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From Cather Studies Volume 13

Willa Cather as Translator: The Pittsburgh "French Soirées"

In 1949 George Seibel published in The New Colophon a reminiscence of his Pittsburgh friendship with Willa Cather, someone “few people knew” by the time of her death, he believes, because she shunned publicity and was “so shy” as to have become reclusive (195). In the essay, Seibel describes the Cather of 1896–1906 as a smart, energetic, ambitious young professional woman and a warm and fun-loving friend with whom he and his wife, Helen, spent considerable time during that decade in Pittsburgh. Notably, Cather came “to the Seibel home once or twice a week to ‘read French’” at what Seibel calls their “French soirées” (196, 198). The French soirées lasted for years, perhaps for most of the time Cather was in Pittsburgh, and Seibel’s list of the group’s readings is extensive, representing something of a romp through nineteenth-century French literature. Midway through her Pittsburgh decade, Cather spent a winter in Washington dc, translating French documents from the 1900 Paris International Universal Exposition to assist her cousin Howard Gore in compiling his report as the chief American juror. That was the winter of 1900–1901, and when she returned to Pittsburgh in March, it was to teach Latin—among other subjects—at Central High School, where she was touted as “an accomplished linguist” (Southwick 160). This essay attempts to reframe these three separate references to translation during Cather’s Pittsburgh years, to amplify the connection among them, in order to consider what her experience of translation might have contributed to Cather’s practice as a fiction writer.

In the Seibels, Cather found allies for her own literary and cultural interests and for her creative energy. The 1922 History of Pittsburgh and Environs identifies George Seibel as the “widely known speaker and writer, editor and playwright” (314). Born the year before Cather, he was “educated in the public schools” and had little advantage but “his own native powers and the overwhelming demand for self-expression” (314); in other words, like Cather, he made himself born as a writer. He began his career in 1893 as editor of The Youth Journal, a one-person operation much like The Home Monthly; from 1896 to 1922, he was editor of the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times; from 1912 to 1925 (notice the overlap), editor of the German-language Volksblatt und Freiheits Freund; from 1927 to 1936, dramatic and literary editor of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph; and from 1939 until his retirement in 1954, director of the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny, to which he donated ten thousand books. For some time during these years, he also taught as a professor of poetry and drama at the Fillion Music School and broadcast a weekly radio program of book reviews. From 1923 to 1937, he was also national president of the American Turnerbund, the association of German American athletic clubs headquartered in Pittsburgh, in which capacity he had the honor of being censored by the German government during a 1933 international radio broadcast when he described Adolf Hitler as “a messianic harlequin” (“George Seibel Dies at 85,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 26 July 1958, p. 3). Throughout his career, he regularly contributed reviews and cultural commentary to a variety of journals and newspapers including The Home Monthly, which Cather edited, and The Library, to which she also contributed, and published at least one play and several works of nonfiction. Helen Seibel was a member of the Pittsburgh Women’s City Club and, along with such distinguished women as Jane Addams and eventually Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Helen hosted salon-style Sunday afternoon teas, which were attended by culturally active residents of Pittsburgh and well-known performers and artists who were visiting the city. George and Helen had a daughter, Erna, born just a few months after Cather arrived in Pittsburgh, who was no small part of the appeal the Seibel home held for Cather (Byrne and Snyder 22).

Cather enjoyed the simple and gracious domestic routine of the Seibel family, who claimed their German heritage through food as well as literature and music. She joined them every year in trimming their Christmas tree with ornaments that had been handed down in the Seibel family (suggesting, perhaps, a model for the Austrian ornaments Otto Fuchs contributes to the Burden tree in My Ántonia [1918]). The Seibel apartment Cather knew was located in a house that still stands at 114 Seventeenth Street and is the model for the Engelhardts’ shabby-genteel apartment in “Double Birthday”: “only four rooms” in “a workingman’s house” in “a queer part of the city,” offering a “snug sitting room” with a fire, a piano, and a “large and very personal” collection of books.[1] This was a home like the Weiners’ in Red Cloud—like the Rosens’ in “Old Mrs. Harris” and the Erlichs’ in One of Ours—not grand in any way but enriched by its unpretentious familiarity with European high culture. Politically, the Seibels were nineteenth-century-style, liberal free thinkers, neither radical nor parochial; Seibel states that they believed, as Cather did,“in Santa Claus and the Golden Rule” (204).

