do what I set out to do and I can learn by experience, but when it comes to writing I'm a new-born baby every time—always come into it naked and shivery and without any bones. I never learn anything about it at all."

That sense of intimate, sometimes painful engagement with the work stayed with her long after she left journalism and established herself as one of the eminent writers of the day. In her November 6, 1938, letter to her brother Roscoe, she writes: "People say I have a 'classic style.' A few of them know it's the heat under the simple words that counts. I early learned that if you loved your theme enough you could be as mild as a May morning and still make other people care. ... It's the one thing, that simple really caring for an old Margie, an old cat, an old anything."

But Cather also took pains with the business side of publishing. She held strong opinions about paper stock and bindings, and detested the idea that any book of hers might come out as a cheaply made paperback. Throughout her career, she made firm suggestions to her publishers about book-jacket copy, advertising, illustrations, and offers to adapt her work.

"Anything more deadly dull than this jacket text, I can't imagine," she tells an editor in October 1929. "Please telegraph me that you will use the copy I'm sending you, and not that which is now in the proof of the jacket; and please write me the name of the person who wrote the copy; as I want to talk with her—or him—when I get back to town."

Cather had a good relationship with Alfred A. Knopf, one of her longtime publishers, and did not hesitate to let him know when she felt let down. In a letter dated February 10, 1928, written during a long visit home to Red Cloud, she complains about how hard it has been for local book dealers to fill orders for Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Demand for the novel "seems a mixed blessing, as even now there seems to be no very adequate method of satisfying it," she tells Knopf. "When you decided not to give the 'Archbishop' any individual advertising, then I understood that it was up to the book to sell itself if it could. But how can it sell itself if it is not printed, and if the jobbers don't carry it?" She points out that the novel was unavailable for a brief time "at the most critical part of the selling season," right before Christmas: "However, that's over now. The point I raise is, why is it still so hard to get books?"

The letters "will become a good resource for people who are interested in the history of American publishing, the history of American editing," says Reynolds. "All of those things are going to be refracted through the letters. So it should have a fairly big footprint in terms of what it's telling you about the late Victorian-early 20th century world."

Cather enjoyed—or suffered through—literary celebrity in her lifetime. By the 1920s, with a Pulitzer Prize to her name, she had become a very prominent figure. William Faulkner recognized her, along with himself, as one of the great modern writers. But by the mid-20th-century she was sometimes pigeonholed as simply a regional novelist.

The letters should help dispatch what's left of that stereotype. Place mattered a great deal to Cather but did not limit her as a writer. "So many people think of her as this rural Nebraskan great aunt of a certain generation," says Thacker. She wrote not just about the Nebraska she knew growing up but also about the Southwest, where she traveled extensively, the antebellum South, and 17th-century Quebec. She maintained lifelong ties to Red Cloud but spent years in Pittsburgh working as a journalist, then moved to New York in 1906, when she was 32, to work for McClure at his eponymous magazine.

The city became her permanent home base. Cather enjoyed going to concerts and the theater and "was quite a cosmopolitan," Thacker says. In the letters "you get a much more variegated sense of a person living her life with a multitude of connections and who's also paying attention to the world around her."

Reynolds hopes that Cather would be able to make some sort of peace with having her letters published at last. "I like to think that, because we work for the public university where she got her education, she would smile and shrug her shoulders," he says.

For all that the letters tell us about Cather as a friend and companion, an artist, and a businesswoman, contemporary readers shouldn't pick up the book expecting secrets and confessions. "Codes of privacy used to be very different than they are now," Reynolds says. "We live in the age of the misery memoir, of the confessional autobiography, of telling everyone that you were abused as a child. It's a sign of authenticity."

Such soul-baring would not have appealed to Cather. Literature, not personal history, was what she wanted to be celebrated for. Making her letters public Reynolds says, takes us back "to a more private world."

Corrections, 3/23/2013, 3:23 p.m.: The name of a scholar, Ann Romines, was misspelled in the original version of this article, which also stated that royalties from Cather's work go to the Cather foundation. They go to the Willa Cather Trust. The article has been corrected.

Jennifer Howard is a senior reporter for The Chronicle.