Brain Pickings

Willa Cather’s Only Surviving Letter to Her Partner, Edith Lewis

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“I can’t but believe that all that majesty and all that beauty, those fated and unfailing appearances and exits, are something more than mathematics and horrible temperatures.”

Long before the age of data and hacking and involuntary transparency, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Willa Cather was a fierce custodian of her own privacy. Despite being a prolific letter-writer, she burned much of her correspondence and, in a will written during the final and rather dark years of her life, forbad the posthumous publication of the remainder. Now, more than sixty-five years after her death, her correspondence is at last revealed in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library). But even so, only a fraction of her letters survive, the vast majority a victim of Cather’s own privacy-obsessed hand — something editors Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout speculate was “an expression of a personality seeking to control all access to itself.” They make a note of Cather’s extreme compulsion for privacy:

In her maturity, Cather was a skillful self-marketer, and a major element of her marketing strategy was to limit her publicly available texts to those she had meticulously prepared.

Cather was most voracious in guarding — and, to a large degree, destroying — her the most personal of her letters. This is the only known surviving letter from Cather to her lifelong partner and literary executor, Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived for the last 39 years of her life. A poetic ode to the same cosmos that great minds from Ptolemy to Carl Sagan have admired, it may lack the passion of Virginia Woolf’s letter to Vita Sackville-West or the proud surrender of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s confessions to Edith Wynn Matthison or the longing of Eleanor Roosevelt’s missives to Lorena Hickok, but it bespeaks one of love’s greatest hallmarks: the shared wonderment at the magnificence of a universe two souls inhabit as one. For, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has famously put it, “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

Sunday 4:30 P.M.
[October 5, 1936]
Shattuck Inn, Jaffrey, New Hampshire

My Darling Edith;

I am sitting in your room, looking out on the woods you know so well. So far everything delights me. I am ashamed of my appetite for food, and as for sleep — I had forgotten that sleeping can be an active and very strong physical pleasure. It can! It has been for all of three nights. I wake up now and then, saturated with the pleasure of breathing clear mountain air (not cold, just chill air) of being up high with all the woods below me sleeping, too, in still white moonlight. It’s a grand feeling.

One hour from now, out of your window, I shall see a sight unparalleled — Jupiter and Venus both shining in the golden-rosy sky and both in the West; she not very far above the horizon, and he about mid-way between the zenith and the silvery lady planet. From 5:30 to 6:30 they are of a superb splendor — deepening in color every second, in a still-daylight-sky guiltless of other stars, the moon not up and the sun gone down behind Gap-mountain; those two alone in the whole vault of heaven. It lasts so about an hour (did last night). Then the Lady, so silvery still, slips down into the clear rose colored glow to be near the departed sun, and imperial Jupiter hangs there alone. He goes down about 8:30. Surely it reminds one of Dante’s “eternal wheels”. I can’t but believe that all that majesty and all that beauty, those fated and unfailing appearances and exits, are something more than mathematics and horrible temperatures. If they are not, then we are the only wonderful things — because we can wonder.

I have worn my white silk suit almost constantly with no white hat, which is very awkward. By next week it will probably be colder. Everything you packed carried wonderfully — not a wrinkle.

And now I must dress to receive the Planets, dear, as I won’t wish to take the time after they appear — and they will not wait for anybody.

Lovingly
W.

I don’t know when I have enjoyed Jupiter so much as this summer.

Edith Lewis, left, with Willa Cather in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, 1926

(Image: Special Collections, University of New Brunswick)

Of the choice to violate Cather’s insistence on privacy, the editors rationalize:

The concerns that we believe motivated her to assert her preference are no longer valid. Cather’s reputation is now as secure as artistic reputations can ever be, and her works will continue to speak for themselves. These lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation. Instead, we can see from our twenty-first-century perspective that her letters heighten our sense of her complex personality, provide insights into her methods and artistic choices as she worked, and reveal Cather herself to be a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being. Such an identity is far more satisfying — and more honest — than that of a “pure” artist, unmoved by commercial motivations, who devoted herself strictly to her creations and nothing else.

[…]

Cather is now a part of our cultural history. Her works belong to something greater than herself. It is time to let the letters speak for themselves.

And speak they do — vibrant, dimensional, full of the uncontrolled richness of human experience, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather join the ranks of history’s most wonderful letters.

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