Source File: cat.cs001.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 1

Writing Cather's Biography

Willa Cather never could reconcile herself to the fact that she was a public figure of considerable interest. As the author of a dozen novels, some of which had won her both fame and fortune, she might have realized that her admiring public would want to know how she had managed to become one of the great writers of her day. But she resented it when she found she could not sit on a bench in Central Park without people recognizing her and wanting to talk to her. Her intense dislike of publicity and her passionate desire to remain a private person have combined to frustrate her would-be biographers.

Most newsworthy individuals rather enjoy having their egos massaged by reporters, interviewers, autograph seekers, and fans, and writers usually are no exception. The literary remains of countless authors end up in institutional libraries, and one thinks of the enormous collections of papers of Mark Twain at Berkeley, Thomas Wolfe at Harvard, Ernest Hemingway at the Kennedy Library in Boston, Theodore Dreiser at Pennsylvania, and so forth. Writers cannot avoid leaving a paper trail that anyone can follow. They write hundreds of letters to friends, strangers, enemies, and critics—all this in addition to their published works, which in themselves are often very revealing.

Therefore, it is impossible for a writer to prevent posterity from finding out whether he or she liked rare roast beef or preferred pinochle to bridge. It was futile for T. S. Eliot to write in his will that his heirs should not help anyone wanting to write his biography, and even though Henry James tried to cover his tracks, Leon Edel managed to turn up thousands of letters and write a five-volume biography. Cather did not try to prohibit the writing of her life through testamentary restrictions, but she saw to it that her literary remains were exceedingly meager. There are very few manuscripts extant; she did not save letters from her correspondents; and she and her friend Edith Lewis destroyed as many of her own letters as they could retrieve. Lewis also burned the manuscript of Cather's unfinished novel after her death, and to throw up another roadblock, Cather's will forbids the publication of any of her letters that manage to survive. The practice of destroying letters continued after Cather died, for Lewis bought letters that came on to the market and burned them. Happily for Cather's biographers, many of her friends and correspondents survived her and with a proper eye to the needs of posterity kept their letters, some 1,500 of which now repose in libraries from Maine to California.

Cather's attitude toward being the subject of a biography was formed early, before she became a world-class author. In 1921, when she was still giving interviews readily and accepting speaking engagements, she wrote an old friend who wanted to do biographical piece on her. She said she perfectly hated biography—particularly her own—and if her correspondent were not an school friend, she would turn him down cold. No biographical sketch, she believed, was ever thought interesting unless it exaggerated the subject on one side and made him a freak; it was only as a freak that he was interesting. The external "queernesses" of an individual, she added, are so seldom his or her reality; often they are utterly uncharacteristic of the person, a mask to hide the reality.[1] This dislike of biography, however, really applied only to Cather herself. She was an avid reader of biography, and often her letters recommended to friends biographies she had particularly enjoyed.

Cather was no different from the rest of us in this respect. People are interested in people, and novelists in particular want to know about people. The genre has been popular at least Plutarch's Lives, and publishers love to publish biographies. The reasons are simple enough: if one knows a little about a public figure, he wants to know more. Did Benjamin Franklin really' father illegitimate children? Was Lincoln's wife really a shrew? Did Oscar Wilde really die of syphilis? Or people read biography as a way of learning about history. History that is all impersonal—the movement of large-scale events, the clash of economic forces—is dry as dust, but people make history, and that is interesting. As Emerson said, an institution is the lengthened shadow of a man. Writers should realize that their lives are part of the continuum that makes up our cultural history and bow to the inevitability of having their biographies written.

Making the materials for a biography accessible seems to me the best way an author can assure the writing of an objective life. Of course, there always will be mean-spirited biographers who will twist and distort the facts, writing what Joyce Carol Oates recently called "pathography." Cather's zealous efforts to destroy letters has led some of her critics to believe that she had something to hide—her lesbianism, for instance—but there is nothing damaging in any of her extant letters. She destroyed letters simply because she did not want anything published that she had not prepared for print. I don't think it ever occurred to her that forty years after her death hundreds of her letters would be owned and catalogued by libraries and made available to interested scholars, who would be able to paraphrase, if not quote.

