As if set against ever becoming a "cultural icon," Willa Cather refused to allow her work to be issued in paperback, forbade its cinematic adaptation, and for several years opposed its distribution through book clubs. Nevertheless, at the urging of her friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who was a Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC) judge, Cather granted permission for Shadows on the Rock to be designated as a main selection, or "book of the month," in 1931. She would do the same for Sapphira and the Slave Girl ten years later. This much has been documented by Cather's biographers. What has not been recognized until now is the extent and significance of Cather's association with the BOMC, which began in 1926, the club's first year of operation. In addition to the two main selections, My Mortal Enemy, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Obscure Destinies, Lucy Gayheart, Not Under Forty, and The Old Beauty and Others were all reviewed in the Book-of-the-Month Club News and were made available to subscribers as substitute selections for the book of the month. My Ántonia was featured as "An Outstanding Older Book" in the April 1929 issue of the News as well.
The role of the BOMC in Cather's career has drawn little attention from those who write about her. Save for that of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, the reviews discussed here have neither been republished nor properly recorded in any bibliographies. Focusing on these reviews and related documents, this article will investigate the ways in which Cather's work served the BOMC and how the BOMC served Cather, helping to make her a "cultural icon." The club sold thousands of her books to its members, and its reviews provided those early subscribers, many of whom were first-time readers of Cather, with a lens through which to read her work. At the same time, her association with the club did nothing to aid her reputation with critics who regarded her work as being old-fashioned in subject matter and form—in their view, perfectly suited for the BOMC.
Because the records have not survived, the demographic makeup of the BOMC's early membership cannot be precisely determined; however, some important details can be established from anecdotal evidence and oral-history interviews with club officials. Although these sources suggest that the majority of members were women, the business did not explicitly market itself to them. Rather, the chair of the club's Committee of Selection, Henry Seidel Canby, referred to the club's target market as the "general reader," which he defined as "the average intelligent reader, who has passed through the usual formal education in literature, who reads books as well as newspapers and magazines, who, without calling himself a litterateur, would be willing to assert that he was fairly well read and reasonably fond of good reading" (qtd. in Radway 296). What Canby referred to as the general reader, others have called "the middlebrow." Canby's definition suggests (and other sources confirm) that a significant percentage of the BOMC's middlebrow readers were college-educated members of the professional-managerial class (Radway 295-96). Janice Radway has asserted in A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire that "the club's particular selections may have helped to consolidate their faith in a specific set of values and assumptions about the world. . . . Their reading may have assured them that their world was still centered—and centered in a way that they understood" (298). Radway contends that the BOMC also functioned to "promote identification with the point of view of the professional-managerial class among individuals poised at the outer reaches of that group" (297). As we will see, reviews of Cather's work in the BOMC News made distinct appeals to both of these middlebrow constituencies. To appreciate Cather's fiction, they implied, was a marker of aesthetic sophistication, a step up in the cultural hierarchy; and in her work, subscribers were promised a safe harbor from modernist literary experiments in style and form.
The BOMC was founded in February 1926 by Harry Scherman, a onetime writer turned advertising executive, and publisher Robert K. Haas. Prior to the BOMC, they had worked together at the Little Leather Library Corporation, which produced and marketed inexpensive editions of literary classics. As president of the Little Leather Library from 1916 to 1925, Scherman contended with a lack of bookstores outside major U.S. cities and turned to then-unconventional methods of distribution, such as selling books in department stores and packaging small editions of individual Shakespeare plays in boxes of candy. Following a successful attempt at selling sets of the "Thirty World's Greatest Masterpieces" by mail, he settled upon the idea for the BOMC with financial backing from Haas (Lee 22-29). The business was the first of its kind, predating its main rival, the Literary Guild, by one year.
