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From Cather Studies Volume 7

"A Critic Who Was Worthy of Her"

The Writing of Willa Cather: A Critical Biography

Writing to E. K. Brown in October 1946, Canadian poet Duncan Campbell Scott commented favorably on Brown's essay "Homage to Willa Cather," which had just appeared in the Yale Review. After naming the Cather titles he is familiar with—My Ántonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Shadows on the Rock—Scott says, "I agree with your opinion as to their chance of permanence. I am sure she must have been pleased with your Homage and was conscious that here she had a critic who was worthy of her" (McDougall 177). Brown's essay, which followed after his earlier assessment, "Willa Cather and the West" (1936), defines Cather's trajectory as an artist, the writing history that produced the body of texts that concerns critics still. In "Homage to Willa Cather," Brown was able to construct that body as largely complete and to offer a judicious and sensitive overview. As he had written to Scott earlier in 1946, and with a factual assurance that would later evaporate, Cather "will be 70 this December" (McDougall 172).

For her part, Cather was taken with Brown. She had replied in a friendly way to the copy of "Willa Cather and the West" he had sent her years before, but her reaction to "Homage to Willa Cather" was out of step with her usual response to probing professors. As James Woodress writes, "Cather was charmed with the article and responded with a remarkable five-page letter in which she said it was hard for her tell Brown in temperate language how deeply she appreciated his careful and sympathetic reading of her books." "The tone of these letters," Woodress continues, "is friendly and unreserved, as though Cather were writing to a nephew of whom she greatly approved" (vii). While it is impossible to say just what might have happened had Cather and Brown met, Cather ends her late-January 1947 letter to Brown looking "forward to discussing their personal values when he comes to New York" (Stout 277).

Given Cather's response to Brown's essay, it is reasonable to think that a meeting between the two would have eventuated in a biography commissioned by the subject herself. But Cather died before the meeting could take place, and the decision about a biography and biographer fell to Edith Lewis, Cather's friend and literary executor, and to Alfred A. Knopf, her publisher since 1920.

I will return to these people and to the gestation of the Brown biography, but to set the stage for the story I am constructing here I want to highlight three phrases I have offered thus far: "Here she had a critic who was worthy of her"; "Homage to Willa Cather"; and "personal values." Equally, I want to add two more quotations: the first Cather's, the second Brown's. In "My First Novels (There Were Two)," Cather writes: "When I got back to Pittsburgh I began to write a book entirely for myself; a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbours of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska" (92). In his personal copy of The Professor's House, Brown wrote only a few notes. One, however, is especially striking: "I always think Willa Cather's books [are] too good for this (America[n]) continent."

Together, these quotations define the contexts of what I take to be a foundational act of Cather's establishment as a cultural icon: the making of E. K. Brown's Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (completed by Leon Edel). It emerged one of three books published on Cather in 1953—the others were Edith Lewis's Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record and Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant's Willa Cather: A Memoir. The Brown-Edel biography, beyond being the first scholarly life of Cather, is a book fraught by the complications of its own gestation. And that gestation, though generally well known among critics, has never been examined in detail through the prism of its archival sources: the E. K. Brown Papers at Yale University and the National Archives of Canada, the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Papers at the University of Vermont, and the Leon Edel Papers at McGill University.

These archives reveal a story of some intrigue surrounding the making of Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, one in which the major players are familiar: Cather herself, of course, but newly gone and grieved; Edith Lewis, Alfred Knopf, and E. K. Brown; and then Margaret Brown, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, A. S. P. Woodhouse, Ernest Sirluck, and Leon Edel. Throughout, who Cather was, what she wrote, and what she said about what she wrote are ever in play—that is, Willa Cather as emerging cultural icon. Or, putting the crux of this story another way, what is the definable critical value of Cather and her art? How, as Auden put it regarding Yeats, did Cather "become her admirers"?


In November 1950, when Brown was well embarked on his book, he received a letter from Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant; he had been in touch with her as one of Cather's friends, and she was keeping him abreast of her own book's progress. Sergeant writes: "I do agree with you about the lesser attraction of the mature Cather. It is as if she were greatly lured by the world in some obscure way, yet would never admit it. She had lost some of her early modesty about her own work." Just after this, Sergeant adds: "This is a dictated letter and I seem to have been indiscreet—but I am sure you will not reveal my indiscretions" (Sergeant to Brown, 26 November 1950). Brown did not reveal Sergeant's "indiscretions," but her comment catches some of the tone of the times in which Brown wrote. He was at work with Alfred A. Knopf's and Edith Lewis's approval and help; Sergeant, meanwhile, was shaping her own memoir of Cather, well aware of Cather's views on such writing and with what might be called Lewis's acquiescent disapproval; a woman from Red Cloud, Nebraska, Mildred Bennett, who had never known Cather, was working, to Lewis's apparent horror, on what would prove to be the first biographical book to reach print, The World of Willa Cather (1951). Others worked on similar projects as well. As these people researched and wrote, an iconic Cather was beginning to emerge.

