Source File: cat.cs003.xml
From Cather Studies Volume 3

Four "New" Cather Letters to Annie Fields at the Huntington Library

Writing in the first volume of Cather Studies, James Woodress summarized Willa Cather's various attempts to impede her biographers and noted that her "dislike of biography . . . applied only to Cather herself. She was an avid reader of biography and often her letters recommended to friends biographies she had particularly liked" ("Writing" 104). Among the most well known of Cather's impediments were her attempts to retrieve letters from correspondents in order to burn them herself, a practice maintained after her death by Edith Lewis; in the same spirit, she prohibited the publication of any surviving letters. Yet, as Woodress notes, some fifteen hundred letters are in archives throughout the country and, as he suggested parenthetically in the oral presentation of his paper, "new" letters appear with some regularity-most recently the cache of Cather-Fisher letters added to the Bailey-Howe Library at the University of Vermont after their discovery in 1987 in a barn at the Fisher place in Vermont. These letters demanded a reconsideration of Cather's relationship with Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and particularly the role played in it by Cather's story "The Profile" (Madigan). Less spectacularly, yet perhaps as emphatically, four letters from Cather to Annie Fields added to the Fields Collection at the Henry E. Huntington Library and Museum in San Marino, California, in June 1986 need to be brought to the attention of Cather scholars. A gift from Mrs. Benjamin Bole, whose husband was a nephew of Annie Fields, they complement the Huntington's collection of Cather's letters to Mary Austin and Zoë Akins. Though just four in number, these letters broaden the contexts of the Cather-Jewett-Fields relationship and add, as well, to our understanding of Cather's direction as she sought to get the most from her work at McClure's while still finding her own way as a writer.

Sharon O'Brien has called Sarah Orne Jewett's December 1908 letter to Cather "perhaps the most important letter Cather ever received." Equally, she has seen Annie Fields as a maternal figure for Cather at this time, one embodying through her personal history and sensibility the whole literary tradition to which the younger woman aspired and in which she longed to establish her own place (344, 314-33). Boston had been coequal with the very idea of literature, and Mrs. Fields was its representation in Cather's own life as she struggled with the McClure's biography of Mary Baker Eddy, which was her assignment during the years 1907-8. Looking back on this period of her life from the vantage point Of 1931, Cather wrote to DeWolfe Howe insisting that her own letters to Mrs. Fields be destroyed. They were too artificial and unrepresentative, she said" (Woodress, Literary 196). Also relevant here is Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant's comment that when Cather was in the company of Mrs. Fields, she "stepped right out of her dominant personality and melted into the warm light of our hostess' coal fire" (65).

However Cather herself felt, in the context of earlier letters, which revealed the person she was then, these four letters complement the two letters to Fields held at Harvard, which were written while Cather was in Europe during the summer of 1909 to express her condolence over Jewett's death. Of the four at the Huntington, Cather wrote two while she was still in Boston and two during her 1912. visit to Nebraska, just before her composition of O Pioneers! in Pittsburgh at the McClungs'. As such, these letters are as bookends to those at Harvard; they add to knowledge of this period in Cather's life, when she was establishing herself as a New York journalist and editor and, ultimately, trying to break away from such work to devote herself to the kingdom of art represented by Mrs. Fields and articulated by Jewett.

The first letter (FI 5469, ANS), written on a Parker House note card, is undated; since Cather spent "most of 1907 and part of 1908" working on McClure's serialization of Mary Baker G. Eddy: The Story of Her Life and the History of Christian Science in Boston and New England but did not meet Fields and Jewett until February 1908 (Woodress, Literary 193, 195), it must have been written between the time when she met them and her return to New York. Although just a three-sentence note to confirm an afternoon visit that day, Wednesday, at five, Cather's solicitousness is evident. She hopes Fields will not think her too pressing for having telephoned so often, which she explains by saying that she had long hoped to get to know Fields and Jewett and that, since her time in Boston is coming to a close, she cannot bear to leave without seeing more of them. She signs herself Willa Sibert Cather.

The second letter (Fl 5470, ANS) is longer, written on a *W*S*C* notecard, and addresses Mrs. Fields as "my dear"; it is undated, though written Wednesday night. Cather expresses her hope that Fields is feeling better now. Then she tells her that the previous week, she had a fine afternoon going through a Mrs. Gardener's house. It was a beautiful day, she knows Mrs. Fields will recall; great numbers of daffodils were blooming in the sunshine. But Cather muses over whether or not she is haunted, since there was a portrait of Mary Tudor at Mrs. Gardener's house that looked so much like Mrs. Eddy that she had to flee. She thinks she is becoming something of a perverse modern-day Midas.

That evening, Cather took some books back to the public library, and instead of destroying her card, she asked the librarians to keep it for her until she came back; that made her feel that she really was to return to Boston. Looking back, she remembers her arrival at the Parker House the previous January late at night with only Mrs. Eddy as a guide of a sort. Cather had to get to work the next morning, so after breakfasting, she inquired of the hotel clerk in a humble way as to the whereabouts of the Boston Common. Told by the clerk with great consideration for her feelings, Cather went out and found it. She says that since that morning she has come to like Boston more and more each day. It is the only city in which she has lived that attracts her and that she feels warmly about, so she expects to be homesick when she leaves. New York has always seemed to her to be beleaguered, like a medieval city, with all sorts of awful things going on in the streets. One has to be always watchful. Cather plans to come back to Boston whenever she can, and she hopes to visit Mrs. Fields each time.

