The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, despite the author's wish for her correspondence to remain unpublished, finally sees the light of day this month. The editors of the book, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, take us inside the private life of a great American writer.
Although many readers dearly love Willa Cather's novels--My Ántonia, O Pioneers!, and Death Comes for the Archbishop are among the favorites--they may be surprised that the Cather who emerges from the pages of her books is not necessarily the real Cather. She did not spend her life on a farm on the Great Plains raising a multitude of children, like Ántonia, devote herself to the Catholic Church, like Bishop Latour, or exert her charms on a sequence of admiring men, like Mrs. Forrester. She lived the last four decades of her life in New York City as a fiercely independent, opinionated, highly intelligent, practical, often affectionate, and sometimes cantankerous writer.
Here are ten things you probably didn't know about one of America's greatest novelists:
1. Although she is usually thought of as a Nebraskan, Cather was actually a Virginian by birth. Her family didn't move to Nebraska until she was nine. Only some of her novels are set on the Great Plains. Others are set in New York and San Francisco, in New Mexico, in Quebec, in France, and, in the case of her last one, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, back in Virginia.
2. Cather's given name was Wilella, but her family always called her "Willa" or, probably even more often, "Willie," which was a common Southern pronunciation of a name ending in -a. She signed herself "Willie" or "Aunt Willie" in many of her family letters for most of her life (and, occasionally, as a child, when she was feeling particularly interested in science, as "William Cather, M. D."). In 1936, she reflected on her unusual first name in a letter to a reader: "I never liked my own first name. I never like feminine forms of masculine names, in fact. If I had known, when I first began to write, that my name would be printed about a good deal, I would certainly have changed it to Mary or Jane, or Janet."
3. While a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s, she wrote theater and music reviews for the Nebraska State Journal newspaper that were often so unrelenting in their critique that she developed a reputation among the traveling performers as a real "meat ax" critic.
4. Raised as a Baptist, Cather later became Episcopalian, but had two of her greatest successes with books so steeped in Catholicism that readers thought she was a Catholic. In fact, in a letter written from Pittsburgh in August 1896, she told a friend, "There is no God but one God and Art is his revealer; that’s my creed and I'll follow it to the end, to a hotter place than Pittsburgh if need be."
5. Her first book, in 1903, was neither a novel nor a collection of short stories but a volume of poetry called April Twilights published with a high-end vanity press, and she continued to write poetry for most of her life.
6. Cather was one of the country's most successful woman journalists before she was a novelist. Her first job out of college was as editor of a magazine called The Home Monthly, in Pittsburgh, and in 1906 she went to work for the phenomenally successful McClure's Magazine in New York, later becoming managing editor. According to a letter she wrote in 1908, her boss, the inimitable S. S. McClure, told her "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." In 1912, she left her job with McClure's to become a very successful full-time writer.
7. Cather is now widely understood as a lesbian. She lived for 38 years in domestic partnership with Edith Lewis, a professional editor, in New York City. Lewis's editorial skills probably contributed to Cather's elegant prose style, as the two of them went over her novels together before publication.
8. Cather said O Pioneers!, which was published in 1913, was her second "first novel" because it was the book where she where she hit her home turf and found her own voice: "This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. The other [Alexander's Bridge] was like riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time." Actually, though, she might have called O Pioneers! her third first novel. She had earlier written a novel called "Fanny" and set in Pittsburgh that never made it into print.
9. Cather's most widely-read and widely-admired novel, My Ántonia, was nominated for the first-ever Pulitzer Prize but didn't get it. The one for which she later won a Pulitzer Prize, One of Ours, was thought by many to be a weaker work. Although it follows its hero, Claude Wheeler, to the battlefields of World War I, she insisted it should not be understood as a war novel and had to be talked out of titling it simply Claude.
10. Although Cather often drew on her own life in writing her novels, she always--or almost always--disguised her autobiographical presence. She didn't want to write about herself in a direct or obvious way. Yet her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, ends with a memory of hers from her own childhood told in the first person. The memory draws so directly from her own life, in fact, that she told her brother Roscoe, "Without that literal account of something that happened to me when I was between five and six years old, the whole book would be constructed, not lived."