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From Cather Studies Volume 7

Willa Cather and Her Public in 1922

Recent scholarship has substantially displaced the once widely accepted image of Willa Cather as an otherworldly aesthete, withdrawn from society in general (though with a few selected intimates) and unconcerned with material matters. Such a view of her was fostered in the memoir published by Edith Lewis, her devoted and protective companion, in 1953, six years after Cather's death. There, Lewis emphasized Cather's single-minded devotion to her literary discipline, insisting that although her response to people was naturally warm, she was compelled to "withdraw more and more from the world" for "self-preservation" as an artist (135-37). Similarly, but with somewhat different emphasis, both James Woodress and Hermione Lee maintained in their late-1980s biographies that Cather had an "obsession with privacy" (Lee 72 and 185; Woodress, Literary Life 141 and 475). A great deal of evidence supports such a view, to be sure, and the understanding of Cather as withdrawn, uncommunicative, and uninterested in the trappings of success has in some measure persisted. But the obsession Woodress and Lee refer to was primarily a characteristic of her later years, not her years of busy career building.[1] We now recognize that the Cather of the early 1920s was not yet the unapproachable person, wrapped in disapproval of social realities, that she later became.

One of the most important challenges to the convention of Cather's reclusiveness was Brent Bohlke's invaluable 1986 collection of interviews and other public statements, Willa Cather in Person. The materials in this volume compel us to recognize Cather's interest in public issues and her at least sporadic availability to the public media. Indeed, it has recently been demonstrated that on at least one occasion her desire for publicity was such that what appears to be an interview was in fact "an auto-biographical fiction created by Cather herself," in effect a press release for which she wrote "both her own words and those of her interlocutor" (Porter 55).[2] In addition to the documents he collected, Bohlke presented an incisive introductory argument that Cather suffered a "civil war" in her personality: "Willa Cather courted and enjoyed public notice, yet she loved anonymity and seclusion. She was enamored of the notice of the press and deeply resentful of the intrusions the press made upon her time and energies. She sought fame but disliked attention" (xxi). Sixteen years later, in 2002, Sharon Hoover extended Bohlke's work by completing and editing his compilation of published and unpublished reminiscences of Cather in Willa Cather Remembered, a volume that demonstrates the breadth and liveliness of her various acquaintances and public roles beginning with her college days. The notion of Cather as a withdrawn aesthete jealously guarding her privacy has also been effectively belied by various elements of the Scholarly Editions of her works, notably essays by Charles Mignon (on My Ántonia) and Susan J. Rosowski (on A Lost Lady). Both of these essays trace Cather's negotiations with her publishers, allowing us to see quite clearly how knowledgeable Cather was about the business of publishing and how deeply involved she was in decisions affecting the publication and advertising of her work.

My purpose here is to extend this revisionist challenge of the once-standard image of Cather by taking, as a case study, her professional activities during a single year, 1922, as they relate to her involvement in the construction of her public reputation. In discussing a different but related case study, Cather's change of publisher from Houghton Mifflin to Knopf, Rosowski emphasizes her desire to "protect her books as well as herself from commercial pressures" (178). My emphasis is instead on her desire to enhance her commercial success and public standing. Yet it is important to recognize that the two efforts existed side by side—dramatically so in this year when Cather was working on A Lost Lady (as Rosowski points out, "the first novel Cather conceived and wrote knowing that Knopf would publish it" [Historical Essay 177-78]) and at the same time engaging in the savvy business dealings I will trace here. Primarily I will do so by reading two specific sequences of letters—those relating to arrangements for her summer lecturing at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, and those relating to the publication and reception of One of Ours, which appeared in September 1922. In both sequences we see her engaged in what Bohlke refers to as "court[ing] and enjoy[ing] public notice," and we see that she not only sought the public aspects of success but demonstrated considerable skill as a businesswoman and self-publicist.