Throughout, Lewis and Knopf sought to manage such work. For example, when Cather died in 1947, George Seibel, a friend of Cather's from her time in Pittsburgh, approached Knopf with the idea of writing a biography. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a mutual friend, had suggested it to him. Knopf rebuffed the idea, saying "there would not be a life."[1] Later, once Brown was working on the biography that Lewis and Knopf had authorized, Seibel wrote to Fisher that he did not "see what we can do but follow the line of least resistance with regard to Willa. After all you can't copyright your name or other people's memories. . . . Three or four people besides Prof. Brown have recently come to see me or have written. Mr. Knopf and Miss Lewis should be glad of such new and widening interest, which their reticence or reluctance may have helped to kindle" (Seibel to Fisher, 9 July 1949).

Seibel's phrase "reticence or reluctance" captures one dimension of Cather's own handling of her literary reputation during her lifetime: she acted in ways that would further that reputation. In this, Lewis and Knopf were only following Cather's lead in rejecting Seibel and recruiting Brown, a distinguished critic in the midst of a brilliant career. Writing to Brown in, presumably, the same vein that she had written Siebel, Fisher argued that Lewis's and Knopf's "wish to keep her [Cather's] girlhood days unchronicled was beginning to give rise to rather disagreeable surmises as to the cause of this wish of hers. Several people in the literary world have asked me quite horrid questions about this point—based on the idea that so great a desire to keep something hidden must mean that 'something' had a sinister color, or would be a disgrace to know" (Fisher to Brown, 27 March 1950).

Equally, Sergeant's comment to Brown that Cather had "lost some of her early modesty" is revelatory of another way of seeing Cather's handling of her reputation: Sergeant's comment rings true and extends the version of her apprenticeship Cather offered in 1931 in "My First Novels (There Were Two)." Writing that essay after a twelve-year span during which she produced seven novels (including one awarded the Pulitzer), a book of stories, and various occasional pieces, Cather made her apprenticeship and subsequent success sound serene, almost inevitable. The facts, both biographical and contextual, that form the basis for any such assessment need not be repeated here, but Cather's career between 1895 (when she graduated from college) and 1918 (when My Ántonia appeared) has still been insufficiently scrutinized. By and large, Cather's critics have followed her version.

But I do not accept that version of things, and it was probably for good reason that Brown left only one period in Cather's life for Edel to write in toto: the Pittsburgh years (it became two chapters in the finished book). Not at all serene, Cather worked doggedly during those years to discover ways to shape her fictions that both rejected the methods of the conventional novel and created on the page a sense of being that she called "life itself" (Song of the Lark 254). The notion that she wrote O Pioneers! "for herself" is a retrospective rationalization of the first order, and one made emblematic by the changed birth date that was to so vex Brown during his research, itself a lie perpetuated by Lewis on Cather's gravestone: after all, Cather had been sanitizing her own history for some time before Brown appeared to construct his Willa Cather.[2]

Brown was self-selected for the task. Born in Toronto in 1905, he was educated at the University of Toronto and at the Sorbonne, where he took a doctorate-és-lettres, a degree seldom earned by non-Francophones owing to the stringent French required, and one requiring two theses, a major (on Wharton) and a minor (on Matthew Arnold). (Another student in Paris, embarked on the same program and also with Canadian roots, was Leon Edel. He and Brown became good friends then.) Well before he finished his theses, Brown had returned to the University of Toronto to teach. And even before he had defended his theses, he left to head the English department at Manitoba. Brown later returned again to Toronto before going to Cornell and, finally, to the University of Chicago. Throughout, he published—from 1930 to 1950 he averaged fifteen to twenty publications a year: books, articles, and reviews reflecting broad interests (British, American, and Canadian literature), deep erudition, and a sharp critical sensitivity. An early champion of Wharton and E. M. Forster, Brown continued his work on Arnold and other Victorians and also published the first major critical book on Canadian writing, On Canadian Poetry (1943) (see Groening).

Brown's startling response in his copy of The Professor's House—that Cather's work is "too good for this (America[n]) continent"—owes to his British and Continental bias in literary preferences, a very usual one in a University of Toronto-trained critic of his generation. Yet however startling it is to us now, Brown's comment reveals just what his critical work on Cather was effecting: he was consciously moving her work into the realm of the first-rate writers.[3] And the beginning of "Homage to Willa Cather" makes it clear that he was doing so as an attack on Trilling and his cohort, whose writing Brown refers to in his first paragraph (though not by name) as "among the gross abuses of much recent American criticism" (77). What he offers, instead, in his homage to Cather is a sensitive, nuanced reading of her work that holds up very well today because it hinges on values apprehended from the stories she writes; that is, as a critic Brown got what Cather was trying to do. He writes, as two examples, that Cather "had always understood that a person's relation to a place might be valuable to him, and as decisive in his growth or retardation, as any relation he might have with other persons. What happens in one place could not happen in same way in any other" (85). Having offered this precise—and utterly compelling—formulation, Brown demonstrates it through Death Comes for the Archbishop, asserting that its "language" "makes the impression of the New Mexico landscape superior to any presentation of setting in the earlier books" (86).

