Introduction to a Bibliography of Willa Cather's Reading

Willa Cather As Reader

The "Bibliography of Cather's Reading" is an effort to create a reference guide to the hundreds of direct references to written material Cather makes in her work and letters in the hope that scholars and students can be better informed about Cather's wide-ranging reading practices and the influence reading had on her life and work. To develop such a guide, the authors conceived a list with bibliographic information and annotations of the uses to which Cather put her reading. The resulting bibliography records instances of Cather's reading that scholars can clearly document from her writing, including her journalism, short stories, articles, novels and letters.

Melissa Ryan examined the two volumes of The World and The Parish for all references Cather made to her reading in the articles found there. These references are primarily to books that Cather was reviewing or reading during her college years and the years thereafter when she was writing for newspapers.

Sharon Hoover reread all the short stories, novels, Not Under Forty and On Writing and Janis Stout's Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather (2002), recording references she found to Cather's reading. She also collected references from James Woodress's Willa Cather: A Literary Life, and double-checked all references in A Reader's Companion to the Fiction of Willa Cather by John March. A few of the latter were discarded; perhaps March (or Marilyn Arnold) saw an allusion to a book Cather had read that did not appear to be a direct reference when it was double-checked. The bibliography of Cather's reading does not include what might be seen as allusions, only quotations or direct mentions of books, poems, dramas, newspapers or magazines.

The differences between "references" and "allusions" are not absolute, but, as best as the collectors were able, they attempted to include the former and omit the latter. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Book I, Chapter 2, for instance, when Father Latour is at Agua Secreta for the first time, he notices that the "angoras had long silky hair of a dazzling whiteness" reminding him of "the chapter in the Apocalypse, about the whiteness of them that were washed in the blood of the Lamb." Describing the angoras' hair as having a "dazzling whiteness" might be taken as an allusion; however, adding the words "chapter in the Apocalypse . . . washed in the blood of the Lamb" clearly references Revelation 7:13-14.

During the latter part of the time Hoover was collecting the reading bibliography, many articles and short stories were put up online. These have not yet been examined for additional references to Cather's reading.

A major source not examined in depth is Cather's work at McClure's magazine. McClure's Magazine is also now online; therefore, it is far more accessible to scholars. As a first-rate newspaper and magazine woman for 20 years at the beginning of the 20th century, Cather must have read magazines and newspapers regularly to become as important as she did in the journalism of the day. Anyone wanting to consider all the reading Cather did would have to include the essays she edited for McClure's as well as any she might have written for the magazine. An author writes from all his or her background. Although it is clear that Cather was not particularly interested in ideas embedded in experiences she did not have or that were not close to the imaginative sweep of her mind, her exposure to contemporary issues must reflect in her work somewhere, somehow.

A major source of text references that were collected but not included in the bibliography came from librettos and songs. A decision was made to omit all music, even that with text. This does not reflect on the importance of music or lyrics in Cather's writing, merely that its study lies outside the scope of this research and was omitted to keep the focus on Cather's reading.

There are numerous things that need to be added to make the bibliography of Cather's reading more complete. Places that still should be searched for references to Cather's reading are as follows:

  1. Entries from the more recently published or still to be published Scholarly Editions.
  2. Material in recently-acquired Cather collections at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Drew University, and elsewhere .
  3. Letters collected since Janis Stout's 2002 annotated collection of Cather's letters, particularly those in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.
  4. Any specific reading found by scholars of Cather's high school teaching.
  5. Any references that show up specifically in Cather's poetry.

In Bernice Slote's introductory essay to the 1962 edition of April Twilights, on pages x through xix, is an extensive list of Cather's reading that needs to be crosschecked with the bibliography. In addition, of course, the allusions to classic texts and to Heinrich Heine in Cather's poems are deeply thought provoking, and Slote argues in her introduction that the sentiments presented in the poems can be traced to themes that appear later in the novels. This might be fodder for a scholar's assessment of the poems. The reading bibliography, however, as mentioned earlier, does not include allusions, only direct references, so the collector of mentions of Cather's reading from the poems will have to be quite knowledgeable.

Two outstanding characteristics appear most salient in considering Cather's reading. First, that she read early and well among people who respected the written word, and secondly, that she read widely all her life. Books were meaningful to her both for inspiration and for information. When Cather envisioned Shadows on the Rock, she traveled to Quebec to understand its geography, arrangement, architecture and ambience and she read heavily in its French Catholic history. However, according to Marion King, a long-time librarian of the New York Society Library, later, as Cather was in New York "writing Shadows on the Rock, she came often to consult old herbals, old maps, and histories of Paris" (Hoover 133). The "Historical Essay" and "Explanatory Notes" in each Scholarly Edition are the best sources for titles of specific books Cather read as she prepared to write a novel. It is clear that Cather knew libraries and librarians throughout her life and that she picked up books about places and people whenever opportunities arose.

The best summaries of Cather's early reading are found in Bernice Slote, both in her introductory essay to the 1962 April Twilights and in the first essay in The Kingdom of Art and in James Woodress Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Cather's Grandmother Boak read to Cather very early in the granddaughter's life, and Cather herself learned to read early. Cather read books in the homes of her parents and grandparents and relatives and neighbors, in the general store and in school (Slote KA x; Woodress 48-53). She undoubtedly read the announcements of trains coming and going and the fancy billboards of actors and actresses stopping off at the Red Cloud Opera House (Woodress 58). She must have read the political news that came through her father's hands since, as she grew to her teenage years, she wrote the news in her hometown under his guidance. She read for her advanced education at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, for the reviewing she did for newspapers, and for the teaching she did in Pittsburgh.