My choice of 1922 for this case study is by no means arbitrary or incidental. Cather herself singled it out in the prefatory note to her 1936 volume of essays, Not Under Forty: "The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts." This much-scrutinized statement has generated a persistent scholarly debate. Interpretations have emphasized the near proximity of World War I (Michael North calls 1922 "the first real postwar year" [5] for England) and the social changes that followed, but have also included such biographical factors as the hostile critical reception of One of Ours, a novel that had occupied her for four years, and her 1923 visit to Isabelle McClung Hambourg in France (1923 being covered by the "thereabouts").[3] But as Michael North and Marc Manganaro have recently pointed out in books devoted to 1922, it was also a year of great significance for modernism generally—a fact by no means unrelated to the question of what Cather meant in her cryptic prefatory note. The year 1922 saw the publication of The Waste Land and Ulysses as well as a number of other notable modernist texts, including One of Ours. Indeed, North argues that Cather's choice of 1922 as the year when the world broke in two was made for essentially literary reasons—both because of the experimental texts published in that year and because of the new writers' misogynistic association of the old-fashioned with the feminine. James Joyce, for example, stated that The Waste Land "ends [the] idea of poetry for ladies" (North 174).

The significance of 1922 for Cather studies becomes all the greater when we note that she taught at the Bread Loaf School in that year. A graduate program operated by Middlebury College, the School of English and American Literature was then in its third year of operation, having held its inaugural session in 1920. The land and buildings used by the school had been willed to Middlebury in 1915. In later years the same facilities would house the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, convening in late summers after the School of English finished its six-week session. At the time Cather lectured at Bread Loaf, the Writers' Conference did not yet exist; it would be established four years later, largely through the advocacy of Robert Frost, seconded by Cather and two other summer lecturers of 1922, Katherine Lee Bates and the respected critic Louis Untermeyer.[4] Already, however, the Bread Loaf School must have achieved some measure of prestige, having attracted Frost to its faculty in 1921. Cather's invitation to teach there in 1922 was a significant recognition of her status as a literary artist whose words could command the same interest on the part of highly qualified and intent students as those of Frost and Untermeyer.

Although my emphasis here is on the ways in which the events of 1922 bore an impact on Cather's status as a public figure, her 1936 statement about the world's breaking in two holds direct pertinence if we take the sentence in its entirety rather than stopping with its familiar first clause: "The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts, and the persons and prejudices recalled in these sketches slid back into yesterday's seven thousand years" (O'Brien 811). Why did the persons she referred to in her essays (Annie Fields, Sarah Orne Jewett, Thomas Mann, Katherine Mansfield) slide back?—assuming, for the moment, that she was correct in saying that they did. The explanation would seem to be that they and their public grew apart. This was precisely what, in 1922, Cather was trying to see to it did not happen to her.

Setting aside for the moment the larger literary context and the matter of her ongoing distress over World War I, we can see that 1922 was a significant year for Cather personally as well:

  • — During January, though she had begun reading proofs of One of Ours, she was living a life of social gaiety, attending parties and enjoying the guests at her Friday afternoons at home, as well as the friendly attention of a number of younger writers (Stout, Calendar no. 576).[5]
  • — In February she fell ill with influenza, from which she had difficulty recovering. Her correspondence during this month included negotiations with Wilfred Davison regarding the possibility of lecturing at Bread Loaf and the beginning of a lengthy exchange with Dorothy Canfield Fisher in which Cather revealed her uneasiness about One of Ours (Calendar no. 578).
  • — In March or early April she underwent a tonsillectomy and was sent to a sanatorium, where she continued to work on proofs of One of Ours.
  • — On 12 April "The Novel Démeublé" was published in the New Republic.
  • — In July she taught for three weeks at the Bread Loaf School, lecturing to aspiring writers.
  • — In August she vacationed on Grand Manan Island, which she liked for its "beauty and isolation," affording her a quiet place to work (Woodress, Literary Life 323).
  • — On 8 September One of Ours was released. Reviews began to appear within a week, most of them unfavorable. On the other hand, the popular reception, as indicated by sales figures and by letters from ordinary readers, indicated success.
  • — On 4 November "The House on Charles Street" (which became "148 Charles Street" in Not Under Forty)—a memoir of Annie Adams Fields, widow of the noted Boston publisher James G. Fields—was published in the New York Evening Post Literary Review.
  • — On 29 November Cather left for a lengthy visit with her parents in Nebraska, and on 22 December she and they were confirmed in the Episcopal Church.

