Willa Cather

Ellery Sedgwick reviews Willa Cather's, Under Forty— a collection of critical essays—and pays tribute to her talent and taste

A dozen novels, the first of which appeared in 1912, half a dozen honorary degrees, the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1922, and the Prix Femina Americaine for 1933, all attest the literary achievement of Willa Cather. Readers should pay heed when in her first collection of essays she pays tribute to those writers and critics who represent good literature in her mind.

Now God be praised for prejudice, for it is prejudice which makes predilections what they ought to be.  Genius it sometimes thwarts and oftener deflects.  But to talent, prejudice is a friendly guide, shaping it after its natural bent.

Miss Cather was born with prejudices of her own.  She dislikes all that Walter Scott used to call the Big Bow-wows.  She admires not power but perfection.  She shuns the crowd, and the things the crowd care for.  She loves to watch - but always from a distance.  For her fastidious talent America has especial need.

Neither Miss Cather’s prejudices nor her predilections have undergone much change since she came out of the West.  The formless prairie, the sandy sluggish streams, the windy landscape, and the wind-blown people formed a background at once too ample and too inchoate for her fancy.  One knows instinctively that she was never happy till she escaped to the land she has made her own, a land of quiet where manners are made by tradition and the spirit never escapes from the mould which defines its excellence.  The country of her allegiance is far from the land of her inheritance, and for its past she feels an alien nostalgia which those ‘under forty’ can never know.

It is in praise of this past that she has written this slender volume in reverence and love.  The most delightful of her essays is that in which she approaches the greatest of her gods, Flaubert, whose clairvoyance means hardly more to her than his intolerance of imperfection.  Rather than to presume to stand directly before his altar, she makes her oblation vicariously, sitting at the feet of his niece, Madame Franklin Grout, the Caro of the Lettres a sa Niece. They met by merest chance, but to sit beside one who had held an immortal hand was thrilling to Miss Cather, and the electricity of that touch lights the chapter.  That she declined to press so fortunate an accident is wholly characteristic.  She refused an invitation to visit her friend at Antibes. She put away from her the proffered gift of an authentic Flaubert letter.  Sweetest to her are distant perfumes.  She loves to live remotely, protecting herself from too common an admiration, and ever half afraid to draw near divinity lest she discover some touch of clay.

It is the same oblique approach she makes to the New England tradition.  Old Mrs. James T. Fields lived on in Boston at 148 Charles Street.  Not a mote in the sunbeam which floated through the windows of the long parlor but had danced there in the great days when Holmes, Lowell, and Longfellow had routed the incredulity of Thackeray and of Dickens as to the existence of American culture.  The Fields legend went back past the demigods to the gods themselves, and as Miss Cather sat beside her hostess, reclining as ever on her sofa, the past became present, and the present had no being. From Nebraska to Charles Street, Miss Cather had come far, but it was her road home.

To anyone who, in those ancient days, walked up the carpeted stairs, past keepsakes and mementoes, tall octavos of Dryden, Donne, and Herbert, turning right through the long quiet parlor to draw a chair beside the sofa where, in lace cap and rustling silk, Mrs. Fields lay under the portrait of Dickens, - not yet cynical and bearded, but in his twenties and glowing in the confidence of genius, - Miss Cather’s memories stir a thousand others.

To Miss Cather we are already indebted for a distillation of Miss Jewett’s stories, wrought with a precision unknown elsewhere in American Letters.  She now adds brief memories of their author.  How handsome Miss Jewett looked in those days, the epitome of New England inheritance, a little formal, not free from self-consciousness, but a work of art quite as truly as her stories are a work of nature. 

Slighter papers make up the volume, illuminated by flashed of intuitive understanding.  Katherine Mansfield, she remarks, has ‘a powerful slightness.’ How excellent the phrase!  When Miss Cather says that a second rate writer can be defined, but one first-rate can only be experienced, she codifies a law of universal criticism. 

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