Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What's Scandalous about Willa Cather's Letters?

For years, biographers and fans of author Willa Cather have speculated about why she forbade the publication of her letters. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the exquisite novel My Ántonia, among others, expressly stated in her will that not only were they not to be published, they were not even to be quoted from.

Now, more than 60 years after death, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather has been published, receiving much attention and landing the author on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. Those who assumed Cather prohibited publication because they contained a scandalous secret or because she was a lesbian who lived with editor Edith Lewis for over 40 years will find nothing particularly shocking in the letters.

What Cather fans will find, and will rejoice in reuniting with, is that  wonderful voice: strong and wise and true, and composed of sentences of such grace and clarity that the foolish will mistake it for simplicity: Cather didn't need to use big words to impress and had little tolerance for writing of the stump-the-reader variety.

Here are a few of my favorite sentences in Cather's Letters:

On her dislike of author photos, particularly her own, on book jackets:  "Myself, I think the public prefers to think that authorines are tall, slender, and nineteen years of age."
On a railroad brakeman she initially found pompous: "Tooker is a different man in the Hills. All his miserable information, the encrustation of a wash of millions of magazines, drops away, just as a boy drops his clothes when he goes swimming, and there emerged the real Tooker, the man the sheep camps and the hills made, a very decent sort, strong and active and lots of nerve."

The above passage will be delightfully familiar to Cather fans, as Tooker bears a strong resemblance Ray Kennedy, the railroad brakeman in her novel The Song of the Lark. Ray's will specifies that Thea, a talented music student, use the money he leaves her to study music in Chicago, where she becomes the person she is meant to be: a great singer and artist.

It is primarily because of Cather's work that readers have any interest in her letters. And if you've never read any Cather, you should begin not with the letters but with the novels themselves, as Cather would have wished. An excellent starting point is her most autobiographical novel, The Song of the Lark, which charts a small-town minister's daughter's growth into a magnificent singer. Cather's prose in this novel, as in all her work, remains remarkably fresh and undated. In the section of the book entitled "Stupid Faces," Thea, experiencing a period of youthful disillusionment, thinks: "So many grinning, stupid faces! . . . She was getting tired of the human countenance." I like, too, the response of  a character to Thea's discouragement over the popularity of bad artists: "You must not begin to fret about the successes of cheap people. After all, what have they to do with you?"

Here's a list of some of Willa Cather's best books, including the letters plus one of her biographies. Read some of them and you, too, will likely love the heroine of My Ántonia, a Bohemian immigrant of whom the narrator writes: "more than any other person . . .  [Ántonia] seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood."

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