The Big Read Blog (Archive)

A New Peek at Willa Cather's Private Life

Although we’re accustomed to engaging with Willa Cather on the page, there are some words of hers that we were never meant to read. This, of course, is the author’s private correspondence, which she expressly banned from publication or even quotation. So when The Selected Letters of Willa Cather was published last month, nearly seven decades after Cather’s death, it created quite a stir within the literary world. Edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, the book includes 566 of some 3,000 letters now known to survive, and unveils the inner life of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Big Read author. “Cather is the kind of writer whose unpretentious style has always attracted a wide and diverse readership,” said Jewell, a Cather scholar and, like the author, a native Nebraskan. “We thought we should make a book that people could sit down and read without having to feel like they needed to be experts to appreciate it.” We spoke with Jewell about the new anthology, and what he thinks it will mean for Cather’s legacy.

NEA: With the publication of this book, there has been a good deal written about how Cather forbade her letters to be published. Knowing that, and knowing Cather as you do, how did you make the decision to publish the book anyway?

ANDREW JEWELL: There are a couple of things. First, and importantly, her wishes had been honored for many decades. I think that's the time, the immediate decades after a death, when it's most important to honor those wishes, while those she wrote about were still alive. I think one of the reasons that she wanted to ban them was to protect and determine her literary reputation, and that is [now] as stable as reputations ever can be.

And I knew that in Cather scholarship, people---those who could get to them---were reading her letters and summarizing them. So as I grew up as a Cather scholar, I witnessed over and over again how people paraphrased, summarized, but were forbidden to be as accurate and as forthright as everyone wanted to be. No one wanted to be in that situation. So my first witnessing of the need for the letters was seeing how the ban prevented people from doing a scholarship book accurately.

But I also started reading them, and becoming interested in them, and realizing how wonderful they were. With Janis Stout, my co-editor, we began to think, "These are very important works of American literary history themselves." And now, so much time has passed that whatever concerns motivated her to ban the letters---I just don't think that those concerns exist in our world anymore. It helped very much that we had the blessing and support of her family and her descendants, who donated materials and wanted their relative to become even more well-known by making the letters more accessible to others. They knew [the letters] had wonderful things in them. I'm not insensitive to the fact that she wanted them banned, but I really feel that she belongs to our shared cultural past, that the world is frankly much richer for having them out there for people to read. They have a lot to offer. They're wonderful letters.

NEA: Of the 3,000 letters that have been known to survive, you published 566. How did you decide which letters to select?

JEWELL: Janis and I independently read all the letters we could get our hands on. We had decided to organize the book into 12 different chapters, and then we went through each of those chronological sections and kept narrowing it down until it got within a reasonable word limit. The publisher had given us a size that was workable for a book---it was a parameter we needed. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to represent all the different aspects of her personality that we witnessed in the letters: the many different relationships, the different qualities of her life and work. We wanted a good representation of who she was as a human being. And also, some of the letters [we chose] were the most eloquent, or best expressed the ideas that showed up in multiple letters. And we gave precedence [to letters] that dealt with her work and her writing life.

NEA: Do you have a favorite?

JEWELL: They all, in some ways, are my favorites. But that's a cop-out answer. I will say that there are a couple that I really particularly like. One is from November 6, 1938, to her brother Roscoe---the latter half especially. She's talking about how much she's cared about things in her life, and how that has made her as a writer. She goes on to describe her style, and how you can “be as mild as the May morning,” but if you have heat under your words, people will feel it. The way she talks about what makes her writing powerful, that it's the affection and caring and depths of commitment that she has, I think that means a lot to me as a reader of hers, and as a fan of her work. So that's one that I love, but there are others I love for completely different reasons because they're very funny, or very insightful into her way of working or into her work.

NEA: What do you think the anthology reveals about Cather, both as a writer and as a woman?

JEWELL: To my mind, it upends a lot of the stereotypes about her. Many people saw her as sort of reserved, sometimes isolated and grumpy, and as a writer that didn't have much to do with the world. I think the reality that the letters reveal is just the opposite. She was very vibrant, she was very connected to a wide circle of friends and family. She was funny in ways that people find surprising. You can't deny when you read the letters the life you feel there on the page. It's a nice counterbalance to some of the portrayals that have been in her biographies. I think the reason for that [portrayal] in her biographies is partially---consciously or subconsciously---what emerged from the inaccessibility of her correspondence. I would say about two-thirds or so of the letters we now know about weren't even available to her biographers. So much has been revealed as more letters have been donated by family members or have been otherwise found.

NEA: How do you think reading Cather's correspondence might influence the way one reads her novels?

JEWELL: I think some people really like to know something about the writer's life as they're reading her work. Cather wrote so much about her life, and so many of her characters are based upon people she knew or historical figures she researched. Even in the early letters when she's a teenager, she's referring to places and people that would later populate My Ántonia or A Lost Lady. So there's a sense of life lived that is made into art, and I think that's powerful.

There are other ways you can get a sense of what the experience of writing was like for her. One thing that I find particularly appealing about Cather is that unlike this stereotype of the artist as doing everything for their art and they're mis-managing their lives otherwise, Cather is very practical. She's very Midwestern in that sense. She is a highly committed artist, but she's also concerned about the marketing, concerned about the design, concerned about the business matters of being a professional writer. So you can see in the letters leading up to the publication of My Ántonia, this great classic of American literature, that she's very much concerned with the illustrations and the design and the whole package of the book as a material object. She wanted large margins to communicate space and a sense of openness that was fitting with the content of the novel. She thought through all these details, and I think that could influence how people experience her work.

When she switched publishers to Knopf in the early 20s, one of the reasons is the way they make their books. They're beautiful books, and she wanted her books to be a pleasant experience for readers.

NEA: Was there anything that you were particularly delighted or surprised or disappointed to learn about Cather as you went through her letters?

JEWELL: The overall feeling has been one of a real pleasure in her voice. I've thought about it a lot, and what I think is so pleasurable to me is her sense of confidence. We say in the introduction her "frankness" or "self-possession.” She's just always herself. She always has the confidence to be who she is. And being around a person like that, in the way that being around her letters is being around her, is a very satisfying experience. It tends to rub off. To witness a life lived that way is encouraging. And to see what she accomplished while she was just herself, and did not compromise---I think that is a terrific thing. I didn't know what it would feel like to spend so much time with one person's voice. So that surprised me.

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