All of these factors relate, in various ways, to the shifting fortunes of Cather's standing as a public figure. When 1922 dawned Cather was a person who had once been a successful magazine editor but whose achievements in that field would soon be a decade in the past, and a writer whose latest novel was soon to be four years past: not exactly someone in the limelight. True, she had made a name for herself, but the dearth of recent publications was putting it at risk of slipping.[6] By the end of the year, the attention attracted by One of Ours had made her controversial. By mid-1923, as the author of a novel that had sold well and had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, she would be indisputably a public figure—one sign of that status being that she had her portrait painted by a well-established artist at the behest of the city of Omaha.[7] The question is, what happened in 1922 to move her from a state of relative obscurity to the status of public figure? And what did she do to promote this change?

Cather's correspondence in 1922 reveals that she was working hard to consolidate her standing and shape her public image. In particular, the relatively brief sequence of letters relating to her lecturing at Bread Loaf and the more extensive series relating to the public reception of One of Ours provide considerable evidence that the once-accepted conception of Cather as an intensely private person, zealously guarding that privacy and indifferent or even hostile to public attention, is only partially accurate. At minimum, they show that she was exerting considerable effort to shape the terms on which her public image would be formed. Given the length of time that had passed since she last published a major work, it was clearly a crucial year for her in terms of her position in the world of letters. Her 1922 letters show that she was simultaneously courting and (as her liking for Grand Manan would indicate) fending off the public gaze.

So far as I know, the existing record of correspondence relating to Cather's invitation to teach at Bread Loaf consists of just six letters: three addressed to Wilfred E. Davison, director of the school, and three to her fellow writer and old friend from college days Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Unfortunately, the Canfield Fisher Papers at the University of Vermont hold only the letters written by Cather, not the other side (or rather, sides) of the correspondence. The letters written by Canfield Fisher and Davison might provide valuable insight into what Cather knew about Bread Loaf or learned about it in the course of her negotiations, and thus clues to her motivation and expectations when she accepted the invitation. Even without their context of responses, however, the letters provide an illuminating window on Cather's skills as a businessperson and a writer still building her career. She positions herself as a desirable but reluctant lecturer—perhaps the more desirable because reluctant.

The first of the six letters, dated 26 January 1922 (Calendar no. 574), is addressed to Canfield Fisher, with whom Cather had initiated a renewal of communications in March of the previous year. At that time she had tactfully solicited Canfield Fisher's advice about the difficult last quarter of One of Ours. Now she continues that topic and also, apparently in response to an overture by Canfield Fisher, takes up the idea of lecturing at Bread Loaf.[8] Her response is measured; she seems, indeed, rather indifferent, saying that her plans for the summer are unclear, though she will probably make a trip to Nebraska at some point. Expressing a guarded willingness to give three or four lectures, she adds that she had never heard of Bread Loaf until now—an entirely plausible statement since the school was preparing for only its third session.

On 6 February (Calendar no. 578) Cather again wrote to Dorothy, indicating that Wilfred Davison had written to her in the meantime extending a formal invitation to lecture at Bread Loaf for six weeks. He had not, however, indicated either the exact dates or how much he was offering as payment. How hard, she asked, should she negotiate? Here, especially, we would like to have Canfield Fisher's reply. Whatever it was, on the basis of that reply Cather wrote to Davison on 15 February, replying to his invitation in what strike me as remarkably temporizing terms (Calendar no. 580). In effect stringing him along, she says that she thinks she can come to Bread Loaf, or at any rate does not know of any reason why she cannot, though she might have to go to Nebraska on short notice if her mother's health should worsen. If she does come, she thinks she can give four or five sessions, which she goes on to describe in ways that would surely have been very attractive to Davison or to the director or any such school. Referring to the fact that most of the students in attendance would be hoping to breaking into writing careers by way of magazines, she explains that she had been an editor at McClure's in its glory years, when it fostered the development of young writers. She then names her price, claiming it is a bargain rate that she is willing to accept only because of the special nature of Bread Loaf—an enterprise that less than three weeks earlier she had (according to her letter to Dorothy) never heard of.

The fee Cather named was $200 plus hotel expenses. As I read the letter, this seems to mean $200 for the whole, plus expenses. Woodress reads it as $200 per lecture (Literary Life 322). But according to what she then goes on to say in the letter, that would not be a bargain rate at all. She begs Davison to keep the amount a secret because she usually demands that much per lecture from colleges and even more from clubs, in order to avoid those who are not genuinely avid to get her. That is, in what appears to be an effort to enhance her value in Davison's eyes or to convince him that the price she has quoted is indeed a bargain, she positions herself as a writer being pursued by people intent on having her come talk to their groups and usually reluctant to agree.

