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From Cather Studies Volume 10

Cather's Readers, Traditionalism, and Modern America

My real author’s Royalties are not in bonds or in the bank, but in those suit cases [of letters from readers]. —Willa Cather to Roscoe Cather, RMC, 9 May 1945
The thing that impressed me at the outset [about your writing] and still does is the rugged strength and straightforwardness, the simplicity and utter lack of “literary” fol-de-rol. —Huxton Marly to Willa Cather, JSRC, 3 August 1932

The debate about Cather’s relation to modernism has been quite a lively one during the past decade, in large part because a great deal is at stake in the determination of where exactly Cather and her works “fit” in American literary history. Despite Richard Millington’s assertion that her place in the canon is now so well established that “the question whether or not Cather was really a modernist scarcely matters” (51), her reputation remains somewhat tenuous. It is for this reason that a good number of academics have been, and are, heavily invested in establishing her modernist credentials. After all, if Cather were to be associated too closely with nineteenthand early twentieth-century regional realist women writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Ellen Glasgow, and Kate Chopin, or with romance writers of the period such as Mary Hartwell Catherwood, Octave Thanet, and Gene StrattonPorter, this would for many academics consign her to a lesser place in the pantheon of American fiction authors. Conversely, if she is categorized as a “modernist” writer, this would boost her long-term literary reputation and make her, as Joan Acocella famously put it in the pbs documentary Willa Cather: The Road Is All, one of the “big boys” of early twentieth-century American literature.

Two of the most ardent advocates for Cather’s status as a modernist writer have been Jo Ann Middleton and Richard Millington, each of whom has made claims that I will interrogate in this essay. Middleton locates Cather’s modernism in her particular “attitude toward the reader” (67), contending that Cather “establishes the mutual responsibility of reader and writer in the creation of art” (69). Middleton further asserts that Cather gives readers “not her vision but the power to create our own vision” (77), using “gaps within the text . . . to engage the reader’s conscious participation in the creation of the work of art” (85). Implicitly, Middleton here alludes to Cather’s famous—and much-cited—pronouncement in “The Novel Demeublé” about the power and quality of any literary work deriving from “the thing not named” (837).

More recently, Richard Millington has constructed his argument for Cather’s status as a modernist by contrasting the values, subject matter, and techniques displayed in Cather’s work with those of literary works created during the “American Victorian” period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He sees in Cather’s fictions a rebellion against “the deep ideological assumptions and formal procedures of the nineteenth-century novel, the literary form that has preeminently deployed, evoked, and tested those Victorian values” (54). In addition, Millington echoes Middleton by arguing that Cather did not wish to control her readers’ responses but, rather, made “the central subjectmatter of her fiction . . . the making of meaning itself” (58). He concludes that “Cather’s modernist fiction frees its readers, no less than its characters, from a customary repertoire of response, from the habits of feeling and judgment, from the pathways of attention and interest that belong to the Victorian novel and to the cultural dispensation such novels spoke so powerfully for” (63). In short, her works are starkly different from those whose power derives from their ability to manipulate readers’ responses, especially their emotional ones.

Unheard in this debate about Cather’s relationship to the modernist era and her contemporary modernist authors, though, are the voices of the many “ordinary” readers who wrote to Cather during her lifetime, people who were not—at least initially—her friends or professional acquaintances. Over the past few years I have been locating, documenting, and analyzing the over two hundred letters from such people that are still extant. For many people the opinions of these letter writers can be dismissed as unimportant because they are relatively unsophisticated and one-sided (if Cather received any harshly critical letters, she did not save them); furthermore, some would argue that they are statistically insignificant, given Cather’s great number of readers and the thousands of letters they wrote to her. Nonetheless, I believe these letters and the people who wrote them should be more carefully considered for a variety of reasons. For one, they give us a very good sense of what large numbers of readers got out of their interactions with Cather’s works, and thereby they give us insight into why Cather’s fictions were so popular during the early to mid-twentieth century. For another, the letters are strong indicators of how Cather herself wanted her fictions to be perceived and what she valued most in them. After all, she saved these particular letters instead of others because something in each one of them resonated for her.

In addition, these letters allow us to assess whether common readers at the time valued Cather and her works more for their modernist elements or for their old-fashioned, nineteenth-century ones. After analyzing all the available fan letters, I must conclude that while a handful of Cather’s contemporary ordinary readers did appreciate the opportunity to, as Millington puts it, broaden their “repertoire of response” to fiction, most depended on nineteenth-century values and methods of fiction reading to formulate responses that indicate their perception—and appreciation—of her as broadly anti-modernist. Cather thus accomplished a feat that, to my knowledge, only Robert Frost among all the modernists was able to: become well known and beloved by great masses of readers for the qualities they most highly valued, while simultaneously being lauded by critics both contemporary and modern, who have for the most part privileged modernist themes and techniques.


Due to the publication of such nonfiction pieces as “Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle” and numerous critical interviews and speeches, Cather’s negative feelings toward modern American culture were quite well known during her lifetime. Not surprisingly, many readers also recognized—and appreciated—how Cather’s fictions embodied her critique of a society and a literary culture that they perceived as “fallen” from their pre-modernist heights. A great number of readers, for example, wrote to tell Cather of their discontent with the “hectic” (Harriet Kendall, JSRC, 17 April 1937), “tired” (Ernest S. Clowes, JSRC, 21 October 1931), “distracted” (Clowes, JSRC, 21 October 1931), “disintegrated” (Clowes, JSRC, 21 October 1931) “world . . . turned sour” (Edmund L. Gros, JSRC, 11 January 1932). One noted how he was “tired of hearing the ear-splitting cacaphony [sic] of present-day troubles” (W. C. Kerr, BSP, 18 February 1928), and a World War I veteran railed against what he saw as “the great land of bunk” of 1920s America (Kirk Bryan, WCPM, 24 December 1922).

