Source File: cat.bohlke.l.05.xml

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

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986

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

1927: LINCOLN

Willa Cather, as she recalls here, was first published in the Nebraska State Journal. Her introduction to the craft of journalism and her first real employment came from the Journal. She always remembered that paper with a certain fondness and esteem.

Cather had become friends with the Gere family soon after entering the university. She was devoted to Charles Gere (1838-1904), the publisher of the Journal, and was greatly saddened by his sudden death. One of her later characters, Godfrey St. Peter, in The Professor's House, undoubtedly owes his fine hands to Cather's memory of Mr. Gere. She was also a close friend and correspondent of Mrs. Gere and her three daughters—Mariel, Frances, and Ellen—throughout her life.

Will Owen Jones (1862-1928) was another long-time friend and correspondent. Jones had graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1886, becoming the city editor of the Journal shortly thereafter. He was promoted to managing editor in 1892, just before Cather began working for the paper, and held that position for the rest of his life. He and his wife had one daughter, named Mariel in honor of the eldest Gere daughter.

Little did Cather realize that this would be one of the last of her many letters to W. O. Jones. Early in 1928, on Sunday morning, January 19, he died while attending services at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln.

CONGRATULATIONS FROM WILLA CATHER

June 2, 1927

Dear Mr. Jones,

Certainly I wish to send my congratulations to the Journal on its sixtieth birthday. I have many pleasant memories connected with it, with the Journal, I mean, not with its birthday. You see I still write as badly as ever.

The first time I was ever confronted by myself in print was one Sunday morning (please don't append an editorial note here, stating just how many years ago it was) when I opened the Sunday Journal and saw, stretching out through a column or two, an essay on "Some Personal Characteristics of Thomas Carlyle," which Professor Hunt had given you to publish, quite without my knowledge. That was the beginning of many troubles for me. Up to that time I had planned to specialize in science; I thought I would like to study medicine. But what youthful vanity can be unaffected by the sight of itself in print! It had a kind of hypnotic effect. I still vaguely remember that essay, and it was a splendid example of the kind of writing I most dislike; very florid and full of high-flown figures of speech, and, if I recall aright, not a single "personal characteristic" of the gentleman was mentioned! I wrote that title at the top of the page, because it was the assigned subject, and then poured out, as best I could the feeling that a fervid reading of The French Revolution and Sartor Resartus had stirred up in me. Come to think of it, that flowery effusion had one merit—it was honest. Florid as it was, it didn't overcolor the pleasure and delightful bitterness that Carlyle can arouse in a very young person. It makes one feel so grown up to be bitter!

A few years after this, I began to write regularly for the Sunday Journal, you remember, and I was paid one dollar a column—which was certainly quite all my high-stepping rhetoric was worth. Those out-pourings were pretty dreadful, but I feel indebted to the managing editor of that time that he let me step as high as I wished. It was rather hard on his readers, perhaps, but it was good for me, because it enabled me to riot in fine writing until I got to hate it, and began slowly to recover. I remember that sometimes a bright twinkle in Mr. Gere's fine eyes used to make me feel a little distrustful of my rhetorical magnificence. He never corrected me, he was much too wise for that; he knew that you can't hurry nature. But I think his kindness, his easy wit, the ease and charm of his personality, helped me all the time. When he was listening, with such lively sympathy and understanding, to one's youthful troubles, he would sometimes sit stroking his dark beard with his hand. No one who ever saw Mr. Gere's hands could ever forget them, surely. Even in those days, when I was sitting in his library, it more than once came over me that if one could ever write anything that was like Mr. Gere's hands in character it would be the greatest happiness that could befall one. They were dark and sinewy and so much alive; in a whole worldfull of hands I've not seen any others that seemed to me to have such a singular elegance. None in the least like them, indeed. You see, even very stupid young people addicted to cheap rhetoric are yet capable of perceiving fineness, of feeling it very poignantly. I was very fortunate in my first editor. He let me alone, knowing that I must work out my own salvation; and he was himself all that I was not and that I most admired. Isn't it too bad that after we are much older, and a little wiser, we cannot go back to those few vivid persons of our early youth and tell them how they have always remained with us, how much pleasure their fine personalities gave us, and give us to this very day. But, after all, it's a good fortune to have Mr. Gere alive in one's memory—not one but a thousand characteristic pictures of him, and I congratulate the Nebraska State Journal and myself that we both had such an editor in our early activities.

You told me in your letter, dear editor, that you did not wish me to make yourself the subject of my letter, but I am sure you will have no objection to my recalling Mr. Gere to the many friends who felt his quality as much or more than I.

With pleasant memories of the past and good wishes for the future of the Nebraska State Journal, I am most cordially yours,

Willa Cather

Nebraska State Journal, 24 July 1927.