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The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout

Hardcover, 715 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $37.50 |


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The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout

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Book Summary

A first publication of the acclaimed writer's personal correspondences includes whimsical accounts of her 1880s adolescence, letters written during her early journalism years, exchanges penned in observation of World War II and her own struggles with aging.

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'Wonderful Words' In Willa Cather's No-Longer-Secret Letters

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Selected Letters Of Willa Cather


Before Willa Cather died, she did what she could to prevent this book from ever existing. She made a will that clearly forbade all publication of her letters, in full or in part. And now we flagrantly defy Cather's will in the belief that her decision, made in the last, dark years of her life and honored for more than half a century, is outweighed by the value of making these letters avail- able to readers all over the world.

Why did she put such restrictions in her will? Various answers have been proposed. Some believe that Cather was guarding her privacy, perhaps worried that the letters she dashed off over the years, not thinking of herself as a public figure, would compromise her literary reputation. Some have wondered if she sought to conceal a secret buried in her years of correspondence, some sign of an indiscretion or uncontrolled passion. Many people, 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. Many have believed she actually did burn all her letters, or almost all, and the will was a kind of backstop.

Our research on Willa Cather's letters calls into question all of these assumptions about Cather, her character, and her motivations. Except for an isolated incident or two, there is no evidence that she systematically collected and destroyed her correspondence. This claim is overwhelmingly demonstrated by the large volume of surviving documents: about three thousand Cather letters are now known to exist, and new caches continue to appear. If Cather or Edith Lewis, her partner and first literary executor, really and systematically sought to destroy all correspondence, would so many letters have survived? Moreover, at the end of Cather's life, people who were quite close to her and would have undoubtedly known about any preference for wholesale destruction did not destroy the letters in their possession; on the contrary, they were concerned, as her niece Virginia Cather Brockway wrote, to be "very careful of everything of Aunt Willies" and protect it from "fire or something unexpected." (See the full letter from Virginia Cather Brockway to Meta Schaper Cather on page 676.)

Indeed, some of the largest and richest collections of existing Cather letters are those that have been protected for decades by members of her family. The episodes of destruction that have given rise to the supposition that Cather destroyed her letters—for example, Elizabeth Sergeant's report in her memoir that all of the letters Cather wrote to her dear friend Isabelle McClung Hambourg were shoved into her apartment's incinerator after Ham- bourg's death (Elizabeth Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992) 275) —appear to be isolated incidents rather than part of a larger pattern of obliteration.

Nevertheless, Cather's testamentary restriction on the publication of her letters was clearly driven by a desire to restrict the readership of them. We do not believe that desire emerged from a need to shield herself or protect a secret, but instead was an act consistent with her long-held desire to shape her own public identity. In her maturity, Cather was a skillful self-marketer, and a major element of her marketing strategy was to limit her publicly available texts to those she had meticulously prepared. She did not fill shelves with hastily written novels or fleeting topical essays, but toiled over each book until it succeeded to the best of her ability. Sometimes she delayed the publication of a novel by months or even years in order to achieve her artistic goals. She even contributed to the design of the physical books, considering each element that might communicate something of her work to the reader. She specified her margin preferences for My Ántonia, had ideas about the font type for Death Comes for the Archbishop, and thwarted most efforts to create paperback editions during her lifetime. Her strategy was extremely successful. By positioning herself not as a "popular" writer but as a literary artist, she was able to give herself the space to be such an artist while also financially succeeding in the marketplace. Her lovely, quiet, episodic novel about seventeenth-century Quebec, Shadows on the Rock, was one of the top-selling books of 1931. It was not a success because readers were rushing to read a novel about colonial Canada, but because the novel was written by the celebrated author Willa Cather.

We can guess that Cather may have believed that an edition of her letters would shift focus away from her novels and onto her private self. She was impatient with writers who managed to sell their books by constructing dramatic images of themselves. Although she did at times contribute to publicity efforts by providing stories of her early life, her goal was to create a persona that practically disappeared behind the work; she sought to meld the art and the artist into one indivisible package. She wrote to her brother Roscoe in 1940 that she was satisfied to do what James M. Barrie and Thomas Hardy did: they "left no 'representatives' but their own books,—and that is best" (See page 588). In this way, the resistance to the publication of her letters was consistent with her resistance, in her later years, to lecturing, interviews, and other forms of exposing her self to the public.

Cather's suppression of the publication of her letters may indeed have helped cement her reputation as a true artist, and today that reputation is virtually unchallenged. In the nearly seven decades since her death, her works have continued to be read, studied, and celebrated, and both general readers and contemporary writers as diverse as A. S. Byatt and David Mamet celebrate her fine artistry and her absolute dedication to her craft. And rightly so: many of Cather's novels and stories are among the finest writings of the twentieth century, rich and complex in their meaning-making, yet elegant and pristine on their surfaces. She manages both to enchant readers with her prose and to move them with her insights into human experience.

From The Selected Letters of Willa Cather by Willa Cather; edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. Copyright 2013 by Willa Cather. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.