For such readers one of the most appealing aspects of Cather’s works was the way they offered a respite from the modern world. A British nurse living in an emergency nursery in November 1941 told Cather that her books had afforded her much-needed “escape into one of your worlds” and away from her more troubling one (Mrs. J. B. Priestley, JSRC, 28 November 1941). A young Danish schoolteacher wrote to Cather that her works had “transferred [her] to another world where the air is pure and stronger and lighter than anywhere else, so that all mean and small things must perish there” (no name given, HCSP, n.d.). Harriet Kendall thanked Cather in 1937 for “the happy hours I have spent reading your book, and for the peaceful contemplation it has brought to my mind” (JSRC, 17 April 1937). And one letter writer told Cather in great detail how, although he lived in New York City, he could not read One of Ours in that urban setting. Thus, he saved the book until he had a day off, took a ferry across the Hudson River to the Palisades, “and sought an isolated rock promontory where the view was beguiling and I was free from intrusion.” There he read One of Ours from dusk to dawn, with no interruptions, and offered Cather this praise: “So much megaphone shouting has recently been done for chaotic works of far inferior quality that the reader of ‘One of Ours’ is tempted to speak of it in a reverent whisper” (Campbell Coleman, HCSP, 17 September 1922). J. M. Magee of Pittsburgh, writing in early 1941, undoubtedly spoke for many when he encouraged Cather with his comment: “The kind of writing you do is immensely needed in the world at this time when everything is so upside-down and we all should be patting you on the back, or so I think” (JSRC, 8 February 1941).

To a great number of other letter writers the type of respite Cather’s works represented was from the modern immorality that they perceived was on the rise. Such readers greatly appreciated the affirmation of stable, traditional (one might say “Victorian”) morals they believed governed Cather’s fictions, in contrast to the liberated sexuality, moral relativism, and cosmopolitan skepticism they saw dominating many modernist works. The Reverend F. C. Leahy in 1927 wrote, after reading Death Comes for the Archbishop, “God bless you for it. In these days when so much that is unworthy and sordid is being written, you cannot realize what a joy it is to find a book such as yours which a priest may recommend without hesitation” (JSRC, 13 October 1927). Another priest concurred in 1932, opining, “How grateful the dear Lord must be for such writing when there is so much that is vile and unclean!” (Thomas O’Herns, WCPM, 25 January 1932). A male doctor in 1938 offered this comment after reading Shadows on the Rock: “In these times of graft and vice and unbridled sex in the youths of our day, it is refreshing to have lived a short while with such delicate and beautiful souls as that old Frenchman transplanted to Ke’bec and his sweet daughter” (Edmund L. Gros, JSRC, 30 October 1938).

Non-Catholics and Catholics alike also regarded Cather’s works as very spiritual refuges from, and antidotes to, modern agnosticism and atheism, especially Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. At least one reader was actually moved by his reading of one Cather novel to consider converting to Catholicism. Alexander Kaun, a lecturer in Russian literature at the University of California–Berkeley, in the year 1927 found himself in a San Francisco sanatorium, where he had the opportunity to read Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. He confessed that “[w]hat has seemed unexpected is that the novel should move me so deeply despite my conviction that the world it depicts so sympathetically deserves not sympathy but robust contempt. . . . My revolt is against the non-pagan element of pity and succor for the weak that poisons life and deflects the process of the survival of the strongest and usually the most beautiful” (JSRC, 19 November 1927). Not surprisingly, Kaun told Cather that he viewed himself, previous to reading Cather’s novel, as a thoroughly modern Nietzschean. No longer. As he continued, “How laughably this conviction has proved in face of the fresh breeze of your book! I do not recall when I have been so moved ever before, as I have been now, by nearly every chapter, every scene, every gesture of your gallant [C]atholics and their pitiful flock. Truly, yours is a Propaganda of the Faith. Under its spell I yearn for conversion, for refuge under the wing of such a warm and wise mother church.”

What many readers especially liked was the way that Cather’s works took them back in time to when they felt old-fashioned values had predominated. In some ways this reminds one of what cultural historian T. J. Jackson Lears describes as a fascination with premodern, medieval Catholic culture among many disaffected middleand upper-middle-class Americans at the fin-de-siécle (184). Cather’s correspondents differed from Lears’s sources, however, in locating such an ideal world in a “simpler” American small-town or rural past, often associated with their childhoods, far from the sinful, cosmopolitan, modernist cities. Edwin Winter, for example, writing from New York City in 1918, effused about My Ántonia: “The whole book is a joy, and brings back the aroma of freshly turned sod, burning grass, and corn in the silks” (JSRC, 19 October 1918). Rose Rosicky, born in 1895, wrote to Cather from Omaha in 1926 to tell her that she believed both My Ántonia and A Lost Lady were “filled with the atmosphere that blows to me a breath from the past, the happy past of youth” (WCPM, 6 October 1926). Another writer, from San Diego, in 1941 told Cather, “Your vivid description of the prairie country around Black Hawk would nicely fit the country around our old homestead home [in 1880s South Dakota]” (Charles Chester, JSRC, 12 August 1941).

Others found Cather’s endorsement of old-fashioned values very empowering and uplifting in helping them deal with the modern world. As one navy man at the U.S. submarine base at Pearl Harbor wrote in 1926, “Whenever I’m lonely or the lesser values of life seem to crowd in too closely upon the fullness of my days,—I like to turn again and again to you [sic] happy volumes for resustication [sic]. I want to thank you because you so often help me in ‘finding my way out of a vague, easy-going world into a life of disciplined endeavor’” (Lloyd Fortune, JSRC, 30 March 1926). A lawyer from Mount Vernon, New York, in 1928 thanked Cather for both Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Professor’s House (an unlikely pairing), stating, “The conception of them is reassuring in a striving world” (Odell Tompkins, JSRC, 9 May 1928). Harrison Blaine, an active-duty soldier in World War II, praised My Ántonia for the way it hearkened back to a nineteenth-century American pioneer past and values: “There has been much talk of the American Dream. For me it is the peopling of the whole world with men and women like Antonia. It is perhaps farfetched, but I feel that the basic cause for which we fight is to make such a thing possible” (WCPM, 22 May 1943).

