Source File: cat.bohlke.i.20.xml

from Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986

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Cover of L. Brent Bohlke's Willa Cather in Person

1924: NEW YORK

Burton Rascoe (1892-1957) began his journalistic career at the age of sixteen, working in Oklahoma on the Shawnee Herald. In 1911 he moved to Chicago and spent two years at the University of Chicago before becoming the literary and dramatic editor for the Chicago Tribune. He left Chicago in 1921 for New York City and the associate editorship of McCall's, and in less than two years became the literary editor of the New York Tribune at the age of twenty-nine.

He quickly became known around the city and in journalistic circles for his boundless enthusiasm and energy. The Bookman referred to his "affable arrogance" in pursuit of his work. At the Tribune he reviewed a book a day and was also responsible for a weekend literary supplement. The latter became so successful within a few months that it was turned into a special tabloid insert, "Book News and Reviews." Rascoe's best-known contribution was his column "A Bookman's Daybook," in which he told almost every day about what he read, whom he met, what they had said to him, and what he had said to them. It involved a great deal of name-dropping and anticipated Walter Winchell's gossip, making the literary world appear exciting to his readers. He lost his position after the Herald and the Tribune merged in 1924 and was succeeded by Stuart P. Sherman. Rascoe went on to write a syndicated column, "The Daybook of a New Yorker," which appeared in over four hundred daily papers between 1924 and 1928. He was at various times associated, most often as literary editor, with the Bookman, Arts and Decorations magazine, Vanity Fair, Plain Talk, the New York Sun, Esquire, Newsweek, the American Mercury, and the New York World-Telegram. He went on to become a best-selling author with his Titans of Literature (1932) and several other books.

The first two of the following three impressions initially appeared in Rascoe's column in the Herald-Tribune in February 1924, shortly before his departure from that paper, and were reprinted in his anthology entitled A Bookman's Daybook. Many of the subjects are familiar: Cather's interest in good food, her outspoken opinions, and her fondness of tennis. This third interview is a recounting of the first meeting from Arts and Decorations. It, too, was later reprinted in Rascoe's We Were Interrupted. The discrepancies in date probably reflect faulty memory. Rascoe is more detailed in recounting the subjects, which include, besides the previously mentioned familiar ones, Ellen Terry, Cather's recent portrait, and some unusually harsh words about Sarah Orne Jewett.

FIRST MEETING WITH WILLA CATHER

Tuesday, February 19

I met Miss Willa Cather for the first time to-day at lunch with Thomas Beer. She impressed me at once as a remarkable woman, in a way I had so far from expected that I was sometime in orientating myself to her personality and so getting my ease. She is full-blooded, vigorous, substantial, sure of herself, matter-of-fact, businesslike, and somehow I had expected her to be reticent, uncommunicative, rather sweet and softish. She looks as though she might conduct a great law practice or a successful dairy farm, superintend a telephone exchange or run a magazine with equal efficiency, ideas and energy.

The first thing I heard her say concerned matters of a practical nature. She said that she refused to autograph books sent to her for the quite legitimate reason that lately her publisher is bringing out limited autographed editions of her work, and for her to autograph books sent to her would cut in on his business. One bookseller had had the nerve, she said, to send her twenty-five books to autograph for sale, but she sent them back with promptitude and gave him a bit of her mind. She is fond of the table and she discourses with gusto on food; she knows where the best meals are to be had in Paris, London and New York; she taxies uptown frequently from Bank Street to eat at a restaurant where the food is so good that she told Beer, who had never been there: "Young man, the next time I see you I want you to have been at Voisin's"; she sent back her chicken pie, reminding the waiter curtly that it was insufficient in sauce and that it is not to be eaten dry. She is free from the usual inhibitions to comfortable and easy discourse; she uses good, colloquial and pungent words. I could have embraced her with joy and admiration when she exclaimed, the moment a certain academic critic's name was mentioned, "Oh, that muttonhead!" That is, in my opinion, precisely what he is, and no one had ever said it before. She is brief, decisive and sharp in her criticism of writers and of people. When Beer said he had been called to task for not mentioning Octave Thanet in his book and said he had not read her, Miss Cather replied, "There's no reason why you should; she was a carpenter. Her stories are well-nailed, uninteresting goods boxes."