It was quite true that Cather was being pursued as a speaker. She had lectured in Lincoln and in Chicago the previous fall, and in the month following her letter to Davison she would decline an invitation from Mary Austin to be a luncheon guest of the Query Club. (Whether Austin wanted her to be a speaker or simply attend the luncheon is not clear.) Apparently she settled on a slightly later date with the Query Club, but then missed it due to her tonsillectomy. Perhaps she did not clearly tell them she was not coming; a note to Austin dated 21 April asks her to apologize to the secretary of the club. A few months later (on 19 November; Calendar no. 645) she would decline Ida Tarbell's invitation to the Pen and Brush Club on grounds that she was going to be away in Nebraska. The terms in which she declined are remarkably gentle ones that could not possibly have offended the club's members—whom she may well have thought of as readers she did not wish to alienate. She made a tentative commitment to speak to Tarbell's club on the first Sunday in February—that is, 4 February 1923. There is no record of her having given such a talk, however, and her correspondence indicates that she was absent from New York from 2 through 9 February 1923. With respect to clubs as well, then, Cather seems to have both invited and fended off attention.

The fourth of the six letters relating to arrangements for coming to Bread Loaf is dated 18 February, three days after the letter to Davison (Calendar no. 579, incorrectly shown there as 11 February). She reports to Canfield Fisher that she has specified terms for going to Bread Loaf and has constructed an out for herself by giving advance warning that she might have to back out for reasons of her parents' health. Contrary to Woodress's statement that she made a firm commitment early in the year and then regretted it after she fell ill (Literary Life 322), it does not sound as if her commitment was very firm. Indeed, she goes on to tell Dorothy explicitly that she has put in this part about her parents' health so that Bread Loaf will have no basis for a breach-of-promise suit if she should change her mind.

Cather's presence at Bread Loaf actually remained in doubt up into July. Davison must have been getting worried when she wrote him on 2 July (Calendar no. 608) that both her health and business matters with Knopf have detained her in New York and kept her plans uncertain. She still believes she can probably come to Bread Loaf by mid-month, but she does not sound very sure of it. Assuming she does, she asks, may she bring Edith Lewis along? He must have replied with haste, because only a week later, on 9 July, she writes again to confirm her expectations of a suite of rooms in Maple Cottage and transportation from the train station.

It is clear that once Cather finally fulfilled her commitment to Bread Loaf, she enjoyed her stay. In a note written in August from Grand Manan she exclaimed what a nice group of people there had been there (Calendar no. 612). On 1 September (Calendar no. 615) she wrote Canfield Fisher that her three weeks at Bread Loaf had been marvelous. And indeed a familiar snapshot of her taken while there shows her with a big smile, looking wonderfully relaxed. We might note, too, that for all her disclaimer about her lecture rate, the $200 apparently came in handy. On 2 May, while negotiations with Bread Loaf were still going on, she had been writing to Ferris Greenslet (Calendar no. 593) asking for an advance on royalties to help pay her medical bills. Yet when Davison asked her to return two years later, she gracefully declined and indicated that she would probably never come back. What factors went into her thinking we do not know; perhaps, as Woodress writes, she had found the experience "exhausting" (Literary Life 322). But we do know that in the meantime One of Ours had stabilized her income.

A parallel process of self-positioning vis-à-vis her public was carried out more elaborately and at greater length in Cather's numerous letters of 1922 relating to the reception of One of Ours.

In the letter of 26 January with which we began our survey of the Bread Loaf letters, she returns to the conversation about the novel that she had initiated with Dorothy Canfield Fisher the previous spring. After expressing concern that the last part will not be as well achieved as the first, she says that when Dorothy reads it she will understand what a difficult undertaking it was. This idea of the difficulty of what she had undertaken in One of Ours would be a recurrent note in the veritable campaign she launched in its behalf. On 6 February (Calendar no. 578) she asks Dorothy to read the proofs, and if so, to read simply as a general reader might, in order to spot errors or false notes in the section set in France. Clearly, her desire to produce a sound text was very strong. In early April, perhaps on the eighth (Calendar no. 588), after Canfield Fisher had begun her reading of the existing draft, Cather conceded that the book would be called a war novel and attempted to define how it did or did not fit that category.[9] Much as in the Bread Loaf negotiations, she here adopts a posture of reluctance. Claiming that she had not voluntarily undertaken to write such a book, she solicits Dorothy's sympathy by confiding the personal associations that compelled her to do so. In preparation for Canfield Fisher's reading of the rest of the manuscript, she explains the effects she intended.