Granville Hicks in 1936 famously took Cather to task for penning works after the mid-1920s that he felt encouraged escapism from the problems of modern life, contending that she had “surrendered to the longing for the safe and romantic past” (710). Certainly some readers’ letters can be read in a way that would support such a contention. For instance, Hal Waldo wrote to Cather after reading A Lost Lady in Century magazine in 1923: “I know that there is a passport between us who know that America has been dulled and cheapened by standardization and machinery” (HCSP, 8 April 1923). He went on to note how he felt she of all people would appreciate his fervent desire that in the not-too-distant future, “[t]he devilish machinery, the fiendish machine-made cities will wane; men will go back to the fields and forests, happy that they have gotten through the maddening neurotic nightmare of giant cubistic cities, mechanical circuses and diversions, steam radiator caves, cafeterias, ‘movies,’ jazz, chambers of commerce, etc. etc. etc. into a new day of freedom, of less hope perhaps, but of greater sanity.”

Still, I do not believe that we should view the evidence of these many correspondents’ words as corroborating the charges that Hicks and others made against Cather of avoiding the most important issues of modern American life. What one senses instead is that a great number of readers perceived Cather’s works as fully engaging these issues. They greatly appreciated her grappling with the materialism, skepticism (religious and otherwise), and new moral standards that other writers were offering as suitable adaptations to the modern world and how she rejected these adaptations that they felt were leading the world astray even further. To them Cather’s works, by hearkening back to traditional beliefs and ways, offered a way to set the world aright again. Seen in this light, it is not at all surprising that two of her most popular novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, also took readers the furthest back in time of any of her works. Many of Cather’s most devoted readers might have been living in a twentieth-century world where modernist writers were extending the limits of the moral and religious envelopes, but they themselves still preferred to live their lives by traditional codes of the nineteenth century and possibly even earlier. The majority of Cather’s readers would likely have endorsed the sentiments of one John Curran, who wrote to Cather, “Granville Hicks in the November Issue of ‘The English Journal’ has written like a perfect ass of you. . . . He is not one of your ‘heart friends’” (WCPM, n.d.).

Given the array of readers’ attitudes cited above, it is not surprising that a good number of correspondents seized the opportunity in their letters to explicitly disparage the more “modern” writers who were Cather’s supposed competitors. As Wendell Bieser related in 1922 regarding One of Ours, “I want to thank you for your truthful account of things as they really were in France. Ever since the Three Soldiers was published I have been hoping for someone who would appear with an adequate answer to the sourness and pessimism of John Dos Passos” (WCPM, 17 October 1922). Judging from Heywood Broun’s review of One of Ours, which appeared in the New York World in 1922, this letter writer was not alone; Broun notes, “Again and again we have heard [from readers] that the characters in Three Soldiers were neurotic and exceptional and that Miss Cather had answered the Dos Passos book by showing her hero what the average American was like” (133). An English teacher from Westtown Friends prep school in 1927 applauded Death Comes for the Archbishop, noting, “What impressed me most was the absence of questioning from their minds. . . . So much of our fiction today is like so much life, all doubt and hesitation, no outer authority to direct (that would be superstition) and no inner integrity, or willingness to risk being wrong, or a fool” (Carroll T. Brown, JSRC, 4 December 1927). In 1931 another writer alluded to those modernists with European sympathies when he wrote to Cather, “You are contributing more to the shaping of a lasting American culture than those omnipresent hypercritics who scorn and berate us for being unlike anything in any way European” (John S. Kennedy, JSRC, 19 August 1931). Another thanked her for creating a novel (Shadows on the Rock) “with such spirituality and moral integrity amid the maelstrom of sordid trash being sold to the psudo [sic] intelligentsia as ‘artistic realism’” (Thomas L. Spelman, JSRC, 25 October 1931). One correspondent—after complimenting Cather’s writing and denigrating the language of a group of modern writers as “a constant affront”—bluntly opined, “This Steinbeck, Hemingway, Vardis Fisher, etc., type of book rubs my fur” (James M. Magee, JSRC, 10 December 1940).


Another way in which these letter writers indicate that Cather was perceived as more of a nineteenth-century writer than as a modernist is their frequent expression of a profound emotional response to her works. Jo Ann Middleton correctly asserts that “[v]ery much of what Willa Cather has done to literature has been done in an attempt to communicate an emotional experience from writer to reader” (68), and Courtney Bates has also recognized this important element of readers’ responses to Cather’s works (2.4). Significantly, though, one must note that literary works’ evocation of emotional response is something most modernists and New Critics of the era strongly disliked. These self-styled more “intellectual” writers and readers wanted readers to move away from the types of feminine emotional response to literary art that they felt belonged only at ladies’ club book gatherings. High-quality artistic writing was, in general, supposed to be masculine, impersonal, and cerebral, not feminine, personal, and emotional. As T. S. Eliot, the high priest of modernism, succinctly put it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), ideally “[p]oetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion” (10). Twelve years later, New Critic René Wellek was still complaining that “[m]ost of our criticism in literature and the arts is still emotive: it judges works of art in terms of their emotional effect on the reader or spectator” (50). As late as 1949 William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley, in their essay “The Affective Fallacy,” disparaged “[t]he report of some readers . . . that a poem or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness” (1397), for they felt this type of visceral response did not lead to good, objective literary criticism. Such writers were trying to do nothing less than establish new terms of optimal reader-text interaction during the early twentieth century. In Cather’s case, however, they appear to have utterly failed to convince her readers that theirs was the best way to enjoy her fictions. Indeed, it is evident that Cather’s works were popular chiefly because of the intensely emotional, sometimes lachrymose reactions they produced among readers, the type of responses that modernist writers and critics frequently disparaged.

