The year 1928 began badly for Willa Cather with the death of her father in March. Following the funeral, Mrs. Cather, who was deeply shaken, apparently more so than those around her had expected, was convinced by her son Douglass to accompany him to California for a rest. She was never to return to Red Cloud. In December, shortly after returning to New York from Quebec and Grand Manan, Cather received word that her mother had suffered a stroke. She dropped her writing on Shadows on the Rock and made plans to go to California to aid in arranging for her care. For the next two and a half years, all during her mother's illness, her writing was disrupted. In that time she made three more trips to Quebec and one to France to do research on her novel and made three separate painful trips to California. Her final trip occurred just after she had completed the page proofs for Shadows on the Rock and received the gold medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for Death Comes for the Archbishop. When she arrived, Mrs. Cather was in a worsened condition, paralyzed on one side and practically speechless. She spent most of her time sitting by her mother's side. While there she visited Zoë Akins as often as possible and received an honorary degree from the University of California in March. That degree spurred a two-part interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, which appeared on the twenty-third and twenty-ninth of March, 1931. The interviewer, Harold Small, was either mistaken or exaggerating in claiming that it had been six years since her last interview. She had granted interviews in Nebraska less than three years before and had been interviewed by The Writer shortly before that.
Willa Cather, whom many critics name as the foremost living American novelist, is about to spring a surprise on the readers, reviewers, admirers, and analysts of her books.
She has written a novel different from any of her others, and she won't utter a word about it except to say that its title will be Shadows on the Rock. She is informed by her publisher that he expects to bring it out in August.
"A book should speak for itself." That was all she would say about Shadows on the Rock yesterday in the first interview she has permitted in six years.
The University of California, following the academic custom of granting the honorary degree of doctor of laws in recognition of abilities and achievements that have nothing to do with law, has just honored Miss Cather in that way for her novels.
This has been given an impetus to speculation about what her next novel would be like; but she leaves the wonderers to their own guesses just as she did three years ago when she surprised everyone with Death Comes for the Archbishop.
The novelist was ready and willing yesterday to say some new things about that book. It amused her that many readers and reviewers had been puzzled by Death Comes to the Archbishop until she had written, months after the book was published, a brief explanation of her reasons for writing it in the way she did—more like a chronicle than a novel — "not to use an incident for all there is in it, but to touch and pass on."
Why, I suggested, hadn't she published that explanation with the book as a preface that would have set her readers on the right track from the start?
She smiled a rebuke. "They found out what it was before they were done with it, didn't they?" she said.
"Well, some of them still think it was pretty nearly simon-pure biography."
"That won't hurt them," she observed. "I think I was accurate where accuracy was needed.
"But, do you know, I had no idea of writing about those pioneer priests in the Southwest until one night I was reading the letters that Father Macheboeuf wrote to his sister.
"Then, before morning, the story was in my mind. The way of it was on the white wall of that hotel room in Santa Fe, as if it were all in order and color there, projected by a sort of magic lantern.
"In the large, it was ready, and I wrote it just so. But I did make a slip in a minor matter. I never should have said that the painting—the masterpiece that had strayed from the Old World to far New Mexico—was a painting by El Greco. Why, I had dozens of letters from readers of the novel, and they were sure they had found that 'missing El Greco' in their attics.
"They would ask me what art dealer they should send it to, and some of them thought their fortunes were made. The next time I mention a painting, I'll invent a name for the artist.
"It was a painting, by the way, that made the first scene of that story for me. A French painter, Vibert, once did a precise piece of work in the manner of his day, called 'The Missionary's Return.'
"It showed a gorgeously furnished room with cardinals, in scarlet, sitting at ease with their wine, and speaking to them, telling of the hardships and glories of missionary work in some far part of the world, a pioneer priest, his garments dull and worn, but his face all alight."San Francisco Chronicle, 23 March 193 1, p. 19.
