The friendship of Willa Cather and Dorothy Canfield Fisher began in their parish, as Cather called her home territory of Nebraska, and spanned nearly the entire lifetimes of both women as they struggled and triumphed in the world. The special regard in which they held each other is drawing increased attention from Cather biographers. For example, Fisher is a prominent figure in James Woodress's expanded Willa Cather: A Literary Life (1987)—and for good reason: their friendship is the only one that encompasses Cather's literary career from beginning to end. The parish was especially important to Cather, for she drew deeply from her wellspring of Nebraska material in writing of the world. The Fisher friendship, in its length and resiliency, illustrates the importance of that connection, especially during a crucial period in Cather's career: while she was writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel One of Ours.
The story of this friendship is chronicled in the 104 letters (all but five written by Cather to Fisher), spanning the years 1899 to 1947, that constitute the Cather file of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Papers at the University of Vermont's Bailey-Howe Library. Included in this collection are twenty-five letters (twenty by Cather, three by Fisher, one by Cather's mother, and one by Cather's friend Isabelle McClung) that had remained unread by anyone save the correspondents themselves until July 1987, when they were found in a barn on the Fisher homestead in Arlington, Vermont. Along with assorted manuscripts and related material, they had been inadvertently left behind when the Fisher papers were bequeathed to the university in 1958. These letters, like all of Cather's, may be neither published nor directly quoted, as specified by provisions in the author's will. Cather drew up these restrictions to protect her privacy and professional reputation; for the same reason she destroyed nearly all the letters she received. Her desire for privacy "complicated her biographer's task," James Woodress wrote in 1970 (xii); she "threw up roadblocks," he explained again in 1987 (xiv); and she "did not make it easy for her biographers," Sharon O'Brien commented that same year (3). But the half of the correspondence that Fisher saved does tell a great deal about the lives of the two authors and how they interconnected. What can be seen in clear detail is the friendship between two spirited women, a friendship that was betrayed, lost, and finally recovered by dint of sacrifice and persistence.
Cather and Fisher were first drawn to each other by mutual interests in French literature, painting, and music. Their friendship began in 1891 when Dorothy's father, James H. Canfield, became chancellor of the University of Nebraska, where Cather was a student. Cather was then publishing stories and reviews in local and campus papers; Fisher was her younger admirer and protégée. Fisher felt most honored at the time to collaborate with Cather on a short story, "The Fear That Walks by Noonday," which appeared in the university's literary magazine. Soon after Cather's death in 1947, Fisher remarked upon the regard in which she had held her older friend: "Later on, of course, as we both grew into the twenties and the thirties, this difference in years [six] dwindled to nothing at all, as differences do to adults, so far as any barrier to our close comradeship went. But my lifelong admiring affection for Willa was, at first, tinctured with the respectful deference due from a younger person to a successful member of the older generation" (Fisher, "Novelist" 42).
Cather and Fisher stayed in touch after leaving Nebraska, as they would for most of their lives. Yet long gaps in the correspondence from 1905 to 1921 remained a mystery to Cather and Fisher scholars and occasioned a good deal of conjecture; it is only now, with information from the newly found Cather-Fisher letters, that the rift may be understood. As might be expected, the reasons for it were multiple and complex, and may be best explained through discussion and paraphrase of the letters themselves.
In late summer 1905, Willa Cather wrote to Dorothy Canfield Fisher's mother, Flavia Canfield, who—along with Dorothy—had refused to meet with Cather in New York's Washington Square Park one week earlier. Cather indicated that she understood why the Canfields were upset but said that the (unspecified) conflict had caused her pain and disappointment as well. It was so painful, in fact, that she could not bear to write about it. She added that she too would once have felt bad about anyone who had hurt Dorothy as she had, and that one year earlier she could not have imagined being in such a disturbing situation.