Cather herself, as seen by her selection of a great number of emotion-laden letters for later perusal, was very pleased when both female and male readers connected to her works with tears or in other visceral ways—distinctly “Victorian” modes of response. Who wouldn’t want to save a letter such as the one from a Puerto Rico plantation manager who told Cather in 1922, after he had finished reading One of Ours, “My throat still dully aches—choked by all the things which ‘Claude’s’ simple story has made me feel. One can’t express them:—one’s mind is as dumb with overflooding thoughts as one’s throat with feelings” (Elmer Ellsworth, WCPM, 11 November 1922). Regarding Shadows on the Rock, one reader noted that he “turned the last page with regret, with also a tightening of the throat and moisture in my eyes” (Gros, JSRC, 30 October 1938). Mary Moriarty in 1932 reported her feelings about reading My Ántonia: “I was so moved by that story [when I first read it] and still am. I know that’s not unique as I talked with plenty of others who felt the same way as I did” (JSRC, 13 August 1932). She added that more recently, “I sat in the kitchen smoking my cigarette and I wept over ‘Old Mrs. Harris.’ Nothing that I read before made me weep” (JSRC, 13 August 1932).

Not surprisingly, some of the most emotional responses came from readers of Death Comes for the Archbishop. One priest wrote, “My tears paid tribute to your skill at the bier of Bishop Machebuff [sic]” (Hugh McMenamin, BSP, 30 September 1927). Another reader told her that while reading this novel for the third time, “I could have wept very easily and probably did, but will not admit it publicly” (Kerr, BSP, 18 February 1928). Significantly, one can see in this latter reader’s candid remark evidence of how reading with emotion was commonly disparaged during the modernist era—but how Cather’s works gave her readers a respite from such a cold, scientific approach. Cather’s works inspired readers to trust the responses they formed with their hearts instead of with their heads and thus to rebel against what the learned, more cerebral intellectuals averred was the most important function of literature. As a New Jersey monk apologetically told Cather in 1927, after he had read Death Comes for the Archbishop, “I wish I could write to you in the words Michael Williams uses in the Commonweal in praise of your art, but I can’t. I’m only a young religious. . . . But what I do say, Miss Cather, comes from the heart” (Fra. Fulgence, JSRC, 7 November 1927). Some readers even consciously contrasted their intellectual and emotional responses to Cather’s works. Beryl Zoete wrote in 1929, for instance, that she was at a loss for words to express “what seems to me so wonderful in the book [Death Comes for the Archbishop]. I find I cannot . . . perhaps it is that my mind will not work except in its emotional part” (JSRC, 30 January 1929). James Fitzgerald in 1931 reported that he couldn’t tell which was his favorite Cather book, My Ántonia or Death Comes for the Archbishop: “The former takes precedence when my heart speaks—the latter when my intellect takes the stand” (JSRC, 24 December 1931).


To what extent, though, did readers judge Cather’s works to have met two of the major criteria of modernist literature, as noted by Middleton and Millington: that a work not be a “mirror” of reality but rather its own reality and that it be an invitation to readers to participate in making their own meanings of it rather than accepting those intended by its author?

Some readers did, indeed, pick up on Cather’s modernist pronouncements in “The Novel Demeublé” and elsewhere that the real power of works came from what was not “named,” the unfilled blanks in the texts, and appreciated the opportunity to read her works the way they wanted to. Reader Raymond Fisher, for example, told Cather that he believed “Paul’s Case” to be the best short story ever written, “best from my point of view; and one likes in books what he himself can read into them” (JSRC, n.d.); another praised One of Ours for being “a between-the-line book” (Coleman Campbell, HCSP, 17 September 1922). Rachel Fields Pederson informed Cather that she favorably compared Lucy Gayheart to Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, noting, “[I]n a sentence you give me the feeling of great wisdom beneath the surface and I find my mind burrowing on from the bits you set on the paper. That to me is what matters in any book—that the writer gives one so much more than the actual words” (BSP, 6 August 1935). It is an open question, of course, whether one can regard Jewett more as a “modernist” or a nineteenth-century realist model for Cather.

Much more often than readers praised the modernist elements in Cather’s fictions, however, they complimented her for her verisimilitude, for having, with her signifiers on paper, accurately depicted real-life referents. In the early years of Cather’s career many correspondents wrote to tell her how her “prairie” fictions—her short stories, as well as Song of the Lark and My Ántonia—depicted life in those areas quite accurately and brought back many pleasant memories. A very early example of this occurred in 1905, when Kate McPhelim Cleary (a writer herself, but apparently unknown to Cather before this) wrote from Hubbell, Nebraska—a town not too far east from Red Cloud—to commend Cather on the realism of her short story “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” which had recently appeared in the January 1905 issue of McClure’s magazine. Cleary’s letter has not survived, but Cather’s response has. In it Cather indicates not only the nature of Cleary’s letter but also how hard Cather was trying to make her works true to life—or at least how she saw life. Cather writes: Your corroboration is especially grateful to me since, when I was last in New York, I heard the story severely taken to task on the score of willful exaggeration. The people who found the thing distorted had had very little experience of life on the other side of the Missouri, but they insisted that life was everywhere the same. I think that some of us know that, in certain respects, it is not. It gives me a very genuine pleasure to know that the story has rung true to someone besides myself, that the treatment does not seem to you exaggerated, and that it recalls the country to you. Anyone who has lived in one of these little Western towns must, I think, have a very keen and definite feeling about it, but it is almost hopeless to try to communicate it to anyone who has not had that experience. Please accept my warmest thanks for your strong word of encouragement and your testimony as to the fairness of my point of view. Only one like yourself, who has known the conditions and not been absorbed by them, can, I feel, really judge of a story which treats of such a discouraging and inherently unattractive situation. (BSP, 13 February [1905]) A few years later Cather was very pleased when a good number of Nebraskans wrote to say how authentic they had found My Ántonia. In December 1918 the school superintendent in Wilber, Nebraska—today officially designated as the “Czech Capital of Nebraska”—effused in rather ungrammatical prose, “To say that I enjoyed it from cover to cover expresses it mildly for to write it as you have written it shows that you have really lived with those people and not only lived but you tried to understand their life from their point of view, which very few of the american [sic] writers try to do but that is not all, you have really been able to see things as seen by these people that you write about and feel as they feel” (L. J. Bouchal, BSP, 2 December 1918).

