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Willa Cather’s Correspondence Reveals Something New

The rage of a great American novelist

Fotosearch/Archive Photos/Getty Images

It is reasonable to expect some howling dark secret to leap from the pages of Willa Cather’s letters, so long and zealously withheld from the prying eyes of the reading public have these letters been, and by Cather’s imperious command. As so often happens with such well-publicized delays—T. S. Eliot’s letters are a comparable case—the curiosity of readers can be pretty much exhausted by the time the letters are finally loosed upon the scene, less with a bang than a whimper. Nothing in Cather’s letters, frank and readable and (at their bracing best) angry and indignant as they often are, is likely to inspire readers not already so inclined to turn to Cather’s sparkling and still arresting novels. And that is a pity, since Cather is one of our very greatest novelists. For imaginative intensity, idiosyncrasy of vision, and even structural experimentation—“our writers experiment too little,” she complained in a letter in 1931—she is right there at the top, with Hawthorne and Melville, Wharton and James, Faulkner and Bellow.

Cather’s secret, it has long been surmised, must have had something to do with her sexual orientation. If so, it was a secret badly concealed during her long lifetime, which extended from her birth in rural Virginia in 1873 (not 1876, as she vainly claimed) to a couple of years beyond the end of World War II. Named Willa in the Southern manner of turning pretty much any man’s name into a woman’s, she signed her early letters “William” or “Willie,” wore pants, and cut her hair short. She never married, despite eligible male suitors, and lived openly, in Pittsburgh and Greenwich Village, for extended periods with two different women. (They apparently obeyed her wishes, since only postcards to one, Isabelle McClung, and a single letter to the other, her longtime companion and literary executor Edith Lewis, survive.) To her college classmate Louise Pound (who became a distinguished folklorist and the first woman president of the Modern Language Association), with whom she was passionately in love, she wrote, when she was nineteen, “It is manifestly unfair that ‘feminine friendships’ should be unnatural.” Marital discord and the charms of strong women are everywhere in her fiction; it would be a surprising secret indeed to discover, at this late date, that she lusted after men.

No, it seems likely that Cather wanted her letters, mostly written in haste and on the fly, to remain unpublished for the same reason that she avoided, for the last three decades of her life, lecturing, reviewing, and interviews: she simply didn’t have time for such things. If her letters weren’t up to the standard of Flaubert and Mérimée, she preferred to keep them secret. The letters do provide a pleasurable meander through Cather’s interesting childhood, her very long literary apprenticeship, and her early forays into writing, before the spectacular success of My Ántonia.

Cather’s happy upbringing in the Shenandoah Valley, the beautiful landscape memorialized in her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, was abruptly interrupted when her father moved the family, when she was nine, to the desolate prairies of Nebraska, parched for rain and artistic culture. “I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything,” she wrote of the treeless expanse. “It was a kind of erasure of personality.” A precocious child, she learned Latin and French with ease, though her “posatively awful” spelling was as bad as Scott Fitzgerald’s. By her own account, she was a misfit, resistant to every attempt to “remake her” according to the patterns of acceptable femininity. “I always used to be a little afraid of my grown-up relatives as a child,” she confessed to one of her aunts in 1913. “I felt as if all of them, even father, wanted to make me over, and I didn’t want to be made over—oh, not a bit!”

As a child, Cather had dreamed of being a scientist, but when an English teacher at the University of Nebraska, where she enrolled in 1891, sent an essay of hers on Carlyle to a local paper, the sight of her own sentences in print captured her for life. Still a college student, she wrote for the State Journal; she also interviewed visiting writers such as Stephen Crane, and proofread the serialized version of The Red Badge of Courage. With the help of editors she had worked for in Nebraska, she got a job in Pittsburgh, the “City of Dreadful Dirt,” editing the “namby-pamby” Home Monthly Magazine, directed at women readers and full of “gentle home and fireside stuff.”

For roughly twenty years, Cather worked tirelessly as a professional journalist and newspaperwoman at the very top of her profession, first for papers in Pittsburgh and then for S. S. McClure’s magazine and publishing empire in New York. She wrote a biography of Mary Baker Eddy for McClure and ghostwrote his autobiography. She stole stray hours on the side to write stories, despite McClure’s discouraging judgment that she had little talent for fiction and that she was “a good executive and ... had better let it go at that.” She took to heart the advice of the writer Sarah Orne Jewett, whom she met in Boston while slaving over the Eddy book: “your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices.” Finally, during the fall of 1912, with the publication of O Pioneers! forthcoming, and after an inspiring journey among the cliff dwellings of New Mexico and Arizona, Cather took the leap, devoting herself full-time to fiction. We can register the drama of this decision partly in Cather’s refusals. Many of her letters are simply ways, kind or surly, of saying no—no to lectures at various universities, no to a biography of Amy Lowell.

