critical eye

Brief encounters

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
September 3, 2013

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather | Edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout | Alfred A. Knopf | 715 pages | $37.50

In 1906, McClure’s Magazine, flagship of the rampaging muckraking movement, was in deep crisis. S. S. McClure, founder and brainstorming resident genius, had always been unpredictable, but now he was out of control. To the horror of his staff, he trotted out schemes for several new enterprises that threatened the magazine’s financial and editorial stability. Failing to deter him, his all-star staff, led by the legendary editor John S. Phillips, and such writers as Ida M. Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker, decamped to The American Magazine.

Undaunted, McClure began to assemble a new staff from the remnants of the old, and from new talent. He hastened to Pittsburgh to summon Willa Cather, whom he knew only glancingly: In 1905, he had published a selection of her short stories and filled her head full of tales of a glowing future. In fact, she was in her early 30s in 1906, a prairie Nebraskan who had drifted east to Pittsburgh, where she had done newspaper and magazine editing and writing and had taught school. She had no national reputation.

Her letters, printed in this big, comfortable volume, reveal the effects of her sudden promotion into the big time. As was the practice at McClure’s, her titles and responsibilities were fluid at first. She began as a fiction editor but was soon moved to take control of a major exposé on the life and times of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. Another writer had assembled the material, but Cather had to recheck much of it and travel widely, even to England, for documentation. For her troubles, she was given the heavy burden of managing editor.

As she faced this prospect, she unburdened herself to a new friend, the New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett. She complained of weariness and the monotony of reading bad manuscripts. But the worst problem was, as she put it: “What Mr. McClure wants is to make me into as good an imitation of Miss Tarbell as he can.” That is, he wanted brilliant articles from her on “men and measures,” topics she could not manage while at the same time attending to the details of the office. McClure, she said, thought she should be an executive rather than a writer. Half-believing McClure, she nonetheless resisted and asked: “Isn’t there a new disease . . . called ‘split personality’?”

McClure continued his old habit of deserting the office for months at a time, leaving the whole burden of its operation on Cather. She wrote to her brother: “You see a magazine is like a sick baby–you’ve always got to be stuffing something into its blessed insides or it dies.” Although she did her best, McClure lost financial control of the magazine in 1911, and she left her editorship the following year. As a last service and out of gratitude, she agreed to help with McClure’s rags-to-riches autobiography and in fact became its largely uncredited author.

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In 1912, she set her will toward her own destiny as a novelist, ultimately earning herself a permanent place in American literature with novels based, as she often said, on what she remembered or reconstructed of life on the plains and in the Southwest, such as My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. She apparently intended that her writings should speak for her; she often warned friends against sharing her letters and in her will requested that they not be published.

Of course, now they are–or at least several hundred of them, skillfully chosen from a much larger number scattered through dozens of archives. The foundation that now controls her literary rights decided that, more than 60 years after her death, privacy concerns had faded and that the letters merited publication. It is hard to disagree; the letters are rich, discursive, and rewarding.

The volume’s heart is family letters, addressed to the numerous Cathers who started out from Virginia and settled on a farm near Red Cloud, NE, then dispersed. There are many letters to close female friends she made over the years (but only one to Edith Lewis, with whom she made her home). As the years passed, the scope of the letters becomes increasingly professional but no less frank. As a former editor, she paid close attention to the handling of her books, down to choosing the typeface. When a publisher displeased her, she did not hesitate to hold his feet to the fire. It is appropriate that this volume was published by the one publishing house she loved: Alfred A. Knopf.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.