Cather assiduously saved letters that complimented her for her realistic depiction of not only Bohemians (see Rose Rosicky, WCPM, 6 October 1926) but also Norwegians (Rachel Field Pederson, JSRC, 4 March 1941), the flora of the Virginia hill country (Judd, JSRC, 25 January 1941), “poor Mexicans’s [sic] religious emotions” (McMenamin, BSP, 30 September 1927), and even the French seminarians at Auvergne, France (Allen Nevins, BSP, 31 July 1942). Cather herself proudly recounted how she had received “letters from several historians who are authorities on the early history of Quebec, and they tell me they have been unable to find any inaccuracies in the historical detail” (Cather to Mr. Wilcox, BSP, 10 August [1931]).

Given Cather’s sensitivity to criticism about how accurately she portrayed soldiers’ war experiences in One of Ours, it is not surprising that she kept a number of the letters she received after its publication that told her she in fact had gotten it right, not wrong, as many critics and reviewers were saying. A number of academics have discussed the criticisms voiced against this novel by H. L. Mencken, Ernest Hemingway, and others like them. However, the views expressed by those ordinary readers who disagreed with these men and felt that Cather’s depiction of war was realistic have, to my knowledge, not been commented on as fully. Some were equivocal in their assessment of Cather’s realism. As one letter writer to columnist Heywood Broun testified, in his experience, “Officers did leap up under fire—and they usually got shot,” and “[M]any men were shot in the heart,” but he also agreed with Broun “that the adjective ‘clean’ should not apply to bullet holes” (qtd. in Broun 133). Further, he wrote that Cather’s “use of ‘Hun’ as a term applied by our soldiers offends my ear; it sounds like a Y.M.C.A. word popularized by headline writers” (133).

Many other readers, though, some of whom were veterans, wholeheartedly applauded the accuracy of Cather’s portrayals in this novel, not only of Claude in Nebraska but also of his wartime experiences and even those of mothers who lost sons in the war. In a letter that forcefully countered Hemingway’s criticism of Cather’s lack of battle experience and consequent inability to write truthfully of warfare, veteran Thomas G. Cassady told Cather, “If it had been a man who had written your story I would not be so surprised, though I would admire his ability to depict the life that he had led, but how you could have gotten the trench life with such accuracy and insight is quite beyond my gift of comprehension” (HCSP, 18 November 1932). He added, “There has been so much tawdry tish printed apropos of the war that it was refreshing to read a book which was so calm, genuine, and accurate. In fact the last part, dealing with . . . life in France was so perfect that I cannot believe that it was fiction.” At least one reader wrote, too, to congratulate Cather for being able to write accurately about the feelings of mothers whose sons had been killed in the war and thanked her for doing so. “Caroline H. Walker, mother of John Morton Walker—whose body lies in France,” stated: “Your message came straight to my heart. The last two pages of your book were written especially for the mothers and as one of them I thank you. We know:—but I cannot understand how you do” (HCSP, 10 October 1922).

>While there are one or two letters regarding the authenticity of Cather’s following novel, A Lost Lady—one woman said she enjoyed it immensely in part because she had known a woman just like Marian Forrester when she lived in Wahoo, Nebraska—the next novel that readers especially commended for its accuracy was Death Comes for the Archbishop. One priest, who often counseled non-Catholics about possibly converting to the faith, stated, “To my mind, there are few Catholics, indeed, only those who have advanced far in the spiritual life, who comprehend the soul of the church as you do” (O’Herns, WCPM, 25 January 1932). As one might imagine, too, there are dozens of letters commending Cather for having portrayed Catholics and their practices so perfectly in Death Comes for the Archbishop—although there were a few who saw fit to correct her use of particular Catholic terms (e.g., “among us Catholics, Holy Communion is referred to as the Most Blessed Sacrament”) (Raymond Adams, BSP, 30 January 1928; see too M. Aquin, JSRC, 27 April 1928). One even took Cather to task for her incorrect Spanish, especially her accent marks, in this novel (Raymond Adams, WCPM, 20 October 1933).

Finally, Cather saved a fairly large body of letters written to her in response to Sapphira and the Slave Girl, almost all of which comment positively on her realism. As reader Richard Thrush, who stated that he “was born and raised some ten or twelve miles beyond Romney,” told Cather, “Someone has asked me if it [the novel] were true; I answered, ‘as true as truth’” (HCSP, 1941). It was not only the accuracy of Cather’s depiction of the region that readers approved of, however; at least a few also commended her portrayal of African Americans. Cather was highly sensitive about this issue and thus greatly valued any letters regarding Sapphira that allayed her worries about her depiction of African Americans. Two fan letters she chose to save came from African American readers. One was written by Powell W. Gibson, the exprincipal of Douglas High School in Winchester, Virginia, who judged, “Your treatment of the [black] characters is fair and humane” (HCSP, 19 March 1941). Another came from no less a figure than Langston Hughes, who wrote simply, “Thank you for your moving and beautiful book of ‘Sapphira and the Slave Girl,’ and for the sympathy with which you have treated my people” (HCSP, 21 March 1941). Cather also treasured the praise of Viola Roseboro’, a white woman who was one of Cather’s former colleagues on the staff of McClure’s magazine. Cather responded to Roseboro’ in 1940: “I do feel proud and honored that it rings true to an exiled Southerner whose experience has been so like my own” (BSP, 28 November 1940). None of these are the type of compliments one would expect a modernist writer—who was supposed to only suggest “reality” rather than accurately represent it—to receive very frequently.

