Getting the Undulation

Benjamin Lytal

  • The Selected Letters of Willa Cather edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout
    Knopf, 715 pp, £24.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 307 95930 0

In her work Willa Cather celebrated heroism; in her life she collected honorary degrees, told her publishers which typeface to use, and stayed out of politics. When Sinclair Lewis won the first American Nobel Prize he said she should have got it instead. She was read by H.L. Mencken with ‘increasing joy’. She was also lampooned for writing in the style of the Ladies’ Home Journal, dismissed by modernist-minded critics like Edmund Wilson, and accused in 1933 by Granville Hicks, a ubiquitous critic then in his Marxist phase, of falling ‘into a supine romanticism because of a refusal to examine life as it is’. She received buckets of mail from priests who saw themselves in Death Comes for the Archbishop, from doughboys grateful for One of Ours, and what Cather called ‘love letters’ from young men struck by the September-May romance of A Lost Lady. And she lived, according to some posthumous critics, as a closeted homosexual. Cather had many potential reasons for forbidding publication of her letters.

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