Early-20th-century writer Willa Cather worked hard to preserve her stature as a great artist, refusing to participate in lecture series, popular engagements and paperback editions of her novels. In her will, she also banned the publication of any personal letters. Despite her wishes, selected letters have been made available for the first time. Scholars rejoice, but what would motivate the layperson to read the collection?
First, there is charm. Her voice, cherished by readers of her fiction, including My Antonia and the Pulitzer-winning One of Ours, is equally spirited and big-hearted here. The letters reveal the growth of a literary powerhouse who, while joyful, was equally self-deprecating, critical and exasperated. They cover the majority of Cather’s life, from her teens in Nebraska until a week before her death, and are issued to childhood friends, family and such notables as S.S. McClure, Robert Frost, Sinclair Lewis, Sarah Orne Jewett, Alfred Knopf and H.L. Mencken.
There was speculation that the letters would reveal that Cather was, in fact, gay, but those looking for a direct admission of homosexuality will not find it. There are crushes, but Isabelle McClung Hambourg and Edith Lewis, two of Cather’s more lengthy female attachments, have only two surviving letters each.
More often Cather’s sentiments and considerations are with “her people”: Nebraskan immigrants, artistic friends, soldiers of war, and the children of her siblings. To fellow writers, there are many insights on character development, process and publishing. What a relief to read that, on occasion, even she had a hard time of it. In 1919 she wrote, “As one grows older one cares less about clever writing and more about a simple and faithful presentation. But to reach this, one must have gone through the period where one dies, so to speak, for the fine phrase; that is essential to learning one’s business.”
At 700 pages even scholars may find some passages a trifle boring. Who needs Red Cloud gossip circa 1922 these days? Still, tender passages exist throughout, making the dry spells easier to bear—much like rain in the dead of a Nebraskan summer.