- Text Analysis
When one starts out to write about Willa Sibert Cather, distinguished Nebraska novelist, he must approach his subject with simplicity and sincerity. If he does not he will sin not only against the canons of art but against Miss Cather's highest ideals, for sincerity and simplicity are the fundamental characteristics of this gifted writer and of the art of literature as she so beautifully interprets it.
Miss Cather spent several days in Omaha late in October at which time she spoke before the Omaha Society of Fine Arts and the Nebraska League of Women Voters. She has been going through Omaha from New York City on her way to her home in Red Cloud, Neb., for the last twenty years but she never stopped off here. She is going to stop off every time from now on, she says, because she renewed some old friendships and made some new ones while here. And Miss Cather is just that homey sort of a person who loves her friends—not social acquaintances—but friends. That's why she has been coming back each year to Nebraska to visit her father and mother and her friends—to see the people and the things with which she is familiar.
And that fact more than any one thing accounts for the success that has come to Miss Cather as a writer. She tells about people and things with which she is familiar.
She did not always do this. For more than ten years after her graduation from the University of Nebraska at the age of 19, she wrote about things that she knew only superficially, she says. And success evaded her. Then her pen poised for an interval and when it dropped again to paper it did so to record the story of life in Nebraska as lived by those sturdy pioneer farmers near Saline and Webster and Franklin counties. She had known these people from childhood, and she had heard stories of their early struggles by word of mouth, and so she wrote about them.
The voices of those Scandinavian and Bohemian farmers had heretofore remained mute in the literature of this nation. Their joys and their sorrows; their loves and their hates; their failures and their successes no one had put into words. But they found their spokesman at last in O Pioneers!, and well they had been repaid for their long silence. They had been immortalized. Critics of two continents proclaimed Miss Cather a superb artist and assigned 0 Pioneers! to its rightful place among the great literatures of the world.
The critics had spoken. They were unanimous in their praise, but Miss Cather waited a bit breathlessly to hear from her reading public. And then her reading public spoke and in no uncertain terms. Letters poured in from the Danes, Swedes, Germans, and Bohemians from all over the state, letters of praise and gratitude that a great artist had portrayed their lives truthfully and lovingly.
And then Willa Cather knew that she had come into her own—that she had done a new sort of thing in American literature. She had treated a new subject in a language that her subject gave her. Years before Miss Cather's good friend and critic, the late Sarah Orne Jewett, the writer, divining the Nebraska woman's mental conflict, had said: "What you really care for is new material that has never been used. Don't write about other things. If you have to create a new medium, have the courage to do it."
Miss Cather had the courage to do just this thing. The result is that many critics proclaim her the foremost woman novelist in America today. Some critics do not qualify their statement but say unreservedly that she is the foremost novelist in America.
O Pioneers! was not Miss Cather's first novel, but it was her first one that made the world sit up and take notice. Her first book was a collection of stories, The Troll Garden. In 1912, she published her first novel, Alexander's Bridge. Before this she had written a volume of light verse, April Twilights, and many stories for magazines. In fact, back in the files of the college magazine of the University of Nebraska can be found honest but cumbersome efforts on Miss Cather's part to tell in story something of the lives of those early settlers who had lived near her father's farm near Red Cloud. Amateurish though these stories were, perhaps they pointed the way to the heights toward which Miss Cather was traveling, her friends say.
The Song of the Lark was published next. Critics accorded it high praise but were less of one opinion regarding its merit. Miss Cather, herself, cares less for it than for any of her books, although she admits frankly that she enjoyed writing it.
Then came My Ántonia, conceded by many to be her masterpiece. She had been three years writing this book as she had in writing The Song of the Lark. When H. L. Mencken, most caustic of American critics, read My Ántonia, he declared it to be the best piece of fiction done by any woman in America.
"Ántonia was a Bohemian girl who had been kind to me when I was a child," says Miss Cather simply in speaking about this striking character in fiction.
Miss Cather's latest book, Youth and the Bright Medusa, is a collection of short stories, some of them rewritten from an earlier period.