Scherman envisioned a mail-order business that would distribute newly published books chosen by a panel of literary experts in whom middlebrow readers would have confidence. The inaugural operating principles were straightforward: members agreed to buy the monthly selection at a price of no more than three dollars plus postage for twelve months. Soon after, readers were asked to buy only four books per year and allowed to substitute one of several alternate choices reviewed in the News for the month's main selection before shipping. The club's policies evolved to include price reductions, publication of BOMC editions, and distribution of "free" books as "dividends" (Lee 33, 37). The Book-of-the-Month Club was an immediate success; the initial subscriber list in February 1926 was 4,750 and grew to 60,000 within a year. In the midst of the Depression, in 1935, the number reached 137,000, and by the end of the decade it surpassed 362,000 (Lee 30).
For the first Committee of Selection, Scherman chose Heywood Broun, Canby, Fisher, Christopher Morley, and William Allen White. Broun was a popular critic widely published in news papers and magazines. Canby was the editor of the Saturday Review of Literature and a former Yale English professor. Fisher and Morley were best-selling novelists. White was a fiction writer and the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Emporia Gazette, a Kansas daily. The five judges were charged with the task of reading a prescreened group of forthcoming books and meeting once a month in New York to agree upon a "main selection."
There is no evidence that Cather had met Broun or Morley, but she did have personal connections to the rest of the committee. White had published in McClure's during Cather's editorial tenure at the magazine and had made her acquaintance. When H. L. Mencken gave One of Ours a bad notice, it was White who consoled Cather by saying, "If thy Mencken and thy Nathan desert thee then the Lord will take thee by" (qtd. in Woodress 334). Canby had been a friend of Cather's since 1916, when he frequented the Friday-afternoon social gatherings at her Bank Street apartment in Greenwich Village (Woodress 281). As Rubin has noted, the list of works Canby was most proud of having selected for the BOMC revealed his taste for "older writers and established forms" (121). He viewed Cather as a traditionalist whose work contrasted sharply against the moral and stylistic excesses of her modernist contemporaries (Seven Years' Harvest 287). She was, in his words, the "most skillful" American novelist of the 1910s and 1920s and a writer "worthy of any [nation's] literature" (American Memoir 266).
Fisher first met Cather in 1891 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Cather was then a student at the state university, of which Fisher's father was chancellor. The two grew close and maintained their friendship through visits and letters after leaving Nebraska to pursue their literary careers. Their relationship was strained by a dispute over one of Cather's early short stories, but by the time the BOMC opened for business, the two had reconciled and held each other in high regard. For Fisher the BOMC represented more than a promising financial opportunity or vehicle for self-promotion. With a family background in education, she was raised to believe that books were vital to the development of healthy individuals and societies. She saw her role on the selection committee as a form of public service and was its "most conscientious" reader(Rubin 130). She and Canby were Cather's strongest supporters on the selection committee.
The BOMC News was edited by Scherman and received by subscribers no fewer than three weeks before the main selection was mailed. The twelve-page, eight-by-eleven-inch booklet was typically composed of a three-page lead review, six pages of "Other New Books Recommended" capsule reviews (two hundred to five hundred words each), an occasional one-page "Outstanding Older Book" review, and two pages listing approximately sixty "Books Recommended in the Past." Included in the publication was a "Substitution Request" form, which subscribers could fill in to receive one of the "Other New Books Recommended" or the "Outstanding Older Book" instead of the main selection. The substitution books were chosen by either the selection committee or the BOMC's team of first readers. When subscribers were first offered alternate selections in April 1926, Fisher was especially pleased. She remarked, "The position which this booklet plays in the BOMC distribution of books is for me literally all important, because it represents the vital fact that nobody is obliged to accept the book picked by our Committee of Selection" (Lee 145). As Radway has written, Fisher "worried that promotion of a single title would obscure all the other worthy books published at the same time. . . . [She] conceived of her role at the club as a kind of scout on behalf of a variety of readers. She was attempting to match prospective readers with titles that would appropriately and effectively address their needs" (264). Exchanges, substitutions, and separate purchases were not only allowed but encouraged, according to a statement published under the "Other New Books Recommended" heading in the News: "The Committee does not set itself up as a censor of taste; its job is a practical one—to choose an outstanding book each month, a book which it considers most people would not care to miss. If the choice in any one month does not meet your own tastes, which should be sacred to you, get one of the books described below—or one of the many books recommended previously by the Committee" (3).
