Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943), had long been an admirer of Willa Cather and had reviewed a number of her books before he and his wife, Rosemary, conducted what was to be Willa Cather's last known interview, sometime in the waning months of 1940. The style implies that the interviewers had never met Cather. However, Benét's frequent reviews, Cather's early friendship with William Rose Benét, Stephen's older brother, and their mutual involvement with the Church of the Transfiguration on East 29th Street, "The Little Church around the Corner," would suggest the possibility that they had some previous contact or acquaintance.
The interview includes a comprehensive summary of everything that Cather had done to this point in her life, including her recent novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. The interviewers had no way of knowing that she would not complete another novel before her death.
What makes the artist? From what creation does the creative gift itself spring? We must, as the Scotch proverb says, dree our weird . . . but is the pattern imposed from without, or is it self-chosen? Does fate pursue the artist or does the artist make his fate? A biographer can, if he likes, take an unequivocal stand and evolve a clear case for either heredity or environment. But the fact remains that one mind finds its richest and deepest material in a time and place that might be anathema to another and that no writer can ever tell in advance what sort of experience is going to be most valuable for him. And experience itself can be valueless, unless one has the eye to see and the tongue to tell.
Let us take the case of Miss Cather, for here we have a genuine artist. Like fine silver or porcelain, her product is unmistakable. We do not have to turn the piece to find the hallmark or the crown and crossed-swords imprint. We know by the look and the shape and the weight in hand. Miss Cather has written a great many very different books. Each is unmistakably her own—the work could not be done in that way by any of her contemporaries. The work is also entirely American . . . the feeling for the frontier, the look of the land and the light in Nebraska could not be captured by a stranger. Though the style has deep French roots, the flower is American. When we ask about early influence, she tells us of a remarkable teacher she had at the University of Nebraska, a Swede who was teaching French . . . not, at first glance, a very compatible combination. "He suggested that I read Colomba," she said, and then proceeded to remember, with great vividness and effect, the story of a Corsican vendetta, remarking on the line, the impact and the fact that the description of Corsica reminded her of Nebraska. "It seemed the best writing I'd ever read." There is no question that a spark was struck here, a spark that burned long and well. But think of the copies of Colomba that have been sold! Every student who has had two years or so of French knows the textbook edition with its picture of Prosper Mérimée in a black bowtie. There are dog-eared copies moldering in many attics—but few of the owners have produced first-flight novels as a result of this touchstone.
But before that particular catalyst did its work there were shifting experiences and deep memories. Willa Sibert Cather was born December 7, 1876, on a farm near Winchester, Va., the daughter of Charles Fectigue Cather and Virginia Sibert Boak. The Cathers were Irish; the Siberts, Alsatian, and her other ancestors were English. On both sides they had been Virginia farmers for three or four generations. When Willa Cather was eight years old, her father bought a ranch at Red Cloud, Neb., a town named for the famous Sioux warrior. The country was thinly settled; the people, for the most part, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Bohemians, and Germans, came to conquer a last frontier. Since she did not go to school at first, Willa Cather had a chance to get thoroughly acquainted with her new neighbors. A keen and observing mind had a new landscape and a whole new set of experiences to fit into the scheme of things. She herself has said of that period: "I grew fond of some of the immigrants, particularly the old women who used to tell me of their home country. . . . I have never found any intellectual excitement more intense than I used to feel when I spent a morning with one of these pioneer women at her baking or butter-making. I used to ride home in the most unreasonable state of excitement. . . . This was with me the initial impulse."
Later, she went to the high school at Red Cloud and graduated from the University of Nebraska at nineteen. (She now has five honorary Litt. D.'s.) The next few years she spent teaching at Pittsburgh and working at short stories. Through her first short stories she met S. S. McClure and, in 1906, joined the staff of McClure's magazine. Two years later she became the managing editor of McClure's, a position she held for four years. During the period of editorial work she wrote little. She still remembers how most of the magazine fiction she saw at that time fell into the conventional commercial pattern, an example she decided not to follow. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, showed something of Edith Wharton, something of Henry James, but, rather more than either, a knowledge of the sort of economical architecture that has made the short French novel. Even so there was a certain difference. Alexander's Bridge was not a good novel, but the hero did build bridges. In Henry James, he would have talked about building them. The huge, endlessly spinning, endlessly refining web of the Jamesian style never really suited Miss Cather. She wanted to get things clear.
She began to get them clear in her next three books, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia. "It takes a great deal of experience to become natural," as she herself has said. She returned to the places of her youth—to the West that had never been told about, the farm women, the pioneers and their children, the ambitious girls who heard the long whistle of the trains going East and hoped some day to go. And in My Ántonia she produced a complete and rounded classic—one of the few American novels to which the word classic may genuinely apply. It is as fresh today as the day it was published, and that was twenty-two years ago. The crystal globe of the imagination has held and contained a section of living earth.