Thus what Cather likely apprehended in Brown's essay were shared "personal values" about literature generally and, most particularly, about ways of understanding her books. By background, education, and inclination, Brown proved himself to be a critic who had a point of view similar to Cather's own: rooted in the European literary tradition, he was able through his critical writings to "bring the Muse" into his North American "country." That is, by his own work Brown demonstrated that he was, in Scott's phrasing, "a critic worthy of" Cather. He did, and he was. And through the warmth of the letters Cather wrote to him after she had read Brown's homage, there is every reason to think that she saw Brown's worth. Edith Lewis and Alfred Knopf certainly did.


For his part, Brown seems to have mounted a campaign to position himself as Cather's first biographer. With the connivance of Helen McAfee, managing editor of the Yale Review, Cather was sent (with Brown's compliments) three extra copies of the issue containing his article. McAfee, who knew and had dealings with Cather herself, seems keen to help further Brown's case (McAfee to Brown, 30 October 1946, Yale).[4] After Cather died—in fact, the day after she was buried—Brown probably wrote Knopf to propose a critical biography. Knopf replied: "I am much interested in your suggestion, but do not feel able to attempt to act on it at this time. I must wait until Miss Cather's literary executor can size up the whole situation created by her death, when we will be able to decide how best to deal with the many suggestions that, quite naturally, are now coming in one way and another" (Knopf to Brown, 8 May 1947).

It took Lewis and Knopf time to sort things out, but in April 1948 Lewis wrote to Brown to ask "if there is a likelihood of your being in New York" soon, since "I should like very much to consult you about a biography of Miss Cather." In her initial letter, Lewis describes her longtime relationship with Cather (including her work on Cather's books), her position as literary executor, and her having talked to Mr. Knopf about the matter. Of Brown's "Homage," Lewis writes, "It pleased Miss Cather, I think, more than anything that has been written about her books." Lewis writes that she has "just finished" Brown's book on Matthew Arnold, and it "has impressed me very deeply." Closing, she reiterates her need to talk to Brown, saying, "I shall be grateful if you can help me to make it possible" (Lewis to Brown, 20 April [1948]). Brown doubtless responded at once, for on 4 May Lewis is writing to give him her unlisted telephone number (Yale), and on 11 June Helen McAfee asks Brown, "How did you come out on the Cather proposal—or is that a secret?" (McAfee to Brown, 11 June 1948).

In late July, Lewis writes that "Mr. Knopf and I both consider it a piece of great good fortune that you will write the biography of Miss Cather. When I asked you to do it, it was with the knowledge that Miss Cather herself felt you had a very true understanding and appreciation of her work." She and Knopf hope to give Brown "every help that we can, and to put all the available material at your disposal." He should feel free to approach any of "Miss Cather's friends . . . please do so with my fullest consent and encouragement" (Lewis to Brown, 29 July 1948).[5]

Brown set to work at once, and, surveying the papers, one cannot but be impressed by his enterprise: he crisscrossed the country, corresponded with and interviewed people, and generally ferreted out all the materials he could find. Looking over his shoulder, writing people on Brown's behalf, and passing things on, Lewis was as good as her word. And while Brown was engaged in this work, he kept at numerous other projects: 1948 and 1949 saw more than thirty publications each, and 1950 saw twenty-seven, among them Rhythm in the Novel, a published set of lectures Brown gave at Toronto which includes a discussion of The Professor's House that bears reading today (Groening 218-20). Brown began writing "in earnest" on 1 August 1950, and by early 1951 he had drafted all of the biography save the chapter on the Pittsburgh years and most of the epilogue (Brown to Fisher, 29 November 1950).

By then Brown was a very sick man—sicker, in fact, than he was himself aware, since his wife and doctor worked together to keep the seriousness of his condition from him (Margaret Brown to Fisher, 28 April [1951]).[6] He was dying of brain cancer. Once he had completed his work on Brown's book, Leon Edel deposited the manuscript and many of Brown's notes in the Beineke Library at Yale; the manuscript shows that Brown began the epilogue—its published first sentence is his—but broke it off to go back to draft the introduction. Given his own circumstances, this was an understandable and poignant decision. On 23 April 1951, at the age of forty-five and in the midst of a brilliant career, E. K. Brown died.