My interest in Cather began more than twenty years ago when I was asked to contribute a short critical biography to a new series designed to honor authors the editor thought had been neglected. Although Cather had been dead only twenty-one years, even then I did not have to start at ground zero. There already had been a biography, and a handful of scholars had been at work interviewing her friends and contemporaries, identifying and collecting her fugitive writings from her years as a journalist in Lincoln and Pittsburgh, identifying stories and articles written under half a dozen pseudonyms, and gathering letters. Mildred Bennett's indispensable study of Cather's Nebraska milieu, The World of Willa Cather, had been published; Bernice Slote's collection of Cather's first principles and critical statements had appeared as The Kingdom of Art; William Curtin's two volumes of Cather's journalism, The World and the Parish, was in typescript, and the University of Nebraska Press had brought out all of Cather's stories published up to 1912. There was still plenty left for me to dig out of the newspaper and magazine files, and in Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (1970) I added my bit to the growing documentation of her life. However, I still felt somewhat as Sir Isaac Newton did when he wrote his rival scientist Robert Hooke in 1675: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

The chance to be the first biographer of a great writer does not come to very many people. I envy E. K. Brown, who had this privilege for Cather, but one cannot write a definitive biography too close to his subject with relatives and close friends looking over his shoulder. Brown worked under such constraints as the authorized biographer. He got his commission, soon after Cather died, from Edith Lewis, who had been her friend and companion for nearly forty years and was the heir to much of her estate. Brown fell into the assignment after writing an essay on Cather for the Yale Review in 1946. She liked it so much that site wrote him about it, a very uncharacteristic act, and a brief correspondence ensued before she died the following year. Usually she gave short shrift to professors she did not know, regarding them as general nuisances. I remember one nasty letter she wrote a professor who had innocently written her asking questions about her writing practices. She told him he was the twenty-ninth professor who was writing a textbook and had asked the same questions. She wasn't going to answer any more queries. Besides, she did not think creative writing could be taught anyway.

After Brown was asked to write the official biography, Edith Lewis wrote a memoir to help him with biographical data. But she was the self-appointed guardian of Cather's fame, and anything that did not redound to her friend's glory she suppressed. Working with Lewis required Brown to accept her view of things. He also could not quote from any letters because of the prohibition written into Cather's will. So Brown threaded his way across the landscape with keep-off-the-grass signs besetting him at every turn. He died before quite completing the book, but his friend Leon Edel applied the finishing touches.

That Brown wrote as good a biography as he did is testimony to his skill as a writer and his talent for biographical research. His book has long been out of date regarding biographical facts, but as criticism it stands up very well. It was a distinguished book, as the reviewers recognized when Alfred Knopf published it in 1953. Brown was faulted only for the meagerness of the biographical detail and to some extent for having to rely too heavily on Edith Lewis, but, of course, he had no alternative. Knopf was quite wrong when he wrote on the dust cover that here was all the biographical information about Cather that anyone was ever likely to uncover.

At the time Brown wrote, there were only a few letters available, and he was only dimly aware of the vast amount of apprenticeship work and journalism that remained to be exhumed from the files of newspapers and magazines. From her junior year in college (1893) until she became a high school teacher in Pittsburgh (1900), Cather wrote incessantly for newspapers in Nebraska and Pennsylvania and for magazines everywhere. If it had been possible, she would have burned all her journalism and her early stories, just as she did her letters. She wanted her apprenticeship forgotten. When Edward Wagenknecht got interested in Cather's early fiction and wrote her about some of the stories he had located in old periodicals, she responded angrily. She told him very emphatically that he could republish none of this early work. She had taken the trouble to renew copyrights in order to prevent republication. She used the analogy of an apple-grower to make her point: if she had boxed for shipment to market all the good apples from her orchard and left the bad ones on the ground, it would be a very unfriendly act for someone to come along at night and pack up the bad apples with the sound ones.

As I have already suggested, Cather's efforts to frustrate her biographers came to naught. When I began working on Cather in 1967, about one thousand of her letters had found their way into libraries, and most of her fugitive writings had been recovered and republished. I still could not quote the letters, as her literary executors were adamant about following her will in that respect, but the information the letters contained was public property.

