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The Heart of the Heartland

Meet the best novelist of the 20th century.

By From the September 2013 issue

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The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
Edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout
(Knopf, 752 pages, $37.50)

Willa Cather’s literary reputation is even now, nearly 70 years after her death, less than clear. In her day—born in 1873, she published her main novels and books of stories between 1912 and 1940—she was regarded as insufficiently modernist, both in method and in outlook. She was later found to be a poor fit for academic feminism, for she wrote about the great dignity of female strength and resignation in the face of the harshest conditions. Advocates of gay literature who inhabit universities under the banner of Queer Theory have attempted to adopt her, taking her for a lesbian—she never married and had no serious romantic relationships with men—but her lesbianism remains suppositious at best. The powerful critics of her day and of ours have never lined up behind her. All she has had is readers who adore her novels and stories.

I am among them, and if pressed I should say that Willa Cather was the best novelist of the 20th century. Not all of her novels were successful: One of Ours, Lucy Gayheart, Sapphira and the Slave Girl don’t really come off. But those that do—O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Antonia (1918), A Lost Lady (1923) The Professor’s House (1925), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), and Shadows on the Rock (1931)—do so with a grace and grandeur that show a mastery of the highest power. 

Willa Cather’s great subject was immigration to America, chiefly among northern Europeans, their endurance in the face of nature’s pitiless hardships, and what she calls “the gorgeous drama with God.” Her prose was confidently cadenced and classically pure, never—like that of Hemingway or Faulkner—calling attention to itself, but instead devoted to illuminating her characters and their landscapes. (No one described landscape more beautifully than she.) Snobbery, egotism, politics never marred her storytelling. She wrote with a fine eye for the particular without ever losing sight of the larger scheme of the game of life. 

Cather’s favorite of her own novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop, her account of two missionary French priests settling what will one day be New Mexico, strikes so exquisite a note of reverence that many people took its author for a Catholic. She wasn’t. Born a Baptist, she later became an Episcopalian. In one of the letters in the recently published collection The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, Cather writes to a sociologist at the University of Miami named Read Bain that she was not a Catholic nor had she any intention of becoming one. “On the other hand,” she wrote, “I do not regard the Roman Church merely as ‘artistic material.’ If the external form and ceremonial of that Church happens to be more beautiful than that of other churches, it certainly corresponds to some beautiful vision within. It is sacred, if for no other reason than that it is the faith that has been most loved by human creatures, and loved over the greatest stretch of centuries.” 

THAT WE HAVE The Selected Letters of Willa Cather at all is a point of interest in itself. Willa Cather intensely disliked having her private life on display. She carefully promoted her books, frequently chiding publishers for their want of effort at publicizing them and stocking them in bookstores. But she didn’t think that promoting and publicizing extended to promoting and publicizing herself. She eschewed writing blurbs for the excellent reason that “sometimes the best possible friends write the worst possible books.” She gave few interviews, and when she wrote something about another person in a letter, she not uncommonly asked that her recipient keep it in confidence. Like Henry James, she burned many of the letters sent to her.

“We fully realize that in producing this book of selected letters,” write the editors of The Selected Letters, “we are defying Willa Cather’s stated preference that her letters remain hidden from the public eye.” Their justification is that now, 66 years after her death in 1947, with her artistic reputation secure, “these letters heighten our sense of her complex personality, provide insights into her methods and artistic choices as she worked, and reveal Cather herself to be a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being.” The letters, in their view, flesh out in a useful way the skeletal figure of the pure artist that Cather preferred to project. 

Nothing in The Selected Letters touches directly on the vexed question of Willa Cather’s sexuality—on, that is, whether or not she was a lesbian. The reason is the paucity of the letters to the two women with whom Cather was closest during her adult life. The first was Isabelle McClung, in whose family’s house she lived while a journalist and high-school teacher in Pittsburgh. Isabelle later married a violinist named Jan Hambourg from a Jewish family of musicians, which was painful for Cather, who didn’t much care for him. When Isabelle died, in 1938, Cather felt it as a great subtraction. The second, Edith Lewis, with whom Cather shared apartments in New York and vacation homes in Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy and in Maine, worked in publishing and later as a copywriter. She assisted in innumerable ways, from proofreader to nurse during Cather’s many late-life ailments. Lewis survived Cather and wrote a rather anodyne memoir of her after her death. 