The selection committee wasted little time in making Cather's work available to its subscribers, choosing My Mortal Enemy as one of its "Other New Books Recommended" in 1926. The unsigned review in the News acknowledged that critics had disagreed about Cather's latest novel, "some placing it above and others below the standard of her previous performance." The reviewer hastened to add that this standard was "exceptionally high," for Cather was "unquestionably one of the most skillful, one of the most significant writers of fiction of our day, both in this country and in Europe." To summarize the plot of My Mortal Enemy would be an injustice, the review continued, since "the value of it—as with any high piece of work—is wholly in the manner of its telling." What is most significant about this notice is not so much its limited commentary on My Mortal Enemy as its final sentence, which urged "those who have not yet become acquainted with the character of Miss Cather's work" to purchase the novel. Recognizing that her core readership could be counted upon to buy her latest offering under almost any circumstance, the BOMC endorsement was aimed at expanding her audience.
In the absence of records, it is impossible to determine how many copies of My Mortal Enemy were sold as a result of its designation as one of the BOMC's recommended books. It is safe to say, however, that the number was significant. Fisher once noted that "about half of the enormous number of subscribers do not accept our choice but do take the trouble to specify some other book or none at all" (Lee 145). Furthermore, a listing in the "Other New Books Recommended" section of the News led not only to sales directly through the club but also to sales in bookstores. In 1927, Scherman commented, "it is a conservative estimate that whenever we list a book and describe it, in what we call our supplementary list, it is good for at least an indirect sale of from five hundred to a thousand copies of that book in the bookstores" (Lee 144).
In a 15 August 1927 letter, Fisher wrote to Cather's publisher Alfred A. Knopf about the forthcoming Death Comes for the Archbishop to see if there was anything she could do to "help the distribution of that exquisitely beautiful book." She expressed disappointment that the selection committee had not chosen it as the book of the month for September. Other committee members had appreciated its "loveliness," she explained, but felt it was "too contemplative and had too little 'action' (whatever that means!) to appeal to a very large and very miscellaneous audience."
Fisher was chagrined that Death Comes for the Archbishop was not sent out as a main selection, but it was offered to subscribers in the "Other New Books Recommended" section of the News in September 1927. The unsigned review began, "To an ever-increasing host of discriminating readers each new novel by Willa Cather is a gala event" (3). The remainder mainly quoted from the report of one of the selection committee members, most likely Canby or Fisher. The reviewer acknowledged the "problem" of scant plotting cited by the rest of the committee but asserted that "if there is no story there is a hero . . . perhaps two heroes . . . two French priests, one of them fine, cultivated, and sensitive, the other of rougher, sturdier stuff" (3). Any deficiency of plot was additionally compensated for by Cather's vivid descriptions of the "magnificent Southwest country" (3). To be an admirer of Cather's novels, the review implied, was to join a cadre of readers—as opposed to a "very large and very miscellaneous audience"—for whom plot or "story" was not a primary concern. Appreciation of character, setting, and the formal qualities of Cather's writing, then, identified one as a "discriminating" reader capable of enjoying Death Comes for the Archbishop on its own terms. This appeal to the intellectual aspirations of the club's subscribers paralleled that of its advertising slogan, "Handed to You by the Postman, the New Books You Intend to Read" (Lee 28).
Rebuffed over Death Comes for the Archbishop, Fisher promoted My Ántonia as an "Outstanding Older Book" in April 1929. Suggesting that readers should not merely rely upon the recommendations of the selection committee, Fisher wondered in the full-page review "if there is a life-experienced person who has not acquired a comprehensive scepticism of what is told him by other persons' reports" (10). Regarding books, she wrote, one might instead enter a public library to see which had been borrowed most often. She observed, "If the binding looks weary, if the edges of the book have lost their raw crispness and are blurred by the thumbing over of human fingers, if the dates of lending are stamped thickly all over the card at the back—there is no doubt about it, that is a book which is part of the food on which America is feeding its heart and mind" (10). Fisher claimed to put My Ántonia to this test whenever she visited a public library. "By this time I know beforehand that it will bear witness to long and hard use," she wrote. The "worn and shabby" copies of the novel in public libraries testified to "the lasting love of our people for that beautiful book" (10).