In the biography I published in 1987 I had the unusual opportunity of being able to write Cather's biography for the second time. I thought I had finished with her in 1970, but as her reputation continued to grow, I kept being invited to take part in Cather seminars, Cather symposia, Cather celebrations, and Cather editions, and my interest kept pace with the general interest. When my friend Bernice Slote, whom I had always expected to write the definitive biography, died in 1983, I decided to give it a try myself. By this time 50 percent more letters had gotten into institutional collections; a good many autobiographies and memoirs in which Cather appears had been published; and an astonishing number of her interviews, speeches, and public statements had surfaced. For a writer who had the reputation of being a very private person and relatively inaccessible, she had left a well-blazed trail. Actually it was only during the last fifteen years of her life that she really withdrew into a cocoon and was hard to reach. Thus it was time for someone to write a full-length biography. I did not manage to fill two volumes, as recent biographers of Faulkner and Emily Dickinson have done, but my book runs to six hundred pages and contains more information than previous biographies—perhaps more than a lot of people want to know about Cather. Also I have been able to correct a lot of errors, including a good many that appeared in my own earlier book.

The further one moves away in time from the subject of a biography, the easier it is to correct the errors. Cather, along with her efforts to preserve her privacy and avoid publicity, did a rather good job of managing her image. She began this early in her career when she prepared a biographical sketch of herself for Houghton Mifflin in 1915. By writing in the third person, she disguised her own part in the account. This brief biography was used by Houghton Mifflin for advertising purposes and later was reissued by Alfred Knopf. It presented the picture of Cather as a child in Webster County, Nebraska, running wild across the prairie on her pony, visiting immigrant farm women in their kitchens, and acquiring the impressions that she later turned into memorable fiction. She claimed that she rode about the country all day and at night read the classics in her grandfather's farmhouse. She also said she did not go to school. Well, it just wasn't so. She attended a rural school, as did other children from nearby farms, and there are records to prove it. The account in My Ántonia of Jim Burden's schooldays in the one-room schoolhouse when he first goes to live with his grandparents is no doubt a more accurate report of Cather's experience than her own biographical sketch. In the novel, however, she turned a frame schoolhouse into a dugout in order to put the story back into pioneering times. Cather actually arrived in Nebraska after the pioneering era in Webster County had ended and after the pioneers had abandoned their dugouts for wooden houses.

It is a risky business to infer biographical fact from fiction, but I have taken the risk in a good many instances. Cather, to an unusual degree among authors, turned her own experiences into fiction, and her biographer is constantly having to decide what in the fiction is based on fact and what is invention. Fortunately, there is enough documentation by now from external sources to permit many of the discriminations to be made accurately. One cannot rely, however, on Cather's own public statements to verify biographical fact. She treated her life as though it were fiction, and her interviews are peppered with inaccurate details and blatant misstatements. Because she had total recall, these lapses cannot be charged to a faulty memory. She chose to forget things she didn't want to remember, or she remembered the version of facts she preferred. Let me give some examples. In her later years she claimed that she really did not use the Wagnerian soprano Olive Fremstad as the model for her heroine in The Song of the Lark, though many letters survive making it clear that she did. She also convinced herself that when My Ántonia was published, there were only two favorable reviews. Actually, almost all of the many notices were very flattering. On one occasion she told a Denver reporter that she had been educated in Omaha, though she had graduated from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. After her brother Roscoe died, she wrote her friend Elizabeth Sergeant that he had come to see her in New York many times. The fact is he visited her only once. She told H. L. Mencken that the first draft of O Pioneers! was written before her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, a statement that is contradicted by surviving letters of 1912. Then there is the matter of her birth date, which she changed, during her years as managing editor of McClure's Magazine, from 1873 to 1876. There is a birth certificate at Richmond, Virginia, to set this matter straight, but to perpetuate the confusion, her friend and companion Edith Lewis had Cather's preferred birth date carved on her tombstone at Jaffrey, New Hampshire. These are only a few of the misstatements to be corrected.