Although Cather wished she could forget the affair, she clearly did not; she wrote to Fisher only three times over the next sixteen years. At the time of her letter to Flavia Canfield, she was working as a schoolteacher and living at Isabelle McClung's house in Pittsburgh. She had published a volume of poetry, April Twilights, in April 1903; one month later she met S. S. McClure, who promptly agreed to publish a collection of her short stories, a book that became The Troll Garden. This was at once an exciting, promising time for Cather and a period of great frustration. She desperately wanted to devote herself to her writing but was forced to continue teaching as a means of support. Sarah Orne Jewett, for one, knew that Cather's literary life would have to take precedence over all else if she was ever to become an accomplished writer. In a December 1908 letter, written while Cather was working at McClure's Magazine, Jewett observed: "I do think that it is impossible for you to work so hard and yet have your gifts mature as they should. . . . you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that" (247-49).
There are indications in Cather's letters that her early labors and lack of a "quiet centre" adversely affected her friendship with Fisher, who came to represent an alluring world beyond the parish, a world to which Cather did not yet belong. Her frustrations intensified while she traveled with McClung and Fisher (who was then studying for a Ph.D. in French at the Sorbonne) during her first trip to Europe in 1902. A 1904 letter bears testimony to the fact that Cather had felt unsure of herself in Europe. She admitted that her difficulty in understanding French had madeher feel provincial compared with Fisher and that she had been too haughty to admit her own shortcoming. Perhaps most representative is the often told story of her calling on A. E. Housman. Although it was Cather who initiated the unannounced visit to her literary hero, it was only her companion Fisher who could break through his characteristic reserve: she and the poet chatted the entire time about Latin manuscripts, while Cather and McClung sat anxiously by with little to say. In what may have been the last letter Cather read before her death on April 4, 1947, Fisher—at Cather's request—recounted the details of the meeting and recalled that Cather was so upset that she broke into tears soon after leaving Housman's apartment.
In short, what had promised to be an exciting cultural pilgrimmage developed into a very trying summer for Cather. O'Brien has called the trip "a story of exclusion in which the daughter feels she is not welcome in the ancestral home" (247), and as Joseph Lovering has pointed out, Cather was already well aware of the differences in social status and cultural back-ground between herself and Fisher ("Friendship of Willa Cather" 151). A "daughter of the frontier" whose parents were of modest background, Cather felt a certain inferiority in comparison with the more cosmopolitan Fisher, whose father was a renowned educator and whose mother was a painter. Ironically, as Lovering has also written, Cather would turn to Fisher years later precisely because Fisher knew her background and therefore knew better than anyone else the long, difficult road Cather had traveled in becoming a novelist of first rank ("Cather-Canfield Friendship" 6).
In a letter of April 8, 1921, Cather urgently asked to reestablish her ties with Fisher. She admitted that the misunderstanding between them had been her own fault and the product of her youthful immaturity, but devoting more time to her writing had helped to make her more reasonable now. The repentant Cather even went so far as to say that she wrote only to please herself, Fisher, and no more than a half-dozen other friends. She had felt confused and defiant at the time of the disagreement, and the years of teaching all day and writing all night had temporarily discouraged her—in 1970 James Woodress called them "a real grind" (Life and Art 94)—but she promised Fisher that the regrettable hiatus in their friendship was over.
It is against this backdrop that the more acute point of contention between Cather and Fisher should be considered. The April 8, 1921, letter indicates that one of Cather's stories was as much to blame for the rift as were the disappointments of the European trip. The story was left unnamed, but Cather said she could see with the benefit of hindsight that it was a poor one and wished she had not made so much trouble over it years before. The recently discovered cache of Cather-Fisher letters establishes that the story in question was "The Profile" and that the controversy centered on Fisher's efforts to prevent its scheduled publication in The Troll Garden.