Turning to reasons for buying and not just borrowing My Ántonia, Fisher wrote, "The next step should be to move it from the public library shelf to the home shelf, to see it in every American's house as part of the stuff of life" (10). She posited that My Ántonia was a book to be owned, even if one did not have time for a cover-to-cover rereading. Its episodic structure and descriptive scenes made it perfect for skimming. "A glance at any page of it as it falls open in your hand brings golden reward, something to beautify or deepen any mood," she asserted (10). Addressing subscribers who might have been reticent to buy a book they had already read, she concluded that the novel was not only one to "live with" but also a book to "grow up to." Cather's story of "a lovable, deep-hearted, natural Bohemian girl" would enrich any home with "more understanding and more love of life" (10).
In Shadows on the Rock the selection committee found a Cather novel upon which it could agree to endorse as a book of the month. The author and her publisher, though, needed to be convinced that selling it through the BOMC was a good idea. Cather had expressed doubts about the BOMC as early as 1928 in a letter to her Houghton Mifflin editor, Ferris Greenslet (Stout 140). According to Knopf, she was opposed to offering her work to book clubs because she did not want anyone to be forced to buy it. He worried that booksellers would object to the selection of Shadows on the Rock on the basis that it would hurt in-store sales. Knopf reports that Fisher alleviated Cather's concerns by explaining the club's policies and procedures in a "very long" letter, the whereabouts of which are now unknown (138). In a 26 June 1931 letter to Canby, Cather wrote that she had left the matter of the book club up to her publisher (Stout 157). Knopf asked his salespeople to survey their most important accounts regarding whether he should sell the novel through the BOMC. He was surprised to hear that the booksellers echoed Scherman's claim about the positive effect of a club selection on sales in stores (138). With Cather's and Knopf's approval, the BOMC made the novel its main selection for August 1931.
The club played a major part in making Shadows on the Rock Cather's best-selling novel. Scherman once pointed out that before 1931, Death Comes for the Archbishop had been Cather's best-selling book, taking four years to reach the 100,000 sales mark. By contrast, Shadows on the Rock sold 120,000 copies, not including the club's distribution of nearly 45,000 copies, within six months of its being selected as a book of the month (Lee 164-65). The only best-seller of Cather's career, it finished second in sales for the year, trailing only Pearl Buck's The Good Earth (Hackett 143).
Canby's lead review in the News referred to Cather as one of the few living novelists "from whom a new book is an event" (1). He wrote, "The plot is—Quebec, the rock to which the ships come once a year across the seas, and from which the canoes go down the lakes. It is enough. The simplicity of this chronicle is the simplicity of art. To recreate such a culture and animate it with such personalities is not simple" (2). He continued: "Shadows on the Rock seems at first reading to be a quieter chronicle than Death Comes for the Archbishop, but, to speak technically, the texture of the narrative is even finer, the emergent characters more varied, the story as a whole more completely knit into an imaginative reconstruction, so perfect that for English readers at least this book is likely to become the classic of French civilization in North America" (2). Canby not only described Cather's latest novel but also implicitly spoke to the cultural desires of the BOMC's middlebrow subscribers. To appreciate the "simplicity" of Cather's work, he suggested, required an ability to divine the "finer" qualities of literary art, an ability for which highbrow critics gave the public little credit.