All of the readers cited above shared the same, quite unmodernist premises: that Cather’s works were intended to depict “reality” as faithfully as possible and that one major criterion for assessing their quality was whether or not they were “realistic.” Their letters also demonstrate that part of the appeal of Cather’s works stemmed from their being about people, settings, and situations within ordinary readers’ realms of experience, a realm in which they could feel confident making judgments about the correlation between their world and its artistic depiction. Mr. Emerson Winters of Indianola, Iowa, for example, wrote in 1940 to say that in the late nineteenth century he had been a traveling entertainer in the Midwest, which qualified him to conclude: “I know your Nebraska well—I have stopped at the hotel where Ántonia worked—I heard Blind Boone play in the parlor and I have seen his watch. You have written so much within my experience” (HCSP, 2 November 1940). N. R. Jones Jr. also drew on his own experiences when he wrote to Cather from Memphis in 1928 to say about one character from One of Ours: “I know a good many Enids. They are rather too numerous in this section of the country” (HCSP, 23 August 1928). As one writer summed up his reading of a number of Cather’s works, “I am no critic, but I feel I know what is real, when I find it, and I know whereof you speak and know you speak the truth” (Carl LaRue, JSRC, 12 May 1924). The fact that Cather saved so many letters commending her realistic treatments of various subjects suggests that she was very insecure about whether she had accurately represented certain subjects. When readers told her that they saw clear correlations between her signifiers and what she wanted to signify, she saw this as evidence of her success as a writer.

Indeed, the extant letters indicate that most of Cather’s readers—or at least those whose letters Cather saved—tended to compliment Cather for her “straightforward” style, the ways in which her works appeared to reveal their “meaning” without a lot of work or uncertainty. In other words, these readers were drawn to Cather’s works in large part because they did not afford a “modernist reading experience.” One San Diego man wrote in 1932, “The thing that impressed me at the outset [about your books] and still does is the rugged strength and straightforwardness, the simplicity and utter lack of ‘literary’ fol-de-rol” (Huxton Marly, JSRC, 3 August 1932). Another in 1928 related to Cather, “There is about the style of your writings something which appeals to me very much. A simple, straightforward frankness unaffected and delightfully natural” (N. R. Jones, HCSP, 23 August 1938). Maude Meagher in 1932 appreciated that “[b]efore your books one does not need to be wary [of being confused by multiple accounts of the same event]” (JSRC, May 1932), and Clem Easly in that same year was so pleased to discover that her “simplicity” of style was not a “trick,” as it was in the work of other modern writers (JSRC, 2 August 1932). In 1931 a woman named Marie Gilchrist informed Cather that when she had worked for the Cleveland Public Library years before, they had suggested her books “to foreigners wanting to improve their English because the diction was so beautiful and clear and human” (JSRC, 18 August 1931).

When readers’ expectations of Cather’s “simple style” and transparency were disrupted by certain aspects of her works—ironically some of those most lauded today by literary critics who value modernist elements in fiction—these elements were seen as unwelcome intrusions, not as invitations to make meaning. For instance, student Claude Barnaud wrote from Paris in 1928 because, as he explained, he and his fellow Sorbonne students had noticed a “lack of unity” in some of her works, such as the Lena Lingard chapter in My Ántonia and “the descriptions of the Indian cave dwellings in New Mexico” in The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House (JSRC, 15 December 1938). What he and his fellow students wanted to know from Cather was: were those actually her intentions, or did her publishers force her to include these apparent disruptions to linearity in order to pad the length of the novels? It seems more than coincidental, too, that the Cather novel with the fewest fan letters extolling its virtues is the one most often categorized as modernist: My Mortal Enemy.

Readers were not the only ones who disliked it when Cather’s texts did not appear to clearly convey her intentions to readers: Cather herself negatively responded to readers who created interpretations of her works that did not correlate with what she had intended. Quite a few readers actually sent lengthy analyses of, and notes about, Cather’s works and asked for her response (i.e., Moriarty, JSRC, 13 August 1932; Curran, JSRC, 18 February 1936); Cather generally politely declined such invitations. In fact, because she received a great many letters from high school and college English instructors and their students who asked her opinion on their readings of her works, Cather developed a form letter to send to them (Cather to [Burges] Johnson, 21 September 1940). Unfortunately, no copies of this letter are still extant, but one can reasonably assume that its tone was generally amiable. When she felt readers had “missed her point” or read too much into her works, though, she could be quite blunt or even sarcastic. For instance, Cather chided Henry Tracy in 1922 for his analysis of One of Ours: “The generalizations you sent me are entirely over my head. To me, stories are concrete, simple, and personal. The moment I try to analyze one, I kill it” (Cather to Henry Tracy, BSP, 22 June 1922). Such a response is definitely not typical of a modernist writer who wished to encourage readers to create their own meanings.

One particularly striking incident where Cather got her dander up about a reader’s interpretation took place in the late 1920s. Mrs. Alfred Carstens had written to her from Fremont, Nebraska, to tell Cather that her church minister had talked to them recently about how Cather, along with other modern novelists, did not portray religion very positively—and that they should write to one of these authors to ask why (HCSP, n.d.; see too Carstens to Cather, JSRC, 18 September 1932). Cather testily replied, “You say you wonder why I have never written anything sympathetic about religion, and this rather astonishes me” (WCPM, 21 November 1932). Cather then seized the opportunity to correct what she regarded as Mrs. Carstens’s misreading: “Perhaps you think that because ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’ is about the work of Catholic missionaries, it is not concerned with religion as you know it.” This slightly caustic response clearly reveals that for Cather, whose desire to direct readers’ responses to her work is evident in all the typefaces, bindings, illustrations, publicity blurbs, and so forth that she could control, the type of textual interpretive “indeterminacy” valued so highly by modernists was the last thing she wanted to create.