New York Herald-Tribune, 19 February 1924. Reprinted in A Bookman's Daybook (1929).

ANOTHER GLIMPSE OF WILLA CATHER

Friday, February 22

Hazel joined me at the office, and we went to Miss Willa Cather's for tea. Over her fireplace I observed with interest a large framed engraving of George Sand, with a small cutting, portraying Sand in a top hat, sliced from a periodical and stuck in the corner; and this I found significant. Miss Cather talked mostly of Suzanne Lenglen, the tennis champion, whom she greatly admires, and said that, though she is not, in the American sense, a good sport and does not take even the promise of defeat easily, she is a magnetic and enchanting figure, playing not at all on beef and muscle, but on nerves.

I asked her if it was permissible to talk about her books, when I found that she and Hazel had been discussing "The Song of the Lark," and when she said there was no objection, I asked her if I was right, so far as her own artistic intention was concerned, in saying that the story of "The Lost Lady"* had to do entirely with Mrs. Forrester and not with the disillusion of the young chap who fell in love with her. She said, of course, it was; that in order to portray Mrs. Forrester it was necessary to show her as she was reflected in the minds of a number of men; the young man who was disillusioned was no more necessary to the portrait than the butcher boy who brought the flowers at the time of Forrester's death, but he was more directly connected with Mrs. Forrester's career than the butcher boy, and therefore he figured more importantly in the story.

*As appears in text, should be "A Lost Lady." New York Herald-Tribune, 22 February 1924. Reprinted in A Bookman's Daybook (1929).

WILLA CATHER

I met Miss Willa Cather in March 1924; she had returned from a year's residence in France, during which time she had written that beautiful little masterpiece, A Lost Lady. At an evening with Ernest Boyd, Thomas Beer had told me that he was having Miss Cather to lunch on a Tuesday and invited me to join them. I suffered some delay in getting away from the house, and Beer and Miss Cather were waiting for me on the much too prominently placed settle at the Crillon, which faces the dining-room doorway—a restaurant appointment having the advantage of throwing you into immediate contact with the person you are seeking, but having the disadvantage of forcing the person who has to wait to remain on display like an object in a shop-window.

My tardiness ruffled the composure I had been at some pains in attaining at the prospect of meeting the woman whom I consider to be the finest artist of her sex now writing in English. I was not put any the more readily at my ease by my discovery that she was amazingly unlike my conception of her as a person. I had somehow expected her to be wistful—though if I had troubled to recall her biography I should have known that no woman could have once been a telegraph editor of a daily newspaper and later managing editor of a magazine and still be wistful precisely. Miss Cather is quite the reverse of that; she is alert, alive, quick-witted, vigorous-minded, and assertive, not at all dreamy, preoccupied, self-isolated, or diffident.

I believe the first thing I noticed about her was the forceful masculinity of her hands; they are strong hands without the so-called artist taper-which, by the way, I have observed very few artists possess.

Her features are bluntly decisive in line; her eyes are pale blue and set wide apart, with eyebrows high enough to give her ordinarily a look of challenge and appraisal; her mouth is ample, with full, flexible lips whose movements are as expressive an accompaniment of her speech as are the gestures of a Latin; and her nose is a nose, not a tracery.

All the pictures I have seen of her amount almost to libels, for they portray a faintly sullen expression about her mouth, and such an expression she is not guilty of, I believe, ever. Hers is a mouth capable of sternness, severity, stubbornness, perhaps, but not sullenness.