Cather continued her discussion of the novel with Canfield Fisher throughout the spring and into the summer in a series of letters that shape her friend's response to One of Ours both in words and by arranging for her to meet Alfred Knopf. The result, whether this was Cather's half-conscious intention or not, was that Canfield Fisher became a singularly well informed reader and wrote a positive review.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher was not, however, the only literary colleague whose response to One of Ours Cather was attempting to shape as its release date drew near, through a series of communications that Steven Trout refers to as a "prepublication campaign to secure positive notices"—a campaign that demonstrates how well she understood that she had broken "literary taboos," hence her need to try to influence reviewers' responses (Trout 109). An innocuous note to Carl Van Doren on 2 January 1922, inviting him to tea (Calendar no. 570), might be regarded as a first step in this campaign. However sincere her impulse to friendliness, and however sincere she was in saying that she wanted to talk with Van Doren about his comments on Henry James, we have to recognize that here was a writer who had not published a novel in four years, who had published only three new short stories in that four-year period (since Youth and the Bright Medusa consisted mostly of stories not only previously published but previously collected), a writer who knew she would have a novel coming out before the end of the year and was implicitly cultivating a member of the literary establishment that would be responding to her work. But if the note to Van Doren was connected to her campaign in behalf of One of Ours, it was an indirect connection. Far more direct ones would follow.

On 6 February (Calendar no. 577), the same day she wrote to Dorothy about Davison's invitation to Bread Loaf, Cather wrote to H. L. Mencken, a powerful arbiter of taste and a critic whose favorable review of My Ántonia had been important, whose favorable attention she naturally wished to retain. Engagingly reviewing her career to date, she asks Mencken to read an advance copy of the new novel. It is because this book is so unlike her others, she claims, that she especially wants to get his opinion—as if she regards this as a strictly private exchange! Adding a note of flattery, she says that she realizes how difficult he is to convince, and if he likes it and regards her character's feelings as valid she will know she has succeeded in spite of the difficulty of what she has undertaken. That is, she says that Mencken will be the acid test; he is a harder audience than any other, and if he is pleased she will know she has achieved her intentions. As with Canfield Fisher, she then goes on to try to shape his response by telling him in advance why Claude reacts to the war as he does and how thoroughly she understands him. She and Claude were and continue to be part of each other, she says; so there can be no question of guesswork as to his feelings about the war and his emotions generally. She closes by asking Mencken to keep her letter to reread when he reads the novel. Then, she says, if he judges that she has written an insipid, womanish book, let him tell her so bluntly, as if man to man.

And so he did. She had attempted to disarm the very criticism to which she knew she was most vulnerable by naming it herself before her critic had a chance to do so, but her strategy did not work.

In May, Cather continued her campaign by using a routine social occasion, the writing of a thank-you note, as an opportunity to tell Carl Van Doren about the new novel (Calendar no. 594). As she had with Mencken, she here seems to try to construct a response in advance by describing the intensity of her own involvement with the story. Van Doren, too, was someone who might be reviewing it.

On 22 June (Calendar no. 603) she wrote to William Allen White, the influential editor of the Emporia, Kansas, Gazette, stating, after an elaborately apologetic introduction, that she was going to have an advance copy of One of Ours sent to him in August and hoped he would review it. Reminding him that he had reviewed My Ántonia favorably, she attempts, as she had with the others, to shape his response to the new book in advance. First, after mentioning his acquaintance Dorothy Canfield Fisher and intimating that she was helping promote the book, she tactfully flatters White by telling him she knows he has a great deal of influence among people in the Midwest. She then states that the new novel is much more substantial than My Ántonia and confesses how much she cares about whether people in the plains states, her own place, read the book and understand it. These were, of course, the very people who were White's primary audience.