Two more examples will illustrate the difficulty of sorting out the truth from the falsity. In the first instance I have rejected an amusing story because I just don't think it's true; in the other I have accepted Cather's statement, though it may be another fabrication. The first concerns an item that appeared in the Nebraska State Journal in January 1912, when Cather's first novel was about to be published serially in McClure's. This item, which must have come from Cather herself, reported that in order to test the real quality of her work she had sent the manuscript of her novel to the magazine from St. Louis under the pseudonym of Fanny Cadwallader. It was only after the magazine had accepted the novel, so the story goes, that she admitted being the author. Other biographers have accepted this yarn, but I did not use it. It sounded to me like another bit of Cather's fiction, and I found no other reference to this tale anywhere. As managing editor of McClure's, Cather never had any hesitation in placing her own stories in the magazine. Besides, she had been buying fiction for years and knew what was publishable and what was not. And I find it hard to believe that her close associates on the magazine, S. S. McClure himself and Viola Roseboro', the fiction editor, would not have known that she was writing a novel. Her supposed diffidence at this point strikes me as phony.

The story that I accepted appears in the letter she wrote Professor Wagenknecht when he asked her about her early stories. She told him that "On the Divide," a story about a Scandinavian farmer, had been written for a college course and that her professor had touched it up and sent it off to the Overland Monthly. She said the professor had made her stolid immigrant farmer a woodcarver who had decorated the windowsills of his shanty with fantastic images. She said she had been amazed at this addition to her tale. Well, I think Cather here probably was telling it as it was. The very specificity of the detail—supplied gratuitously forty-two years after the fact—makes it sound authentic. But who knows?

Writing a biography is something like working a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle where the definitions are deliberately misleading. For years Cather misled everyone who asked her about her part in the publication of Georgine Milmine's Life of Mary G. Baker Eddy. Cather's first assignment when she went to work for McClure's in 1906 was to work on the manuscript of this book. S. S. McClure had bought the manuscript, but the writing was impossible. Cather always told people that all she had done was edit the manuscript, but there came a time in the 1920s when she apparently decided that someone ought to know the truth. So she wrote Edwin Anderson, librarian of the New York Public Library, whom she had known when he was librarian of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, and after swearing him to secrecy, told him the truth: she had completely written the book except for the first installment. The letter making this disclosure turned up in the New York Public Library archives only recently, and now we need to add another book to the canon of Cather's works.

The most interesting example to me of Cather's fictionalizing her life is her account of how she left Houghton Mifflin for Alfred Knopf in 1921. When the firm of Alfred Knopf celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1940, Cather wrote a reminiscence of her relationship with her publisher. She said that she never had met Knopf but had become interested in the books he was publishing. He was young, energetic, imaginative, and his books, then as later, were aesthetic objects to please any book lover. Cather took the subway uptown one day, she said, to ask him to be her publisher. He was surprised to see her, but they had a friendly talk during which he told her that changing publishers was a very serious business. She should go home and think about it carefully. She said she did this and it was not until the next time they met that Knopf agreed to take her on.

The facts of Cather's switch to Knopf are quite different, as the files of her correspondence with Houghton Mifflin (now in the Houghton Library at Harvard) demonstrate. Knopf actually had been wooing her for a couple of years, as had other publishers who were beginning to see her as a valuable literary property for the future. Cather was dissatisfied with Houghton Mifflin, which was an old firm with a long list of prominent authors. She thought they never advertised her books very much, and she was seldom pleased with their typography and bindings. Since they did not make much money on her, she said, they took pains not to lose very much either. Knopf, on the other hand, had been reading her books since they started coming out, and he went after her. Besides offering her advances—which she did not get from Houghton Mifflin—he outlined the ways he would promote her work. Then he offered to reprint her first collection of stories, which long had been out of print. Houghton Mifflin had told her they were not interested in reprinting the book.

The switch to Knopf was a very fortunate one for Cather, because Knopf became her close friend, made her rich, never suggested any changes in her books, and allowed her to pick her own typeface and to write advertising and jacket copy if she wished. But if Knopf had not pursued her vigorously, she never would have left Houghton Mifflin, where her old friend Ferris Greenslet was her editor. She was by nature a person who hated to make changes in her life.

