Author Interviews
3:20 am
Tue April 30, 2013

'Wonderful Words' In Willa Cather's No-Longer-Secret Letters

Originally published on Mon May 6, 2013 3:27 pm

Willa Cather is one of America's greatest literary voices. Most notably, her stories of immigrant farmers in Nebraska are intimate windows into the lives that make up a greater history of American settlement and struggle.

Cather was also a pioneering female writer in a literary world run by men, and a driven businesswoman — meticulous about every detail of her work, down to the very design of a book jacket. And when she died in 1947, she left a will forbidding the adaptation of her works to theater or film and the publication of her personal letters.

But after the death of her nephew and the will's executor two years ago, that will expired, and more than 500 of her letters are now being published. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout are the the co-editors of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, and Jewell tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that Cather did not burn her letters, as had been thought. "In fact, in the last few years, a letter showed up in her family's papers where her niece, who had attended Willa Cather's funeral in New York, wrote to her family and said, 'We must keep all of Aunt Willie's things safe, safe from fire or something unexpected,' and there was definitely the sense that there were precious materials that, one day, the world would want to see."

In one letter, to the writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Cather outlined the real-life story that underlay her novel One of Ours, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. One of Ours follows dissatisfied Nebraska farm boy Claude Wheeler as he finds his purpose in life at the front during World War I.

The book "will be classed as a war story," Cather wrote — and she never wanted to write a war story, "but it stood between me and anything else." And she gloomily predicted sales of only 12,000 copies. "It's a little bit of a joke," Jewell says, but Cather "did not want this book to be marketed as a war story, because she really thought it was not about the war, it was about this man, this boy and man."

Jewell says Cather's complaint about not wanting to write a war story — but not being able to get away from the subject — is consistent with her way of discussing her writing. "When she became a mature writer, she always said she wrote about the subjects she could not let go, that she was sort of captured by a subject ... and this one particularly, this story, which for the reasons of it being a war story, and having to do with things she did not witness firsthand, some of it ... there's a lot of, in some ways, practical reasons why she should not have written this book."

Cather in the 1920s was known as a writer of Nebraska, he continues. "She had written My Antonia and O Pioneers! by this point, and so to write a story about a young man who goes off to World War I is sort of out of her comfort zone."

But the original story — that of Cather's cousin Grosvenor, born on the farm next to her father's — was too compelling. In the letter, Cather described taking care of Grosvenor when he was little. "We were very much alike, and very different," she wrote. "He could never escape from the misery of being himself, except in action, and whatever he put his hand to turned out either ugly or ridiculous. ... I was staying on his father's farm when the war broke out. We spent the first week hauling wheat to town. On those long rides on the wheat, we talked for the first time in years, and I saw some of the things that were really in the back of his mind.

"I had no more thought of writing a story about him than of writing about my own nose," she continued. "It was all too painfully familiar. It was just to escape from him and his kind that I wrote at all."

It's a brutally honest letter, and Jewell says that comes through in the novel. Though the character of Claude contains some elements of Cather herself, "he kind of was a person who was not a very strong person. ... He was intelligent but did not have good application of intelligence, didn't have the confidence to make strong choices in his life, was not really in control of his life. And Cather, as a woman who was so in control of her life, who was so confident in who she was, from a very young age, I think had little interest in the kind of weakling that she understood her cousin to be. But it's to her credit that she saw him differently, that she suddenly realized something about him and saw him with much more tenderness."

Grosvenor was killed at Cantigny, France, in 1918 — the first officer from Nebraska to die in the war. He received a Distinguished Service Cross and a Silver Star citation for bravery under fire. "That anything so glorious could have happened to anyone so disinherited of hope," Cather wrote. "Timidly, angrily, he used to ask me about the geography of France on the wheat wagon. Well, he learned it, you see." Grosvenor's story was "the great mystery, I think," Jewell says. "I think it was a human mystery that this happened to her cousin."

In the letter, Cather described learning of Grosvenor's death from the morning papers, as she was in a beauty parlor having her hair shampooed. "From that on, he was in my mind," she wrote. "The too-personal-ness, the embarrassment of kinship, was gone. But he was in my mind so much that I couldn't get through him to other things ... some of me was buried with him in France, and some of him was left alive in me."

Letters are often a dashed-off, informal means of communication, Jewell says, but Cather sprinkled powerful and beautiful phrases throughout hers. "And you realize that this wonderful writer left wonderful words in her letters to all sorts of friends and family, and it's a joy to read them."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we'll hear the true story behind a prize-winning novel. It's the story of an American killed in World War I. Willa Cather told the story. She's a novelist known to generations of students for books like "My Antonia," which is set on the Nebraska prairie. She also wrote a lot of personal letters but banned their publication in her will.

ANDREW JEWELL: Part of it was, I think, a management of her literary reputation and part of it was a sense that evolved very late in her life that a writer should only be known through the artistic works they produced.

INSKEEP: That's Andrew Jewell, who has now co-edited a book of Willa Cather's letters. Cather burned a few letters during her lifetime but it became possible to publish the rest after her last literary executor died. The letters suggest what drove Cather to write about a mysteriously brave soldier. The book is called "One of Ours." Despite the terms of her will, Jewell thinks Cather expected her remaining letters to eventually be published.