The dispute had its basis in the 1902 trip when Cather met Evelyn Osborne, one of Fisher's fellow graduate students studying in Paris. Fisher and Osborne had first met while working on their dissertations at the Bibliothèque Nationale and developed a close friendship during their time in France. Although only passing reference is made to Osborne—a young woman with a prominent facial scar and a taste for extravagant clothes-in Cather's letters at the time of the trip, it was she who would later stand at the very center of the disagreement over "The Profile"—significantly, the story of a young woman with a grotesque facial scar and an interest in extravagant clothes. More specifically, "The Profile" takes place in Paris, where portraitist Aaron Dunlap is commissioned to paint Virginia Gilbert, whose face bears a jagged scar on one side. Throughout their ensuing courtship the scar is never mentioned between the two, although Dunlap desperately wants to share the burden of Virginia's disfigurement. Even after their marriage and the birth of a daughter, Virginia's vanity prevents her from discussing the scar with Dunlap, which creates a gulf between the husband and wife. When Dunlap becomes attracted to Virginia's cousin Eleanor, who is their house guest, his wife leaves him. On the night of her departure, she arranges for a dressing table lamp to explode in Eleanor's face, so that she too is permanently disfigured. The story closes as Dunlap, mercifully divorced from Virginia, marries Eleanor—his second wife with a grotesque facial scar.
Fisher first expressed concern about the story in a telegram sent from Arlington to Cather in Pittsburgh a few days before Christmas 1904. Fisher said she had just heard of "The Profile" and that she would "suspend judgment" until hearing from Cather, whom she implored to reply immediately. Cather did so, claiming that the story was not really a cause for concern, since in her opinion Virginia Gilbert did not resemble Osborne except for the scar on her face. She pointed out that the protagonist was married, unlike Osborne; that Osborne's taste in clothes was not nearly so bad; and that the story focused on the character's domestic infelicities, which could not possibly be traced to Fisher's friend. Scars, Cather said, were not so uncommon that one would link the character to Osborne specifically.
Fisher next asked Cather for a copy of the story, which reached Arlington on December 30. She wrote to Cather just two days later, pleading that it not be published for fear of the damage it would do to Osborne's already delicate psyche: "I am quite sure you don't realize how exact and faithful a portrait you have drawn of her—her beautiful hair, her pretty hands, her fondness of dress and pathetic lapses of taste in wearing what other girls may, her unconsciousness—oh Willa don't do this thing. . . . I don't believe she would ever recover from the blow of your description of her affliction."
Fisher's letter was returned promptly, not by Cather but by Isabelle McClung, to whom Cather had turned for advice. The following passage gives insight to Cather's point of view and McClung's staunch support of her friend: It was Miss Osborne who gave Willa the idea, we know, Willa and I talked it all over long ago, and have both said that it is unfortunate that it is, as it is—that the scar on the face must play such a large part—but it does, it is one of Willa's best stories, and has been worked over hard, and faithfully, it represents serious work, and one must respect that—she teaches school in order to lay aside the things that she feels are not the best she can do. You know as well as I the time she has spent on these stories and what they mean to her. The trouble over—The Profile—has taken away most of the pleasure, and for a few days she was sick and in bed—because of it. . . . I think it right that the story should go—it is Willa's scar now, not yours or mine or any ones but hers. It seems to me that your taking away the pleasure of this first book of hers is far more cruel, more wrong even than any number of stories about any number of people—could be—you will resent my writing this to you—and I am sorry for that—but since you make it a public question. I think you ought to know that there are other standpoints—while you think it is wrong, there are people who think it right—and who do not like to wound any more than you do.
Cather followed up McClung's letter with one of her own in which she said that the page proofs of The Troll Garden had already been returned to the press and that to omit "The Profile" would make an already slim volume too small to publish. She asked for Fisher's understanding and hoped that their friendship would remain intact.
