By Willa Cather, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout
Alfred A. Knopf. $37.50, 752 pages
Enter this book, and enter the labyrinthal mind of Willa Cather and the evolutionary arc of her literary celebrity through her over 500 letters dating from 1888 until her death in 1947. Her earliest letters, “School Years,” written by 14-year-old Cather, reveal a cerebral, outgoing Nebraskan teen that also enjoyed exchanging gossip about her neighbors. These letters also unveil a passionately inventive, and rebellious young woman who had broken through the male barrier by studying medicine, graduating from Nebraska State University, cutting her hair, wearing pants, and signing her letters William Cather M.D.
After a professor’s encouragement, Cather turned to writing and editing for the Nebraska State Journal, and thus began her literary career. Her deep affinity with family, rural neighbors, and community, not only sustained Cather during her lifetime, but peopled many of Cather’s novels. ||Cather’s missives also hint at her preference for women lovers. Woe to the reader however, that the juiciest correspondence between Willa Cather’s first love, Isabelle McClung, and life time partner, Edith Lewis, were destroyed by Cather, leaving the ever private author enveloped in mystery.
Willa Cather’s letters in this book portray stages of her life from her long stint in the male dominated literary world, as managing editor at McClures, in New York, one of the most popular literary magazines, to an established novelist who published 12 novels, two nonfiction works, and five collections of short stories, poetry, and essays in her lifetime. ||Although, Cather destroyed her most intimate letters, the editors included an excessive volume of letters obsessed with mundane editing concerns, and angst over the control of her books. Yet these letters are still alive with Cather’s brutally honest voice, insight, and picturesque language.
reviewed by Sheila Erwin