Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Willa Cather’

17 JUNE, 2014

Willa Cather on Writing Through Troubled Times: A Moving Letter to Her Younger Brother

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“The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please.”

How does one keep going when the going gets really, really tough? From The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library) — which also gave us Cather’s only surviving letter to her partner, the editor Edith Lewis — comes a magnificent letter 43-year-old Cather wrote to her younger brother on July 8, 1916. It was a trying time in Cather’s personal life — the heartbreaking end of an era: The great love of her life, the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, had left her for a man she married, extinguishing the possibility of their companionship and romantic involvement that Cather so longed for. Judge McClung, Isabelle’s father, had just died, which only contributed to Cather’s anguishing sense of having lost a home. Meanwhile, she had grown increasingly disappointed with her own family’s crusade “to get mixed up with kings and move in the highest society,” while facing the force of their disapproval of her life as a writer and a queer woman.

In this single short missive, Cather condenses so many common struggles — for acceptance by our family, for acceptance of our family, for acceptance by others, for not letting sadness squeeze the creative impulse out of us, for overcoming self-doubt and dancing with the fear, and perhaps most of all for plowing ahead even when the internal engine loses steam.

Portrait of Willa Cather by Edward Steichen, 1926

Cather writes:

My Dear Douglass…

I shall always be sorry that I went home last summer, because I seemed to get in wrong at every turn. It seems not to be anything that I do, in particular, but my personality in general, what I am and think and like and dislike, that you all find exasperating after a little while. I’m not so well pleased with myself, my dear boy, as you sometimes seem to think. 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—or one has to drop out. I can’t see how it would help any of my family any if I lay down on my oars and quit that rough-and-tumble game. It would be easy enough to do that. I’ve had a very hard winter and have got no work done except two short stories — one very poor. Judge McClung’s death and Isabelle’s marriage have made a tremendous difference in my life. The loss of a home like that leaves one pretty lonely and miserable. I can fight it out, but I’ve not as much heart for anything as I had a year ago. I suppose the test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please. I suppose it’s playing the game after that, that counts.

However, the truth is usually gloomy, and one doesn’t have to talk about it all the time, thank goodness… I know I’m “trying”. Most women who have been able to make over a hundred dollars a month in office work, have been spoiled by it in one way or another. It is bad for all of them and it was bad for me… I won’t sit around and weep. I can’t be hurt again as badly as I was last summer. After this I’ll be more philosophical; I won’t expect too much, and I mean to enjoy any goodwill or friendship I get from any of my family. I enjoy every single member of my family when they are half-way friendly toward me. I enjoy them a great deal more now than I did in my younger days when I kept trying to make everybody over. My first impulse, of course, is to think that my own way of seeing things is the right way. But my second thought is always to admit that this is wrong and that I have been often mistaken. I even think I’ve grown a good deal milder in the last year — I’ve had trouble enough and losses enough. Three friends died during the winter whom it seemed to me I could not get on without. And perhaps the disapproval I got at home last summer has been good for me. I am quite a meek proposition now, I can tell you. I think I’ve had my belting, and it has taken the fizz out of me all right — and I’ll tell you this, it’s positively shipwreck for work. I doubt whether I’ll ever write anything worth while again. To write well you have to be all wrapped up in your game and think it awfully worth while. I only hope I’m not so spiritless I won’t be able to make a living. I had two stories turned down this winter because they had no “pep” in them. The editors said they hadn’t and I knew they hadn’t…

Time is good for violent people.

Yours with much love

Willie

She did write something “worthwhile” again, of course — worthwhile enough to earn her the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours.

Complement The Selected Letters of Willa Cather with a dive into the Brain Pickings letters archive.

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17 APRIL, 2013

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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