Although not technically an interview, this article contains references to personal conversation and some of the earliest first-hand information about Willa Cather from those who knew her while she was growing up. Although it has a number of inaccuracies, it is intriguing because it varies on a number of points from other popular and better-known stories. It is also interesting that although the University gave Cather an honorary degree in 1917, this appears to be the first substantial mention of their famous graduate in any alumni/ae publication.
Elsie Goth Marshall was born in Red Cloud in 1910. She attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (1931-36) and was visiting her family in Red Cloud when she made a "spur-of-the-moment" decision that, since Willa Cather was visiting at the same time, she would write this article. Although she says "not so very long ago," the interview occurred at least five years before publication. Willa Cather's last visit to Red Cloud was in the fall and winter of 1931-32, following her mother's death.
Mrs. Marshall now lives in Dayton, Ohio.
The most interesting stories about a famous person are those that do not usually find their way into print. They are the stories that only the people back home really know, that they reveal on special occasions, and that they treasure to tell again when old friends get together.
Those of you who have read only of Willa Cather's having been born in Virginia and having moved to Nebraska at an early age have missed the most telling facts in her life, for to most biographers the biography starts with the writing of her books. But her old neighbors know the story of the days when she deliberately refused to go to school, when she was planning to become a doctor or if not a doctor an undertaker, when she was one of America's first co-eds with bobbed hair, when by sheer will-power and perseverence she cured herself of lameness.
It is true that she and her family had lived in the hills of Winchester, Virginia where they were bound by folkways and customs of long years standing. Transplanted from the confines of their ancestral home to new, growing plains country, the impressionable nine-year-old daughter reveled in its newness. She sensed the freedom everywhere about. She visited continually as though the unfettered spirit of the country were elusive and to capture it she must keep constantly in touch with the people. To aid her pursuit she appointed herself postmistress for the community and rode twelve miles each day for the mail. On her rounds of delivery she stopped to chat with the Norwegian, French and Bohemian neighbors. Though only a few of their words were intelligible to her, her fancy could supply the rest of the story. She saw them through eyes made discerning in contrasting her new home with her old. The daily lives of these people seemed as fairy tales to her, yet she kept her ardor and vivid imagination leveled to truth's foundation. She checked the account of one person against the same story as told by others and never forgot which way was right.
From one of these visits she brought away a strange illness which the doctor could not identify. In some way it affected the muscles of one leg so that she had to use a crutch to ease the strain on them. She feared the favored leg would wither from disuse so she discarded the crutch. For six months every step was a painful task; then the leg began to show signs of returning to health. Two years later it was completely normal again.
During this confined period her studies with her grandmother had been more intensive. They had studied the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress. Willa learned to repeat long sections of each. The story of Pilgrim's Progress became so real to her that she developed it into a game. She cut out pictures to illustrate the various adventures of Christian and arranged them on a big cardboard sheet, five feet long and three feet wide. Her brother, Roscoe, fashioned squared paths between the pictures. The whole family played the game with enthusiasm and they grieve now that it is lost. In the evenings the family listened to tales from Shakespeare, Dickens and a first edition of Louisa M. Alcott.
This was the total of Willa's "booklearning" until the family moved from Catherton Township to the little town of Red Cloud. There it was convenient for Willa to begin her formal education. It was convenient but not practical, for Willa's likes and dislikes were ever well defined and the teacher became one of her dislikes. Truant rules were unknown so Willa discontinued public school. She pursued knowledge with a greater fervor than those who did attend regularly. She would lock herself in her upstairs bedroom and read for hours. Her family allowed her to buy any books or magazines she desired and she chose wisely. A little cottonwood tree, just tall enough to brush against her window when the wind blew hard, kept her company as she read. She loved the incessant companionable whisper of its leaves and yet today is partial to cottonwood trees. The bold letters —O-f-f-i-c-e—printed on the closed door, the secure lock, and the quiet personality within barred would-be intruders. But these could not exclude the noise of young brothers across the hall. She felt she could not concentrate to the best of her ability there so she asked her father for an outside room of her own. In answer to her request he built a lean-to against the horse barn. This new "Office" was made eight feet wide, thirteen feet long, and seven and one-half feet high. The south and west sides each boasted a many paned window to admit the noon and evening light. On the east front a divided door opened inward. The upper third swung free from the lower section to allow for ventilation while the lower two-thirds was high enough to keep inquisitive children from peering over or climbing in. An old-fashioned heating stove sat behind the door and a low couch sat beside it, against the north wall. Even when the door was closed and the thinker within believed herself free from interruption, she would be disturbed by children coaxing her to come and play. They would often pry up a window to slip in a toad or a mouse. But she gave no heed to the intrusion nor to their coaxing and continued steadily with her studies. In a corner of the lean-to opposite the stove a low corner desk still stands on one sturdy leg. On the other side of the door, against the south wall, stands the old bookshelf. The tiny building has now been demoted to a position out in the country beside a garage. It is used as a catch-all for small farm tools and one would hardly imagine that it once protected periods of study and incubation of knowledge which have been translated into internationally read literature.