Fisher, though, persisted in her efforts to protect Osborne. She told Cather that she had consulted with her parents about the affair and that they had recommended the matter be referred to S. S. McClure if Cather did not withdraw the story on her own. When Cather failed to respond, Fisher wrote her final, unchacteristically terse, letter on the matter, dated January 19, 1905:
Will you please wire me at once an answer to these questions. Have you written to your publishers about "The Profile" since the beginning of our correspondence about it, with a definite statement that friends of the original subject of the story object strongly to its publication! If you have not so written since our correspondence began is it your intention to do so immediately? Further action on my part will be determined by your reply.Truly yours Dorothy Canfield
In his memoir, "Autobiography in the Shape of a Book Review," the poet Witter Bynner, then Cather's editorial colleague, mentions a dispute over "The Profile" that took place at the McClure's offices. He describes the meeting between the two parties as "tense" and claims that Cather insisted on publication, even though it was suggested that Osborne might commit suicide if she read the story (253). Bynner did not name those who objected, but we can now be sure that Fisher was among them. Finally, neither side could claim victory, for although the story did not appear in the 1905 edition of The Troll Garden—which was dedicated to Isabelle McClung—it was published two years later (June 1907) in McClure's. There is no evidence of whether Osborne ever read the tale and no further mention of her in the Cather-Fisher correspondence.
Among the stories that Cather did publish in The Troll Garden, however, was one bearing Mrs. Canfield's name in its title, "Flavia and Her Artists," which may have been written in response to the dislocation Cather felt during the European trip and the imbroglio over "The Profile." There is evidence that the story was not originally so titled, for twice in a letter of March 29, 1903, Cather refers to a story in progress called "Fulvia." Could Cather have changed the classical name to "Flavia" in retaliation for the Canfields' intervention at the McClure's offices?
We may only theorize about the name change, but Susan Rosowski has argued convincingly that the shallow title character is indeed modeled after Mrs. Canfield (143-45). "Flavia and Her Artists" is the satirical story of Flavia Hamilton, an artistic dilettante whose greatest satisfaction comes from hovering over the painters, actors, and musicians who frequent her parties. Flavia Canfield, an amateur painter herself, did actively cultivate associations with professional artists. Cather's descriptions of Hamilton's "hurried visits to New York, between her excursions from studio to studio—her luncheons with this lady who had to play at a matinee, and her dinners with that singer who had an evening concert" (Troll Garden 7) closely resemble descriptions of Flavia Canfield, who-as one biographer has put it—"pursued art with the true devotion of a fanatic" (Washington 28). In one memorable episode, Dorothy had to leave her studies at the Sorbonne to accompany her mother on a trip to Madrid to see Velasquez's paintings. The trip through the Pyrenees was terribly cold and uncomfortable; Flavia arrived at the hotel, Dorothy recalled, "groaning, racked with pain, ashy-faced, bowed together weakly as she hung on my arm" (Washington 28).
It is easy to see why Dorothy and her mother would have been upset about the story. Mrs. Canfield's name had been given to a character who "could not endure being contradicted; she always seemed to regard it in the light of a defeat. . . . For all her sparkling assurance of manner, Flavia was certainly always ill at ease. . . . there is no bridge by which the significance of any work of art could be conveyed to her" (Troll Garden 9, 15, 23). Rosowski has noted further parallels to the Canfield family in "Flavia and Her Artists" as well. For example, one of the house guests, Imogene Willard, is considered "interesting" enough to warrant invitation to one of Flavia Hamilton's parties because of her doctoral thesis on a "well-sounding branch of philology at the Ecole des Chartes" (8)—very likely a reference to Fisher's graduate work in France, which produced a dissertation on Corneille and Racine. Furthermore, Flavia's perceptive husband in the story resembles James Hulme Canfield. He escapes Cather's satiric pen but suffers in the fiction as the husband of a foolish wife, as Cather must have thought he did in Lincoln.