JEWELL: She didn't burn them, and in fact in the last few years a letter showed up where her niece, who attended Willa Cather's funeral in New York, wrote to her family and said we must keep all of Aunt Willy's things safe, safe from fire or something unexpected. And there's definitely this sense that there were precious materials that one day the world would want to see.

INSKEEP: OK. So we're going to read through and sort of annotate as we go one of Willa Cather's letters. This is giving sort of the backstory of a novel she wrote and the true story on which it was based. Who's she writing to and what's the book?

JEWELL: The book is "One of Ours," a novel that she actually won the Pulitzer Prize for. And she's writing to Dorothy Canfield Fisher. And Dorothy was a well-known writer and novelist herself in the day - this letter's from 1922.

INSKEEP: Why don't you start off that letter for us?

JEWELL: Dear Dorothy - yes, it will be classed as a war story, which means it will sell about 12,000, and God knows I never wanted to write a war story. I lost six months refraining from putting pen to paper on this one. But it stood between me and anything else.

INSKEEP: Wow. We've already learned, first, that she's an exceedingly practical-minded writer. She has in her mind exactly how many copies this kind of book is going to sell.

JEWELL: Yes, and I think it's a little bit of a joke, you know, that she said she did not want this book to be marketed as a war story because she really thought it was not about the war. It was about this man, this boy and man, whose character's name is Claude Wheeler. And she wanted to call the book Claude for a long time, and her publisher, Alfred Knopf, thought that would be a terrible title and she was talked out of it and accepted the title "One of Ours."

INSKEEP: And we also learn here that she at least says she didn't even want to write this but the subject forced her to write.

JEWELL: Yes. That's very consistent in Cather's way of discussing her writing. Once she became a mature writer, she always said she wrote about the subjects she could not let go. There's a lot of, in some ways, practical reasons why she should not have written this book, that she was known by this point as a writer of Nebraska - you know, she had written "My Antonia" and "O Pioneers!" by this point. And so to write a story about a young man who goes off to World War I is sort of out of her comfort zone.

INSKEEP: So let's explain the true story behind the fiction. Read on from this letter of Willa Cather.

JEWELL: It was like this - my cousin, Grosvenor, was born on the farm next to my father's. I helped to take care of him when he was little. We are very much alike and very different. He could never escape from the misery of being himself, except in action, and whatever he put his hand to turned out either ugly or ridiculous. There were years when we avoided each other. He had a contempt for my way of escape and his own ways led to absurdities. I was staying on his father's farm when the war broke out. We spent the first week hauling wheat to town. On those long rides on the wheat, we talked for the first time in years and I saw some of the things that were really in the back of his mind. I went away and forgot. I had no more thought of writing a story about him than of writing about my own nose. It was all too painfully familiar. It was just to escape from him and his kind that I wrote at all.

INSKEEP: This is, again, a brutally honest thing to say, essentially that she didn't even like this guy that she ended up becoming obsessed with and writing a book about.

JEWELL: And when you read the novel, you kind of get a sense it, this character who she says in a later book, well, it's part me too, that this character, Claude Wheeler, who's based on Grosvenor or also - he's also known as GP Cather - that he kind of was a person who was not a very strong person. He was intelligent but did not have good application of intelligence, did not have the confidence to make strong choices in his life. And Cather, as a woman who is so in control of her life, who was so confident in who she was from a very young age, I think had little interest in the kind of weakliness you understood her cousin to be. But it's to her credit that she saw him differently, you know, that she suddenly realized something about him and saw him with much more tenderness.

INSKEEP: And in the next paragraph she's going to describe what happened when he joined the army for World War I.

JEWELL: Yes. It continues. He went over in July 1917. He was killed at Cantigny, May 27, on the next year. That anything so glorious could have happened to anyone so disinherited of hope - timidly, angeredly(ph), he used to ask me about the geography of France on the wheat wagon. Well, he learned it, you see. I send you his citation. And I might stop here and add that he was the first officer from Nebraska killed in World War I and he was given a citation for his bravery. He stood on a hill and directed fire toward the enemy, exposing himself to the guns and dying.

INSKEEP: This man that she remembered as timid was courageous under fire.

JEWELL: Yes. And this was the great mystery, I think. I think it was a human mystery that this happened to her cousin.

INSKEEP: Now the letter goes on to say how Willa Cather discovered his death.

JEWELL: Yes. I first came on it in a morning paper when I was having my hair shampooed in a hairdresser's shop. From that on he was in my mind. The too personalness, the embarrassment of kinship was gone, but he was in my mind so much that I couldn't get through him to other things. It wasn't affection but realization so acute that I could not get away from it. I never meant to write a story with a man for the central figure. But with this boy I was all mixed up by accident of birth. Some of me was buried with him in France and some of him was left alive in me.

INSKEEP: Those are sentences powerful enough to have gone in the novel.

JEWELL: Yes. That is something that I think is true throughout her letters, that you know, a letter, because it's a quickly written piece of correspondence to somebody, will contain some crude sentences and some asides that are kind of about the news of the day, but then things like that will be there too. And you realize that this wonderful writer left wonderful words in her letters to all sorts of friends and family and it's a joy to read them. And it also brings such insight into the emotional life that gave birth to these great works of literature.

INSKEEP: Andrew Jewell is an associate professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln and co-editor of "The Selected Letters of Willa Cather." Thanks very much.

JEWELL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.