I like the way she sits, relaxed without slumping, free, easy, assured, without tension. She wears her hair parted slightly to the right of the middle and drawn up in a loose knot in the back. She has the extraordinary courage to wear at the same time salmon and green, and she does it with complete success. I can now very easily imagine that she has sat for Leon Bakst's most successful portrait; whereas I had wondered why the women of Omaha had chosen that artistic Tartar barbarian, of all painters, for the honor of doing her likeness as a memorial to her as Nebraska's eminent novelist, there is probably no portraitist who would be more understanding and appreciative of the strength and subtleties of her character and handsomeness.

I was not surprised to hear her expatiate with the keenest admiration upon the character and personality of a woman who is pretty much her own direct opposite—Ellen Terry, a talented, capricious, intensely feminine woman who has pirouetted gracefully and radiantly over the surfaces of life, learning nothing of its sordidness apparently (if we are to judge from her memoirs) which she might not have learned as a charming, imitative, ingenuous child in the nursery.

Histrionism and mimicry, playing at life and finding it enchantingly colorful, an escape into an imaginative world where drabness and time-serving are forgotten in the illusion of adventure—these are the things which attract Miss Cather to the singers and actresses who figure so prominently in her stories. And because she has emotional understanding as well as intelligence, sympathy as well as insight, her stories have warmth and poetry in them. They touch both the heart and the intellect. Mrs. Forrester, the heroine of A Lost Lady, is one of the few women in fiction whose author has endeavored to convey the idea of a heroine who is irresistible, and whom you know, you feel to be charming, radiant, attractive, and beautiful—not through any description but because of the effect, carefully observed, that she is depicted as having upon men. Miss Cather knows her decorative women of electric energy and she knows the other sorts too.

Her conversation is staccato; she chops her spoken sentences out incisively, in short, neat links. In this respect she reminds me somewhat of that other dynamo of creative zeal, Miss Amy Lowell. It is impossible to register and recall as a continued or amplified discourse any topic she touches on, because she disposes of any topic that interests her with expedition and economy of words.

One remembers only the high points—"One of those women with round chins. Women with round chins have terrible tempers . . . Sarah Orne Jewett was too much cuddled by her family. They'd have kept her in cotton wool and smothered her if they'd had entirely their own way about it. She was a very uneven writer. A good portion of her work is not worth preserving. The rest, a small balance—enough to make two volumes —is important. She was a voice. She spoke for a slight but influential section of the American people. She was clearly a voice, an authentic voice. . . . Suzanne Lenglen plays perfect tennis, entirely on her nerves, not on beef and muscle. She has no American conception of sportsmanship: she goes in simply to win and if she loses her confidence in herself for a moment before a match, she goes into hysterics and refuses to play. She is a superb player, though, when she has control of herself . . . "

Miss Cather is interested in good food; she is proud of her cook; she walks a great deal for the exercise; she is fascinated by the spectacle of life; she is a capable businesswoman, or at least gives the impression of so being; and she is without sentimentality, prudery, or false values of any sort. She uses such good, sanguine words as "muttonhead," "cub," "scamp," and "ninny" with delightful colloquial effectiveness.

She provokes in me the belief that she early formed a just and reasonable estimate of her gifts and decided to cultivate them pretty much to the exclusion of everything else. She was, I believe, intelligently aware of her genius and had the will to bring it to fruition. On the strength of her work she has already accomplished I think that she is more secure to posterity than Mrs. Edith Wharton, whose great lack as a writer is that of human warmth.

Arts and Decorations, April 1924 Reprinted from We Were Interrupted (1947).

Willa Cather's vigor and assertive mind, which had been noted by Burton Rascoe, become more and more evident in the mid-twenties. Where the previous interest had been in her work habits, her personal theories about her own art, and her background, she was now solicited for (or volunteered) her opinions about all kinds of topics. She certainly seems none too reticent in expressing her feelings about American culture and civilization, the current state of art, French culture, and a number of other things. Her only interview in the New York Times, occurred at the end of 1924, and, no doubt, it was a kind of high water mark of Cather's popularity and the public's interest.