In late 1935, Brown had married Margaret Deaver, described by Sandra Djwa as "a vivacious young Minneapolis society woman" (158) and by Brown's biographer as "no academic . . . but she was widely if eccentrically read, perpetually amused by professorial mannerisms and gossip (as was Brown himself) and striking in appearance and dress" (Groening 48).[7] At the time of his death the couple had two young sons, who were Margaret's preoccupation and her greatest concern, especially in view of their father's sudden passing. Even so, it fell to Margaret to decide just what would become of Brown's biography of Cather, and she is at the center of the rest of this story.

The Dorothy Canfield Fisher Papers at the University of Vermont contain correspondence between E. K. Brown and Fisher in connection with the biography—Fisher wrote up reminiscences for his use, and in the late summer of 1949 Brown visited the Fishers at Arlington, Vermont.[8] Brown and Fisher clearly developed a rapport. So when Margaret Brown begins to settle her husband's literary affairs, she writes on the same day, less than a week after her husband's death, to Lewis and Fisher. A month later she also wrote to Lorne Pierce—head of the Ryerson Press, Toronto—and offered some useful context: I think you would be interested to know that after Edward discovered his condition, he put the Scott ahead of the Cather, for personal reasons, mainly that he was devoted to Mr Scott. I think if he had let the Scott go entirely he would have finished the Cather. As it is, the Cather is being estimated at the moment, and although it is done in part the balance will largely depend on Mr Knopf's sagacity. I am hoping for the best. (28 May 1951) Margaret is referring here to Brown's memoir—forty typed pages—included in Selected Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott (1951). To another Ryerson correspondent, she writes that her husband "was engaged with this extremely complicated Cather biography at the time of his death, and I have had to put that ahead of all the other literary matters he was pursuing" (Brown to Joan Trebell, 26 May 1951).

"This extremely complicated Cather biography," indeed. In her 28 April 1951 letter to Fisher, in which she tells Fisher of her husband's death, Brown writes: "I have just had my first breathing spell, and am not thinking very clearly, but I think it important that I do not do anything to jeopardize the book on Miss Cather. Edward has long told me of Miss Lewis's personality. I wrote her a note in an attempt to calm her (no doubt) assorted fears. Edward had the greatest admiration for you, so I thought I should write you and ask, in fact, urge any useful suggestions." Toward the end of this letter, too, Margaret writes, "Poor Miss Lewis, she must be terribly upset." This may well be an understatement. In her 28 April 1951 letter to Lewis, Brown tells her that her husband "did not know how little time he had left. He knew of its seriousness, and had been working very hard on the biography." She also tells Lewis that the manuscript is being looked at by "a very competent friend" of her husband's, that Lewis should not worry about the materials she had given Brown, and that Margaret "will do all I can to facilitate matters for Mr. Knopf—and I really do think the biography can still be finished without losing too much." In her letter to Fisher written the same day, Margaret says, "But my worry is that Miss Lewis doesn't 'fall apart' over this and cause any trouble."

Although there is ample evidence that once Lewis and Knopf had decided on Brown for the biography Lewis worked to help Brown (the text of Willa Cather Living is, after all, is based on the "notes" Lewis wrote for Brown), there is also evidence that Lewis wavered in her support. During the summer of 1949, for example, Knopf wrote to E. K. Brown, "I don't honestly feel that I can shed much light on Miss Lewis and her present attitude" (Knopf to Brown, 16 August 1949). And when writing to Fisher as matters surrounding the biography were coming to a head in August 1951, Margaret Brown wrote that Edward "more than once said that when he was with Miss Lewis he often had the uncomfortable feeling that Miss Lewis expected Miss Cather to pop up around the door and possibly rebuke Miss Lewis for something she had said." In the same letter, Margaret expresses no residual anger toward Lewis and Knopf—"I think they are both doing what they think is the right thing, Miss Lewis is trying to protect her Idol"—and says that Knopf is being firm with a person—Mrs. Brown—he sees as a "Small Fry" (Brown to Fisher, 11 August 1951).

Writing retrospectively of the circumstances of the Brown biography after its author's death, in his own "Homage to Willa Cather" at the first International Cather Seminar, Leon Edel says that Brown wrote "in relative independence" from Lewis and, had Brown "lived to finish it," "His book would have been even more independent" (188). But Brown did not live to finish it, so his wife had to decide what to do with the manuscript, one she described as "4/5s finished" (Brown to Fisher, 28 April [1951]; Edel said "three-quarters done" ["Homage" 189]). In doing so she had to confront Lewis and Knopf. And though in the same essay, written just after Lewis's death in 1972, Edel is at pains to treat Lewis in a balanced way, he nevertheless offers a characterization of her that warrants quotation: "I am not suggesting that Edith Lewis was a sort of dragon guarding a sacred shrine" (189). Perhaps not, but she was certainly a formidable person from Margaret Brown's point of view.

