In June 1931, Princeton University granted its first honorary degree to a
woman—Willa Cather. "Although the list of notables so honored included Colonel
Charles A. Lindbergh, Frank B. Kellogg, and Newton D. Baker, the conferring of the degree
of Doctor of Letters upon Willa Cather, the novelist, seemed to attract the greatest
attention from those present," reported the New York Times on 17 June (p. 3,
col. 1). The citation read:
Willa Cather, since her graduation in liberal arts from the University of Nebraska,
successively journalist, editor, and novelist. In all her work she disclosed power to
create a suitable atmosphere of time and place and nowhere more than in the great early
novels of pioneer life on the frontier—the land of opportunity and the
school of character, built on hardships endured and overcome. In these earliest novels she
first disclosed an art distinguished by an inexorable sense of truth and a quality of
exquisite rightness in her limpid English prose, a prose which disdains the tricks of
clever epigram and superficial ornament and reveals in every phrase the fine flavor of
Willa Cather, since her graduation in liberal arts from the University of Nebraska, successively journalist, editor, and novelist. In all her work she disclosed power to create a suitable atmosphere of time and place and nowhere more than in the great early novels of pioneer life on the frontier—the land of opportunity and the school of character, built on hardships endured and overcome. In these earliest novels she first disclosed an art distinguished by an inexorable sense of truth and a quality of exquisite rightness in her limpid English prose, a prose which disdains the tricks of clever epigram and superficial ornament and reveals in every phrase the fine flavor of literary distinction.
The degree sparked a flurry of interest in Cather, but the author herself was most interested in being on the platform with Lindbergh, whom she admired greatly. One result of the honor was Cather's only interview in the New Yorker. Louise Bogan, (1897-1970), almost fifteen years Cather's junior, was a writer of great promise at the time she interviewed the recipient of the honorary doctorate. Bogan, a native of Maine, had attended the Mount Saint Mary's Academy in New Hampshire, the Girls' Latin School in Boston, and Boston University. She had been the winner of the John Reed Memorial Prize, awarded by Poetry—A Magazine of Verse in 1930 for her previous publication of two volumes of verse, Body of This Death in 1923 and Dark Summer in 1929. She later went on to win numerous prizes and grants, and was the recipient of honorary doctorates from Western College for Women and Colby College. She frequently contributed verse and criticism to the New Republic, New Yorker, the Nation, and Poetry. She was the poetry editor of the New Yorker until her death in 1970.
The interview emphasizes Cather's role as a woman novelist and as a midwestern writer, but it also brings out her "plainness," her "down-to-earth" quality. Although the interview employs few direct quotes, it is, perhaps, the first to capture the entire scope of Cather's career to this point. Bogan's perception is such that she attains a number of insights that were not to be shared by others until after Cather's death. The result is a critical interview that, besides soliciting Cather's opinions, delivers a number of mature, well-thought-out opinions of Cather as an author.
The "mind over Nebraska" tag refers to a controversial review by T. K. Whipple that appeared in the Literary Review on 8 December 1923, and was quoted from the Nation's review of Youth and the Bright Medusa.
When, on June 16 of this year, Princeton University awarded a degree of Doctor of Letters to Willa Cather, it awarded an honorary degree to a woman for the first time in its history. Princeton University may well have experienced, on that day, the excitement and perturbation which naturally follow after any break with tradition. Miss Cather, make no mistake, took the whole thing as a matter of course. She is no stranger to the degree of Litt. D. The Universities of Michigan, Nebraska, Columbia, and Yale have eagerly taken her, before this, under their honorary wings. Miss Cather would not be surprised at anything now. For she well knows that she has accomplished, in the last decade or so, a miracle which should cause any university now extant to forget and forgive her sex. When all the rewards were going to writers of fiction who compromised with their talents and their material in order to amuse or soothe an American business culture, she, as one of her most intelligent critics has said, used her powers not in mimicking reality but in practicing fiction as one of the fine arts. She knows that she represents, to use another critical tag, "the triumph of mind over Nebraska."