Nebraska people, except those about whom she has actually written, have been backward in coming to a full realization that a literary genius was taking the trouble to write about their state. It is a bit humiliating to admit, but such is the case. The great centers of the United States and other countries had paid their highest tribute to Miss Cather long before this state awakened to its great opportunity to proclaim its own prophet.
It is true the University of Nebraska translated into Czech O Pioneers! at the time it was published, but the recognition did not spread much further. While Nebraska was dilatory, the remainder of the world was not. O Pioneers! was serialized in a daily paper in Norway; conservative Scandinavian critics wrote in high praise of the book; now all Miss Cather's books have been translated into the Scandinavian and My Ántonia has been translated in Prague, Czecho-Slovakia. All her books are now being translated into French, and Miss Cather goes to Paris next summer to aid in this work of translation.
And so the world is proclaiming Miss Cather's literary triumph. Yet it took Sinclair Lewis, that big, boyish, jubilant author of Main Street, who came lecturing here last winter, to tell Omaha people very emphatically just how great a writer Willa Cather is.
"Miss Cather is Nebraska's foremost citizen," declared Sinclair in his positive way. "The United States knows Nebraska because of Willa Cather's books. "
It was not until Sinclair Lewis issued his militant proclamation that Miss Cather's own father, C. F. Cather of Red Cloud, knew just how brilliant a daughter he had given to the world. At that time he wrote a loving little letter to his daughter in New York and in it paid a tribute to her genius, a bit awkwardly put, for full realization had come to the father with rather startling force.
"Father is a very modest man, and he wants me to be modest," said Miss Cather when in Omaha recently, and the phrase had in it nothing of affectation, for success has left Miss Cather without affectation, modest and unspoiled, just as her father would have her. And then it was that all the rest of the Cather family rejoiced, and as Miss Cather is one of seven children, "all living and hale and hearty," as she says, the rejoicing was widespread.
This sketch about Miss Cather's success sounds quite simple in the telling. She seems to have moved unimpeded along the path to achievement. Actually this is far from the truth. With her as with most people, success represents a terrific struggle. It represents years of youthful uncertainty and mental chaos when she was learning her technique and learning also the ways of the world in this country and abroad. Studying and working and striving to express herself, Miss Cather wrote for magazines, did newspaper work on the Pittsburg Leader, taught English in an Allegheny high school, was editor of McClure's magazine, and in other ways served the hard apprenticeship that precedes a great literary triumph.
When she tells about those years there comes into her voice an occasional break—that is the only sign of emotion, for Miss Cather has about her nothing of foolish sentimentality, although she has a penetrating warmth of genuine sentiment. But she wants it known that she has had a good time during those years of struggle; that she was happy in her travels, her love of music, her friends, her work—but happiness in her actual achievement was long deferred.
"A book is made with one's own flesh and blood of years. It is cremated youth. It is all yours—no one gave it to you," said Miss Cather when speaking of her work in Omaha, and the quiet solemnity of a beautifully modulated voice, the sensitive play of emotion on her delicately chiseled face gave force to her words and made one realize just how much more than mere craftsmanship goes into the making of a great book.
Miss Cather tells about those years of tireless effort as follows:
"When I left the University of Nebraska after graduating and went to New York City, I wanted to write after the best style of Henry James —the foremost mind that ever applied itself to literature in America. I was dazzled. I was trying to work in a sophisticated medium and write about highly developed people whom I knew only superficially.
"It was during the six years when I was editor of McClure's magazine that I came to have a definite idea about writing. In reading manuscripts submitted to me, I found that 95 per cent of them were written for the sake of the writer never for the sake of the material. The writer wanted to express his clever ideas, his wit, his observations. Almost never did I find a manuscript that was written because a writer loved his subject so much he had to write about it.
"Usually," she added, "when I did get such a manuscript it was so crude it was ineffective. Then I realized that one must have two things—strong enough to mate together without either killing the other—else one had better change his job. I learned that a man must have a technique and a birthright to write—I do not know how else to express it. He must know his subject with an understanding that passes understanding—like the babe knows its own mother's breast."
It was through this critical analysis of story writing that Miss Cather finally found herself. "I had been trying to sing a song that did not lie in my voice," Miss Cather declared.