Obscure Destinies was Cather's first collection of short stories to appear since the BOMC's inception. One of the "Other New Books Recommended" for August 1932, it was reviewed by Fisher, whose opening remark was, "I am confessedly a Willa Cather fan" (7). Of the volume's three stories, "Old Mrs. Harris" and "Neighbour Rosicky" received Fisher's highest praise. Both were "miracles of effortless condensation . . . packed with minutely realistic, perfectly painted details as any Van Eyck canvas" (7). The former was compared to Cather's poem "Poor Marty," a tribute to Marjorie Anderson, a domestic worker in the author's Virginia childhood home (Woodress 24); the latter was called "neighbor and kin" to My Ántonia. About the third story, "Two Friends," Fisher wrote that the protagonists "probably lifted their hats high to A Lost Lady, silently devoted to her charm" (7). By linking the new volume to the autobiographical poem, as well as two of Cather's most successful Nebraska novels, the review made clear to readers who preferred her earlier work that her foray into historical fiction in Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock was over.
Cather's next book, Lucy Gayheart, was considered for main selection status as it was going to press in 1935. This novel did not fare so well as Shadows on the Rock. In a five-page letter to Fisher dated 28 April 1935, Scherman defended the club's decision not to select Lucy Gayheart as a book of the month. On the selection committee, White had detected "crudities" in the prose and opposed Fisher and Canby, who had argued in the novel's favor. Scherman agreed with White and could not see the "absence of sophistication" as a "deliberate imitation of the story-telling of that day," which he took to be Fisher's "theory" about the novel. His view was that Cather had not been living in the present for some years. She was a realist, but of the past. In Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, for example, she wrote of the historical past, which she had to work hard to make real to herself. Cather wrote of an "imagined actuality" in both, according to Scherman. The lack of "polish and finish" in Lucy Gayheart was attributable to the fact that she had "experienced the past she was writing about" and, thus, did not refine and revise to the extent that she had in her two previous novels.
Unable to persuade her colleagues that Lucy Gayheart wasworthy of main selection status, Fisher reviewed the novel in the "Other New Books Recommended" section of the August 1935 News. There she called Cather "a poet if there ever was one" and Lucy Gayheart "a poem, rather than a novel" (4). Fisher located the work in the tradition of poetry concerned with "the death of youth" by either "rough material accident" or "the ruthless hands of the fleeting years" (4). Cather, like the great poets before her, was adept at making "something lovely out of telling melancholy stories of [youth's] inevitable end," according to Fisher (4). Lucy Gayheart revealed another of its author's strengths, she wrote, which was "her magical ability for tender reconstruction of times gone by." The novel had a "golden patina of the past" and "a wistful charm of the irrevocably lived through and left behind" (4). With these latter comments, Fisher may have done her friend an unintentional disservice. The Depression era had brought Cather criticism for being disconnected from the crises of contemporary life. In "The Case Against Willa Cather," the influential critic Granville Hicks had made such an argument, and the term "escapist" was being increasingly applied to her fiction. The "golden patina" and "wistful charm" of which Fisher wrote admiringly were being cited as the principal deficiencies of Cather's work. As one critic wrote of Lucy Gayheart, it seemed as if the author "had decided that the mood and methods of the genteel tradition in novel writing were enough" (O'Connor 464).
In his "Other New Books Recommended" review of Not Under Forty in December 1936, Canby offered a positive gloss on the generational divide announced in its title. He declared, "Under forty could not have written them; but under forty will read!" In his view, the literary reminiscences and critical essays collected therein were "done with the sure grip of character and the significance of details which distinguish Miss Cather's art as a novelist" (4). Her final demonstration of that novelistic art, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, was a BOMC dual main selection (with William Saroyan's My Name Is Aram) for January 1941. Accompanied by a biographical sketch of Cather by Elizabeth Sergeant, Fisher's lead review situated the novel in the context of the "human slavery" then spreading across Nazi-dominated Europe (2). In the face of "calamity almost beyond human imagining," Fisher wrote, readers might be skeptical about a novel with a happy ending. Nevertheless, she stated, Cather's latest book presented "a lovely story of escape from slavery, which is not only literally and factually true, but deeply and symbolically the truth" (2). The author was credited for her depiction of the Virginia setting and for capturing the difference between "the language used by house servants when speaking to their white masters and when talking together in their own cabins." Fisher also drew comparisons to Faulkner and Hemingway, placing Cather above them both. Mrs. Colbert would have been portrayed by Faulkner in "livid purples and bloody reds," leaving the reader "shouting for help," she contended. Hemingway would have tried to produce a "physical shudder" in dramatizing the threat that Nancy faced, as opposed to Cather's more subtle approach. Returning to her opening theme, Fisher concluded that the "golden human values" of Sapphira and the Slave Girl were "consoling and comforting" at a moment marked by "recurring, ever-nearer dangers to our own freedom" (3).
