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The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

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In their introduction to this big book, Jewell and Stout admit that they "flagrantly defy Cather's will" but give widely assorted reasons for doing so:  They say that Cather wrote her will in "the last, dark years of her life" (with darkened judgment?); they observe that anyone who might be hurt by the letters' publication is now dead; that the summaries of Cather's letters (which were permitted) were inadequate and misleading; and that as Cather did not cause her letters to be "systematically" destroyed, the great number of letters still extant suggest she didn't really intend them to disappear. They say that, all told, Cather and her writing, including her letters, are part of our cultural history and "belong to something greater than herself." This last, in my view, is the only justification we need. The publication of Willa Cather's letters, like other contraventions of writers' wishes (the many biographies of George Orwell being a good example) comes down to the simple fact: the dead belong to the living.

There are many ways to read these rich and varied letters: as expressions of Cather's character, personality, and proclivities; as clues to her artistic development; as the reflections of one of the unacknowledged pioneers of modernism; as a portrait of an independent woman at a time when the species was rare; and as an inside look at the world of letters and publishing in the first half of the twentieth century. But right now, at the dawn of their public existence, one is inclined to dwell on why Willa Cather didn't want her letters set before us.

Cather caused some letters to be destroyed because, as she wrote to Mark deWolfe Howe concerning her correspondence with the elderly Annie Fields, they were "entirely artificial and unrepresentative of me," written out of duty to friendship. "I remember well how I used to struggle to fill out a few pages and say nothing at all." But if similar exercises in page filling still exist they are not in this volume. The letters here boil with feeling, with spontaneous expressions of love, friendship, admiration, triumph, vanity, irritation, sorrow, and loss. Absent, however, are sexual transports or allusions to physical intimacy. While it is clear from the letters that Cather was romantically, sometimes passionately, attracted to women, the closest she comes to anything that might bring a blush into the cheek of a young person is discussing – slave to literature that she is – the difficulties of getting her copy of Alphonse Daudet's "Sappho" returned to her.

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