This interview sparked more response than any she had granted to date. The Bookman took issue with her opinions and was still referring to the interview nine months later. In March 1925, John Farrar, the editor, wrote concerning Cather's opinions:

Art, she sees largely in repose; beauty, she finds, must come from a civilization more like that of France than our own. No beauty in restlessness, she says—and she forgets all the restless, sensitive, striving beauty of youth. No beauty in machinery? She forgets the etchings of Pennell and the poetry of Carl Sandburg. If she means art, the technique of art, she is perhaps right in her feeling that America is not contemplative enough. We could not in this period have produced Anatole France; but we did produce, as she admits, Whitman. She forgets, too, the beauty of revolt, the beauty of struggle, the beauty of the very rugged unformed state she abhors. That our standards of success are warped we cannot deny; but the avarice of the French is no prettier a characteristic than our money madness, and the striving of the present generations, Miss Cather, is building up wealth for the leisure of those quietly cultured souls you so miss in this welter of "cinema" and "radio" publics. You regret, too, the days long past when these new readers did not exist and only a fine, intelligent public greeted the best books. This, you say, Miss Cather, is not intended to be a snobbish attitude. You will not deny that it is, at least, aristocratic! (4-5)

In September of the same year, Farrar was still making references in his column to Cather's December interview and her opinion that art "was the privilege of aristocracies."

Rose Caroline Feld (1895-1981), was born in Rumania and came to the United States in 1898. After graduating from the New York Training School for Teachers, she entered a career in journalism. She was a member of the staff of the New York Times from 1916 to 1922 and then became a free-lance contributor to several national magazines and the book sections of the Times and the Herald-Tribune. She had published her first book, Humanizing Industry, in 1920, and went on to write Heritage (1928), Sophie Halenczik, American (1943), and other books.

"RESTLESSNESS SUCH AS OURS DOES NOT MAKE FOR BEAUTY"

by Rose C. Feld

Tea with Willa Sibert Cather is a rank failure. The fault is entirely hers. You get so highly interested in what she had to say and how she says it that you ask for cream when you prefer lemon and let the butter on your hot toast grow cold and smeary. It is vastly more important to you to watch her eyes and lips which betray her when she seems to be giving voice to a serious concept, but is really poking fun at the world—or at your own foolish question. For Willa Sibert Cather has a rare good sense, homespun sense, if you will—and that is rare enough—which she drives home with a well-wrought mallet of humor.

It started with the question of books and the overwhelming quantities which the American public of today is buying. What exactly was the explanation of that? Did it mean that we were becoming a more cultured people, a more artistic people? Miss Cather was suffering from neuritis that day. It was difficult to understand, therefore, whether the twinge that crossed her face was caused by the pain we gave her or that of her temporary illness.

"Don't confuse reading with culture or art," she said, when her face cleared. There was laughter in her blue eyes. "Not in this country, at any rate. So many books are sold today because of the economic condition of this country, not the cultural. We have a great prosperous middle class, in cities, in suburbs, in small towns, on farms, to whom the expediture of $2 for a book imposes no suffering. What's more, they have to read it. They want a book which will fill up commuting boredom every morning and evening; they want a book to read mornings after breakfast when the maid takes care of the apartment housework; they want a book to keep in the automobile while they're waiting for tardy friends or relatives; they want fillers-in, in a word, something to take off the edge of boredom and empty leisure. Publishers, who are, after all, business men, recognize the demand and pour forth their supply. It's good sense; it's good psychology. It's the same thing that is responsible for the success of the cinema. It is, as a matter of fact, the cinema public for whom this reading material is published. But it has no more to do with culture than with anarchy or philosophy. You might with equal reason ask whether we are becoming a more cultured people because so many more of us are buying chiffoniers and bureaus and mirrors and toilet sets. Forty or fifty years ago these things were not to be found in the average home. Forty or fifty years ago we couldn't afford them, and today we can. As a result, every home has an increased modicum of comfort and luxury. But, carrying the thought a step further, every home has not increased in beauty.