Hermione Lee, Cather’s least tendentious biographer, refers to Edith Lewis’s status as that of “wife” to Willa Cather. But she also allows that there is no evidence of the novelist ever having been the lover of either Isabelle McClung or Edith Lewis. If Cather’s and Isabelle McClung’s had been an active lesbian relationship, it is highly unlikely that Isabelle’s father, a judge known for his conservative outlook, would have permitted Cather to live in his house. Nor would Cather have traveled and lived so openly with Edith Lewis if theirs was a lesbian relationship, for there were few things that Willa Cather more greatly contemned than scandal. Case closed, or so one would like to think, though it probably never will be, for, as La Rochefoucauld had it, dirty minds never sleep. 

Willa Cather was born in Virginia and, fortunately for her art, her family moved to Nebraska when she was nine. The move was jolting in every sense, physically and psychologically. The Nebraska landscape was barren, conventional cultural life there nearly non-existent. Her father, a gentle man of great dignity, arranged farm loans, at which he was only moderately successful. Her mother did not easily take to life on the prairie. 

Cather was the oldest in a family of seven children, with two sisters and four brothers. The town of Red Cloud, where the Cathers settled, was without many amenities, but she found there an Englishman named William Drucker who instructed her in Greek and Latin. German-Jewish neighbors kept a decent library to which they allowed her access. Her initial impulse was to become a doctor. She dressed boyishly, was called Willie. In some of her letters in later life she writes of her insensitivity to her family, but in regard to her surroundings she was one of those children on whom not much was lost. Great writers are in training for their art long before they are even aware they wish to be writers. 

Willa Cather grew to know the Bohemian, Swedish, Norwegian, German farmers with whom her father did business, and to love the land despite its droughts, scorching sun, brutal winters, and unforgiving severity. She would later come to love the Colorado of the cliff dwellers, of whom she wrote in The Professor’s House, and the Southwest even more. “I do not think my heart ever got across the Missouri river,” she wrote to an old Nebraska friend. To her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, she wrote during a holiday in Red Cloud: “I get more thrills to the square mile out of this cornfield country than I can out of any other country in the world.”

Some of Cather’s more interesting letters are to publishers and editors. The first major publisher for her novels was Houghton Mifflin, where she dealt with an editor named Ferris Greenslet. She felt her books treated as second-class merchandise there, and in 1919 she left Houghton Mifflin for the firm of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Knopf, who was then 26 years old and who had begun his firm four years earlier, was eager to have Willa Cather’s books on his list. The move was providential, and profitable to both author and publisher. The young Knopf brought out her books in handsome editions, and always treated their author as the literary equivalent of a grande dame, which was, one learns from her letters, the least she expected. 

For a girl raised in the outback of North America, Willa Cather, once out of Nebraska, quickly took on the cosmopolitan qualities of the highly cultivated writer. She worked eight years for McClure’s, the New York magazine where Ida Tarbell and other muckraking writers of the day regularly wrote. Cather herself ghost-wrote for the magazine the biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. She made a number of trips to Europe. Her experience widened, her insights deepened. 

WILLA CATHER'S TASTES in literature, music, food, travel were all impressively refined. She favored Balzac, Tolstoy, and Henry James, and claimed the last two as influences on her own writing. She preferred French over English novelists, because they dispensed with congeniality and their range of interests was much wider. Her love of music ran strong, and she later befriended the Menuhin family, whose son Yehudi was the great violin prodigy of his day. Food was important to her, in and for itself and for what it conveyed about civilized culture. In a scene in Death Comes for the Archbishop, the novel’s main character, Bishop Latour, is served an onion soup by his assistant Father Vaillant, about which the bishop remarks: “I am not deprecating your individual talent, Joseph, but, when one thinks of it, a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.” 

Willa Cather hated vulgarity, in art and in life. She wrote to Alfred Knopf, on the death of his father, of “that delicate instrument inside one which knows the cheap from the fine. The recognition of the really fine is simply one of the richest pleasures in life.” In life so in art: “As one grows older,” she wrote to the Nebraska editor Will Owen Jones, “one cares less about clever writing and more about a simple and faithful presentation.” She chose not to have her novels published in school editions, for she didn’t want them to be “assigned to students as part of the grind”; forced to read her in school, she felt, they would be unlikely to do so in later years when they were mature enough to appreciate her.

Cather had published five books—a volume of verse, another of short stories, and three novels—before My Antonia (1918), the novel of life on the prairie as told by Jim Burden, who arrives in Nebraska on the same train as the novel’s heroine, the Bohemian immigrant Antonia Schimerdas. Randolph Bourne, one of the powerful critics of the day, said of the novel: “Here at last is an American novel, redolent of the Western prairie, that our most irritated and exacting preconceptions can be content with.” Not all the criticism of the novel was positive; nor was its commercial success immediate. But its achievement as a work of art convinced Willa Cather of her own standing as an artist of high seriousness. 

