When I was younger, I avoided reading books by Willa Cather. Like the average teenager, I looked askance at stories of middle age or frontier drudgery. What had any of it to do with modern life? Even while she was alive, her stories weren’t considered in the vanguard of her century. Unlike Lionel Trilling and others, she took no interest in the urban-industrial upheavals, nor was her work experimental. It was, to quote reviewer Christine Smallwood, “unfashionable.” (“Making A Scene, Willa Cather’s correspondence,” by Christine Smallwood, Harper’s, May, 2013 pg. 88.)
My ignorance about Cather came to an end when I was required to teach two of her novels: My Antonia and O Pioneers. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Recently, I learned that Cather’s personal correspondence had been gathered in a book: The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stone. Until now, scholars could read but were never allowed to quote directly from those letters. Cather, it seems, wanted complete control over her image, and she encouraged friends and family to destroy her correspondence. Many of them did but a few weren’t so obliging, and so we have a personal glimpse of her, at last.
One letter to her brother, Douglas, written in 1916, touched me deeply. It contained a plea that she not be judged by her family — one sister being particularly scathing — as she sought to promote her work.
Only in my business one has to advertise a little or drop out — I surely do not advertise or talk about myself as much as most people who write for a living –I can’t see how it would help any of my family if I lay down on my oars and quit that rough-and-tumble game. (Ibid, pg. 88.)
If her letter had been written to me, I would have understood. It’s difficult to strike a balance between private modesty and the need to draw attention to one’s works. I call it the rooster’s dilemma: how to crow for the sun without jarring the sensibilities of those nearest.
(Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org)