She would be the first person to admit her limitations. She has admitted them, in each successive novel, by working more and more closely within them, by letting what she could not do alone. She is not a profound or subtle psychologist. Madame Colette's minute dissections of intimate personal relationships are not in her line. She lacks the broad canvas of Sigrid Undset. But she is a writer who can conjure up from the look of a place and the actions of people a narrative as solid as a house, written in prose as surely counterpointed as music. She produced, in My Ántonia, an undoubted American masterpiece, which will be read when most contemporary novels are as outdated as the publishers' blurbs on their jackets.
If you think of the author of a contemporary masterpiece as a person as solid as his own work, uncompromising, natural, and heartily in life, Miss Cather will fit your picture. She is the antithesis of the romantic artist at odds with himself and the world—that, it may be, supposititious figure who raises himself from the pillow where lamentable habits have put him to write a few immortal words before the miasma again sets in. Her life has been free from turmoil; she is at home in her country and her society. She has not needed to expatriate herself in order to do her work, and she is as scornful of expatriate writers as she is of literary cliques and cabals. Although she now divides her time between California, where her mother lives, and a hotel in New York, she formerly lived, as much as possible, in one spot. She rooted herself in an apartment in Bank Street, in New York City, for almost ten years. Here she saw her friends, at parties and dinners always slightly tinged with formality. She refused to encourage proselytes and adorers; she picked her intimates with care. For most of the year she sat down to her desk every morning and worked at writing. Writing was her job; she accepted it as part of a natural day, as one accepts bath and breakfast. She saw few strangers and gave few interviews. She saw New York change from horizontal vistas of brownstone stoops, from gaslight and horse-cars, into a city presenting itself vertically to the eye. But Carnegie Hall remained in the same place, though Mouquin's disappeared, the Crillon and the Brevoort could be trusted to serve good food; the values of good prose persisted as always. She went each year, for rest and refreshment, to Santa Fe or Quebec. Taos and Santa Fe she has known well since 1912, long before the days of motorbuses and nationally advertised Indian Detours. Several of her books have used Southwestern material, notably Death Comes for the Archbishop, which drew extensively on Southwestern legend and history. Her new novel, Shadows on the Rock, is about Quebec. She does not like to call it an historical novel, although its time is the seventeenth century and Count Frontenac is one of its characters.
She likes the French Canadians because they have remained practically unchanged for over two hundred years, Quebec because it is built to last, and because its buildings show the influence of French architects of France's best period. Its inhabitants like good food and simple pleasures. They are almost indestructible in their racial traits, and Miss Cather admires indestructible qualities in human character.
"Quebec never would have changed at all," she says, "if the American drunks had left it alone."
It is difficult to realize, after a glance at the Willa Cather who has shaken herself free from any influence which might hamper her work or her career, the indisputable fact that her career got off, in her first two books of prose, to a bad start. She stepped, in The Troll Garden, a volume of short stories, and Alexander's Bridge, a novel, not out onto the Nebraskan prairie but into the artist's studio and the drawing-room. This mis-step, when one considers the state of American fiction at the time (the years 1905 to 1912), was only natural. Henry James, in his steady progress through tapestried and marble halls, had lugged American fiction after him. His disciple, Mrs. Wharton, save for one lapse, in 1911, when she published Ethan Frome, had carried on the genteel tradition. O. Henry, it is true, had reported on people in hall-bedrooms and corner saloons, with some success. His influence, however, with the young who cared for beautiful prose was negligible. Young Willa Sibert Cather wanted to write beautiful prose about temperamental, ambitious, enchanting people. She now admits that this ambition was a grave mistake. Her talents had no real scope in the drawing-rooms of New York and London.
She walked into London drawing-rooms by way of Pittsburgh. Directly after her graduation, in 1895, from the University of Nebraska, at the age of twenty, she came east, to work for two years as telegraph editor on the Pittsburgh Leader. A friend who knew her ambition and her desire for Eastern experience got her the job. She left the newspaper to teach English literature in the Allegheny High School in the same city. She was not much older than her pupils; she remembers them as nice, intelligent children.
