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.

Willa Cather in New Hampshire in 1917.
Willa Cather in New Hampshire in 1917.

Reading them suggests a more general anxiety. ‘There is just a terribly low streak of something both ill-tempered and ill-bred that comes out in me,’ she wrote apologetically to a friend she had been on holiday with, in 1904. Knopf brought out the letters last spring and since then many people have offered reasons why it was right to overrule Cather’s wishes. She died in 1947. It was time. But what exactly was Cather’s problem? There aren’t any sensational revelations here. What there is, however, is evidence of a much loved writer’s vexed and only partially self-aware personality.

The pioneer woman is meant to be a silent type. In the 1910s Cather was a minimalist from the cornfields, a bright spot in the long shadow of Henry James. Her sentences were lucid, patient, imagistic. Like her contemporaries Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson, she picked a fight with smalltown America. But smalltown America has always forgiven her, because Cather always also wanted to celebrate its positive ideals. Her three great heroes, Alexandra Bergson of O Pioneers!, ‘Tony’ Shimerda of My Ántonia and Bishop Latour of Death Comes for the Archbishop, are practical-minded immigrants who survive in Nebraska and New Mexico because they see their very European sense of legend and personal nobility reflected in the potential of the land. Gradually they develop American ideals of fortitude and personal sovereignty. All of Cather’s best books contain huge leaps in time, which are intended to illustrate this. Her American readership is like Robert Frost’s: read by every American schoolchild, both have to be rescued from the flag-wavers with strenous reminders of their ‘dark’ seriousness and formal excellence. In Cather’s case, there is also the rich and bedeviling problem of how to frame her very pointed belief in heroism: is it feminist, populist, elitist, silly, tragic?

Maybe Cather thought she owed it to her fans to keep her image clean and simple. Her letters show her to be, like everyone else, less than heroic, and Cather was herself the type of reader who liked to put her favourite authors on a pedestal. As a young woman she had called on A.E. Housman and been so disappointed by the visit that she burst into tears. ‘He is the most gaunt and grey and embittered individual I know,’ she wrote to her colleague Viola Roseboro a year later. Badgered late in life to tell the story of the encounter, she always put it off. Perhaps she decided that a writer’s personality, if it’s unattractive, shouldn’t impinge on his reputation. She had readily composed an essay about a much more encouraging encounter, with Flaubert’s niece, Caroline Grout, whom she met on holiday in Aix in 1930: ‘No one could fail to recognise her distinction and authority; it was in the carriage of her head, in her fine hands, in her voice, in every word she uttered in any language, in her brilliant, very piercing eyes.’ Cather compares Grout’s way of speaking about Sentimental Education to Garibaldi rallying his soldiers on the retreat from Rome. A less heroic treatment of Flaubert’s niece would not have interested her.

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