Cather and the Seibels constituted the entire membership of the French soirées, and they did not—as one might have thought—come together to discuss a French text they had all read in common but, rather, they each “held a copy of the French text” while Seibel orally delivered a “rough and ready” English translation of that text (Seibel 197). His fellow readers might interrupt him to challenge its accuracy, and “[s]ometimes there was a what-the-hell-does-that-mean pause” (197). The energy and intensity with which the Seibels and Willa Cather translated French literature is evident in the partial list of authors Seibel provides: Alphonse Daudet, Alfred de Musset, Edmond About, Pierre Loti, Émile Souvestre, Anatole France, Théophile Gautier, Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Bourget, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and, of course,“our adored Flaubert” (197)—and Honoré de Balzac, George Sand, Prosper Mérimée, Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas (fils), Edouard Rod, Jean Richepin, and Edmond Rostand (203). Their selection was guided in part by Henry James’s essays on French literature in French Poets and Novelists (1878) and Partial Portraits (1888); at the time, Seibel writes, Cather thought Henry James “was the last word—and I hoped it was” (203). We might pause a moment here to register the number of volumes Cather translated with the Seibels. To translate a French text as Seibel describes it might be accomplished with varying degrees of fluency, but at the very least, with a list this extensive, it means that Cather was intensely preoccupied with making meaning of French at the most fundamental level—word and sentence—over a rather long period of time. Building on her reading of Latin and French as a student, translation became something of a natural mode for her at this time.

In the middle of the Pittsburgh years—and the French soirées—Cather went to Washington dc to translate French documents from the Paris Exposition of 1900 for her cousin Howard Gore, the chief American juror. This was, of course, the same Paris Exposition at which the paradigm shifted so violently from virgin to dynamo that Henry Adams “found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines . . . his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new” (382).[2] Her work on the Paris Exposition report hardly figures in most biographical accounts of Cather’s early years: neither E. K. Brown, Edith Lewis, nor Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant mentions it; James Woodress states in a single sentence that during the winter of 1900–1901, Cather “stayed with her cousin Howard Gore and found a job translating letters and documents for the United States commission to the Paris Exposition of 1900” (147), not clarifying Gore’s connection to the work; Kathleen D. Byrne and Richard C. Snyder report in Chrysalis that Cather intended to establish herself in Washington, taking a job as government translator but that “[c]ircumstances . . . drew her back to Pittsburgh in the spring” (89). In a 1982 essay for The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, however, Cather’s niece, Helen Cather Southwick, explains that Cather translated “French documents and letters” relating to the exposition,“assisting her cousin, James Howard Gore, juror-in-chief of the exposition in the preparation of the jury’s report to the United States government” (159). Southwick goes on to state that two of the six volumes of the 1901 report “bear the name of Gore as author” but that “[i]t is probable that those volumes were largely the work of Cather,” Gore being completely preoccupied by his duties as professor of mathematics at Columbian (now George Washington) University (159).

The two volumes that bear Gore’s name total almost twelve hundred pages. They are principally a compilation of the reports of the American jurors (of whom there were 95, as compared to the 1,421 French jurors). The encyclopedic range of these reports is staggering. There were more than eighty-five thousand exhibits in the exposition, including W. E. B. Du Bois’s landmark collection of photographs, “The American Negro,” and a fine arts exhibit that included the work of such American artists as Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, as well as Childe Hassam and other painters Cather may later have become acquainted with during a 1902 stay in Cos Cob.[3] Gore’s volumes, however, are largely concerned with the products of industry, scientific research, agriculture, and education that defined material progress at the turn of the century. The report on Class 59,“Sugars, Teas, Confectionary, Condiments and Stimulants,” alone runs to 104 pages (including not only the cultivation and marketing of sugar and tea, but the process of candying fruit in Auvergne, the production of chocolate in Belgium and Holland, the cultivation of vanilla, and the roasting of chicory—with notes on national preferences for licorice and the excellence of Colman’s mustard). Undoubtedly, there were “letters and documents” to translate, but the American jurors’ reports included in Gore’s volumes were originally written in English. It seems impossible to know how much of Cather’s work was actual translation and how much was transcribing and editing—although that cannot have been any small thing. There is no discernible trace of Cather’s voice in these volumes of the report. We might imagine the future writer of “The Novel Démeublé” (1922) contemplating the hundreds of thousands of objects that were the subject of the jurors’ reports, from escalators to Lalique glass to American popcorn—all of them lacking emotional penumbrae—but we have no record of it.[4] What we do know is that while she was in Washington, Cather attended performances by Sarah Bernhardt, in French, on four successive days.