In Pittsburgh a new life began for the young Nebraskan. She met, for the first time, people with money and taste, who entertained actors and musicians. Pittsburgh was one of the first stops on the road; plays arrived there fresh from the New York stage. Singers and members of the theatrical profession were more generous with their time and talents, more grateful for hospitality, in the provinces than they were likely to be in New York itself. Public entertainers in those days were not carried away by the ambition to look and act like everyone else. They never could be mistaken for other people. Miss Cather was no more afraid of hero-worship then than she is now. She wrote down her new and exotic acquaintances. She crowded everything in. The early stories are full of furniture, salon pictures, literary conversation, phrases in foreign languages, glittering clothes, sweeping opera cloaks, bouquets, and gold slippers. The Western plains appear briefly now and then, but the characters hasten to leave them as quickly as possible. Trains whistle in and out of the action; people go back, but almost immediately escape again.
After nine years of Pittsburgh Miss Cather's career took another turn, in an upward direction. The Cosmopolitan (then a periodical of great seriousness), Lippincott's, Scribner's, and finally McClure's had accepted her stories. McClure's Magazine was far more enterprising in its editorial policies than any of the others. S. S. McClure, after his triumph in the field of newspaper syndicates, was an expert at drawing native and imported literary talent into his pages. He had published Anthony Hope, Stevenson, Kipling, and Conan Doyle. He had taken Ida M. Tarbell away from historical essays on the paving of Paris to an historical summing-up of the Standard Oil Company. Willa Sibert Cather could write as good stories as any young disciple of James. She could be trusted to know a good story when she saw it. In 1906, S. S. McClure hired her as a member of the staff of his magazine.
Miss Cather worked in New York as managing editor of McClure's from 1908 to 1912. She and McClure were sympathetic; they both were simple, ambitious, and straightforward. Every summer she accompanied the McClures to London, to assist in the magazine's author-seining expeditions. She went everywhere and met everyone: the older generation of authors and critics, in the persons of Edmund Gosse, Sidney Colvin, and the Meynells, and the newer generations: Chesterton, Leonard Merrick, Wells, and Galsworthy. She enjoyed everything, old and new. "I wasn't out to spy on life," she says of these days. "I was out to live it."
While she worked on McClure's, she published practically nothing. Samuel McClure's autobiography came out in 1912; it bears the acknowledgement: "I am indebted to the cooperation of Miss Willa Sibert Cather for the very existence of this book." Alexander's Bridge, that artistic stepchild, appeared the same year. "In Alexander's Bridge I was still more preoccupied with trying to write well than with anything else," she has since explained. "A painter or writer must learn to distinguish what is his own from what he admires. I never abandoned trying to compromise between the kind of matter which my experience had given me, and the kind of writing I admired, until I began my second novel, O Pioneers!.
Miss Cather was not a young writer, as such things go, when she wrote O Pioneers!. She was thirty-eight. But at that age she found herself so certainly that she never again has needed to fumble about. From then on, in five succeeding books, she remembered Nebraska, where she had spent her youth. She was born in Virginia, outside Winchester, where her forebears had lived as farmers for three generations. When she was nine her father went west and settled in south-central Nebraska, near Red Cloud. The section had previously been peopled, soon after the opening of the Union Pacific and Burlington Railways, in the late sixties, by Norwegians, Swedes, Russians, and Czechs. Much of the country was still raw prairie. Young Willa rejected a regular primary education; until the time when she entered the high school in Red Cloud, her education went on at home. She rode about and made friends with her neighbors. She learned all there was to know about the prairie, including how to kill rattlesnakes and how prairie dogs built their towns. The neighbors, although immigrants living a hard life in difficult surroundings, were of a high type, especially the Czechs and Norwegians. They were musical; their cooking, at its best, compared well with the best culinary art of Prague or Vienna. They planted trees and gardens in the bare little towns, and dreary saloons, under their influence, blossomed out into beer gardens. They were worth bringing to mind. But Miss Cather was surprised when Ferris Greenslet, of the Houghton Mifflin Company, accepted O Pioneers!. Her first novel had opened with a description of a gentleman on his way to a tea party on Beacon Hill. Her second, in its first sentence, disclosed a Nebraska town in a high gale of wind. For Miss Cather, the wind was at last blowing in the right direction.