"Not so long ago I was speaking to William Dean Howells about this subject of book reading and book publication. He said something which was of interest to me and which may be of interest to you. Forty years ago, he maintained, we were in the midst of a great literary period. Then, only good books were published, only cultivated people read. The others didn't read at all, or if they did it was the newspapers, the almanac, and the Bible on Sundays. This public doesn't exist today any more than the cinema public existed then. Fine books were written for fine people. Fine books are still written for fine people. Sometimes the others read them, too, and if they can stand it, it doesn't hurt them."

Her lips twitched in a smile she tried to suppress. She shook her head at a wayward thought.

"That discrimination is not a snobbish one," she went on. "Don't think that. By the fine reader I don't necessarily mean the man or woman with a cultivated background, an academic, or a wealthy background. I mean the person with quickness and richness of mentality, fineness of spirituality. You found it often in a carpenter or a blacksmith who went to his few books for recreation and inspiration. The son of a long line of college presidents may be nothing but a dolt and idiot in spite of the fact that he knows how to enter a room properly or to take off a lady's wraps. It's the shape of the head that's of importance; it's the something that's in it that can bring an ardor and an honesty to a masterpiece and make it over until it becomes a personal possession.

"I am not making generalities, I hope. I hate generalities. There's no sense to them. They're superficial; they're easy. People in talking of art and art appreciation make the generality, for instance, that all singers come out of the mud. Mud has nothing to do with it, just as being a carpenter has nothing to do with the accident of a good mind. Art requires a vast amount of character. It's a whole lot more than talent. It demonstrates itself in relationships the artist thinks important. I am not speaking of morality. It means great, good sense, as well as the gift of expression. The singer who is born in the mud doesn't arrive unless he's very good; there are so many obstacles which he must surmount. It requires a very little effort for a person with a mediocre voice and a deep, lined purse to get a hearing; it requires unusual ability for the poor man. When the latter arrives, it is because he has proved his genius. Mud had nothing to do with it; it only made his progress more difficult.

"Because of this vast amount of writing and reading, there are many among us who make the mistake of thinking we are an artistic people. Talking about it won't make us that. We can build excellent bridges; we can put up beautiful office buildings, factories; in time, it may be, we shall be known for the architecture which our peculiar industrial progress has fostered here, but literary art, painting, sculpture, no. We haven't yet acquired the good sense of discrimination possessed by the French, for instance. They have a great purity of tradition; they all but murder originality, and yet they worship it. The taste of the nation is represented by the Academy; it is a corrective rod which the young artist ever dreads. He revolts against it, but he cannot free himself from it. He cannot pull the wool over the eyes of the academy by saying his is a new movement, an original movement, a breaking away from the old. His work is judged on its merits, and if it isn't good, he gets spanked. Here in America, on the other hand, every little glimmer of color calls itself art; every youth that misuses a brush calls himself an artist, and an adoring group of admirers flatter and gush over him. It's rather pathetic.

"Read the life of Manet and Monet, both great artists, great masters. The French people had to be sure of their genius before it would acclaim them. Death almost took them before acknowledgment of their power was given them. It is good sense, deliberation, and an eagerness for the beautiful that keeps up the fine front of French art. That is true of her literature as well as of her painting.

"France is sensitive; we are not. It may be that our youth has something to do with it, and yet I don't know whether that is it. It's our prosperity, our judging success in terms of dollars. Life not only gives us wages for our toil but a bonus besides. It makes for nice, easy family life but not for art. The French people, on the other hand, have had no bonus. Their minds have been formed by rubbing up cruelly with the inescapable realities of life; they've played a close game, wresting their wages from a miserly master. Mrs. Wharton expressed it very well in a recent article when she said that the Frenchman elected to live at home and use his wits to make his condition happy. He don't want an easier land. He chose France, above all, as the home of his family and his children after them. There you are.