When Cather returned to Pittsburgh, she took a position teaching Latin (as well as algebra and English composition) at Central High School, where the High School Journal reported that “Miss Cather is . . . an accomplished linguist” (Southwick 160). Cather left journalism for teaching apparently in order to free up time for writing; perhaps, momentarily, the freelance work of translation—if that is indeed the way the exposition work was represented to her—may have looked as if it would offer her a similar kind of flexibility. She had already published “experiments in translation” in her newspaper pieces and The Home Monthly in the 1890s, and during her university years in Lincoln, she had read widely in classical and French literature and had begun translating “lines from Greek or Latin and then poems from modern Continental writers” (Slote, “Willa Cather and Her First Book” xii). At this time, there were notable examples of women making a career of translation, among them Constance Garnett (1862–1946), who translated more than seventy works of Russian literature beginning in the early 1890s, and Ellen Marriage (1865–1946), who translated the complete works of Balzac for Dent (1895–98). Dorothy Canfield, whose fluency in French Cather so admired, had begun her doctoral studies at Columbia University by the time Cather went to Washington; perhaps her work with Corneille and Racine suggested such a possibility. In the end, however, Cather abandoned whatever plans she might have had for herself as a translator in Washington dc, although the high school newspaper piece indicates that she wanted others to know she had done such work. The “circumstances” that called her back to Pittsburgh were related to her new friendship with Isabelle McClung, for when she returned, she took up residence in the McClung home in Squirrel Hill, her teaching position possibly secured by Isabelle’s father, Judge Samuel McClung (Woodress 150). Fred Otte, a student in Cather’s English class at Central High, remembers being assigned short works by Loti, Felix Gras, Maupassant, and Daudet, translated from the French (45); another student, Phyllis Martin Hutchinson, recalls that Cather “was steeped in the classics, and her knowledge of Latin was always evident in class. Invariably [Cather] tried to show us how to derive the meaning of English words from their Latin roots” (50).

How might Cather’s interest in translation, such as it was, have affected the fiction she would later write? In some ways, very literally. It is remarkable how often the act of translation is depicted in the novels she would write after the Pittsburgh years. It is not unusual for novels, appealing to middle-class literacy, to depict characters in the act of reading. But Cather’s fiction repeatedly depicts characters in the act of translating texts. To select only a few examples: in The Song of the Lark, Professor Wunsch translates, for Thea, Ovid’s line “Lente currite, lente currite, noctis equi” (“Go slowly, go slowly, ye steeds of the night”; 25); in a similar scene, Mr. Rosen in “Old Mrs. Harris” gives Vickie her first French lesson by translating Michelet’s “Le but n’est rien; le chemin, c’est tout” (“The end is nothing; the road is all”; 158); on the range, Tom Outland translates one hundred lines of Caesar a day and he reads Lucretius with Professor St. Peter, while the Professor, of course, has spent virtually a lifetime translating the accounts of the Spanish explorers for his history; Jim Burden of My Ántonia translates Virgil and reads Dante’s Commedia with his tutor; Claude Wheeler of One of Ours reads the transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial in English translation but with “the French text at his elbow, and some of her replies haunted him in the language in which they were spoken” (91).

The act of translation also figures in Cather’s fiction as a recurrent trope for personal transformation. As an immigrant, for example, Ántonia Shimerda learns to translate Bohemian words into English as she learns to translate her Bohemian mother’s inadequate domestic practices into the “nice ways” of American wives and mothers like Mrs. Burden and Mrs. Harling.[5] In Shadows on the Rock (1931), Cécile Auclair translates the refined French domestic rituals she learned from her mother into a rough Canadian vocabulary, musing over a sentence of schoolgirl French as her father analyzes the difference between French and Québecois gooseberries (18). Vickie Templeton’s French lesson and Thea Kronborg’s Latin lesson mark points in the bildung arc of the young women’s lives. Translating Virgil’s Georgics, Jim Burden has the “inestimably precious” “revelation” that without the hired girls of Black Hawk, “there would be no poetry” (262). In the New World, Jean Marie Latour of Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) learns to speak English and Spanish and is transformed from a young French missionary priest into a venerable American archbishop. Professor St. Peter has translated the stubborn soil of Hamilton into a French garden but resists translating himself into his wife’s construct of the successful middle-aged man. In Pittsburgh, Cather herself was in the process of personal transformation, which Seibel in his essay reads as a translation: referring to intellectual discoveries Cather made in those years (i.e., Nietzsche, Richard Strauss, A. E. Housman), he notes that “other new planets swam into Willa’s ken” (202), a deft appropriation of Keats’s metaphor in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”—a poem about the way a translation can transform the imagination.