The rest of the world soon followed her in this opinion. Her World War I novel, One of Ours, a book that peters out sadly in its second half, won a Pulitzer Prize. (Pulitzer Prizes in the arts, as everyone knows, go to two kinds of people: those who don’t need them and those who don’t deserve them.) Universities began lining up to give her honorary degrees, a queue that lasted throughout her life. Her novels, under the publishing orchestration of Alfred A. Knopf, had a reliably steady sale. 

Sarah Orne Jewett, the author of The Country of the Pointed Firs, had once advised the young Willa Cather to “write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up… And to write and work on this level, we must live on it—we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.” 

“To write well,” Cather wrote to her brother Douglas, “you have to be all wrapped up on your game and think it awfully worth while.” For her there was no better game. She steered clear of politics in her writing, feeling that those with “zeal to reconstruct and improve human society seem to lose touch with human beings and with the individual needs and desires which make people what they are.” Not even Tolstoy could win through as a reformer, she notes in one of her letters, and “certainly no one ever took the puzzle of human life more to heart or puzzled over it more agonizingly,—not even the New Republic.” 

“People say I have a ‘classic style,’” Cather wrote to Roscoe, another of her four brothers. “A few of them know it’s the heat under the words that counts.” A feeling for the English sentence, she felt, was “the beginning of everything.” Style, she believed, was “merely the writer, not the person himself; what he was born with and what he has done to himself.” Admiration and love for her subjects were strong ingredients in her writing. “I can write successfully only when I write about people or places that I very greatly admire; which, indeed, I actually love.” Real feeling was at the heart of great writing for her, though of course it took “skill to get that feeling across to many people in many languages, but the strong feeling that comes out of the living heart is the thing most necessaryand most rarely found.

THE TOUGHEST THING to arrange in life is a smooth exit. The Selected Letters shows that Willa Cather could not arrange one. Illnesses kicked in as she grew old. An inflamed sheath of the large tendon in the thumb of her right hand kept her from writing for months at a stretch. The death of friends and members of her family threw her off course to the point of near-nervous breakdown, for she felt things deeply. As she wrote to Thomas Masaryk, the founder and president of Czechoslovakia, she felt, as people of a certain age will, that “the times are out of joint.” Elsewhere, in the preface to Not Under Forty (1936), her collection of essays, she wrote that no one under the age of 40 was likely to understand her essays, for “the world changed in 1922, or thereabouts,” by which she meant that the world was no longer producing men and women with the solidity of character of the immigrant generations. The world seemed a more garish yet dreary place than the one she grew up in, filled with such vulgarians as Ivy Peters, a character whose coarseness she described in A Lost Lady

A note of complaint works its way in the late-life letters; the editors note that she could sometimes play the “drama queen.” But this tends to be blotted out by the many passages of insight and good sense. She is wonderful on child-raising, and the penalties attaching to too much mother love. There is also the solace of accomplishment recognized. She is delighted to find herself the subject of an article in Encylopaedia Britannica. When she learns that Thomas Hardy and J.M. Barrie thought well of her novels, she writes to William Lyon Phelps, the Yale professor and literary critic: “I think there is nothing so satisfying as having given pleasure, in their old age, to some of the writers who fascinated one in one’s youth.” 

Skeptical of modernity, Cather had a low view of “the cold pride of science [which] is the most devilish thing that has ever come into this world. It is the absolute enemy of happiness. The human mind, not the spirit, has disinherited human nature.” In The Professor’s House, she formulates this precisely when she has the novel’s eponymous hero Professor Godfrey St. John tell a student:

No, Miller, I don’t myself think much of science, as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for the distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science…hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins—not one! Indeed it takes the old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world…I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no imortance—you impoverish them…The king and the beggar had the same chance at miracles and great temptations and revelations. And that’s what makes men happy, believing in the mystery and importance of their own little individual lives. It makes us happy to surround our creature needs and bodily instincts with as much pomp and circumstance as possible. Art and religion (they are the same thing in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.

In one of the last of her letters, she writes to E.K. Brown, one of her early biographers: “…we learn a great deal from great people. The mere information doesn’t matter much—but they somehow strike out the foolish platitudes that we have been taught to respect devoutly, and give us courage to be honest and free. Free to rely on what we really feel and really love—and that only.” 

When Willa Cather wrote that, did she know that she herself had become one of those great people? One hopes so, for she indubitably was. 

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is, with Frederic Raphael, the author of Distant Intimacy (Yale, 2013).