Source File: cat.bohlke.i.26.xml

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

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986

Return to Interviews Table of Contents

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

1927: HASTINGS

Almost immediately upon Cather's completion of Death Comes for the Archbishop, her life underwent a radical disruption. She was forced to move in the summer of 1927 because the construction of a new subway called for the demolition of her Bank Street apartment. She then went to Wyoming to visit her brother Roscoe but was called to Red Cloud suddenly in August when her father suffered a heart attack. It was during this brief stay that Cather was approached by an interviewer from the Hastings Daily Tribune, somewhat insensitively, given the circumstances of her visit. She obviously refused to be quoted, so that what the writer put together might best be described as a rather creative non-interview.

Her planned trip to Italy was later canceled because of her father's health. She spent a brief time in New Hampshire, returned to Red Cloud for Christmas, and was called back there in March 1928 for his funeral.

Her interest in Italy and its politics increased over the years, and by 1938 her correspondence with Sinclair Lewis expresses great alarm at what Mussolini had done to a once lovely country. She also felt that Stalin had duped Russia and the world (TLS, 14 January 1938, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut).

Despite the inopportune timing and the obstacles involved, the article expresses the affection and pride held by Nebraskans for "their" author.

LITERATURE LEADS TO HIGH PLACE

for Red Cloud Woman Nominated to Write Long-Awaited Great American Novel

It is legitimate enough for any Nebraskan to have curiosity in regard to what literature has done for Miss Willa Cather. There have been opportunities to observe the reaction of many other Nebraskans to success of varying degrees in many lines, and they are all interesting enough. But in literature or that much of it as is encompassed by novels, it is impossible to recall another from Nebraska who occupies quite the position Miss Cather does.

This is probably the conclusion, whether based upon the reader's own judgment of the novels or upon the reviews and criticisms he has read.

"According to standards that are intelligible to me," comments a reviewer in the Manchester Guardian (England), "Miss Willa Cather is more likely to write the Great American Novel than Mr. Sinclair Lewis or Mr. Theodore Dreiser."

Miss Cather is a Red Cloud, Nebraska, woman, but all the reviews one sees assume it is common knowledge that her rank is among the foremost who write English. Why, then should one not be curious as to what Miss Cather thinks of life in general? For that would point the answer as to what the production of literature has done for her.

But Miss Cather will not tell what she thinks for publication in newspapers, and for reasons that are sound enough when she states them. Ask her something of her thought of Nebraska and her reply that she has already told it in her writings is answer enough, for one recalls the many minute descriptions of the land, the seasons, the crops, and the people, and that all the descriptions are with fondness, warmth, and appreciation. They are answer enough.

Moreover, here was Miss Cather in Red Cloud recently. And she was here last year, and the year before—every year. Just a ten days' call this time to visit her parents.

To write, then, of Nebraska, in a way that makes reviewers nominate the author as a possible writer of the long-awaited Great American novel, still leaves Miss Cather a lover of Nebraska, and concerned enough about parents to make a long journey for a visit. It is encouraging to know that this is true, and it is, although Miss Cather said nothing about it.

Miss Cather spent the summer in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, passing through Hastings enroute about six weeks ago. The time was devoted to sections of Wyoming that the author had not visited before. The visit to Red Cloud was a run down from Wyoming, and then Miss Cather went to Denver to join a party of friends for the return to New York. Late this month she will sail for Italy on the Berengaria.

It is quite evident that Miss Cather is looking forward with zest to Italy. And in this, it is easy to believe, her visitor may observe one of the things that literature has done for her—sharpened curiosity about the causes of great movements.

What changes has Mussolini brought about in Italy?—Miss Cather would see, and understand, if possible. She has heard that waiters in Italy no longer accept a tip. If proferred, they refuse, explaining that now they receive ten per cent as the regular thing.

That in itself is a small matter, but Miss Cather would see if it is but one of the signs of widespread and permanent change in the general Italian status. In her novels she frequently portrays changes and their causes in Nebraska. Literature, apparently, has given her similar interest in motives and results wherever they may be.