Cather not only depicted characters performing translation, both literal and figurative; she used translation as a narrative strategy, lending authenticity to such works as Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. Françoise Palleau-Papin has demonstrated that Cather’s grammatical constructions of English in these two novels imitate recognizable French constructions like the alexandrine line, bringing “English closer to the French rhythm and syntax” so that the French language resonates throughout in a version of Gilles Deleuze’s “ghost language” (53). Essentially, Palleau-Papin describes Cather as a translator in these two novels, “passing from one language to another” (57), “submit[ting] her use of English to the restraint of a foreign language” (61), setting her English, as Deleuze would say, “to a minor key” (52) so that the French vocabulary and syntax resonate. “Cather seems to have thought and felt in this language,” Palleau-Papin concludes,“midway between French and English” (61).

In her wide-ranging study of the influence of French writers on Cather’s fiction, Stéphanie Durrans sees the interpolation of French words and passages in Shadows on the Rock as an expression of the “interaction of antagonistic cultures” that is the subject of the novel (223). Unlike the “free interplay of languages” in Death Comes for the Archbishop, Shadows on the Rock displays “Cather’s reluctance to translate” that echoes “the resistance of the French settlers to the indigenous culture and the resistance of the French language itself to all attempts at assimilation” (224). Durrans sees translation as a writing strategy for Cather, “whose acute awareness of language issues led her to investigate the potentialities of multilingual discourse” (233). This translated and multilingual discourse is also evident in One of Ours, in Claude Wheeler’s awkward French rendered side by side with the French-inflected English dialogue of such French characters as Madame Joubert and Mademoiselle de Courcy.

Delineated in this “language midway between French and English” is a construction we might call “Cather’s French imaginary,” the particular ideation of a cultural and historical France that Cather had begun to form through her earliest reading of French literature, a personal France that the Romantic texts of the French soirées surely affirmed. In a 1974 essay, the Aixois scholar Michel Gervaud wonders whether “[t]he France she loved may represent just a myth”; nevertheless, “it fecundated and nourished her creativeness” and “played [a part] in the shaping of her genius and the orientation of her inventive powers” (66). “There seemed to be a natural affinity between her mind and French forms of art,” Dorothy Canfield Fisher remembered (93). More recently, Marc Chénetier, who has translated nine of Cather’s works into French, states that Cather aspired “to a set of aesthetic and intellectual ideals that French . . . had come to stand for,” and that the French language “provided her with new modes of apprehension and aesthetic perception” (39). Discerning the presence of the French language even “in works that do not referentially need it,” which he calls the “ghost in translation” (32), Chénetier writes that Cather’s use of French “is less a direct matter of language than a frame of mind” (37). In other words, Cather writes as a translator, in constant reference to an idiom that is not native to her, to a culture in which she is a privileged foreigner.

Cather’s imagined France filled an empty space on her personal map. In French Lessons, the remarkable 1993 memoir chronicling her own acquisition of French, Alice Kaplan asks, “Why do people want to adopt another culture? Because there’s something in their own they don’t like, that doesn’t name them” (209; original emphasis). Cather’s biography indicates how deeply she felt at times unnamed by Red Cloud, Pittsburgh, and even New York—how she chafed at the normative social constructs for women’s lives, for example, and at the banality of American consumer culture. Her early reading of nineteenth-century French romanciers like Daudet, Dumas, and Loti led her into a historical world of adventure, eccentricity, and sensuality. The texts of the French soirées, many of them in the same genre, affirmed that world. The grammatical apparatus of the French language itself, like that of Latin, was a model of the kind of intellectual rigor that informs Cather’s early critical statements. In her later novels, we can observe with Michel Gervaud “the sheer delight she found in handling an idiom she loved” (70).

What Cather sought in French literature and the French language was affiliation, membership in a community that nurtured her creativity, a relationship to a tradition that offered her models of great artistic achievement. She was a “hero-worshipper,” as Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant realized, “amaze[d]” at Cather’s awestruck description of Mrs. Fields’s “literary Elysium,” the Charles Street parlor haunted by the ghosts of Hawthorne and Dickens (41). A quarter of a century later, “A Chance Meeting” (1933) conveys Cather’s thrill at a similar proximity to greatness—discovering that the elderly woman she has been chatting with at Aix-les-Bains is the niece of Gustave Flaubert.

