Source File: cat.bohlke.l.03.xml
1922: ST. PAUL
Introduction by L. Brent Bohlke
Thomas Alexander Boyd (1898 -1935) was a journalist, editor, biographer, and
novelist. Following service in World War I, he became a reporter for a St. Paul,
Minnesota, newspaper and later became literary editor of the St. Paul Daily News,
where his weekly column, "The Literary Punchbowl," produced a lively exchange of
ideas. On 12 February 1922, the literary page of the Daily News ran a large picture
of Willa Cather next to Boyd's editorial, "A Revaluation." In that editorial,
Boyd called for a redefinition of the term novel. He claimed that satire, romance,
extravaganzas, tracts, and picturesque stories were all being called novels, and that such
sweeping inclusion was misleading. The true novelist was not, in Boyd's opinion, to have
any underlying motive in his fiction writing: "To be a novelist the writer must make
of himself the sounding-board of life. Complete objectivity should be his aim and to his
work he must bring boundless observation. Willa Cather once said that the effect produced
by the sight of an orange lying on a green table cover was sufficiently striking. A number
eleven shoe set beside the orange would be incongruous" (p. 6). Boyd went on to say
that the novelist should not make use of actual experiences; that would make it peculiar
to one person and not pertinent to a larger audience. "To be a true novelist—the
sounding-board—the novelist must be content with a certain self-effacement."
Objectivity would lead to humility.
He concluded the column with the definitions of a novel as found in the Encyclopedia
Britannica and Webster's Standard Dictionary.
Whether Cather was a regular reader of the St. Paul Daily News is not known.
Perhaps it was her picture on the page and the reference to her in the column that caused
the article to be called to her attention. She responded to the ideas presented by Boyd in
a letter that was printed in "The Literary Punchbowl" on 5 March 1922.
In your editorial "A Revaluation" all that you say is true, and yet I do not
think you make it clear why it is true. Of course a writer of imaginative literature must
not be literal; he must be able to be literal; he must know everything he touches
well enough for that. But if he is an artist he will not be literal, because no artist can
be. If he has the proper equipment to be a writer of fiction at all, he will never have to
puzzle as to how far he should be literal; he has a selective machine in his brain that
decides all that for him. If he has not such an instrument, he had better choose another
An artist uses any particular scene or incident not to show how much he knows about it,
or because it is in itself interesting. He uses it because of a certain effect of color or
emotion that will contribute to his story as a whole, because it is in the mood of the
story, or helps to make the mood. Therefore, in writing this scene, he will use as much
detail as will convey his impression, no more. . . . The writer does not 'efface' himself,
as you say; he loses himself in the amplitude of his impressions, and in the exciting
business of finding all his memories, long-forgotten scenes and faces, running off his
pen, as if they were in the ink, and not in his brain at all.
St. Paul Daily News, 5 March 1922.