The greatest number of direct references to a single book (or books) in Cather's work is from the Protestant Bible, a book she both read and heard. When Cather was growing up, attendance at a Baptist church would have left the indelible sounds of cadence, words and grammar of the King James Version of the Bible (1611) in her ears. Boys and girls attending Sunday School at that time memorized hundreds of Bible verses, read "responsive readings" in services, and listened to and participated in rituals repeatedly that relied heavily on the Bible and on the words and style of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. This latter has been in constant use in Anglican and Episcopalian Churches in one form or another since 1549. The language and tone of The King James Version of the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer became the basis of Cather's language.

Added to that basic language is the language of Shakespeare, whose prose has had almost as great an effect on the English language. The second greatest number of references in Cather's writing come from Shakespeare. She references Shakespeare's plays—all of them—throughout her lifetime. We know that Cather saw many productions of Shakespeare and that she read the plays aloud to the Menuhin children, buying them each copies of her favorite version of the plays, the Temple Edition (Woodress 454).

Early reading and listening and memorizing of such powerful language as that in the King James Version of the Bible and in Shakespearean plays and poems imprints structure, rhythms, vocabulary and sense on a persons language. Richard Giannone, who has thought deeply about sound in Cather's work, writes: We know that the Bible was fundamental. It was intoned for many hours by her grandfather, a devout Baptist. As the Bible familiarized Cather with allegorical patterns, so it instructed her in the oral and auditory resources of language. Imagine an alert, pre-literate girl hearing the stories made in a pre-literate world read to her in a voice evoking something of the original power of the words. Nothing is lost. There is no impediment of print to the child. She directly partakes in a world congenial to her own active, pre-literate imagination. (26-27) As a curious child of that time, like many other precocious children, as she grew older, Cather undoubtedly read a Bible from stem to stern herself, as the saying goes. Every begat. Every wild story. Every atrocity. Every gentle admonition. Every law. Every poem. It is important, too, to recall that Cather read—and listened to—these books, in Bernice Slote's words: [as] a brilliant, forceful, intense, and richly gifted girl . . . . (AT xii). Cather was not a casual reader or listener; she was a passionate one.

Among other books of Cather's childhood that continued to play an important role in her rich storehouse of language, image, and idea were John Bunyan's allegorical Pilgrim's Progress and The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss, inspired by Robinson Crusoe. In her first issue of The Home Monthly 1/1897), Cather wrote: "If I were asked what two books were the most essential to a child's library and most important in his education, I should name two very old-fashioned ones . . . Pilgrim's Progress and The Swiss Family Robinson." Edith Lewis reports that Cather read Pilgrim's Progress "through eight times one of those winters" during her early years in Nebraska. The Swiss Family Robinson would appeal to Cather's interest in natural history and natural science as well as her love of adventure. Both were books of uncertainty and enterprise and both set lessons in morality for the mass of Protestant children in the 19th century and early 20th century.

There are other echoes from Cather's early life in the bibliography of her reading that scholars will expect: fairy tales and hero tales from the stories and epics of different cultures. There are, for example, references to Lewis Carroll, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang, Hans Christian Andersen, Homer, and Virgil—she began reading in Latin while an adolescent living in Red Cloud (Lewis 14). Then, in her student years in Lincoln, she read classics in Latin, Greek and French. Slote reports that at the University, Cather had three years of Greek (Pindar, Homer, Herodotus, the dramatists), with an additional semester as an auditor; two years of Latin; one year of German; three semesters (plus one as auditor) of French (Daudet, Gartier, Balzac, Racine, Taine). (AT xi) As for Cather's reading of French, her good friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher reported from first hand knowledge that Cather . . . amazed and sometimes abashed some of her professors by caring much more fiercely about their subjects than they did. Especially French. There seemed to be a natural affinity between her mind and French forms of art. During her undergraduate years she made it a loving duty to read every French literary masterpiece she could lay her hands on. (Slote, KA 37) In Pittsburgh, Cather continued to read French poetry and novels with a literary friend George Seibel (Hoover 11-21).

During her latter years in Lincoln and the years following, Cather reviewed many contemporary novels and contemporary stage versions of drama. While doing so, she often compared them to classic works. We can read their titles and Cather's opinions of them in her reviews for several newspapers at the time (See The World and the Parish). Some of Cather's reading reveals itself in her early stories. As her experience in writing fiction grows over the years, references to her reading become less overt and more seamlessly embedded in her writing.

The major finding of the bibliography of Cather's reading is its extent, both in breadth and depth over her lifetime. There are scores of entries for books, poems and drama specifically part of her writing, yet the writing never seems heavy with information or necessarily demands that a reader bring certain knowledge to it. The material is so well woven into the story that the reader's eyes can glide right over it as if it were merely a descriptive detail. If one ponders its relationship to the story, however, the detail is telling. In Cather's smooth prose, a detail can blossom like a flower unfolding its petals in slow motion until it reveals a bright central section that enlightens the heart of the author's story.