"There I was on the Atlantic coast among dear and helpful friends and surrounded by the great masters and teachers with all their tradition of learning and culture, and yet I was always being pulled back into Nebraska," she continued. "Whenever I crossed the Missouri river coming into Nebraska the very smell of the soil tore me to pieces. I could not decide which was the real and which the fake 'me.' I almost decided to settle down on a quarter section of land and let my writing go. My deepest affection was not for the other people and the other places I had been writing about. I loved the country where I had been a kid, where they still called me 'Willie' Cather.
"I knew every farm, every tree, every field in the region around my home, and they all called out to me," she added earnestly. "My deepest feelings were rooted in this country because one's strongest emotions and one's most vivid mental pictures are acquired before one is 15. I had searched for books telling about the beauty of the country I loved, its romance, and heroism and strength and courage of its people that had been plowed into the very furrows of its soil, and I did not find them. And so I wrote O Pioneers!."
And in the writing of this book and the other books that followed, Willa Cather saw all those early years had been in preparation for her rightful task. Out of her experience with complex people and complex things had come a great work of literature about simple people and simple things.
This, too, Sarah Orne Jewett had epitomized for Miss Cather when she said to her: "You have to know the world so well before you know the parish," and so after coming to know the world, Miss Cather went back home and wrote about the parish.
Another literary friend, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, has recently written in the Yale Review in unreserved praise of Miss Cather's work. Strangely enough Miss Cather and Mrs. Fisher were schoolmates at the University of Nebraska, and now both are writers of national distinction. Mrs. Fisher wrote as follows:
"There is no writer living in whose excellence Americans feel a warmer, prouder pleasure than we all feel in the success of Willa Cather. I do not mean by success the wide recognition given her, although that is delightful to see. I mean what must give much more satisfaction to Miss Cather, herself, her real inner success, her real excellence, her firm, steady upward growth and expansion into tranquil and assured power. It is as heartening and inspiring a spectacle as the rich, healthful growth and flowering into splendor of a plant in our gardens, for she is a plant of our own American garden to her last fiber.
"Here is an American to whom European culture (and she has always had plenty of that) is but food to be absorbed and transformed into a new product, quite different, unique, inimitable, with a harmonious perfection of its own. I cannot imagine any exercise which would be of more use to a young writer than to take the last story in her new volume, Youth and the Bright Medusa (what an inspired title!), and compare it line by line with the original version which was published in the January number of Scribner's in 1903. The whole story of Miss Cather's development is there, and an uninformed writer would learn more by pondering on the changes made by Miss Cather in her own story after eighteen years of growth and work than by listening to many lectures from the professors of literature.
"So often writers, even very clever ones, spoil their earlier work when they try to alter it, have not the firm mastery of their craft to know how to smooth out the crudeness without rooting out the life, are so startled by the changes in their own taste that they do not know where to begin. Miss Cather, conscious, firm-willed artist that she is, has known just where to lay her finger on the false passages and how to lift them without destroying the life of the story."
In her New York home, Miss Cather works but three hours a day—hours of perfect joy and happiness, she describes them. She finds that at the end of two or three hours she has exhausted her best efforts. She spends the remainder of the day with her friends, or taking a walk in Central park, or listening to good music or busying herself with housework and forgets about her work. She believes that a writer should keep in as good physical condition as a singer, and so she regulates her life on a simple, normal schedule. She writes easily and seldom tears a paragraph or a page to pieces. She sometimes revises, but she does not fuss over her writing. "I let life flow along the pages," says this consummate artist.
Miss Cather has just completed a new book, One of Ours. It is now in proof form. She worked three years on this book, and she considers it her best effort.
"The hero is just a red-headed prairie boy," said Miss Cather. "I always felt it was presumptuous and silly for a woman to write about a male character, but by a chain of circumstances I came to know that boy better than I know myself. I have cut out all descriptive work in this book—the thing I do best. I have cut out all picture making because that boy does not see pictures. It was hard to cease to do the thing that I do best, but we all have to pay the price for everything we accomplish, and because I was willing to pay so much to write about this boy, I felt that I had a right to do so."
Lucky prairie boy! To have Willa Cather to write about him.