The first person to read the manuscript after Brown's death, the "very competent friend" whom Margaret mentions to Lewis, was Ernest Sirluck, one of Brown's former students and then a junior colleague at the University of Chicago. At the same time, she consulted A. S. P. Woodhouse, head of English at University College, Toronto, and a man whom she described to Fisher as "Edward's closest and oldest friend"; Woodhouse suggested that someone read the manuscript—thus Sirluck, whose doctoral thesis Woodhouse had supervised at Toronto. This was being done in "protecting Edward's interests," whereupon Margaret would "then send all the material, etc. to Mr. Knopf" (Brown to Fisher, 8 May [1951]). Neither of these men—both Miltonists— knew much about Cather, but each certainly knew something about scholarship, and that Margaret Brown looked to their advice over the next months augured much to benefit her hus-band's biography. In due course Sirluck reported, as he recalls in his autobiography, that Brown's manuscript needed "considerable work" (193).[9]

"What is worrying Miss Lewis," Margaret Brown continues to Fisher in early May, "is that she has sent Edward these famous notes she has made and copies that (I think) Miss Bloom has taken of letters Miss Cather wrote. Nothing less than a guard posted on each door of my house, and a (loaded) sub-machine gun in the front hall would apparently satisfy Miss Lewis that her material is safe." Brown called Knopf and offered to bring the materials to New York and leave them with him. He "seemed very sensible," she wrote to Fisher, "but I wondered if he understood the point that I was trying to make which was that I not only want to quiet Miss Lewis now, but to somehow keep her in a frame of mind so that she won't start over again being difficult with the person who has to finish the book" (Brown to Fisher, 8 May [1951]).[10] Given what she knows of Lewis, she doubts that this is possible, but she needs to make the attempt.

On 16 May, less than a month after her husband's death, Margaret Brown traveled to New York and turned over the manuscript and other materials to Knopf. During the interview Knopf was "pleasant and direct" (Brown to Fisher, 16 May 1951), but he also remarked that in completing Brown's book Miss Lewis "hopes for literary fame . . ." (Brown to Fisher, 22 May 1951). In this last letter, Margaret also enclosed a letter from E. K. Brown to Woodhouse addressing her husband's deteriorating health as well as a copy of Sirluck's "revised (and final) report of the Cather mss."

Thus, within a month of Brown's death those concerned with the fate of his uncompleted Cather manuscript are divided: Lewis and Knopf, on the one hand, and Margaret Brown and her advisers on the other. Having authorized E. K. Brown to produce the biography they envisioned—one of taste and circumspection focused on Cather's works more than on her private life; that is, one Cather herself would have endorsed—Lewis, Cather's literary executor, and Knopf, her publisher, wanted to ensure the outcome of their project in the ways they had envisioned. Margaret Brown, self-admittedly not a literary person, but as her husband's heir and executor the person who owned his nearly completed manuscript biography, wanted to ensure its completion in a way that confirmed E. K. Brown's reputation. In contention throughout this standoff is Cather's iconic status: What will she become? How will she be constructed? Who will have the job of completing E. K. Brown's critical biography of Cather?

Of particular significance in this standoff is Edith Lewis. Easy to caricature as some sort of "dragon guarding a sacred shrine," Lewis has often been seen as a kook in Cather criticism, especially just after Cather's death, yet very little is known about her.[11] What is known—for example, Lewis's editorial role in the shaping of Cather's manuscripts appears to be significant— suggests that learning more about her will lead to significant revision of our understanding of the Cather-Lewis relationship.[12]

Yet there is considerable reason to question Lewis's actions regarding this biography after Brown's death. Even before Brown was authorized to begin his work on the biography, Lewis and Knopf had created an atmosphere of, as Seibel characterized it to Fisher, "reticence or reluctance" surrounding any biographical work on Cather. There is evidence that Lewis sought to stymie Mildred Bennett's research. More than this, the archival records make it clear that in helping Brown and Edel, Lewis not only corrected facts but also sought to shape particular interpretations of Cather's life, friends, and works. And on least one occasion she wrote Edel to discourage him from assisting Sergeant's memoir in any material way (Lewis to Edel, 6 February 1952). Without question, too, Lewis took such actions in the same spirit in which she wrote to Carrie Miner Sherwood when Lewis and Knopf were considering candidates to write the biography. Then Lewis wrote that she and Knopf "both feel that it [the biography] must be done by a writer of the highest standing, someone with a deep and true understanding of Willa's work and a high order of critical ability—above all, one who can be trusted to write it in a way she herself would have approved" (15 November [1947]). Given all of this, most of it known to Margaret Brown, Knopf's remark to her in May 1951 that in finishing Brown's biography Lewis "hopes for literary fame" had a chilling effect. Based on Lewis's actions since Cather's death, it should have.

