Edited by Sharon Hoover
University of Nebraska Press, 2002
Reviewed by Michael Schueth
Willa Cather Remembered marks the completion of the two-volume book project editor L. Brent Bohlke undertook in the 1980s. The first volume, Willa Cather in Person, is a collection of Cather's interviews, speeches, and letters, and since its release in 1986 the volume has become an invaluable resource for Cather critics and students. Bohlke's untimely death left the second volume unfinished. In her preface to the new volume, Bohlke's widow, Beverly Bohlke, writes that she was "always hoping somehow that the book he had planned to finish would be published."
Thankfully Bohlke's manuscript files did come out of the box and into the hands of Sharon Hoover, professor of English at Alfred University.
Whereas Willa Cather in Person offers the various ways in which Cather presented herself to her public through newspaper interviews, public speeches and published letters, this volume presents a much more personal and often private image of Cather: as colleague, great American novelist, aunt, and friend. Dika Eckersley's cover design features nine images of Cather throughout her life and nicely suggests the various Cathers these collected authors knew. Hoover argues in her introduction that "Comparisons of Cather with the early-twentieth-century American writers, who were well-known for being transcontinental in their behaviors and experimental in their writings and about whom much was written, have had the effect of making Cather appear aloof from her cultural peers and a difficult person to know." Some in the collection were life-long friends of Cather, while others only knew her for a brief time or met her at the end of her career. The reminiscences in this collection were written between 1920 and the 1980s, and many were published as parts of larger biographies or as articles in newspapers or literary studies.
Time and context play key roles in reading Willa Cather Remembered, especially since each writer was responding to his or her own understanding of who Cather was (or who they wanted her to be). Since the collection covers memoirs penned over the course of more than sixty years, each piece responds to shifting literary and political climates as well as to the changing nature of memory itself. Indeed, as Helen C. Southwick suggests in her 1982 essay reprinted in this collection, the memories of friends and family can be often be contradictory. As a family member who knew Cather as "Aunt Willa," Mrs. Southwick considers it dangerous to rely on one set of memories since the tendency for one in particular to be taken as blanket truth over time can be misleading. Hoover helpfully reminds readers in her introduction that "each kind of source has its own validity" and that readers should contextualize their reading with biographies, critical studies, and other memoirs of Cather.
One of the most striking features of the reminiscences are the small, everyday details we get of Cather. Fred Otte Jr., in his intimate portrait of Cather as school teacher and tutor, remembers after-school tutoring lessons "in a small sitting room in the McClung home" where Cather "insisted on careful and thoughtful work." Dorothy Canfield Fisher's remembers in striking detail one of Cather's early literary successes: "And that poem was accepted by a magazine, a real magazine that paid checks . . . . It shines in my memory as bright-colored and enlivening as any elaborately illuminated mediaeval manuscript."
Willa Cather Remembered, like Willa Cather in Person, will become a valuable part of scholarly interest and it will support a wide-range of future studies. For example, Willa Cather Remembered suggests a study on Cather and the politics of memoir.
For a volume dedicated to the memory of a great American writer, Willa Cather Remembered also remembers the legacy of a great scholar, L. Brent Bohlke. In this way, we are reminded that scholarship connects us to the writers we study and the people who make these projects possible.
While this new book gives us insight into the private relationships Cather had throughout her life, there is nevertheless something each of these writers cannot express. Carrie Miner Sherwood says it best on the occasion of her 100th birthday in 1969, "Reminiscing is very pleasant...but a friendship that began in childhood and remained close throughout a lifetime is filled with memories so poignant that it is difficult to speak them."