As the editor of McClure's Magazine, Miss Cather's duties took her yearly to England, and the visits brought contact with writers of the day and took her to places of literary and historical note. That has been the experience to be sure of many others, but the point that interests a Nebraskan is that in this instance it is the experience of a Nebraska woman, one whose childhood days were spent in the smaller town environment, which many regard as circumscribing and an obstacle to achievement.

But in Miss Cather's case it appears that the environment was the very stimulus that awakened appreciation to the point of enabling her to make literary valuations that are striking and convincing.

Once only did it occur to her that life in Europe would be pleasanter than here. With a house to live in where time had mellowed the landscape, and centuries of life had made traditions, she settled down in an atmosphere that apparently offered everything that could be desired.

But it would not do. It was impossible to go to any point where a house was not in view. The great open stretches could not be found, and without the open stretches, best typified by the prairie, there was something wanting in the landscape that was every whit as much something wanting as a missing item in a necessary diet. So Miss Cather returned to the land where the open stretches can be found.

But the author only wants the realization that these places are available and is very conscious that one must have contact with fellow workers of similar taste to be stimulated to best activity and to maintain requisite standards. Thus one finds in Miss Cather a warm appreciation for both cities and the country.

Her latest novel will be published in September. It will be the product of six months' work and her lifetime of observation and preparation. Six months of constructive work is allotted to each year, but one infers that each waking moment is one of preparation, direct or indirect.

But though the work that Miss Cather has done makes her distinct, one of the familiar figures among the generally known writers of English, the everyday Nebraskan finds her conversation easy and delightful, though well considered and extremely human.

The mention of war may cause her to recall the effects of the revolution in Russia. She may sketch a little picture of Russian princesses and of women of the nobility practically destitute in Paris plying their needles for a livelihood. Or it may be that she will tell of Russian men of rank, in a similar plight, who were observed driving a line of taxies in the French capital.

It may be that she will allude to some charming place of interest in England and remind you that if you go prowling around Chester it will pay you next time not to overlook Ludlow, only a short distance off.

Miss Cather's ever lively interest in these things is strictly a human interest, just like yours, and you will forget for a time that you are in the presence of a creator of imaginary worlds and peoples.

But you did have a curiosity to know what literature had done for Willa Cather, and after you have left her you feel convinced that it has developed her interest in people and things.

The Berengaria, for instance. Miss Cather will not take passage in the big Cunarder because it is palatial or because it happens to be going at the time she wishes to leave, no; she remembers that once before when she crossed the Atlantic on that boat the passengers were notably of good spirit and congenial. The boat is then associated in her mind with pleasant voyage companionship. So she selects the Berengaria.

And it is literature that gives Miss Cather the trip to Italy, as it has given others. Not a gift to be despised—a sojourn in Europe with opened eyes to see and with carefully erected standards to judge.

Conversation and magazines are filled with discussions of the present day girl and woman, discussions that condemn, that exalt, that are sanguine, and are hopeless. One reads that Miss Cather wore bobbed hair long before it was the vogue and would like to know what she thinks of the drift of womanhood.

But though she does not speak Miss Cather herself seems to answer the question. She is an assuring presence and seems in no fear that the world will come crashing around her feet. Allusions here and there enable one to assume with a fair degree of certainty that she recalls that woman has always been Poppaea, Sappho, and Cleopatra, as well as Ruth, the Madonna, and Susan B. Anthony. Perhaps there is a period when the skirt is shorter. But what of it? There is a limit, and when one limit has been reached, the trend will be toward the other.

The calm assurance of Miss Cather some way suggests her faith that the nature of woman is essentially little different from the woman of all history and literature.

Take it all in all, the average Nebraskan will be very pleased with what literature has done for Miss Cather. One bears a faint recollection of orange and a white hat, an easy posture, independence, resolution, but all yielding, versatile conversation that shows sympathy and breadth of vision. The conclusion will be warranted that if literature call, really call, there need be no hesitancy in following the call, regardless of where one may be when it comes.

Hastings Daily Tribune, 27 August 1927, p. 5, cols. 1- 4.