As we know, Cather's efforts were to little avail. Late September brought a storm of negative reviews. White himself joked with her at a party (as she reported in a letter to Canfield Fisher on 3 October, Calendar no. 624) that when her own literary clique forsook her the Lord Himself would have to be her rescue. She wrote to White on 19 October (Calendar no. 629) praising his witticism and thanking him for his support and encouragement, and took the opportunity to reiterate her view of the novel's strengths—that is, her thorough understanding of Claude and the soundness of the presentation. White was still in a position to be influential, and she wanted to shape the terms in which he might speak of the book.

Cather was severely hurt, and would remain hurt, by the critical reception of One of Ours, but she consoled herself that sales were strong—that is, that a different and more general public was affirming her. Having earlier conceded to Canfield Fisher that her sales were always stronger, Cather was now able to claim 16,000 sold in two weeks (Calendar no. 621). To Elizabeth Sergeant she complained of the insulting reviews and the fact that the New Republic gave her only a single paragraph. At the same time, she gloried that the book had sold ahead of Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt in Chicago and Minneapolis (Calendar no. 625). On 26 October (Calendar no. 638) she wrote to Canfield Fisher again, reporting that 17,000 copies had been sold, though Knopf was claiming 35,000; then wrote to her again on 28 November (Calendar no. 651) saying that sales had truly now passed 30,000. Whatever the correct number, the book was indeed selling well, and Cather was delighted. The next day, 29 November, she left for Red Cloud for the extended visit that would include her confirmation, along with her parents, in the Episcopal Church. If lecturing at Bread Loaf had signaled her recognition as a member of the literary establishment, this event at the very end of 1922 (as I have argued more fully elsewhere) signaled her arrival in the social establishment.[10]

My intention here has not been to debunk Cather or to deny her obviously very strong commitment to high standards in literary art. Rather, I have wanted to point out that she was also, and quite reasonably so, engaged in managing her career and the way in which she would be thought of by her public. Throughout 1922, despite her heavy involvement in textual corrections of One of Ours and in the writing of A Lost Lady, often regarded as the most perfectly crafted of her works,[11] she found time to try to cajole the favorable reactions of influential critics. In parallel to this campaign of letter writing, she published, in April, "The Novel Démeublé," attempting to shape how members of the liberal intelligentsia, those who read the New Republic, would read her work. We might even say that "The House on Charles Street," published in November, was an attempt to specify the company she would keep in literary history—that is, the circle within whose context she would be viewed.[12]

Although I have taken 1922 as my example year for purposes of this essay—partly because of its singular importance in Cather studies and the history of modernism, partly because by meeting at Bread Loaf in 2003 the Cather International Seminar invited attention to this year in which Cather herself came to Bread Loaf—it is scarcely unique. The letters of 1922 continue an involvement in publicity and details of book production (paper, design) that was already well established. Such an involvement was clearly evident, for example, in Cather's letters to Ferris Greenslet in connection with publicity for The Song of the Lark and My Ántonia. Indeed, she began 1922, in January, by writing to Greenslet to complain that My Ántonia was out of stock at Omaha bookshops and to continue a discussion about a pasteup of press clippings that she had made for display purposes (Calendar no. 571). On numerous occasions, not just during this one year, she demonstrated a keen interest in how her books were publicized, complained when she did not think Houghton Mifflin was pushing them or using excerpts from reviews to advantage in its advertising, and commented on techniques being used to publicize other writers. Like Mary Austin, whose publicity skills she admired, Cather became rather adept at self-promotion. Even so, she continued to chafe when her public got too close. Liking some aspects of her status as a public figure but lamenting others, she remained conflicted about the public role that had come to her as an inseparable aspect of the success—commercial as well as artistic—that she had sought.

Cather's relationship to her public was complex, not only with respect to her business dealings and her participation in publicity efforts but also in ways that go beyond the scope of this essay. An at least equally important question is the extent to which she spoke as part of the social and political establishment of her time or as a resister to it. Here, too, the answer is not a matter of simple either/or but of degrees or of simultaneously existing levels or impulses that were sometimes in conflict. This is a question directly pertinent to the novel whose fate before the public was of such concern to Cather during 1922. One of Ours must be a central text in any attempt to answer larger questions of her stance vis-à-vis public culture and public issues. Derided both publicly and privately for having glorified the nation's military involvement despite, as a woman, knowing nothing about it, she stubbornly insisted that the romanticizing of the war in One of Ours was Claude's alone and that his responses to his experience in the war should not be generalized or taken to represent her own. Yet a public person cannot speak on a public issue and expect to hide behind narrative point of view. And a public person was what Cather had become.