In mid-April 1909 Cather wrote Fisher a note of condolence over the death of her father two weeks earlier, expressing heartfelt sympathy for Dorothy and her mother and offering her help. There is no evidence of a response to Cather's letter, however, and no further letters to Fisher until March 15, 1916, when Cather wrote about The Song of the Lark. She wrote again six months later (September 2) in a friendly tone with praise for Fisher's novel The Bent Twig, but she avoided mention of the prolonged gap in communication and suggested no meeting or further correspondence.
A letter of March 12, 1921, broke the five-year silence and was the first of four letters Cather wrote to Fisher that spring. By that time both women were well-established literary figures. Since the 1907 publication of her first novel, Gunhild, Fisher had brought out four more novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on education. Her work had been well received by the public and critics alike, and she was living in Arlington with her husband John Redwood Fisher, whom she had married in 1907. Cather had published four novels—Alexander's Bridge (1912), O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918)—and a collection of short stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), since April Twilights and The Troll Garden. Cather's work, too, had met with positive reviews and favorable sales. She was settled in an apartment with Edith Lewis (who would be her housemate for almost forty years) at 5 Bank Street in New York's Greenwich Village. In her initial letter resuming the correspondence she thanked Fisher for her kind review of Youth and the Bright Medusa in the Yale Review (notably, "Flavia and Her Artists" was one of three stories from The Troll Garden not reprinted in that collection). Although Cather was no doubt genuinely grateful for the review, an underlying purpose of her letter became clear when she asked Fisher to contact her so that they could spend an afternoon together in New York. Cather assured Fisher that she was no longer disagreeable and that finding her own writing voice had helped her mature. If she and Fisher were to meet, Cather said, they could compare their scars like figures cut from the same dough.
Just how insistent Cather was about her offer of reconciliation can be seen in her next letter, written only three days later. In it she reminded Fisher of her "new" address at 5 Bank Street, where Cather had actually been living for ten years. Their friendship had suffered a long break, but Cather was determined to set things right once again. She made sure to mention that her new novel was four-fifths completed and that Fisher was the only person who could help her with it. Cather did not press the matter immediately, but rather politely let Fisher know that her assistance would be appreciated.
The real breakthrough was initiated by Cather's letter of February 6, 1922, concerning the editing of One of Ours; Cather wanted to know whether Fisher would be willing to read the page proofs. The last third of the story had been difficult to write, Cather said, because it was set in France. Although she had done extensive research on the war, interviewed many veterans, and even returned to France to visit her cousin's grave, she did not feel comfortable with her material. Could Fisher pay special attention to the ending and let her know if it seemed awkward or false? Two weeks later, Cather thanked Fisher for agreeing to read the proofs. The two women had taken a large step toward renewing their friendship.
But the original cause of the rift still needed to be resolved, and Cather began to address that issue in her letter of March 8, 1922, in which she revealed that her younger cousin Grosvenor had been the model for Claude Wheeler, the protagonist of One of Ours. Cather said she derived Claude from Grosvenor, whom she had often taken care of during his childhood. As time passed however, the differences between the cousins, who grew up on adjacent farms, became more pronounced: Cather was a gifted student and devotee of the arts, while Grosvenor was far less articulate and spent his time working on the farm. As a result, the two avoided each other for many years, he resenting her intellectual abilities and she not understanding his resentment. It was not until Grosvenor was about to leave for duty in Europe that they came to understand each other better. Willa Cather was staying at her uncle's farm when the war broke out, and she spent a week helping Grosvenor haul wheat to town. During those long rides they talked for the first time in many years, and Cather said she came to understand and sympathize with her cousin from that point on. Grosvenor's death at Cantigny on May 27, 1918, prompted Cather to tell Fisher that she could not put the memory of her cousin to rest without writing about him.