French was the idiom of the world to which Cather felt deeply affiliated and in which she longed to feel at ease. Her desire to be fluent in that world can be measured by the humiliation she felt during her first visit to France, in 1902, unable to make her way in French and outshone by her friend Dorothy Canfield’s fluency. Dorothy Canfield probably knew better than any of Cather’s friends the world in which French language proficiency was a mark of cultural privilege, acquired through childhood trips to Europe, French governesses, and finishing schools. As Mark Madigan has shown, Cather “felt a certain inferiority in comparison with the more cosmopolitan [Canfield]” (“Willa Cather and Dorothy Canfield Fisher” 116). In Paris in 1902, Cather was abashed by her failure to translate into the world she had claimed through her study of French and her prodigious reading of French literature. She had wanted to feel as Canfield did, “completely French” (Madigan,“Regarding” 3). Devastated and envious, she behaved so badly that almost two years later, she wrote an abject letter of apology to Canfield, acknowledging that “I was ill-tempered and ungrateful and . . . I behaved very childishly,” explaining that “I didn’t understand French and . . . I felt very provincial and helpless and ignorant. It makes me ill to think of it, it surely does” (Selected Letters 76). So deep was her frustration and sadness at being excluded that Cather tried to explain it again, eighteen years later, when she wrote to Canfield, who was reading the proofs of One of Ours, that Claude Wheeler’s feeling of cultural inferiority to David Gerhardt “was the way you made me feel when we were in France together that time” (316; original emphasis); she now realizes that she herself had made her cousin G. P. Cather feel that way,“the way helpless ignorance always feels” (316). In “A Chance Meeting,” the 1933 essay about her conversations with Flaubert’s niece, Cather—a generation older and a little less brash than the “accomplished linguist” of Pittsburgh—writes of herself,“I am a poor linguist” (5).

But translating with the Seibels, in the French soirées occurring both before and after the 1902 European trip, Cather did not feel provincial and helpless and ignorant; she felt knowledgeable and included; she felt affiliated. As collaborative oral performances, the soirées were, on the one hand, very familiar to Cather, of a piece with the oral performances by which turn-of-the-century middle America was entertained and edified. Cather grew up in a time when family members and friends regularly read aloud at home for entertainment, and schoolchildren learned by reciting orally. Her own talents led her to community theatricals in which, as young as eleven, she “electrified the audience with elocutionary powers” (Woodress 57); she delivered an oration at her high school graduation (58). She and Isabelle McClung read aloud together when Cather lived at 1180 Murray Hill Avenue, and they later read Michelet together when Cather visited from New York; her countless newspaper reviews attest to her fervent love for theatrical performance; even “her apparent interest in music,” George Seibel observed, “was really always confined to performers of music or to music connected to theatricals, as in the opera” (Bennett 152).

In addition, Cather already had almost fifteen years’ experience listening to the nonnative speakers of English in and around Red Cloud. Later, as a fiction writer, she represents realistically the broken English of immigrants who are between two linguistic worlds: not only Mrs. Shimerda (a prime example) but Crazy Ivar and old Mrs. Lee from O Pioneers!, Jacinto from Death Comes for the Archbishop, the German Mrs. Vogt and the French villagers of One of Ours. She demonstrates sensitivity to the physical sound of language as it was represented on the page: when she met Flaubert’s niece, Mme. Franklin Grout, and they talked about Flaubert’s work, Cather referred to the last line of Flaubert’s Herodias, with its rhythm so suggestive of the physical act it described. She reproduces the last word phonetically, syllable by syllable, separated by hyphens: “Comme elle était très lourde, ils la portaient al-ter-na-tiv-e-ment” (“As [John the Baptist’s head] was very heavy, they took turns carrying it”; 22). Michel Gervaud confirms that Cather “had a keen perception of the cadence and musicality of French” (although he points out [“Willa Cather and France” 69] that the last word in Flaubert’s sentence should be divided as “al-ter-na-ti-ve-ment”).[6] Cécile Auclair’s concern over her mother’s pot of parsley—“Papa, j’ai peur pour le persil”—might be an exercise in the pronunciation of the French p and French diphthongs.

On the other hand, the soirées conferred the kind of inclusion and cultural privilege Cather longed for during her 1902 visit to France. By its very nature, the translating project necessarily restricted membership and created a sense of intimacy, even secrecy. Seibel’s essay conveys the interiority of the French soirées: that snug sitting room warmed by a fire, well-fed friends chatting over books and music, the baby finally in bed, the lamp refilled so as to prolong the evening. The interiority is emphasized by the sense these young friends had that they were banded together, out from under the watchful eye of Pittsburgh’s stern Presbyterians, conspiring to do something a tiny bit wicked—reading Daudet’s short stories “bubbling with malicious delight in feminine foibles” (196). And Balzac! Right here in River City! At fifty,Cather would write, “It is scarcely exaggeration to say that if one is not a little mad about Balzac at twenty, one will never live” (“Chance Meeting” 24). But the fact is that there was serious censorship—at least, bowdlerizing—of some of this literature at the time Cather and the Seibels were meeting. The American and British translations of Balzac at this time, for example, were never “completely complete” even at forty volumes; at least five novels “were discreetly dropped on grounds . . . of lesbianism, cynicism, bestiality, and general ‘morbidity’” (Lesser 346). Henry James described the first American translator of the (almost) complete Balzac—Katharine Prescott Wormley, a friend of Sarah Orne Jewett’s—as “a New England old maid, unacquainted with French—and other badnesses—mistranslating Balzac” (Lesser 344). Ellen Marriage, Balzac’s British translator for Dent, assumed a male pseudonym to tackle his more salacious novels.