We may be able to conclude, at this distance of time, that Cather is a writer of complexity, ambiguity, and conflict and leave it at that. But in 1922, when she was complaining with mock humor that the pacifists were after her for what they saw as her militaristic bombast in One of Ours, the issue was not one from which serious readers could so easily distance themselves. She had touched a public nerve. With the United States consolidating its position as world power, with membership in the League of Nations having so recently gone down to defeat, with proponents of American military power and a navy second to none already being challenged by antimilitarists (as they would be more stringently in the 1930s), a novel seemingly written in celebration of the glories of warfare could not be the expression of a writer who shunned public response. It may be that her denials of an intention to characterize more than the one soldier she happened to know very well were prompted, in part, by misgivings over the likelihood that she would be entering a public debate in which she was little qualified to hold her own—even, perhaps, one in which she was not sure where she stood.

All of this lies beyond the issue I have examined here, but is not unrelated, especially in that it touches on what Bohlke calls Cather's inner "civil war." In illustration of that inner conflict, we can return once more to the 26 January 1922 letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher in which Cather first intimated that she might lecture at Bread Loaf. In the closing paragraph, in an aside curiously parallel to the mixed nature of her comments on Bread Loaf itself, she made another revelation of her ambivalence about being a public figure. She had recently attended a number of public dinners among the literary circle in New York, she wrote, and the experience had given her a feeling of keen dislike for her own kind (i.e., for writers) to the point that she would like to steal into her den and sleep for months. Maybe so. But we note that she did attend the dinners. Here, as at other points in her correspondence during 1922, we see Cather at once seeking and rejecting the public role that accompanied her chosen identity as successful writer.