In many of her letters to Fisher about One of Ours (she wrote seventeen in 1922) Cather said that portraying her protagonist accurately was her primary concern. Claude Wheeler seemed absolutely real to her, and she claimed that she often felt his presence at morning tea. Cather said she tried hard to create a story that always had Claude at its center, but scenes from her own life had slipped into the last part of the book. The central figures of that final section are Claude and Lieutenant David Gerhardt, a violinist (modeled after the concert violinist David Hochstein) who had volunteered for active duty in the war. The friendship between the farm boy and the cultured musician was an unlikely one, but not unlike the friendship of Cather and Fisher. L. Brent Bohlke's collection of published Cather interviews, Willa Cather in Person (which shows that the author was not as reluctant to talk to the press as was once thought) reprints from the New York Herald book section of December 24, 1922, a lengthy account of her inspiration for the character Gerhardt (51-57). What Cather did not report, though, was that the tone of the relationship between Gerhardt and Wheeler was drawn from the time she spent with Fisher during her first trip to Europe. That parallel, first noted by James Woodress (Life and Art 192), provides an important backdrop for the novel.
A key scene in the final section of One of Ours pictures Gerhardt as he plays the violin for the last time; "Claude his lips compressed, his hands on his knees, was watching his friend's back. The music was a part of his own confused emotions. He was torn between generous admiration, and bitter, bitter envy. . . . If he had been taught to do anything at all, he would not be sitting here tonight a wooden thing amongst living people" (418). Fisher had noted in the margins of her page proofs that she found the scene particularly moving. In a late March letter, Cather said that although she gathered much of her information for the novel from war veterans, that scene had been taken from her own experience. She admitted in the same letter that Fisher's intellectual background had intimidated her, especially while they were in Europe, just as Claude had felt intimidated by David. She recalled her own early relationship with Grosvenor and said that Fisher could never have known how out of place she felt during the summer of 1902. Cather reiterated the connection between the two characters and Fisher and herself in her next letter (April 7) said she wished all old disagreements would end as happily, even though it had taken a long time for her wounded pride to heal.
On May 8 Cather elaborated further, saying she had felt like a ruffian in France. She hoped that by reading Claude and David's story in One of Ours, Fisher would understand why she had suffered so in the past. Cather later referred to her own ignorance" in her essay "148 Charles Street" (Not under Forty 65) and Elizabeth Sergeant has written that Cather "could at any time feel impatient with the limits of her prairie education" (65). It was these feelings of inadequacy and uneasiness that Cather had for so long wanted Fisher to understand. During her years of struggle Cather could not have foreseen, of course, that her own work would far outlast Fisher's, that Fisher would be remember primarily for being a lifelong friend of Willa Cather.
Cather's efforts at explaining the years of dissension were not wasted. In a review of One of Ours in the New York Times Book Review of September 10, 1922, Fisher—who apparently did not object to reviewing a book she had been intimately involved in—commented: "The figure of David, the fine, cultivated, man-of-the-world and artist . . . symbolizes to Claude all that he has missed in life and might have made his own. . . . I am swept away out of this grudging feeling toward David in the beautiful and poignant passage where David plays his violin for the last time, where the music reveals to poor Claude a Promise Land of Beauty from which, quite casually, through nobody's malice, and yet irretrievably, he has been shut out." In a late September letter Cather agreed with Fisher's assessment of Claude and David's relationship and thanked Fisher for the review, which was one of the few positive ones she had read. If nothing else, Cather said, at least the book had helped bring them back together.
What becomes evident in this and in all the letters concerning One of Ours is that by having Fisher read about Claude, Cather was able to explain why she had satirized the Canfields in "Flavia and Her Artists," to apologize for "The Profile," and to bridge the unfortunate rift in their friendship. The novel is, of course, more than an apology to an old friend. While the standard view has been that in One of Ours Cather changed methods and approaches from the more personal materials used in her prairie novels, her correspondence with Fisher reveals that in this book too she drew upon her personal experiences. In writing of Claude Wheeler's yearning for the world beyond his parish, Cather turned for inspiration to her friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher, with whom she too had begun in the parish and later explored the world.