The orality of the translation project is enhanced by the sociability of the French soirées, suggested by the Seibels’ generous hospitality. Food figures prominently in Seibel’s account of the French soirées—no surprise to anyone who belongs to a book group—and contributes a Pickwick-like conviviality to their gatherings. (Indeed, both George and Helen later became members of the Dickens Fellowship, when the Pittsburgh branch was founded in 1925.) Seibel reminisces about those days “before . . . calories or vitamins” when they would sit down to a simple supper of noodle soup, potato salad “larded with delicious slices of cucumber,” and “crisp and crackling” cookies (198). Erna, growing up through the years of the French soirées, horrified her mother at the supper table once by commanding Willa to “look!” as she picked up a bowl of berries and slurped the juice. At Christmas time, Cather “crunched her share of anise cakes and pfeffernüsse” and chewed on needles from the Christmas tree (199). A young Dorothy Canfield, who visited with Cather one Christmas, was given a second cup of coffee—considered quite an adult treat for a girl of sixteen. The Seibels’ cat was named Hasenpfeffer, after the traditional German rabbit stew. Seibel uses food and drink as a metaphor for the text as well. The three friends devoured “pleasant [French] pastry” like Souvestre’s Philosophe sous les Toits (An Attic Philosopher, 1854), “indulged oftener in devil’s food like Anatole France’s Le Lys Rouge” (The Red Lily, 1897), and drank “deep draughts of young Rostand’s ruby wine” (197, 203). He describes two of Cather’s April Twilights poems as “sugared sonnets” and others with “a drop of absinthe from Verlaine” (199–200). Seibel’s delighted memories of the French soirées correspond to what Marc Chénetier identifies in Cather as “an orality variously illustrated by her love for food and cooking and her delight in conversation” (40) linked to her “abstract sensuous quest for the feel of an ideal French language” (39).

As Seibel recounts them, the social circumstances of the French soirées provide a frame for the orally translated literature. As Cather and the Seibels devour the nineteenth-century French canon, the Pittsburgh frame tells its own changing story. Erna grows from an infant who is put to bed before the evening begins, to a toddler who argues about being put to bed, to a girl who is allowed to sit at the supper table with the adults. Cather publishes April Twilights and the stories of The Troll Garden, the Seibels among their very first readers. Cather meets Isabelle McClung. Seibel and Cather contribute to “another forlorn hope of literature” (205), the short-lived journal The Library, and Seibel’s poetic style, he writes, shifts from Sir John Suckling to Austin Dobson. The social frame of the French soirées allowed Cather to listen to the translation of stories as she would have listened to any orally recited tale; although Cather and the Seibels were translating written texts, the performative aspect of their project was more like the oral storytelling and oratory of Cather’s childhood than her reading of French literature as a university student. Additionally, the literature of the French soirées, so much of it nineteenth-century romances and tales, makes conspicuous use of the framed narrative itself. Daudet’s Femmes d’artistes (Artists’ Wives, 1874) and Edmond About’s Roi des montagnes (The King of the Mountains, 1856), both on Seibel’s list, are framed narratives, as are many of Balzac’s shorter pieces (e.g.,“Ficino Cane” and “A Passion in the Desert”). The French soirées contributed to Cather’s use of storytelling scenes and framed narrative structures in novels from O Pioneers! through Shadows on the Rock.

Cather’s friendship with the Seibels played an essential role during her formative years in Pittsburgh, and she maintained a friendly correspondence with the couple for some years after she moved to New York, as indicated by the thirty letters from Cather to her parents that Erna Seibel Yorke donated to the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, now the Willa Cather Archive, in 1970. During visits with Isabelle McClung in Pittsburgh, Cather called upon the Seibels, now moved to a more spacious house in Mount Oliver. In response to Helen Seibel’s enthusiasm for The Song of the Lark, Cather wrote in 1916 that Mr. Kohler’s “piece-picture” described in that novel “hung in the fitting room of a German ‘Ladies Tailor’ in the East End [of Pittsburgh], long and long ago” (Selected Letters 215). “I’m glad you still like those old simple things we used to laugh about and enjoy,” Cather continues and closes warmly,“Please come to visit me when you are in New York” (216). When My Mortal Enemy was published in 1926, Cather wrote to George Seibel that she “had a premonition [he] would understand [the novel]—and that most people wouldn’t” (Seibel 207). But by 1933, when Cather wrote to Dorothy Canfield Fisher to look for “A Chance Meeting” in the February Atlantic, she refers to Seibel, with whom “I dug through Salammbô and all the Letters [from Flaubert to his niece]” as “the German proofreader in Pittsburgh” (Selected Letters 481), unkindly diminishing the standing of her old friend who was then a published author and the dramatic and literary editor of the Pittsburgh Sun-Times. In 1937 she wrote to Meta Cather asking that she forward to her any mail from Seibel (who must not have had her Park Avenue address), inexplicably adding, “This George Seibel is a Pittsburgh editor, and is one of the most persistent and tormenting of all my many curses” (527).