In a 13 December 1940 letter, Cather asked Fisher to send her a copy of the Sapphira review. She was probably pleased by the comment about the authenticity of the novel's slave dialect, since she had unabashedly called Fisher's attention to this attribute in a 14 October 1940 letter. The review was clever in some regards and problematic in others. Fisher argued for the relevance of Sapphira and the Slave Girl to its time but was apparently left untroubled by its problems with race, as have since been explicated most notably by Toni Morrison (18-28). In positioning Cather against Faulkner and Hemingway, the review would have appealed to conservative members of the BOMC. Yet statements such as these situated Cather's work outside the main current of literary modernism. Middlebrow readers might have turned to a novel to find consolation, comfort, and "golden human values," but the country's most influential critics valued hard-edged, ironical fiction more highly.
Cather's final volume of fiction, the short-story collection The Old Beauty and Others, was reviewed by BOMC first reader Amy Loveman in September 1948. She began with praise for the formal attributes of the work: "Whatever Willa Cather wrote had the stamp of the artist upon it, and this posthumous volume reveals again her simplicity and elegance of style and the dexterous manipulation of her material" (8). Yet Loveman would offer only a conditional recommendation to subscribers, for despite the "charm" of the stories, The Old Beauty and Others was a "minor work." The volume was one that "Cather's admirers will want to read, and collectors of her writings will wish to own," she concluded (8). The uninitiated were, then, implicitly forewarned of its narrow appeal.
In the aggregate, reviews of Cather's work in the News conjure competing images of the author. During Cather's lifetime, the BOMC promoted her as a literary artist of the highest order, a cultural icon. The "Miss Cather" constructed in the pages of the News was wholly devoted to her work, seemingly uninterested in artistic trends, topical issues, and commercial concerns. Her greatest literary asset was her prose style, which was characterized by simplicity and lyricism. Her fiction emphasized character and setting over plot and incident and was marked by emotional austerity. All of these characterizations were intended as plaudits and to make Cather appealing to the BOMC's middlebrow membership.
Seen from another angle, however, the club's sympathetic representation of Cather's work reinforced some of the notions of her harshest critics from the late 1920s onward. Its reviewers mediated her texts, highlighting their formal qualities and characterization, while ignoring their tantalizing problems and complexities. This "Miss Cather" was a highly skilled but conventional novelist who was out of touch with her time. She was indeed a writer of lyrical prose, but in the midcentury marketplace of literary reputation, prose stylists and midwestern regionalists did not rank with narrative experimentalists and more cosmopolitan authors on the literary vanguard. As John Chamberlain wrote dismissively of Shadows on the Rock in the New York Times Book Review, "Superbly written, with that sensitivity to sunset and afterglow that has always been Miss Cather's, it still shows that good prose is not enough" (O'Connor 364).
As the theme of Cather as "cultural icon" suggests, Cather has since come to be routinely included among the first rank of twentieth-century American writers. Her work has continued to be popular with general readers and sought after by book clubs. I will conclude with but one example. In announcing the choice of a novel for its "One Book, One Chicago" program—part of a nationwide initiative in which entire cities are encouraged to function as book clubs—Mayor Richard Daley confirmed in August 2002 what Dorothy Canfield Fisher had written in the Book-of-the-Month Club News several decades previous. The mayor said that although the Chicago selection had been published more than eighty years earlier, it had retained its thematic relevance and dealt with contemporary issues such as class, religion, and immigration. He invited citizens to participate in discussions, lectures, and film screenings; three thousand copies of the novel were ordered for the city's libraries, including translations in Spanish and Korean. That novel, My Ántonia, had proven to be an "Outstanding Older Book" indeed (Reardon 38).