So there we have the secret, of course, the youthful memories called back, set down and refined by the scrupulous artist. Do we? That might account for Thea Kronborg and for Ántonia. It hardly accounts for one of Miss Cather's finest books, Death Comes for the Archbishop. That is written not about Nebraska but about New Mexico in the '50s. Miss Cather went to New Mexico to visit her brother, an engineer with headquarters at Santa Fe. She liked the feel of the land and explored the back country in the days before the automobile had smoothed all paths into four-lane highways. She saw the Snake Dance and the pueblos before they became tourist attractions. She met a remarkable Catholic priest and saw the work he had done. She heard of some of his predecessors—of the cultivated and inspired missionary who built a fine Romanesque cathedral—the man whom she calls in her book Father Jean-Marie Latour. From that visiting and that knowledge came one of the finest books both on the region and on the spirit of the Catholic Church—though the author belonged to neither one and was neither a Southwesterner nor a Catholic. By intuition and the seeing eye she has managed to fix unforgettably a time, a place, and a spiritual force.
It would be valuable to discuss each book in its turn, but limits of space prevent. This particular department would like to put in a special word for The Professor's House, a book, perhaps, less appreciated by Miss Cather's wider public than by other writers and one that shows extraordinary shifts of color as you turn it under the light. A Lost Lady, perfect in scope and range, remains what it was, a small chapel very near the cathedral. One of Ours received the Pulitzer prize and, despite its sincerity of purpose, is the one real failure among Miss Cather's major novels. For once, with Claude Wheeler, the clear eye did not see and the architecture is confused. That happens, too, with good novelists.
The leading popular misconceptions about Miss Cather are (a) that she was born in the West and (b) that she is a Catholic. "I'm an Episcopalian and a good one, I hope!" Among the more scholarly but equally false surmises made about her work Miss Cather cited two. One student of the subconscious said that she had been strongly influenced by death at the time she wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop. The use of the word in the title and the beautiful passage at the end of the book showed that. As a matter of fact, as she points out, death did not closely touch her life until later on. Another amateur psychologist made much of the fact that she tended to use the letters of her own name in the names of her heroines—they had an R and ended in an A like hers. The fact that many Scandinavians and all Bohemian girls' names do end in A—an explanation that would have occurred to any Nebraska farmer—was something he had never heard of.
All experience has been grist to Miss Cather's slow, fine-grinding mill. Her new book, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, goes back to her earliest days in Winchester. It is as though she had looked back affectionately at her childhood and thought, "Why, there is something I have never used!" and recalled it with the clearness of morning air. So clear was this part of her life that the speech of the people, white and black, as she had heard it as a child, came back to her as if it had been stored on phonograph records in her brain. "When I went back to Winchester as a young woman to visit my aunt, I went down a road and found I knew what was coming next all the way along. "Sapphira and the Slave Girl has the same sense of "knowing the road before it comes." Yet it was not easy. She started it as a complete history of the manners and customs of the valley—and then cut out all that background that was not essential to her story. "I weighed what I cut out—and it came to a good six pounds." She doesn't like what she calls "arid botanical knowledge" but she is tireless in assembling her facts. She never skimps; the work is there, but it mustn't show. To use her own excellent phrase, "It must all seem as easy as a fish slipping into water."
"Elegance of line" and "lack of useless ornamentation" in any form appeal to her. She notices it wherever she sees it, in a fine modern bank building in New Brunswick, in a tennis game, in the structure of a French novel, or in the stairway at Mount Vernon. (Mount Vernon was one of her early memories. She has always remembered the beautiful stairway, the maze, and the swallows nesting by Washington's tomb.) And that feeling for line is found in all her work.
"The ear is as important as the eye," she comments—the comment of a writer whose style has euphony as well as clarity, music as well as veracity. Conversation should be set down in the mind, she says, "just as a violinist remembers how another violinist played a piece of music ten years ago."
Miss Cather's life is very much her own. There is no ivory tower about it; she is too hearty for that. But she does not go in for personal appearances, speech making, banqueting, public autographing, and the like. She lives as she chooses, without fuss, whether it is in the West or a New York apartment in winter or New Brunswick in the summer where she has gone since she could no longer go abroad. She writes for two hours in the morning, using a pen. Of medium height, with clear blue eyes, she gives an impression of great intellectual vitality and serenity combined, calm strength and lively independence. Having a limited amount of time, she does not bother with things or people who are antipathetic or unsympathetic. "It's no use," she says philosophically. But she has great warmth and interest in what she does like, her friends, any phases of the arts, the country, good food, good wine. Though she fits perfectly in her New York environment, one cannot imagine her being entirely satisfied by metropolitan life. Her living room is quiet; the city rumble is far away. There is a large bust of Keats in the corner, a charming image of the Infant Jesus of Prague on the bookshelf, a portrait of George Sand over the mantel, and an orange tree near the open fireplace. It is a pleasant abode, but for permanent living, one feels sure, she would need more spacious earth. There is an unhurried feeling about her, in contrast to the brisk nervousness of the city, like a strong river in a deep channel.
As a person and as an artist she is both civilized and extremely American. She has always had a deep feeling for the frontier, for its freshness and strength, for the wild beauty of new land. At the same time she has liked to put a highly cultivated person against that setting. And that was not an artistic device—it belonged and belongs to the whole roll West from Jamestown. It was part of the frontier as daring and action were part of it. In her own life and work she suggests just that combination—strength, simplicity, and fortitude mixed with a high degree of civilization. It is the strong stalk that flowers, and with Willa Cather the strength and the flower are one.New York Herald Tribune Books, 15 December 1940.