Cather wishes that Mr. McClure had taken her to see Mrs. Fields a year ago. Instead, she corrects herself, she should think herself fortunate in getting to know Fields and Jewett at all. Mrs. Eddy has been a difficult mistress for Cather, but she shall always think that in some strange way Eddy and Christian Science brought her to know Fields and Miss Jewett and that they are, in some way, a reward for her service. Though this sounds like empiricism, Cather will accept it, for it is the one way in which the past year's work seems worthwhile.

If Fields and Miss Jewett do not object to being considered reward for her work, then Cather will write like those in the Christian Science Journal, acknowledging her debts to Mrs. Eddy. Cather says that if she is not able to see Mrs. Fields before she leaves, she will anticipate the autumn, and she asks fervently for an occasional note this summer. Cather closes the letter "Faithfully" and signs it "Willa Sibert Cather."

The third letter (FI 5471, ANS), written while on the 1912 trip that Woodress has called her "pivotal journey to the Southwest" (Literary 226), Cather wrote to Fields on 27 June, during her several weeks in Red Cloud. It is written on a *W*S*C* notecard and has a notation in a different hand, likely Fields's, indicating that the letter had been answered. It draws upon the same experiences Cather wrote about to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, who, in turn, drew upon those letters to write her chapter "The Golden Year: 1912" in her Willa Cather: A Memoir. In it, Cather accounts for herself: she is back home with her family; her mother is vital, fully recovered from a recent operation in Omaha; the next day she will visit the Bohemian precinct to see the wheat harvest; the Bohemians are never dull, and Fields will remember what Wagner said about Bohemia. Cather thinks of Fields in the coolness of Manchester, with its shade and ocean view, and speaks of the intense heat that seems to bake the wheat in the fields; nights are a cool respite, and just then the moon is full, enchanting the whole country. She has been driving with her father about the country in an automobile, but when she goes to see the harvest she will travel by wagon, moving about the farms slowly and casualty in the earlier way. Cather longs to hear from Fields and looks forward to telling her about the wonders of Arizona; she quotes the same line from Balzac, though in English, that Sergeant quotes in French: "Dans le désert, voyez-vous, [il] y a tout et il n'y a rien -Dieu, sans les hommes. Everything and nothing -God without men!" (84). Cather's warm thoughts and emotions are extended to Fields. In a postscript, Cather indicates that she plans to be in Pittsburgh during August with Isabelle McClung.

The final letter (Fl 5472, ALS), also written from Red Cloud, is dated 24 July 1912-- On blank white sheets, it encloses a sketch of a Shakespearian critic whose work both Fields and Cather have appreciated. Cather has just returned from a week watching the harvest in the French and Bohemian areas; it is still going on. She says that there is a Catholic church there, Saint Anne's, which is like European churches; it is on a hill, commanding the level wheat fields surrounding it, and can be seen for six miles. Cather went to a service there, conducted in French, which had excellent music. Cather wishes she could visit Fields in September but doubts that she will be able to since she must begin working as soon as she gets to Pittsburgh and expects to be at her desk throughout that month. The letter concludes quite positively, with Cather saying that she is well, happy, and appreciating this time in her life. She has loving thoughts of Fields.

Taken together, these four letters lend both context and credence to Cather's 1931 letter to Howe. Like the letters to Fisher over "The Profile," these also reveal an ambitious young woman making her way into the literary circles that so attracted her. Yet rather than the almost self-righteous certainty revealed in the new Cather-Fisher letters, these confirm Cather's uncertainty, her awe in the presence of Fields, a woman who had actually known many of the literary lions of the previous century. This uncertainty is clearest in the first two letters, where Cather shows her own need of this contact with Jewett and Fields and, in the second, a certain bemusement over herself as she looks back over her time in Boston, thinking over what she had learned -from the Eddy work as well as from her contact with Jewett and Fields. In passing, too, the second letter reveals Cather's attitudes toward Mary Baker Eddy in a specific, and caustic, way; throughout, she is both wry and ironic as well as more than a bit condescending in her characterization of Eddy and the followers of Christian Science. And while the third letter recapitulates many of the incidents Cather had written about to Sergeant, her letter to Fields is the more evocative because of who Fields is; there is a formality, a carefulness, about the writing that is not entirely hidden by its casual tone. Both letters written from Red Cloud, finally, offer further evidence of the drive Cather felt-after her trip West, both to the Southwest and to see the Nebraska wheat harvest for the first time in many years-to "hit the home pasture" in O Pioneers!

Doubtless Cather in 1931 did think these letters, as she recalled them and the period they recorded, to be "artificial and unrepresentative"; but then, in 1931 Cather was the famous and well-valued writer she had striven so long and so hard to become. What these new letters from Cather to Fields confirm most clearly, then, is that Cather was right about them not when she wrote to Howe but, ironically, when she wrote in the 1937 preface to the revised Song of the Lark that "the life of a successful artist in the full tide of achievement is not so interesting as the life of a talented girl 'fighting her way,' as we say. Success is never so interesting as struggle-not even to the successful." just so, and Cather's own words tell us just why these newly found letters to Fields are significant.


Cather, Willa. Preface to The Song of the Lark. 1915. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living. A Personal Record. 1953. Athens: Ohio UP, 1989.
Madigan, Mark J. "Willa Cather and Dorothy Canfield Fisher: Rift, Reconciliation, and One of Ours." Cather Studies, vol. 1. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990. 115-29.
O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. 1953. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P Bison Books, 1963
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.
——. "Writing Cather's Biography." Cather Studies, vol. 1. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1990. 103-14.