Besides correcting the facts of Cather's life that she changes distorted herself, I have had to check constantly the accuracy of Edith Lewis's facts. Where Lewis is wrong on small details such as dates or chronology, these can usually be checked from extant letters. When she quotes from letters that she destroyed, one can only hope that she transcribed accurately. What she suppressed we will never know, but occasionally she can be caught in an outright falsification. One example turned up a few years ago in a study of Cather's relationship with Stephen Tennant, the youngest son of an English lord. Cather developed a close friendship with this young aristocrat, which began, according to Lewis, when Tennant wrote Cather a fan letter. Cather is supposed to have replied graciously, thus beginning a friendship that lasted the rest of her life.

It did not happen that way at all. Tennant wrote a mutual friend praising Cather's work; the friend passed the letter on to Cather, who then initiated the correspondence. Lewis must have thought it unbecoming for Cather, who already was a famous writer, to open a correspondence with someone less than half her age. So she changed the facts. This isn't a matter of great importance, but Cather's fascination with a young British aristocrat is particularly interesting because it points up a facet of Cather's character that earlier biographers missed. Cather had a great desire to be a Virginia lady like her mother and as a result had very elitist tastes She never lived ostentatiously, but one of the several dichotomies of her life was her ability to love and write glowingly about the immigrants in Nebraska and at the same time to live elegantly the life of a New York sophisticate with aristocratic tastes and little interest in the masses.

One of the great opportunities in having a second chance to write Cather's biography was the chance to revise critical opinions. During the past twenty years there have been many good critical articles and several good books on Cather. I have learned from my peers and I hope grown wiser over the years. Some of Cather's novels that I previously dismissed I have come to admire. Shadows on the Rock, for example, while lacking in energy, is really a splendid piece of literary impressionism, but one has to take it on Cather's terms. She said at the time it came out that some of her friends hated the book: it was as if they had ordered a highball and she had given them chicken broth. Lucy Gayheart, if one reads it as a Gothic romance, becomes a rich, interesting, and successful story.

My greatest change of mind came in rereading Cather's World War I novel, One of Ours. Many contemporary reviewers panned it in 1922 and seemed incensed that a woman had had the temerity to write a war story. Hemingway accused Cather of getting her war experiences from watching Birth of a Nation. It never occurred to reviewers that neither Tolstoy nor Stephen Crane had had any firsthand experience with the wars they wrote about. One of Ours actually has a lot going for it. It presents a broad panorama of war with a large cast of characters, male and female. It deals with the war's effects in Nebraska before the United States entered the conflict, the later persecution of German-Americans, life on the home front, and civilian life in France behind the lines—all done with Cather's usual skill in creating character and evoking place. Front-line action, which she admittedly could not handle well, is kept very brief, and throughout there is wonderful satire and irony that the reviewers missed completely. One of Ours may go on being read after many other World War I novels are forgotten.

A significant part of recent Cather studies is feminist criticism. This growing area of investigation now has produced a sizable body of work, much of it provocative and illuminating to a male of my generation. When I began teaching shortly after World War II, there were few women role models in the academies, and women writers were largely ignored in the male-edited anthologies we taught from. I am glad this is no longer the case. I have learned a lot from feminist critics, who have forced me, not unwillingly, to consider gender in reading Cather, and some of their readings have informed my biography. Feminist criticism ranges widely, however, and I take a conservative stance. I began my career as an eighteenth-century scholar, and I'm probably still guided by that spokesman for reasonableness, Alexander Pope: Be not the first by whom the new are tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

Which brings me to my final point. New critical perspectives will alter future biographies of Cather, just as new facts will fill in the gaps that still exist in the life records. Willa Cather: A Literary Life (1987) has been called by generous reviewers the definitive life, but no biography can ever be definitive, and there are sure to be others. As soon as my book appeared, two more caches of Cather correspondence turned up, among them letters Cather wrote in high school. These are now the earliest known letters extant. Others fill in important gaps in Cather's correspondence with Dorothy Canfield Fisher and explain an estrangement between the two women that I was only able to guess at (see the essay by Mark Madigan in this volume). I certainly could have used these letters with profit, and who knows what will turn up tomorrow? The last word is never said.


 1. Sources for this essay are documented in the notes for my Willa Cather: A Literary Life (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987). (Go back.)