If there is a secret lurking in Cather’s correspondence, it might be this: her best writing, certainly in her letters and in much of her fiction, is driven by anger. Conflict and disappointment, resentment and rage, bring a vigor and vitality to her sentences. Pages and pages in these letters are nothing but dutiful noises directed at her long-lived parents, her many siblings, her nieces and nephews. The editors seem to think that we should take an interest in these dreary letters for the occasional use Cather made of their recipients in her fiction, despite her remark, regarding her great story “Two Friends,” that “You can never get it through people’s heads that a story is made out of an emotion or an excitement, and is not made out of the legs and arms and faces of one’s friends or acquaintances.”

The editors, who like Cather when she is being polite, balk when she suddenly unleashes some inspired bit of cruelty. Once, while visiting the Swedish-American soprano Olive Fremstad, who provided the “legs and arms and face” for the singer in The Song of the Lark, Cather accidentally pierced her own scalp with a hatpin, which resulted in an infection requiring hospitalization. In a letter to the writer Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Cather erupted:

There’s no place in my scheme of life for the unlucky. I’ll have to think it over. People who go and have grotesque accidents are clowns, and I feel toward them exactly as the people who used to go from London to Bedlam felt toward the sport they went to behold. I can’t share the tender feeling of our time toward the abbreviated. People minus their leg or their hair are roaringly funny and ought to be laughed at and exhibited, not cuddled.

There are many interesting ways to take such a passage, but the editors’ response, that it displays “Cather’s peculiar aversion to deformity or illness,” is not one of them. One feels that the editors would prefer to “abbreviate” Cather herself. What Cather is expressing, aside from her own delight in exaggeration and her joke about abbreviated people like her own hairless self, is her Nietzschean aversion, partly acquired from the tough-minded Fremstad, to being pampered. “It’s very little coddling I’m giving myself these days,” she says. “But for the present I’m in hiding—trying to grow hide.” 

Reading Flaubert’s letters to his niece Caroline, whom she met in Aix during the early 1930s and about whom she wrote a moving short memoir titled “A Chance Meeting,” Cather remarks dryly, “How many writers have found one understanding ear among their sons or daughters?” She certainly did not find an understanding ear among her own family members regarding art and artists. “My brothers are loyal and kind,” she wrote, “but they are not interested in these things.” After an unpleasant visit to Red Cloud in 1916, she complained to
her brother Douglass:

I shall always be sorry that I went home last summer, because I seemed to get in wrong at every turn. It seems not to be anything that I do, in particular, but my personality in general, what I am and think and like and dislike, that you all find exasperating after a little while. I’m not so well pleased with myself, my dear boy, as you sometimes seem to think. Only in my business one has to advertise a little or drop out—I surely do not advertise or talk about myself as much as most people who write for a living.1

There is nothing more vital in such early stories as “A Wagner Matinée” and “The Sculptor’s Funeral” than her rage at the philistinism of the prairie towns she knew in her youth. “The Sculptor’s Funeral” ends with the lawyer Jim Laird, a failure among failures, indignantly haranguing the men who have come to honor the dead sculptor, Merrick, the only distinguished man to come from their small town. “There was only one boy ever raised in this borderland between ruffianism and civilization who didn’t come to grief, and you hated Harvey Merrick more for winning out than you hated all the other boys who got under the wheels.” Cather, it seems obvious, is imagining how the citizens of Red Cloud might respond to news of her own death.

Cather’s novels are often described as prairie idylls, partly as a result of the nostalgic packaging that Alfred Knopf, taking a page from the selling of Robert Frost as genial Yankee, conferred on them as a marketing ploy. They are nothing of the kind. The Song of the Lark (1915), badly mistitled—as Randolph Bourne pointed out in this magazine and as Cather acknowledged—is tough as nails in its savage appraisal of the respectable folk of Moonstone, modeled in every conceivable way, building by building and street by street, on Red Cloud, and their resentful incomprehension of everything the budding artist in their midst, the singer Thea Kronberg, is and does. My Ántonia is flinty and indignant in its assessment of the vulnerable lives that young immigrant women—“The Hired Girls,” as one section is angrily titled—were subjected to, including rape, at the hands of the crude-minded and predatory locals. The incredible run of bitter masterpieces that Cather published during the 1920s—A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, and My Mortal Enemy—take much of their energy from resentment, on the part of admirable characters, of uncomprehending family members and audiences. Cather relieves the rancor with momentary openings in praise of an older, simpler America and the achievements of artists or visionary businessmen (Cather had a weakness for these), before the nation trampled aesthetic values under financial concerns.

