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The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

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Still, the sustained eruption of emotion is surely one reason Cather did not want her letters incorporated into her oeuvre. For one thing, she developed the strong belief – set down for all time in 1922 in the essay "The Novel Démeublé" – that in art, direct description of physical sensations or emotion is but "tasteless amplitude." The surface of literature should be cool, uncluttered, austere, while underneath an ineffable, indescribable urgency of feeling should be present, its direct expression repressed, but divined by the reader. Writing to one of her brothers she noted, "People say I have a 'classic style'. A few of them know it's the heat under the simple words that counts."  

Above all, however, her letters, if published, she knew, would stand as a gloss to the stories and novels, detracting from their integrity and indissolubility as art, creating a vitiating sluiceway between her work and her life. Indeed, throughout this volume we find many acid remarks on the intrusiveness of biographers and critics who conflate a writer's work with his or her life. Her distaste for this was aesthetic, personal, and strongly felt; thus she was adamant that her letters to her longtime companion, Edith Lewis, and the love of her life, Isabelle McClung Hambourg, be destroyed.

Be that as it may, I shall just go ahead and conflate the life and the work. In the letters, stronger than the emotions of the moment, is the yearning for culture, fulfillment, and independence that seethes in Cather's fiction, most particularly in the Great Plains trilogy: "O Pioneers!," "My Ántonia," and "The Song of the Lark." The early letters, written when she had escaped to college and thence to Pittsburgh, throb with the intensity of her exhilaration at breaking free of the featureless plains and the alternatives offered by Red Cloud, Nebraska: the cloddish unlettered or the cloying genteel.

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