One of the solutions contemplated was to publish the manuscript as it was—that is, without anyone completing it, just copy-editing and mechanics. Thus in late June, Brown wrote to Fisher: Your remark about finishing the book as is, is very well taken, but as the book lacks a satisfactory introduction and a satisfactory conclusion, I don't know. Mr. Knopf if [is] now acting like a member of the British Foreign Office, very chary with his remarks. His only questions have been in the direction of the person to finish the Pittsburgh chapter (which does have to be finished, but could remain fairly pedestrian, if necessary). Also, he reassures me that he has had two carbons made of the mss. It is possible that he thinks as you do, but is waiting to talk it over with Miss Lewis. (24 June 1951) Just after this, Knopf wrote to Brown and endorsed Lewis as the person to finish the book: "I would like very much indeed to be able to arrange with Miss Lewis to prepare Mr. Brown's manuscript for publication. I know that the resulting job will be competent, in good taste, and will respect at every point the work which Mr. Brown himself completed. I won't say any more in this letter because Miss Lewis is writing you" (26 June 1951).

Margaret Brown rejected this possibility, writing to Fisher after receiving Lewis's letter of proposal: "I read from her letter that she intends to fill in the gaps in the mss as though they have been written by Edward, and then write the final part as her own. If I understand that properly, it seems impossible to let her finish it." She also mentions that Sirluck noted that Brown had rewritten Lewis's notes, making them come "alive and [have] style, whereas in the original form they were flat and dull" (Brown to Fisher, n.d. [return address "until July 14, 1951"]). Brown sent copies of Lewis's letter to both Sirluck and Woodhouse; Woodhouse ultimately drafted Brown's reply to Lewis and to Knopf.

Fisher's reply to Brown deserves to be quoted at length:

This proposition that Miss Lewis finish your husband's book about Willa Cather is very much more of a drama than you realize, probably, young as you are. I have known Edith Lewis, as I think I told you, since we were both little girls. So I know very well, from a little distance that is, the circumstances of Miss Lewis going to live with Miss Cather. She was a singularly attractive, sensitive, and everybody thought gifted girl who went to New York to see what she could do in the literary world. She was getting on very well and had had some recognition, and had indeed won a prize for a short story in a contest of considerable importance. And then because she and Miss Cather had both lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, they came together. Miss Lewis fell at once completely under Miss Cather's influence and as far as her family and friends could see disappeared from view thereafter, until she is quite an old lady as I am. She has made every imaginable sacrifice, much more than a wife would make for her husband, because a wife has at least some legal position and definite recognition as a helper. This she has never had. So I can see that the opportunity to have a part in what will certainly be the very best book ever written about Willa Cather, means an enormous amount to her.
But I agree with you that to have her go on with the book in the way which she seems to wish to do it, that is finishing it up, and touching up the parts which your husband has already written would be the worst possible way to treat that. You wouldn't want anybody to do over or fill in any gaps in what he has already written. (Fisher to Brown, 8 July 1951)
Fisher's portrait of Lewis here ought to be read with the knowledge that, for her part, Lewis also has doubts about Fisher (see Lewis to Edel, 20 June 1952; in Willa Cather Living there is only one reference to "the Canfield Family" as Cather's friends in Lincoln), yet it captures a view of Lewis confirmed by others and by her own actions when confronted with Margaret's firmness on Edel as the person to finish her husband's book. This standoff, moreover, was very much about what Cather was to become as an icon—an "Idol," as Margaret had Lewis's Cather, or the person supported by the biographical facts sought by E. K. Brown, Margaret Brown's "Board of Experts" (as she once called them), and ultimately Leon Edel (Brown to Fisher, 17 August 1951).[13]

Margaret Brown's preference for Edel merits some comment. As indicated, E. K. Brown had met Edel when the two were graduate students at the Sorbonne in the 1920s. There, for his part, Edel embarked on his lifelong career as a Jamesian and as a literary biographer. During the early 1930s, he sought out and interviewed the subject of one of Brown's theses, Edith Wharton, for his research (a file of letters addressed to Brown by Edel during the 1930s at McGill University recounts this meeting). Edel's papers also confirm that the two men remained friends and were in regular contact during the subsequent years. Margaret Brown and Edel address each other by first name throughout their correspondence regarding the biography, indicating that they were longtime friends. And when Brown died, probably before he was approached to finish the Cather book, Edel wrote to A. S. P. Woodhouse—whom he did not know at the time—volunteering to participate in a memorial volume in Brown's honor (Edel to Woodhouse, 29 May 1951). At the time, too, Edel was deep in the first volume of his five-volume biography of James, but he was willing to take on his friend's book in order to see it published. Objectively, then, Edel was a far more appropriate choice to complete the book than Lewis.[14]

Replying to Fisher's advice about Lewis, Margaret shows herself feeling the force of Fisher's retrospective assessment of Lewis: "My only objection to Miss Lewis was that she would make an objective book subjective. From what you wrote, I see the lady would emerge finally as an Author of Distinction." Not wishing to accept Lewis under such terms, although still wishing to see the book into print through Knopf, Margaret proposed Edel—in very firm and clear terms, as drafted by Woodhouse—as the person to complete her husband's book. Her letter to Knopf is firm and businesslike; the letter to Lewis is apologetic and understanding (Brown to Knopf, Brown to Lewis, 11 August 1951). In early August she wrote to Fisher that "My suggestion was received with anger and resentment" (Brown to Fisher, 7 August 1951).