"The Frenchman doesn't talk nonsense about art, about self-expression; he is too greatly occupied with building the things that make his home. His house, his garden, his vineyards, these are the things that fill his mind. He creates something beautiful, something lasting. And what happens? When a French painter wants to paint a picture he makes a copy of a garden, a home, a village. The art in them inspires his brush. And twenty, thirty, forty years later you'll come to see the original of that picture, and you'll find it, changed only by the mellowness of time.

"Restlessness such as ours, success such as ours, striving such as ours, do not make for beauty. Other things must come first: good cookery; cottages that are homes, not playthings; gardens; repose. These are first-rate things, and out of first-rate stuff is art made. It is possible that machinery has finished us as far as this is concerned. Nobody stays at home any more; nobody makes anything beautiful any more. Quick transportation is the death of art. We can't keep still because it is so easy to move about.

"Yet it isn't always a question of one country being artistic and another not. The world goes through periods or waves of art. Between these periods come great resting places. We may be resting right now. Older countries have their wealth of former years to fall back upon. We haven't. But, like older countries, we have a few individuals who have caught the flame of former years and are carrying the torch into the next period. Whistler was one of these; Whitman was another."

Miss Cather poured some tea into a cup and diluted it with the cream we asked for but didn't want. We let it stand on the arm of the chair and proceeded with a question that her words had awakened.

"If we have no tradition of years behind us, the people who come to live here have. Are they contributing anything to the artistic expression of the country?"

Again that twinge crossed her face. This time it was plain that the question had started it.

"Contribute? What shall they contribute? They are not peddlers with something to sell; they are not gypsies. They have come here to live in the sense that they lived in the Old World, and if they were let alone their lives might turn into the beautiful ways of their homeland. But they are not let alone. Social workers, missionaries—call them what you will —go after them, hound them pursue them and devote their days and nights toward the great task of turning them into stupid replicas of smug American citizens. This passion for Americanizing everything and everybody is a deadly disease with us. We do it the way we build houses. Speed, uniformity, dispatch, nothing else matters.

"It wasn't so years ago. When I was a child, all our neighbors were foreigners. Nobody paid any attention to them outside of the attention they wanted. We let them alone. Work was assigned them, and they made good houseworkers and splendid craftsmen. They furnished their houses as they had in the countries from which they came. Beauty was there and charm. Nobody investigated them; nobody regarded them as laboratory specimens. Everybody had a sort of protective air toward them, but nobody interfered with them. A 'foreigner' was a person foreign to our manners or custom of living, not possible prey for reform. Nobody ever cheated a foreigner. A man lost everything in the esteem of the community when he was discovered in a crime of false barter. It was very much better that way. I hate this poking into personal affairs by social workers, and I know the people hate it, too. Yet settlement work is a mark of progress, our progress. That's that. I know there's much to be said for it, but nevertheless, I hate it."

We spoke about My Ántonia, Miss Cather's story about the immigrant family of Czechs.

"Is My Ántonia a good book because it is the story of the soil?" we asked. She shook her head.

"No, no, decidedly no. There is no formula; there is no reason. It was a story of people I knew. I expressed a mood, the core of which was like a folksong, a thing Grieg could have written. That it was powerfully tied to the soil had nothing to do with it. Ántonia was tied to the soil. But I might have written the tale of a Czech baker in Chicago, and it would have been the same. It was nice to have her in the country; it was more simple to handle, but Chicago could have told the same story. It would have been smearier, joltier, noisier, less sugar and more sand, but still a story that had as its purpose the desire to express the quality of these people. No, the country has nothing to do with it; the city has nothing to do with it; nothing contributes consciously. The thing worth while is always unplanned. Any art that is a result of preconcerted plans is a dead baby."

Miss Cather is now writing a new novel which will come out next Autumn. "There will be no theories, no panaceas, no generalizations. It will be a story about people in a prosperous provincial city in the Middle West. Nothing new or strange, you see."

New York Times Book Review, 21 December 1924, p. 11, cols. 1-5.