In addition to her constant association with books Miss Cather sought out the best learned men of the town and absorbed much of their knowledge. The proprietor of the clothing store, who was an Oxford graduate, taught her some Greek and Latin between customers. She discovered a Norwegian neighbor lady and her father who were talented in music. From them she learned the stories of the operas, the spoken drama, the fundamentals of harmony, rhythm and time. She would sit and listen by the hour to the music they played but she did not care to produce the sounds herself. The mechanics of production detracted from her enjoyment of the result. She became acquainted with a lawyer and had the ambition to become a lawyer, too. For several months she studied law diligently. Then she thought it would be better to become an undertaker. With the help of the only man in the town of that profession she bent her energies toward learning his trade. Again she had the desire to become a doctor. She worked in the doctor's drug store during Christmas rush and was repaid with enough wallpaper to line her "office." For similar services the following year the doctor gave her a magic lantern with hand-painted slides imported from Germany. She hung up a bed sheet and gave frequent shows for the neighborhood with her lamplit lantern. Later when occasion arose she gave anesthetics for the doctor. In between times she practiced his methods of surgery on chloroformed dogs. These amateur operations were always fatal to the victim but she continued her studies and experiments.
She came to know the county superintendent, Evangeline King, now Mrs. O. C. Case. Under the guidance of Miss King, Willa spent two years in high school at Red Cloud. Then she entered the University of Nebraska. Even there she wore her simple, easily-donned shirts, short skirts and shingled hair. (How the neighborhood buzzed when she had her hair clipped!) She still desired to become a doctor and signed her letters home "William Cather, M.D." Her folks addressed their replies in the same manner. When "William" went down to the post office to get "his" mail, the clerk answered the request with a curt, "Other side, please, for the gentlemen's mail." Her requirements for comfort and ease of dress did not falter even under such treatment.
She found a place on the University magazine "The Kiote." At one time the paper offered a prize for the best article submitted on football. Dorothy Canfield was attending the University. She and Willa Cather collaborated and sent in their composition. They received the ten dollars but a few years ago when the article was reprinted in a limited edition both termed it "probably the worst ever written." Miss Cather found her training a good basis for composition and rhetoric. She did so well that one of her manuscripts was among a group sent to C. H. Gere, then editor of the Nebraska State Journal. She attended a drama and wrote a report of it. Mr. Gere recognized her ability and gave her a place on his staff. After graduation she took a position with the Pittsburgh Leader as telegraph editor and dramatic critic. Then she became head of the English department in the Allegheny High School. Here she published "April Twilights" and "The Troll Garden." Later she secured a position with McClure, which she quit to have time for her writing.
When she is at work she writes three hours each day and spends the rest of the time in touch with music, books, nature, or friends. She writes down the general idea first then rewrites by sorting and pruning her first attempt. This process is repeated over and over until it is as perfect as she can make it. Miss Cather once said, "It is not the writing but the rewriting that counts."
From the usually acid pen of H. L. Mencken we have this praise of her work: "The whole enchantment is achieved by the simplest of all possible devices. . . Here a glimpse, there a turn of phrase, and suddenly the thing stands out, suddenly it is as real as real can be . . . and withal moving, arresting, beautiful, with a strange and charming beauty."
Miss Cather still has some very close friends in Red Cloud and maintains her membership in the Episcopalian church there. Not very long ago she was visiting in the town. At a tea given in her honor the talk turned to food. She thinks it an unforgivable sin for a woman not to know how to cook. She confessed being fond of good food and that one of her preferences is four strips of bacon every morning.
Another friend once volunteered, "I have read your last book. And I . . ."
"Oh, I hope not," interrupted Miss Cather crisply.
Always the right word must go in the right place for her. Sometimes she moves a hand as she pauses to grasp the fitting word and when she voices it, it is never a foreign word, never a many-syllabled word but is always the just-right word. Little traits of phraseology which she remembered as characteristic of her old neighbors, she has put in her stories with hardly a word out of order. So perfectly has she reproduced them that the neighbors have been able to identify many of her characters. One man is proud to be the husband of "My Ántonia"; a cousin of the famous author is Mrs. Alexander, the business lady in "O, Pioneers"; and the "Lost Lady" is the wife of a former governor of Nebraska. And so her neighbors take their places in her work, while she holds a place in their memories.The Nebraska Alumnus, April 1936.