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The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
edited by andrew jewell and janis stout
knopf, 752 pages, $37.50

One might be forgiven for feeling some ambivalence in opening this volume, the first-ever publication of the personal correspondence of Willa Cather, the writer who moved from the Nebraska prairie to Pittsburgh, to Greenwich Village, and into the literary pantheon. Editors Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout acknowledge the prospect of this unease in the first lines of their introduction: “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.”

What justifies this disregard is Cather’s vital presence in this far-ranging correspondence. Arranged chronologically and grouped into twelve sections, her letters appear in their entirety minus presumably large bodies of letters, to Cather’s two closest friends (more than friends, some say), that were likely destroyed. Helpful editorial bridges provide ­necessary context, as often Cather is responding to unprinted letters she has received.

Cather’s correspondence shares the same moral core of her novels and stories: Hers are letters of deep affection and understanding. Tender, enduring relationships appear again and again. Having lost her father and then, in 1930, standing by as her mother’s condition deteriorated, she writes to commiserate with Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who had just lost her mother: “These vanishings, that come one after another, have such an impoverishing effect upon those of us who are left—our world suddenly becomes so diminished—the landmarks disappear and all the splendid distances behind us close up. These losses, one after another, make one feel as if one were going on in a play after most of the principal characters are dead.”

Cather took things to heart, both her experience and that of others. During the Dust Bowl she provided coffee, clothing, toys, and boxes of fruit to friends and former neighbors in Nebraska, even going so far as to pay the interest on their farm mortgages: “I got off all my Christmas boxes to my old women on the farms out west. For three of them, thank God, I have been able to save their farms by paying their interest. About nothing ever gave me such pleasure as being able to help them keep their land—the land they’ve worked on since I was ten years old!”

Writing to Irene Miner Weisz in 1945 (to whom, along with Irene’s sister, Carrie, she had dedicated My Antonia), she describes a visit with her brother Roscoe: “The three summers I spent in Wyoming with him and his wife were among the happiest of my life. Now I don’t care about writing any more books. Now I know that nothing really matters to us but the people we love.”

Given the prominence of Roman Catholic history, characters, and attitudes in her fiction, Cather often found it necessary to remind correspondents that she was not a Roman Catholic. In early adulthood she placed her greatest faith in art: “There is no God but one God and Art is his revealer; thats my creed and I’ll follow it to the end, to a hotter place than Pittsburgh if need be. Its not an affectation, its my whole self.”

Later, following her confirmation in the Episcopal Church in 1922, she wrote: “I am a Protestant, but not a narrow minded one. If you make a fair minded study of history you ­cannot be narrow. What ­organization was it that kept the teachings of ­Jesus Christ alive between the year 300 a.d. and the days of Martin Luther?”

To Read Bain, a sociology professor, she writes: “I do not regard the Roman Church merely as ‘artistic material.’ If the external form and ceremonial of that Church happens to be more beautiful than that of other churches, it certainly corresponds to some beautiful vision within. It is sacred, if for no other reason than that is the faith that has been most loved by human creatures, and loved over the greatest stretch of centuries.”

During the last decades of her life, Cather began to lament the cultural decline she saw in America and the devastation brought on by World War II. A sense of loss pervades many of the later letters. To Tomáš Masaryk, a founder and president of Czechoslovakia, she complains, “We live in a strange world, at a strange time. . . . We behave as though we could create a new scale of values by the mere act of besmirching the old.”

At times she seems to want to flee the modern world for a safer place, a more ordered time. How fortunate fellow writer Zoë Akins is, she exclaims, to be able to retreat to her secluded home: “It always brings me peace to think that when the world is full of misery and madness, you can shut yourself up there and forget that the heritage of all the ages is being threatened.” To Viola Roseboro, the fiction editor at McClure’s, she wonders, “Why on earth do we, in all the countless stretch of years, just in our little moment, have to witness everything laid waste?”

Scholars will make good use of the opportunity this volume provides to quote Cather’s own words rather than make do with paraphrases. Still, at a time when privacy and discretion count for so little, one can’t really be faulted for feeling some regret that Willa Cather’s private correspondence has become a public commodity. As she admonished Cyril Clemens, editor of the Mark Twain Quarterly, regarding public demands for details about a personal visit with poet A. E. Housman: “One’s memories, after all, are one’s own, and if one relates them to the public one prefers to do it in one’s own way.”  

Christopher S. Busch is professor of English at Hillsdale College.