Willa Cather's Hidden Letters Reveal a Life More Depressed

If the stories we share with friends are some of the most insightful glimpses into our lives, the publication of her correspondence, so long protected by the author's will, should do wonders to present a fuller picture of a woman who later in life became increasingly focused on her privacy.

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The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, an upcoming book edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, is the first publication to contain the letters of the O Pioneers! author, who forbade their publication in her will. Now 65 years after her death, 566 of those correspondences, "nearly 20 percent of the total," will appear in the compilation, due out April 16. As Jennifer Schuessler writes in the New York Times, "Cather was believed to have destroyed most of her letters and sternly ordered that her surviving correspondence never be published or quoted from, a wish her executors adhered to unbendingly, even as it fueled sometimes rancorous debate about her sexuality."

The missives cover Cather's life as a teen in 1880s Red Cloud, Nebraska, her college years, her days in Pittsburgh and New York as a journalist, and beyond, into her later life as a novelist. They're written to friends, to her brother Roscoe, "and to such luminaries as Sarah Orne Jewett, Robert Frost, Yehudi Menuhin, Sinclair Lewis, and the president of Czechoslovakia, Thomas Masaryk." Cather scholars, of course, are thrilled at this chance to look into the life of the woman they study, and the revelations are not uninteresting to the layperson, either. "Cather, the letters reveal, was a powerfully engaged literary businesswoman who corresponded with H. L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other notables of the day — and once playfully took those skirts off, as a charming youthful letter recounts, to clamber down a windmill in a thunderstorm," writes Schuessler. If the stories we share with friends are some of the most insightful glimpses into our lives, these letters will do wonders to present a fuller picture of a woman who later in life became increasingly focused on her privacy. There's no great scandal within, or "steamy intimate detail," writes Schuessler. "But they do make clear that Cather’s primary emotional attachments were to women, while also laying to rest what the volume’s editors, in interviews, called a persistent urban legend: that of the fanatically secretive author eager to erase any record of shameful desire."

When Charles Cather died in 2011, the copyrights went to the Willa Cather Trust and the Willa Cather Foundation, and "the ban on quotation and publication of the letters was quickly dropped, along with the ban on film adaptations." In the preface to the book, Jewell and Stout admit that they know they're going against the writer's wishes, but argue that the publication of the letters further cements Cather's status as a writer, and won't hurt her reputation, revealing her as “a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being."

Don't, however, turn to this book for evidence of Cather's relationship with Isabelle McClung, "with whom she shared a bedroom for five years in her 20s, and who is widely acknowledged as the love of her life," as Schuessler writes. She apparently burned those letters—though perhaps, as new letters indicate, that had more to do with Cather's depression than any "sexual secrecy."

“We knew she was depressed, but I didn’t know how depressed until I read those letters,” Ms. Stout said. The burning of the McClung letters, she speculated, was “a final act of renunciation.”

And there is just one letter to Edith Lewis, "an advertising copywriter whom scholars have sometimes depicted as merely Cather’s secretary cum doormat."

The New York Times includes excerpts of three of the letters in the book, including one sent to Sarah Orne Jewett in 1908 after Cather moved to New York City and began editing at McClure's. It's a poignant description of what it feels like to write, and even if you feel a sense of discomfort knowing that the author might not have wanted these letters revealed to the public, it's easy to understand why the editors made the decision to go ahead anyway. 

Mr. McClure tells me that he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories, that I am a good executive and I had better let it go at that. I sometimes, indeed I very often think that he is right. If I have been going forward at all in the last five years, [i]t has been progress of the head and not of the hand. At thirty-four one ought to have some sureness in their pen point and some facility in turning out a story. In other matters — things about the office — I can usually do what I set out to do and I can learn by experience, but when it comes to writing I’m a new-born baby every time — always come into it naked and shivery and without any bones. I never learn anything about it at all. I sometimes wonder whether one can possibly be meant to do the thing at which they are more blind and inept and blundering than at anything else in the world ...

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