It is often said that Cather was a conservative, and that her conservatism deepened as she got older. Both characterizations are misleading, and fail to register nuances in her own temperament or the complexity of American party politics during her youth. Her letters have little to say about politics beyond a general wrath directed at war:

I believe that when nations war the milk and cream go sour and the hens refuse to lay. Of course the pursuit of happiness is not the reality it’s supposed to be. The pursuit of pain seems to be just as irradicable a human instinct, and it breaks out in spite of all the wisdom in the world.

In December 1914, she made a prediction about the timing of the next world war that was accurate to the year: “I suppose they will patch up a temporary peace and then, in twenty-five years, beat it again with a new crop of men.” Though pacifists attacked it when it came out, her all-but-forgotten novel One of Ours, which the young editor Alfred Knopf somehow turned into a best-seller and which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, is hardly a glorification of war. Cather’s point is not that her hero, Claude Wheeler, needs the violence of a war to feel reborn in France. It is, rather, that only a war can get him dislodged from his horrible life among narrow-minded Christians on a farm in Nebraska with a wife who dreams of nothing but missionary work. Apparently gay, and starved for sex and culture, Claude comes alive when he meets among his fellow soldiers the violinist David Gerhardt. “Claude, c’est moi,” Cather basically says in letter after letter.

Perhaps she comes closest to a statement of her own political views in the wonderful story “Two Friends,” from the triptych titled Obscure Destinies (1932), structurally and thematically based on Flaubert’s late collection Trois contes. Cather plausibly considered the story, the most neglected of the three in the volume, “the best short story I have ever done,” and thought it recalled Courbet in its “queer romantic sort of realism.” The story is built around the friendship of two contrasting businessmen, the voluble Irish Catholic banker and shopkeeper Dillon and the reticent cattleman and gambler Trueman, who meet each night in the office of Dillon’s store for conversation and checkers. Cather establishes the characters from the way they talk; the story closely resembles, in this regard, the verse stories and “sentence sounds” of Frost’s North of Boston, a book she particularly admired. “Every sentence he uttered was alive,” she wrote of Dillon, “never languid, perfunctory, slovenly, unaccented. When he made a remark, it not only meant something, but sounded like something,—sounded like the thing he meant.”2

A quarrel about politics destroys the friendship. Dillon is enamored of the Populist Nebraskan Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech; Trueman is appalled by it. In keeping with the themes of the story, it is Bryan’s way of talking that puts a wedge between the two men. We are invited to feel that Bryan’s outsize brand of eloquence (“great orator,” says Dillon) or rhetorical flatulence (“Great windbag!” mutters Trueman) has upset the nightly conversational balance between these “two aristocrats,” as Cather’s narrator, who listened to the two men as a child, calls them. Reading between the lines, we can surmise that in Cather’s view the Republican Party of McKinley and Mark Hanna has become the party of plutocrats while the Democrats, bewitched by Bryan, have become the party of resentment and delusion. Grover Cleveland—the Democrat who attracted many Republicans to cross party lines in earlier elections—Trueman remarks, “must feel like he’d taken a lot of trouble for nothing.”

Cather seems to have become more broad-minded over time regarding African Americans and Jews. Her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, written to distract her from the “unspeakable” World War II, is marred by predictable stereotyping of black characters—as Toni Morrison pointed out, even the title disregards the humanity of the unnamed “slave girl” Nancy. The novel is nonetheless a serious attempt to make sense of the human relationships between “house servants” and their masters, especially the slave mistress Sapphira who, as Morrison astutely points out, is the “real fugitive” of the novel. One has to remember that this is the era of Gone with the Wind. It is interesting to come across Langston Hughes thanking Cather for “the sympathy with which you treated my people.”