William Heinemann, who brought out O Pioneers! in England, rejected her next book, The Song of the Lark, on the ground that "the full-blooded method, which tells everything about everybody" was the wrong one for Miss Cather to use. She took his words to heart. She now considers the higher processes of art to be the process of simplification. To her, the first law of writing is to be yourself and to be natural.
One can see at a glance that she herself has always been that rare accident of Nature, a perfectly natural person. She speaks, without the shadow of a doubt, in the accent she acquired as a child. Her voice is deep and resonant. Her dresses are bright in color; she likes brilliant embroidery, boldly designed materials, and exotic strings of beads. She is of medium height and of the build best described as stocky. She stands and moves solidly. She sits with an air of permanence, as though the chair were, and had always been, her home. She smokes a cigarette as though she really liked the taste of ignited tobacco and rice paper. Her eyes are fine; gray-blue and set well apart. She has a thorough smile. Her face, when she detects some affectation in another's words or actions, can lose every atom of warmth and become hostile and set. It is impossible to imagine her strong hands in a deprecatory gesture. The remarks, "Oh well" and "What does it matter?" have never, in all probability, passed her lips. She admires big careers and ambitious, strong characters, especially if they are the careers and characters of women. The most fortunate and most exciting of human beings, to her mind, is a singer with a pure, big voice and unerring musical taste. She also understands men and women who are her direct opposite: delicate, capricious figures full of charm, but with no staying powers or will to endure. She knows that these last, the world being what it is, usually come to a bad end. She has nothing but contempt for people who refuse, because of indolence or indifference, to get the best they can out of life.
She does not like to work away from America, although some of A Lost Lady was written in Europe. In Paris she misses clear American skies, becomes absorbed in watching the changing soft colors of the Seine, and gets nothing done. She delights in the turns and sound of colloquial American speech. In literature she admires the power and breadth of the Russians even more than the delicacy and form of the French. Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, and Tolstoi receive her praise; she does not mention Dostoevsky and considers Chekhov too despairing and bloodless to be of the first rank. No one can convince her that sociological reasons can explain the appearance of great writers in certain places at certain times. Greatness, to her mind, is up to the individual; the culture into which he is born can be of little help and less hinderance to the complete, freely functioning artist. She would not give a penny for any literature that present-day Russia can produce. "Liberty," she says with a snap of her eyes, "sheds too much light."
She does not believe that the critical faculty, applied to literature, can really find out how the thing goes. "Anyone," she remarks, "who ever has experienced the delight of living with people and in places which are beautiful and which he loves, throughout the long months required to get them down on paper, would never waste a minute drawing up lists of rules or tracing down reasons why."
Her later novels approach more and more closely to the ideal she has set herself; human character and setting put down almost without accent, keyed to the quietest level, denuded of everything but essentials. This ideal she has herself termed "the novel démeublé." Death Comes for the Archbishop was an example of this style, and, it may be added, her greatest financial success; it went into four times as many printings as any of her earlier books. In contemporary writing, pure style and no nonsense are her demands. She is willing to be stirred by the work of young writers, if they can write in a way of which she can approve. She read The Bridge of San Luis Rey against her own prejudices (she thought that the wrong people had admired it), and has prayed for the fortunate continuance of Thornton Wilder's talent ever since. She likes W. R. Burnett's Little Caesar, because it is direct—because it sounds as if it might have been written by Little Caesar.
The ladies of Omaha commissioned Bakst, when he was in America, to paint her portrait. They made an extremely appropriate choice. For, Bakst gained a subject who, in spite of her Irish-Alsatian ancestry, her American upbringing, has a strain of Tartar in her temperament. She has come through in spite of everything—unsubordinated by her material, her early sentimentality, false starts, and bad choices. Her integrity cannot be sufficiently remembered with awards, whether they be Pulitzer Prizes, medals of the American Academy, or honorary degrees. She has made herself complete mistress of her talent. Her foot is on her native heath, and her name is Willa Cather.New Yorker, 8 August 1931.