In contrast Cather very much appreciated it when readers did understand her intentions. For instance, Mr. Orrick Johns in early November 1922 wrote to Cather that he saw a Parsifal figure in Claude, of One of Ours (WCPM, 4 November 1922). Just two weeks later Cather wrote back to compliment Johns on his perceptiveness: “You wouldn’t have made a bad Sherlock Holmes. You are the first sleuth who has dug the Parsifal theme out of Claude Wheeler—and I thought I had buried it so deep—deep!” She added, “Now, either you or I did pretty well, when the theme got through to you out of absolute and consistent reticence” (BSP, 17 November 1922). His reward for having seen in the story what Cather wanted readers to? An invitation from Cather for him and his wife to stop by her apartment for afternoon tea at their earliest convenience.


In 1919 T. S. Eliot proclaimed that poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality” (10), a concept that numerous modernist artists would subsequently apply in various mediums. Many years later Jo Ann Middleton echoed Eliot’s statement when she contended that Cather’s works are popular because “readers do not bond with her but with her books” (77). The responses of Cather’s readers to her works refute both statements. Numerous correspondents indicated that they believed Cather’s texts were reflections of her own personality, and some even wrote of how they enjoyed reading her, instead of reading her fictions. By reading in this way they were engaging in a practice called “reading for the author,” whose nineteenth-century roots are wonderfully explicated in Barbara Hochman’s book Getting at the Author: Reimagining Books and Reading in the Age of American Realism. As Hochman writes, “Throughout the nineteenth century . . . [t]he author was generally presumed to be a human being whose ‘individuality’ emerged from his or her text in the course of the reading experience. As a repository of authorial character, a book was a reader’s ‘friend,’ and reading was ‘a kind of conversation’ with the writer” (1–2). Although the realists (and later, one would contend, the modernists) tried mightily to change reading practices by practicing “authorial self-effacement” (29), Hochman notes, “reading for the author” persisted among nonelites. The survival and prevalence of this reading practice in the early and mid-twentieth century is quite evident in readers’ responses to Cather’s works.

Of course, sometimes Cather’s readers completely misunderstood who Cather was, especially those who asserted that she just had to be a Catholic because of the wonderfully insightful way she wrote about them. What is most important, however, is not whether people actually knew the “real” Cather, but that they saw her works as reflections of her personality or, sometimes, even indistinguishable from her, which likely contributed to their appeal. Many readers felt certain that Cather’s works embodied her inviting, confiding, and friendly spirit. Coleman Campbell, for instance, opined in 1922, “In it [One of Ours] your personality is like a buoy held under water—restrained but exerting a constant pull” (HCSP, 17 September 1922). Eleanor Evans saw no distinction between Cather herself and her books when she told her, “I love your books and I know I love you!” (JSRC, 2 September [?]). The same type of line-blurring is evident in Mary Moriarty’s 1932 statement to Cather, “Always after you, I was spoiled for any other authors” (JSRC, 13 August 1932), and in Sister Mary Germaine Dermody’s 1942 assertion, “I feel as though I know you. I have seen your blue eyes in several of your books” (JSRC, 22 February 1942). Other readers assumed that Cather was represented by one of her characters. A man named John Curran informed Cather, for example, “For me, you are always inseparable from ‘the Lark,’ in spite of her yellow head and your black hair. You are that little girl of the first chapter—the little girl who likes being sick; the little girl with the knowing eyes who likes to have the doctor to herself. And all the rest of her, too—quiet, self-contained, strong, alert—the little girl of the attic and later of the boarding house” (WCPM, n.d.).

In addition, a great number of correspondents told Cather that they regarded her as a “friend”; her works had assured them that she was not at all some cold, haughty, and distant celebrity intellectual type. Significantly, this type of connection to authors is often seen, as Janice Radway, Barbara Ryan, and others have noted, among fans of popular romance writers; it is likely no coincidence that, as I will explore below, Cather at the turn of the century envied romance writer E. D. E. N. Southworth for her devoted fans. In some cases letters from readers to Cather even led to long-term friendships. Edwin Winter was an early admirer of Cather’s, writing her very appreciative and complimentary letters about her work; eventually, he started stopping by her Pittsburgh apartment to visit her on Friday afternoons (see Cather to Carrie Miner Sherwood, WCPM, 11 February 1939). In another instance Cather recounted to Carrie Miner Sherwood in 1937 how “[t]he first letter she [Cornelia Otis Skinner] wrote me was about the story two friends—and after that we became ‘two friends’” (WCPM, 7 January 1937). A few correspondents actually felt so close to and comfortable with Cather that, after they received return letters from her, they invited her to come visit them whenever she might be in their vicinity. Reverend Henry Pouget of Lenox, Iowa, for example, in the 1930s sustained a long-term correspondence with Cather and almost always included an invitation to his home and directions as to which station on the Burlington railroad to get off at in order to visit him. One has a hard time imagining readers feeling personally connected enough with Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or T. S. Eliot to invite them for a visit, or these writers becoming friends or regular correspondents with an adoring fan from rural Iowa.