There is little evidence of anti-Semitism in Cather’s letters. She certainly didn’t like it when her beloved Isabelle McClung married a violinist—“a devastating loss to me”—who happened to be, in addition, “a very brilliant and perfectly poisonous Jew.” But when that same violinist introduced her to the Menuhin family, Cather was enchanted, and adopted young Yehudi, the violin prodigy, and his sister Hepzibah as though they were her own children. One can almost believe her when she says to Alfred Knopf, after discovering a remote connection between a teacher of Yehudi’s and one of her own childhood instructors: “I suppose I got a kind of Hebrew complex at that age, and the grand Jews still seem to me the most magnificent people on earth.” She used the same adjective for her character Louie Marsellus, who is certainly set up to be the resented Jewish parasite in The Professor’s House. When Professor St. Peter’s beloved student Tom Outland, inventor of a new kind of engine, is killed in World War I, Marsellus successfully markets the invention and marries Outland’s fiancée, Rosamond St. Peters. Marsellus is blackballed (by his anti-Semitic brother-in-law) at the local club, but it is the professor who speaks most reliably when he praises his Jewish son-in-law as “magnanimous and magnificent.”

Cather liked to say that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” and that she much preferred the earlier era. The writers she most admired—Kipling and Housman and Frost—spoke for this tougher-minded age, she believed. She particularly liked Frost’s “tough verse” in North of Boston, which reminded her of Chekhov:

The book is so important and so devoid of splendor. Out of this shabby, ungrammatical new bunch it’s so amazing to find some one who can write verse, and such real, tight, tough verse as it is! Individual syncopation, individual intervals, queer swell in the middle of the line, and then a dreary flattening out of words to off-set it.

Her unlikely favorite among Flaubert’s novels was Salammbô: “I like him in those great reconstructions of the remote and cruel past.” She thought Americans had become “soft”—it is one of her most damning epithets—and she is ruthless in running down what she called “Willie boys.”3 On her first trip to Europe, accompanied by Dorothy Canfield, she tracked down Housman—who wasn’t, as she had hoped, in Shropshire, where she carefully matched poems with their inspiring locales, but rather in London. The meeting did not go well, and certainly not as swimmingly as Ford Madox Ford, that “Prince of Prevaricators,” later claimed, when he reported that Cather had delivered a gold wreath to the poet on behalf of the Pittsburgh Shropshire Lad Club. At the end of the letters, she is still trying to sort out what really happened, and expressing her disappointment that Housman, that “severe Latin teacher,” should have become “the apologist for lazy youths who whine that the world owes them a living—a living with
laurel and roses!”

If she had to choose an American guide to European culture, she certainly preferred—it is the subject of one of her last, best letters—a backward-looking curmudgeon like Henry Adams to a soft-minded “modern” like Gertrude Stein.

Once when I was in France for a year, I had an opportunity to observe some of the young Americans who flocked about Gertrude Stein. One couldn’t very well tell whether they were youths of promise or not; they certainly thought they were, and fearlessly stated that opinion. But not one of them in the years that have gone by has done anything that took hold of one very hard.

Presumably she includes Hemingway. “What I mean,” she continued, “is it takes the right kind of young American to go to France. He must have character and depth, and a passion for the things that lie deep behind French history and French art. I wish I could have had a comfortable boardinghouse near Chartres when Henry Adams used to prowl about the cathedral. Young people who flocked about Gertrude Stein were a rather soft lot. Some of them wore bracelets!!” She herself was wearing a metal brace on her injured right hand when she wrote this letter. The last words she wrote were: “Curse my metal thumb!” 

Christopher Benfey is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival (Penguin).


  1. Cather’s brilliant essay about meeting Flaubert’s niece makes one wish that she had written more fragments of memoir. The piece inspired Rachel Cohen’s impressive book A Chance Meeting, which tells the story of American literature as a series of chance meetings between the likes of Henry James and Mathew Brady, with a special emphasis on photography, race relations, and same-sex relationships.
  2. Vitality of language, for both Cather and Frost, needed to pass the closed-door test. According to Frost, writing to a friend in 1913, “The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.” And here is Cather on what she calls, in “Two Friends,” the “possibilities of voice”: “When Mr. Dillon was closeted with a depositor in his private room in the bank, and you could not hear his words through the closed door, his voice told you exactly the degree of esteem in which he held that customer. It was interested, encouraging, deliberative, humorous, satisfied, admiring, cold, critical, haughty, contemptuous, according to the deserts and pretensions of his listener.”
  3. Cather was so hostile to effeminate traits in women that it’s hardly surprising to find in her a matching intolerance for effeminate men. And yet, her most anthologized story, “Paul’s Case,” is a deeply sympathetic portrait of a teenager in love with opera and Oscar Wilde, a red carnation aflame in his button-hole, lost in the relentlessly “respectable” monotony of Calvinist Pittsburgh.