Even though she was no academic, Margaret saw what Lewis and Knopf were doing to her and, thereby, to her husband and his work. Indeed, through all this she came to something of the same realization Henry Colbert has that morning at his breakfast table in Sapphira: "I see through all this, see to the bottom" (7). Thus she continues, writing to Fisher from Chicago, caustically appraising the situation confronting her back east: Mr. Knopf has made up his mind. Very practical one, too. If accepted by me, Miss Lewis, or I should say, Miss Cather's literary executor, would be forever Mr. Knopf's friend, and forever agreeable to his suggestions and even beyond the horizon it would be bright for Miss Lewis must die one day and so must Mr. Knopf, but there is the Firm, and what better heritage than being Miss Cather's 2nd literary executor? The dollars lost over the kind of book Miss Lewis would finish would be nothing compared to the long term gains. So from his point of view he is quite right in rejecting Mr. Edel. However, now enter into the more torturous recesses of the mind—which I think exist in most people that have managed to make millions in one lifetime: Mr. Knopf is thinking "let's play both ends against the middle"—so instead of rejecting Mr. Edel as a person to do the job—for there is no telling what that wretched woman in Chicago will dream up—let us hand her the problem, with the stipulation that before anything more is done there is a contract. And a well-written contract can seal a fate subtly but as certainly as a judge donning the black cap[e]. Then let Mr. Edel see Miss Lewis, discover she has been adequately impressed to reject him, and the book can only be written by Miss Lewis. The only gamble is that the woman in Chicago is lying and is anxious that the book be published. Mr. Knopf and Miss Lewis then feel the greatest emotional delight of all—self righteousness, etc., etc. (Brown to Fisher, 7 August [1951]) Sensing Margaret's frustration at all this, one is tempted to quote Roddy Blake: "it would come to money in the end. 'Everything does'" (The Professor's House 243). But the real currency here was not money but reputation—Cather's versus Brown's. Writing to Fisher in August, just before Lewis announced herself "not [willing] to take any further part in Mr. Brown's biography" (Lewis to Brown, 16 August 1951), Margaret recalled that when her husband "told me the stories about Miss Lewis he did not try to dissuade me from my conviction that she was being silly. Mr. Knopf he once mentioned as 'a very shrewd man.' . . . Edward felt this kind of book was needed, which is not Miss Lewis's kind" (Brown to Fisher, 11 August 1951).

On 11 August, Brown also told Fisher about the letter in which she informed Lewis of her preference for Edel: "I must say, I hated to send that letter to Miss Lewis. After all the work she has done, and considering her great attachment to Miss Cather, and the fact she isn't young any more, and is so sensitive and suspicious. Neither of those people seem to realize that Edward died, except inasmuch as he did it very inconveniently for them." Brown ultimately reversed herself regarding Knopf, but not Lewis. And when Lewis announced her decision to withdraw from consideration, Margaret commented to Fisher, "It seems that Miss Lewis has picked up her dolls and gone home" (17 August 1951).

After receiving his copy of Lewis's withdrawal letter, Edel wrote to Brown that "Mr. Knopf has clearly done the ungentlemanly thing of showing his private correspondence [to Lewis]— a breach of discretion in such an instance which can only, I suspect, be a calculated act. We can only guess what his motives are, but her reaction, so prompt and angry, strikes me as confirming precisely that she has hardly an objective view of the matter." He concludes: "I think what's happening confirms all your suspicions and justifies entirely what you've done" (Edel to Brown, 20 August 1951). In his "Homage to Willa Cather," Edel asserts that "Miss Lewis could only write a worshipful life, and it would no longer be the life of Brown's researches" (190). Once the dust from Brown's decision to have him complete the book settled, Edel was able to complete the biography as Margaret Brown had hoped and to see it to print as a Knopf book. Edel had the advantages of being in New York at the time and having a well-established reputation as a scholar to which Knopf deferred. First he met with Knopf, whom he did not know, on 11 October 1951, and between then and 23 October he met with Lewis. When they met, as Edel writes, "I said to her that we were each mourning a friend: that we were each trying to be loyal to that friend" (191). Clearly, Lewis accepted that argument. Once the difficulties of August had passed, and once a contract had been arranged— between Knopf on the one hand and Brown ("the owner") and Edel ("the editor") on the other—Lewis resumed her position as helpful adviser to the project.