 1. In his first biography of Cather, in 1970, Woodress points out that her obsession with privacy became increasingly strong after about 1933 (Life and Art 244). (Go back.)
 2. Porter's argument that the supposed interview published in the Nebraska State Journal on 5 September 1926 (Bohlke 89-91) is Cather's own creation which she was able to get published in the newspaper is based on his study of a typescript with holograph emendations recently donated to Drew University. From this and from a corrected typescript of the 1926 promotional brochure issued by Knopf, Porter judges her to have been a "pr maven" (57). (Go back.)
 3. For an indication of the variousness of readings of Cather's statement about 1922, see Reynolds, arguing Cather's disaffection from "the spirit of modern America" (1); Skaggs, arguing the devastating impact of the reviews of One of Ours (5); Stout, "Autobiography," arguing the significance of her trip to France; and Woodress, 473, and Rosowski, Voyage 130, arguing the waning of respected traditions. Given Cather's habit of drawing on phrases in her letters in later writings, it is possible that she specified 1922 as the year in which the world broke in two not so much because of any distinctiveness in the year itself as because it was in 1922 that she wrote, in a letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, that they "seem[ed] to be living in a different world than the one they used to know" (Stout, Calendar no. 601). That is, 1922 may have been simply a good-enough date for the alienation she felt and the sea change she sensed in the world about her because she happened to have remarked on it in her letter in that year. If so, it was a surprisingly fortuitous selection, given the importance of 1922 in the history of modernism. At bottom, the primary source of Cather's (and others') sense of facing a world "jarred loose from all its moorings—intellectual, moral, and aesthetic" (Stout, Cather 186) must be seen as World War I and the great collection of related changes. Samuel Hynes emphasizes the prevalence of a sense that "the years after the war" were "discontinuous from the years before" (xi). (Go back.)
 4. Information on the history of Bread Loaf is available at web sites for the Bread Loaf Conference and the Bread Loaf School. Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929) was a prolific poet as well as a Shakespeare scholar, best known as the author of the lyrics to "America the Beautiful." She taught at Wellesley College from 1886 until her retirement in 1925; thus her presence at Bread Loaf in 1922 would have been a sound academic anchor to the enterprise. Another faculty member in the summer of 1922 was George Whicher, a professor of English at Amherst. The Whichers and Cather became fast friends. (Go back.)
 5. Since Cather's letters are still protected by copyright and quotation from them is prohibited, I must necessarily follow the summaries in my own volume A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather, supplemented by additional paraphrases from the letters themselves. References to the Calendar by letter number will direct readers to the archival location of the original, where material that could not be included in the necessarily brief Calendar listings can be found. We might note that the restriction on scholarly use of the letters that Cather's will initiated serves, in itself, as an illustration of her mixed signals with respect to her status as a public figure. When we do get access to the 1922 letters (and others), what we find is a Willa Cather who wanted publicity, wanted to be regarded as a public figure, but also wanted to be able to limit public access so that it would occur solely on her own terms. (Go back.)
 6. My view of Cather's professional standing at the beginning of 1922 differs markedly from Skaggs's statement that "by New Year's Day of 1922 . . . Cather had reached a professional high point" (1). (Go back.)
 7. Hermione Lee (185) recognizes this significance of the portrait. We might recall that the Pulitzer was given not solely for literary merit but for work expressing solidarity with its national public. In Ferris Greenslet's summary when he was explaining to Cather in January 1919 why he wanted to nominate My Ántonia for the first awarding of the prize, it was to be given for work best presenting "the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood"; Greenslet to Cather, 14 January 1919, Houghton Library, Harvard, bMS Am 1925 (341) folder 31 of 45. (Go back.)
 8. It is apparently on the evidence of this letter that Woodress states Canfield Fisher served as "the go-between to recruit her" for Bread Loaf (Literary Life 322). (Go back.)
 9. Notes in the file at the University of Vermont place this undated letter a month earlier, on 8 March. (Go back.)
 10. If we look at what Cather has to say in her letters about her so-called conversion to the Episcopal Church, we see—nothing at all! I have not found a single instance of her speaking of the event at the time. Twenty years later, in letters to Bishop Beecher, yes. It is this absence of any expression of religious renewal in any letters to any of her closest friends that leads me to regard her joining the church in 1922 as an event more connected to social status than to inward conviction. For a fuller argument of the point, see my "Faith Statements and Nonstatements." (Go back.)
 11. Rosowski reports that Cather was deeply involved in work on A Lost Lady in the summer of 1922 when she lectured at Bread Loaf. Having made two distinct starts on the novel, one in third-person point of view refracted through Niel Herbert as observer and one in first person, she was carefully considering the technical choice of narrative technique (Historical Essay 191). (Go back.)
 12. Rosowski similarly discusses "The Novel Démeublé" and the earlier essay "On the Art of Fiction" as attempts at "educating her readers about her ideas of fiction and, at the same time, refining the principles according to which she would write A Lost Lady" and according to which she wanted to be read (Historical Essay 185-88). (Go back.)


Bohlke, L. Brent, ed. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Bread Loaf School of English. 9 Feb. 2004.
Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. 9 Feb. 2004.
Hoover, Sharon, ed. Willa Cather Remembered. Comp. L. Brent Bohlke and Sharon Hoover. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
Hynes, Samuel. A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. New York: Atheneum, 1991.
Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1989.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living. New York: Knopf, 1953.
Manganaro, Mark. Culture, 1922 : The Emergence of a Concept. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002.
Mignon, Charles. Textual Commentary. My Ántonia. By Willa Cather. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994. 481-522.
North, Michael. Reading 1922 : A Return to the Scene of the Modern. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.
O'Brien, Sharon, ed. Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1992.
Porter, David H. "Cather on Cather II: Two Recent Acquisitions at Drew University." Willa Cather Newsletter and Review 46.3 (2003): 49, 53-58.
Reynolds, Guy. Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.
Rosowski, Susan J. Historical Essay. A Lost Lady. By Willa Cather. Willa Cather Scholarly Edition. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997. 177-234.
———. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Skaggs, Merrill Maguire. After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1990.
Stout, Janis P. "Autobiography as Journey in The Professor's House." Studies in American Fiction 19 (1991): 203-15.
———., ed. A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
———. "Faith Statements and Nonstatements in Willa Cather's Personal Letters." Willa Cather and the Culture of Belief. Ed. John J. Murphy. Provo UT: Brigham Young UP, 2002. 7-28.
———. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2000.
Trout, Steven. Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather and the First World War. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987.
———. Willa Cather: Her Life and Art. New York: Pegasus, 1970.