"Sincerity." Willa Cather bristles at the word, not as it stands, but as chatterers about modern writing make use of it as a battle cry. She will have no truck with the heresy that sincerity and art are strangers, that writing is sincere only when it is in the rough, undisciplined, uncouth.
This distinguished novelist who has just been paying one of her rare visits to San Francisco has a high respect for her profession, and a low opinion of writers who don't respect their work.
"What do you think," I asked her, "about all this sincerity talk?"
She answered in parables.
"Suppose," she said, "a man comes up to you and you rise to greet him. He is your friend. You know him. You respect him. You have a genuine affection for him. Do you rush at him, paw him, pound his back and roar at him? No. The sincerity of feeling between you and your friend requires and fixes a form, a way of greeting each other, that isn't a slapstick show. Very likely you won't need more than a word in a quiet voice, nor any gesture more than a simple handshake.
"Art is form; and sincerity fixes form, naturally and in a way that expresses and earns respect.
"Suppose again that we are watching a country dance. The boys and girls are having a good time. They are behaving decently to each other because they respect each other. They are sincere in their good behavior. But now a young bully breaks into the fun. He is a boorish fellow; he doesn't know how to behave. What does he do? He starts rough-housing. He is provoked by his discomfort in the presence of these others who are enjoying each other. He wants to attract attention, and his only way of showing off is to raise a ruction."
This, I thought, must be a parable for those writers who mistake for "scribbler's itch," which may not be troublesome to anyone but themselves, a more virulent and obnoxious malady, the itch for making a public sensation.
"There are discriminations to make, of course," Miss Cather went on. "The arts can not stand still; if they mark time, they die. There must be experimenting, if that is the right word for it. I have done two books now —Death Comes for the Archbishop and a new one not yet published, Shadows on the Rock—that are different from anything that I wrote earlier and from each other. It hasn't seemed to me this was experimenting, though each time the form fixed itself and seemed right.
"Some of the modern painters, centers of much controversy, have been sincere enough. They have wished to paint the effects of light in a new way. What they have painted doesn't mean that they are putting Rembrandt in the wrong; it means that they see the effects of light in a different way from his way.
"But what shall we say about those writers who cut and shuffle prose and call it poetry? Or string out any words that come into their heads and call it prose? Is there any definite and demanding sincerity in this? Sincerity demands form. It is some other impulse that runs to formlessness."
Miss Cather works in a way from impulse. "What I write," she said, "results from a personal explosional experience. All of a sudden, the idea for a story is in my head. It is in the ink bottle when I start to write. But I don't start until the idea has found its own pattern and fixed its proper tone. And it does that; some of the things that I first consider important fade into insignificance, while others that I first glimpse as minor things, grow until they show that they are the important things. It seems a natural process. I tried to put into Death Comes for the Archbishop what I thought was the best chapter I had written for that story, but it didn't fit. I left it out. A novel should be like a symphony, developed from one theme, one dominating tone. That chapter was out of tone."
There is a tone, by the way, to Miss Cather's name.Some make Cather Rhyme with bather; She would rather They said Cather.
But correctly, the first part of the name is just like "Cath" in "Catholic."
That recalls an example of her writing from impulse. Miss Cather is not a Catholic. She never intended, she said, to write about the pioneer Catholic priests of New Mexico. "Being a Catholic must be a sort of technique, like being an engineer, and I don't know anything about the life of an engineer, and would hesitate to write about that. But when I read Father Macheboeuf's letters, that very night I had the idea for my story of Death Comes for the Archbishop.
"I hope the readers of that story have enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I like my stories to be read because people like them. I didn't want to be 'assigned reading' for university classes, a duty, a target for information vampires. Why should anyone try to teach contemporary literature, anyway? Stories are to be read. 'Sincerity' again. The sincerity of feeling that is possible between a writer and a reader is one of the finest things I know."San Francisco Chronicle, 29 March 1931, sec. D, p. 5.