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Transcription of Willa Cather's Speech

[May 4, 1933, Pulitzer Prize Ceremony, Plaza Hotel, New York, New York]

[M.C.:] The next speaker, Willa Cather, represents that anomaly of genius, its absolute mystery. When we think that in the middle of the Victorian period, in Great Britain, when the women were all "cabin'd, cribb'd, confined," they wouldn't have been able to write, but when you remember that that period saw Emily Brontë and her sister Charlotte and George Eliot and Mrs. Browning and Christina Rosetti, we see that no group of women writers in Great Britain today can compare with their mute and confined sisters of a hundred years ago, whereas in America it is exactly the contrary: It's a far cry from Lydia Sigourney to Willa Cather.

[Willa Cather:] Friends of the Princeton library and college presidents:

It's not that that troubles me, as it does, Mr. James; it's the five minutes. Will you tell me when the five minutes are up? You don't have a watch on.

[unintelligible exchange with Henry James]

The novel, if it can be called a form of art at all, is certainly a very new arrival among the arts. All the other arts are centuries older, and we hope that the most interesting developments of the novel are still to come. Looking back over its short past, the things that immediately strike one are its great elasticity and variety. Like the Tarnhelm, which the Nibelungs made for Alberich, it can present a hero, a giant, a worm, or a mouse.

It's really astonishing what a long gallery of great books we must call by the name 'novel' for lack of a better definition, a more defining word. Robinson Crusoe is a novel, and Anna Karenina is a novel. Thais is a novel, and Pilgrim's Progress and Don Quixote are novels. They have such great variety in . . . in . . . of matter, such great variety of treatment, that it seems strange that in our own time, in America, until within the very last few years, novelists have confined themselves almost entirely to two themes: First, how the young man got his girl, whether by marriage or otherwise; second, how he succeeded in business. Now, whatever ornaments he wove into the fringes of his story—such as local color, dialect, landscape gardening, historical padding—the real business of his story was nearly always with one of those two themes. The square-headed young editor who once announced that he would publish only stories of youth, love, and success voiced a very general opinion. Most writers, and most editors, and most people, honestly believed that those were the only major themes in literature. They would acknowledge that other arts—sculpture, painting, music, and architecture—had concerned themselves with many other phases of human behavior and even of human thought, even of the . . . even were concerned with the mysterious adventures of that thing we call soul. But they believed that literature was dedicated to the telling of these two stories over and over throughout the centuries. Of course, such an opinion could only hold in a country with a shallow culture and an even shallower experience of life, which is a much more serious thing. How much have "youth, love, and success" to do in the great Greek dramas? Or in the old epics? In the [stumbles over "Elizabethan"] Elizabethan drama, of course, they have their normal and natural place among the other passions and motives that govern men.

The great group of Russian writers that flashed up in the north, like a new constellation, about the middle of the last century did more for the future than they knew. They were an amazing group of men. They had no benumbing literary traditions behind them. They had a glorious language, new to literature, but old in human wisdom and feeling and sympathy, and they themselves were a remarkably direct and forceful and honest group of men. They were nearly all of them very big men physically, and, with the exception of Dostoevsky, very strong, very, very robust, very full of every kind of force, so that they had no need to be continually defending their virility in print.

They cast a great influence, [hard?] at first, because it was in such a strange language that few people knew, but it grew steadily, until within thirty or forty years, . . . long, long, . . . from the beginning of their great work, long before the death of Tolstoy, the minds of thinking people the world over were fixed on that new kind of fiction, if we must call it so. Joseph Conrad wrote The Nigger of the Narcissus, in which there is not a single woman, and in which there are no rewards or prizes for anybody at the end of the voyage. The old icebergs began to melt; the old forms began to break up. Even in this country, writers began to look about them and see something in God's world. So long as their eyes were continually fixed on youth, love, and success, they could see nothing; they were like men being carried to the operating table. They knew they weren't always bubbling over with these three desirable things, and they were in a nervous chill; they wondered how long we could make the gesture.

We have begun to look about us, but we have reached no glorious goal; there is a long way to go. We've changed the old formulae a little; just now we throw the accent a little more heavily on the bad girl instead of the good girl, on the man who is—no, the young rowdy—who is kicked out of his great corporation instead of the polished young man who becomes its president. But we cling to the formulae. We must have that . . . those crutches underneath us. We won't face the fact—we haven't the courage to face the fact—that it's the formula itself that is pernicious: the frame-up.

When we have the courage to give every story its own form, instead of trying to crowd it into one of the old moulds on the shelf, one of the stock patterns, and when we have the courage to make it no bigger than it is, we shall be on the right road, certainly. We all start with the truth, but, uh, in order to make it a little bigger than it is, we weld something else onto it; something very desirable, usually, but the electrical engineers haven't yet produced a contrivance that will do that sort of welding successfully. What is not in the original impulse is nearly always . . . very bad.

On the walls of the Luxembourg art gallery in Paris, there is a Latin inscription which reads something like this: "Because of the past, we have hope for the future." And I think we may fairly apply that to the novel. Because of the Russian past, the French past, and the English past, we may hope for the future.