Cather’s final disdain for George Seibel is difficult to reconcile with the mutual regard and sheer joy of their earlier friendship. Her changed attitude may have been symptomatic of the increasingly withdrawn social behavior that Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, for one, noticed in Cather’s later years and to which Seibel himself alludes in his New Colophon essay. Cather may have feared that Seibel, journalist and critic, would presume upon their personal friendship to write something about her for publication. As the world moved toward a declaration of war against Germany, she may have grown wary of the political discourse in which Seibel was sometimes engaged. She may not have wanted to revisit her years in Pittsburgh, a time of struggle and vulnerability. Whatever the case, the French soirées had run their day and, like the East End tailor’s piece-picture, had become one of “those old simple things we used to laugh about and enjoy.” They leave their mark, however, on Cather’s fiction, in which translation functions as a narrative strategy, as a plot device, and as enduring evidence of the deep meaning Willa Cather found in a language, a literature, and a culture not her own.


 1. “Double Birthday” in Uncle Valentine (45–46). In her introduction, Bernice Slote states,“The [Engelhardts’] apartment itself is in every detail that of the George Seibels, so the late Mrs. Seibel once told me” (xxviii). Byrne and Snyder concur: “Two letters written by Helen Seibel agree that the Engelhardt home described in ...‘Double Birthday’ is a fair representation of the Seibel home” (21). (Go back.)
 2. “Langley,” who serves as Adams’s guide to the exposition, is Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834–1906), who taught astronomy at the Western University of Pennsylvania (now University of Pittsburgh) and directed the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, where he developed the Allegheny Time System, a prototype for the Standard Time Zones. In 1887 he became director of the Smithsonian, an institution that figures importantly in Cather’s novel The Professor’s House (1925). (Go back.)
 3. Painters Cather may have met at Cos Cob who exhibited at the Paris Exposition include Childe Hassam, Leonard Ochtman, and J. Francis Murphy. Merrill Maguire Skaggs has proposed that Cather visited Cos Cob between October 1902 and April 1903, after returning to her teaching job in Pittsburgh from the European trip with Isabelle McClung and that, although “she carefully obfuscated this interlude . . . it significantly affected her career” (43). (Go back.)
 4. Hélène Trocmé reports that Americans at the Paris Exposition were regarded like “les sauvages de l’exposition des Colonies” (39). They were thought self-important (they insisted that the minaret on the nearby Turkish pavilion be reduced so as not to outdo an American cupola), crude (they spat and they were seen enjoying popcorn and corn on the cob, considered food for swine in France), and deplorably Puritanical (the American pavilion was closed on Sundays) (38–39). (Go back.)
 5. For an extended discussion of translation as a trope for ethnic and national assimilation, see my essay, “Ántonia’s Mother Tongue: Reading and Translating (in) My Ántonia.” (Go back.)
 6. Gervaud notes that the young Cather “took little interest in French grammar and was bored by exercises” (68) but that we can assume “her understanding of written French was very good” (69). He points out that the French phrases in her novels “are correct most of the time though they occasionally contain a few mistakes (or misprints?) and even may look clumsy” (69). (Go back.)


Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. 1907. Modern Library, 1931.
Bennett,Mildred. The World of Willa Cather. U of Nebraska P, 1951.
Byrne, Kathleen D., and Richard C. Snyder. Chrysalis: Willa Cather in Pittsburgh, 1896–1906. Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1980.
Cather, Willa.“A Chance Meeting.” 1933. Not Under Forty, U of Nebraska P, 1988, pp. 3–42.
—. “Double Birthday.” Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather’s Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915–1929, edited by Bernice Slote, U of Nebraska P, 1973, pp. 39–63.
—. My Ántonia. 1918. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, historical essay by James Woodress, explanatory notes by Woodress with Kari A. Ronning, Kathleen Danker, and Emily Levine, textual commentary and editing by Charles Mignon with Ronning, U of Nebraska P, 1994.
—.“Old Mrs. Harris.” Obscure Destinies. 1932. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, historical essay and explanatory notes by Kari A. Ronning, textual essay by Frederick M. Link with Kari A. Ronning and Mark Kamrath, U of Nebraska P, 1998, pp. 63–157.
—. One of Ours. 1922. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, historical essay and explanatory notes by Richard C. Harris, textual editing by Frederick M.Link with Kari A. Ronning, U of Nebraska P, 2006.
—. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, Knopf, 2016.
—. Shadows on the Rock. 1931. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, historical essay and explanatory notes by John J. Murphy and David Stouck, textual editing by Frederick M. Link, U of Nebraska P, 2005.
—. The Song of the Lark. 1915. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, historical essay and explanatory notes by Ann Moseley, textual essay and editing by Kari A. Ronning, U of Nebraska P, 2012.
Chénetier, Marc. “Shadows of a Rock: Translating Willa Cather.” Cather Studies 8: Willa Cather; A Writer’s Worlds, edited by John J. Murphy, Françoise Palleau-Papin, and Robert Thacker, U of Nebraska P, 2010, pp. 23–45.
Durrans, Stéphanie. The Influence of French Culture on Willa Cather: Intertextual References and Resonances. Edwin Mellen P, 2007.
Fisher, Dorothy Canfield. “Willa Cather, Daughter of the Frontier.” 1933. Willa Cather Remembered, edited by Sharon Hoover, U of Nebraska P, 2002, pp. 90–96.
Gervaud, Michel.“Willa Cather and France: Elective Affinities.” The Art of Willa Cather, edited by Bernice Slote and Virginia Faulkner, U of Nebraska P, 1974, pp. 65–83.
History of Pittsburgh and Environs. Vol. 5. American Historical Society, 1922.
Hutchinson,Phyllis Martin.“Reminiscences of Willa Cather as a Teacher.” 1956. Willa Cather Remembered, edited by Sharon Hoover, U of Nebraska P, 2002, pp. 48–51.
Kaplan, Alice. French Lessons. U of Chicago P, 1993.
Lesser, Margaret.“Ellen Marriage and the Translation of Balzac.” Translation and Literature, vol. 21, 2012, pp. 343–63.
Madigan, Mark.“Regarding Willa Cather’s ‘The Profile’ and Evelyn Osborne.” Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation Newsletter and Review, vol. 44, no. 1, 2000, pp. 1–5.
—. “Willa Cather and Dorothy Canfield Fisher: Rift, Reconciliation, and One of Ours.” Cather Studies 1, edited by Susan J. Rosowski, U of Nebraska P, 1990, pp. 115–29.
Otte, Fred. “The Willa Cather I Knew.” c. 1940. Willa Cather Remembered, edited by Sharon Hoover, U of Nebraska P, 2002, pp. 42–49.
Palleau-Papin, Françoise.“The Hidden French in Willa Cather’s English.” Cather Studies 4: Willa Cather’s Canadian and Old World Connections, edited by Robert Thacker and Michael A. Peterman, U of Nebraska P, 1999, pp. 45–65.
Prenatt, Diane. “Ántonia’s Mother Tongue: Reading and Translating (in) My Ántonia.” Something Complete and Great: The Centennial Study of “My Ántonia,” edited by Holly Blackford, Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2018, pp. 63–80.
Report of the Commissioner-General for the United States to the International Universal Exposition, Paris. 1900. Government Printing Office, 1901. Vols. 5 and 6.
Seibel, George.“Miss Willa Cather from Nebraska.” The New Colophon, vol. 2, 1949, pp. 195–207.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. 1953. U of Nebraska P, 1963.
Skaggs, Merrill Maguire.“Young Willa Cather and the Road to Cos Cob.” Willa Cather’s New York: New Essays on Cather in the City, edited by Merrill Maguire Skaggs, Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2000, pp. 43–59.
Slote, Bernice. Introduction. Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather’s Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915–1929, edited by Bernice Slote, U of Nebraska P, 1973, pp. ix–xxx.
—. Introduction. “Willa Cather and Her First Book.” April Twilights (1903) by Willa Cather, edited by Bernice Slote, U of Nebraska P, 1976, pp. ix–xlv.
Southwick, Helen C.“Willa Cather’s Early Career: Origins of a Legend.” 1982. Willa Cather Remembered, edited by Sharon Hoover, U of Nebraska P, 2002, pp. 156–70.
Trocmé, Hélène.“1900: Les Américains à l’exposition universelle de Paris.” Revue française d’études américaines, vol. 59, 1994, pp. 35–44.
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