Cather was, despite what Middleton has written, quite interested not only in what “fine” readers had to say about her work but also in what “mass” ones believed—indeed, perhaps more so. In an interview published in the Chicago Tribune in September 1925 Cather recounted how on her train ride east from Colorado to Chicago a conductor had told her “that the railroad boys were saying that the book [The Professor’s House, often deemed one of Cather’s most modernist works] was the best picture of old railroad days that they’d ever read” (qtd. in Butcher 9). Cather told the interviewer, “As you know there isn’t much about railroad life in it, but if that little bit has made it the kind of book that railroad men will read and like I am more excited than ever about having done it” (qtd. in Butcher 9). Regarding another of Cather’s novels, Edith Lewis reported, “The letters she got from soldiers about [One of Ours] pleased her more than anything else she got from it” (122). Cather’s high valuation of all such readers is especially evident in what she wrote to her brother Roscoe in May 1945: “My real author’s Royalties are not in bonds or in the bank, but in those suit cases [of fan mail]. I save only the letters from unusual people, whether it’s an old cow puncher or Sir James Jeans the astronomer” (RMC, 9 May 1945). Cather even occasionally shared special letters from readers with her close friends and relatives, including Carrie Miner Sherwood (see WCPM, 9 December [1935?]) and her brother Roscoe. After Cather’s death Edith Lewis told Carrie Miner Sherwood that Willa occasionally would find a quiet moment to reread these letters to herself. We would do well, I think, to pay as much attention to these readers as Cather did.

This does not mean, though, that we should privilege only the voices of less-trained readers and, as a result, exclude Cather from the ranks of modernist writers. As is clear from what I have presented here, much of Cather’s mass appeal in the past (and, I believe, the present) derives from great numbers of readers enjoying her “old-fashioned” values and writing style. On the other hand, many more formally educated readers have appreciated Cather’s works for what they perceive as their modernist elements. The judgments of these latter readers, I believe, are just as valid as are those of the more ordinary readers who wrote to Cather. Yet I would suggest that while, because of their positions in the academy, the more educated readers’ opinions have tended to dominate in academic discussions of the “meaning” of Cather’s works, we should also recognize that Cather’s influence in, and meaning for, the world is not dictated solely by what such highly trained readers think of her works. Validation and commendations from critics pleased Cather immensely, but she also liked to appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. Indeed, the great reverence in which she was held by ordinary readers proved invaluable to her as a writer, because when critics assailed her for not being “modern,” “realistic,” or “engaged” enough, she could find solace in the letters of more down-to-earth readers, as well as fortification for her desire to “stay her course” with her writing.

As demonstrated by the many letters cited in this article, ordinary readers forcefully embraced Cather’s works during her lifetime; they continue to do so in the twenty-first century as well. Such readers regard her fictions as much more than objects of study, disembodied from their author, whose deeper meanings can be revealed only with sophisticated literary theories. Many take the time to attend conferences dedicated to her and her works or detour off Interstate 80 to visit Red Cloud and feel closer to her.

Readers’ continuing devotion to Cather because of the personal and emotional resonances her works evoke, and their being “true-to-life,” rather than for the ways they might interrogate readers’ notions of reality, would have greatly pleased Cather. As I have noted previously, one of her earliest role models as a writer was, quite surprisingly, the historical romance writer E. D. E. N. Southworth (Johanningsmeier). In 1901 Cather visited Southworth’s former home, near Washington dc, and wrote: To this little house for many years each mail brought appreciative letters from thousands of admirers, from young women who aspired to this wonderful craft, or from those who merely worshipped from afar, and who declared that her novels were their spiritual and intellectual food. And if this is not fame, what is it, please? How many of us ever think of writing to Henry James when we approve of him, or beg him to be merciful and recall his heroines to life when they perish, or care very much whether they perish or not? There is an element of unabashed romance in the untutored mind, and of hearty sympathy that we certainly lose in the course of social and mental evolution. (“Literature in the Capital” 1901) Cather’s choice of Henry James as counterpoint to Southworth in 1901 is a telling one: James was fully engaged by this point in his modernist period, and Cather could see that this type of writing generally won admiration from critics but left most readers cold. Possibly this helps explain why, after a short dalliance with writing in a Jamesian style with Alexander’s Bridge, which brought Cather neither popular nor critical acclaim, Cather embraced subjects and techniques that were much more likely to appeal to ordinary readers, as well as to literary critics and highly trained readers.

How very pleased Cather would be, then, to learn that one of her own fans was so devoted to her that in 2009 he carried a postcard of Van Gogh’s painting La nuit étoilée from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris all the way to Red Cloud, eventually secretly depositing it—along with his words of homage on the obverse side—in a hutch located in the foyer of the Cather childhood home. (He is, incidentally, not the first “pilgrim” devoted to Cather; even in the 1930s and 1940s people were writing to her to tell of their journeys to Quebec and backcountry Virginia to see the places she had written about.) This postcard bearer made his journey, as he suggests on the back, because he felt a spiritual, emotional, and personal connection to Cather through her works. Undoubtedly many other visitors to Red Cloud have felt the same way. Quite possibly there is a lesson to be found here for aspiring writers, just as Cather found one at E. D. E. N. Southworth’s home in 1901: there is something very powerful in the “old-fashioned,” “Victorian” modes of writing and reading that modernist approaches and explicit, frontal engagement with contemporary political issues can only rarely supply. Critics today would also do well to acknowledge that just because Cather’s works are enjoyed by most readers for their romantic, anti-modernist elements, this does not mean that she should be consigned to the margins of American literary history, as Granville Hicks suggested she be. Instead, her works’ simultaneous appeal to these readers, as well as to highly trained critics, should be recognized as yet another reason Cather deserves to be ranked as one of the greatest American writers.


  • BSP: The Bernice Slote Papers (ms rg 12-10-16). Archives and Special Collections, U of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries.
  • HCSP: The Helen Cather Southwick Papers (ms 77/08). U of Nebraska–Lincoln Archives and Special Collections.
  • JSRC: The James R. and Susan J. Rosowski Collection (ms 228). U of Nebraska–Lincoln Archives and Special Collections.
  • RMC: The Roscoe and Meta Cather Collection (ms 316). U of Nebraska–Lincoln Archives and Special Collections.
  • WCPM: Willa Cather Papers, Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Archives. Some of these materials are housed at the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial in Red Cloud, Nebraska; others are on deposit at the Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln.


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