A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather

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To Elsie CatherSeptember 21, 1940UNL-Rosowski Cather 

Knows a lot about the young Queen [Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother] discussed in enclosed article. The queen is friends with Myra Hess and Anita Gunn. The Queen's father is a poor Scottish landowner, and another daughter of a poor Scottish landowner, Lady Dolly Mackenzie, married into the Hambourg family and is very economical. Anita Gunn was raised on a farm that adjoined the Queen's before there was any thought that she would be Queen. The royal family summered in the Scottish Highlands and George [George VI, Albert Frederick Arthur George Windsor] liked to play tennis with Elizabeth. As Duke of York he had no hope of ascending the throne, so could marry a poor girl. Queen Mary [Victoria Mary Augusta Louise Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes, Princess of Teck], being Scottish, did not object. Elizabeth a natural queen. She did lovely things in Canada; ordinary people are full of stories about her visit. Had heard a great deal about her from Myra and Anita Gunn, so was not taken by surprise. 

To Elsie CatherJune 22, 1935UNL-Rosowski Cather 

Elsie ought to have received letter about Virginia's wedding by now. Was aware of the engagement all along, but kept quiet until Virginia was brave enough to write her father. Doesn't trust her own wisdom at present, what with two sick people to look after and many professional concerns, so will have to consider Elsie's living situation in the fall. For the time being, please think about this: hire Lizzie Huffman of Stratton, Nebraska, to care for the house. She would do it for $10 a week. Her son could stay with his father, and her daughter could come with her. She could do everything and Elsie could just relax for once—and have breakfast in bed. Would very much like to pay Lizzie this summer, and will send a check as soon as Elsie writes. Doesn't like to give cash that people simply put in a bank account, but does very much like to provide a little luxury and satisfaction for those she loves. Why is Elsie acting like she is going to work until she is an old woman? Did Will Auld lose her money? Had thought Elsie was on verge of retirement. Please don't sell the Red Cloud house. Considered buying it the last time she was in town, but interpreted Elsie's behavior to mean that she wanted to buy it. Thought Elsie wanted to stop teaching and live in the house. Needs to go autograph 870 copies of Lucy Gayheart, but please be strong, hire Lizzie, and let her pay for it. This will be Elsie's first real shot at a relaxing vacation in Red Cloud.   Willie 

To Roscoe CatherJuly 8, [1916], on letterhead of the Brown Palace Hotel, Denver, Colorado, but written from Taos, New MexicoUNL-Roscoe 

Received Roscoe's letter just as she and Edith Lewis were starting out from Denver for Taos. Wanted to come to Lander, but Edith was intent on coming back here, where they had such a wonderful week last year. Hopes that after two weeks in Taos, she can stop by Lander on the way back east. At some point, will make it to Red Cloud. Hopes Mother, whom Elsie reports as being unwell, can be convinced to spend some time in Denver. Does long to meet young West Virginia [her nickname for Roscoe's oldest daughter, Virginia]. May remain in Nebraska until well into autumn. Felt so overwhelmed by deaths and marriages of friends this past winter that she only managed to produce two pieces of short fiction the entire winter and spring. He likely noticed the one in The Century—not of much merit ["The Bookkeeper's Wife," The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, 92 (May 1916): 51-59]. McClure's bought the second one, which is considerably more successful ["The Diamond Mine," McClure's Magazine, 47 (October 1916): 7-11; 66-70]. Would like to discuss her conception for a new novel—not striking in itself. Hasn't had a really striking idea since Sandy Point [a play town Cather constructed out of packing boxes with her brothers and friends as a child in Red Cloud, Nebraska]. The challenge of the new novel, an especially difficult challenge for a woman writer, is that it must center on a man. Gets a lot of credit for her male characters, but they are successful only because a woman is always at the center of the story and the men are seen only through them. Can manage that much quite well, but is nervous to go beyond that strategy. Nevertheless, a boy and a man must be at the center of this new book. Wishes she could discuss it with him; he could give her some guidance. If only he had written a diary on his trip to Yellowstone. The book she has in mind is somewhat similar. Apologizes for the bad penmanship, but there are five Jewish salesmen in line for the hotel's one bottle of ink. Is staying at a comfortable hotel run by a dignified Mexican woman and her French-speaking parrot (her dead husband was a Frenchman). Taos is wonderful, if one is up to crossing forty miles of canyons to reach it. The population is completely Mexican and there is a lovely Indian pueblo nearby. Would be wonderful if Roscoe could come along on these adventures. Life is so unforgiving: remain independent and one feels unanchored; get bound up and, well, that's it. Isabelle's new husband is a terrible Jew that nobody likes. It's a dilemma. Plans to remain less encumbered from now on. Goodbye and hopes to see Roscoe and Meta soon.   Willie. 

To Elizabeth Cather IckisDecember 27, [1939]UNL-Roscoe 

A fine baby! So full of life and cheer! Is so pleased she sent the photograph at Christmas. Enjoys winking at it. Another grand-niece is only four blocks away, but she's not big enough to be a distinct person like baby Margaret. Means Yehudi's daughter Zamira. Though they don't bring the baby when they come for dinner, on her birthday they marched in and laid the baby on the bed with her while she was enjoying her tea there. More tea was brought in, and it was like a surprise party. Didn't even worry about the old bed-jacket she had on. Had been fussing with all the flowers, and just decided to lie down for a nap before tea—to enjoy a little undisturbed quiet time. Tell her sister Margaret but no one else, and let Margaret II know she is already loved.   Aunt Willie. 

To Roscoe CatherAugust 26, [1940]UNL-Roscoe 

His granddaughter is delightful! Everyone at Whale Cove Cottage enjoyed seeing the photograph of Elizabeth's daughter, and all send their best to her. Completed the final chapter of Sapphira and the Slave Girl last week. Had written it by hand three times, but now typed it in and let Alfred Knopf know by telegram. His reply is enclosed, but wants it back. The name is pronounced "Sapph-i-ra" with a short "i", like Mediera or Zamira, not like the biblical "Sapph-eye-ra." It is an English name based on the biblical name. When she is back at her good typewriter, will write more. The old one she has at Grand Manan is the one she got for $30 from a man in Cheyenne who was hard up for money when she was there with Roscoe and Douglass. Used it for all her early novels. Always writes a first draft by hand. Has handwritten Sapphira twice; some parts of it were even handwritten three or four times. Technically, it is the hardest novel she ever attempted, and plagued by bad luck. There is a formal experiment in it that many will not appreciate, one which does reveal the whole enterprise. Most won't even notice, but there is a hidden performance beneath the main one. That hidden performance appears in the epilogue, where the motivation and authority for the entire novel is contained. Had to provide a factual narrative of a real childhood experience or the whole novel would be made-up fake like so many other fictions of the slave-holding South, full of fancy clothes and houses, pretentious talk, and Uncle Remus speech. Has written the honest language of black Virginians, which is not much like Uncle Remus dialect. Could hear that language playing in her imagination and just wrote it down. Took a trip to Virginia at one point in the writing to make sure she had it right, using no notebook but her ear. Hopes he will save this letter until the book comes. Has not explained all this to a single other person. No one else in the family gives a damn. Wasn't always bothered by that, but in older stages of life one does want someone in the family to care. Still, it is better to have uninterested relatives than to have the kind D. H. Lawrence has. Barrie and Thomas Hardy left only their books to speak for them, and that is how it should be. Is exhausted and scratching out nonsense. Please excuse.    W. 

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