The numerous letters in the Edel Papers at McGill show that Lewis and Edel established a good rapport, just as Edel later remembered in his homage. He kept her informed of the book's progress and, once the manuscript was completed in spring 1952, asked her to read it and comment. This she did, writing Edel a twenty-one-page letter commenting page by page on matters of fact, interpretation, and syntax (Lewis to Edel, 21 May 1952). In addition to this, they met to go over the manuscript.[15] This done, the book appeared in early 1953 to positive reviews. It remains among the best Cather biographies.

E. K. Brown's Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, completed by Leon Edel (and no more than that, completed), embodies in its provenance the issues that confront Cather critics still as scholars, and which confront especially any attempt to gauge Cather as a "cultural icon." Like her character Eden Bower in "Coming, Aphrodite!," who "knew that she was to be Eden Bower," Cather worked doggedly during her early career to become Willa Cather, well-known author (28). During the 1910s, once her star began to ascend—again like Eden Bower—she carefully shaped the persona she became, most especially through such essays as "My First Novels (There Were Two)." And while not all would agree with Sergeant when she wrote to E. K. Brown that the older Cather "lost some of her early modesty about her own work," that assessment seems inescapable. In responding to Brown's "Homage" as she did, Cather effectively directed Lewis toward him as her first scholarly biographer. Brown, for his part, also knew that he was going to be E. K. Brown, a leading, sensitive, and admired critic who espoused real literary values, and so was "a critic worthy of" Willa Cather. So too was Leon Edel. We do not know, nor can we ever know, just how Brown would have finished Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, but one thing is certain: the standoff between Margaret Brown and her "Board of Experts," on the one hand, and Edith Lewis and Alfred A. Knopf, on the other, offers an initial and critical instance of "Willa Cather as cultural icon" as she ceased to be Willa Cather and became her admirers.


 1. Among the Brown Papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale University there is an alphabetized accordion file in which Brown organized his and other relevant materials connected to the biography. The note in which Knopf told Seibel that "there would not be a life" is in slot D. (Go back.)

See Edel's "Homage to Willa Cather," the published version of the address he gave at the first International Cather Seminar in 1973, for a detailed account of Brown's—and Edel's—difficulties with Cather's changed birth year. Edel's account of his negotiations with Lewis over the publication of the date in the Brown biography is both revealing and contextually important here. In a letter to Edel, Lewis concedes that 1873 is the correct birth year (Lewis to Edel, 6 May 1952). See Murphy for a thorough and balanced survey of the Cather-Lewis relationship.

David H. Porter has probed and traced Cather's construction of her own history, looking especially at two biographical sketches—one written in 1903 and other in 1915—and at a manuscript "interview" with herself that Cather wrote in 1926. My examination of Cather's numerous personal approaches to key reviewers who would subsequently do her reputation good—H. L. Mencken and H. W. Boynton the most prominent among them—complements Porter's (see Thacker). The conclusion that Cather was enormously ambitious and intent on literary success, and willing to do what she need to do to ensure that success, is both inescapable and little scrutinized. By 1931, when she wrote "My First Novels (There Were Two)," her very real success allowed her to forget the grasping details of her struggle before she switched to Alfred A. Knopf in 1920. Knopf, for his part, made that success real.

(Go back.)
 3. Brown's work is characterized throughout by his assertion that contemporary authors demand close critical scrutiny. This can be seen in his early thesis on Wharton's work, his stated enthusiasm for the work of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, and especially in his work on Canadian writers. Brown's publication list is filled with newspaper reviews in which he treats a wide range of authors and books, primary and secondary, British, American, and Canadian. His "Causeries" were a frequent feature in the Winnipeg Free Press. (Go back.)
 4. In late 1921, Wilbur Cross, editor of the Yale Review, approached Cather to see if she would send them her lecture "Obstacles to American Art." Cather indicated willingness initially, but ultimately she did not do so. Part of this correspondence was with Ms. McAfee, whom Cather invited to their "at homes" on Bank Street (Cather to McAfee, 7 February 1924). (Go back.)
 5. An example of Lewis's work to help Brown is the following letter to Carrie Miner Sherwood:

I do not know if Willa sent you the very fine review of her work by Mr. Brown which was published in the 1946 autumn number of the yale review. Willa herself liked it better than anything that had been written about her books—thought it written with the greatest sympathy and understanding. She wrote Mr. Brown several long letters that last winter and spring—the kind of letters she would not have written to anyone in whom she not had great confidence.

It was chiefly because of Willa's own feeling about Mr. Brown that Mr. Knopf, her publisher, and I, after many talks in which we tried to canvas the various possibilities, decided to ask Mr. Brown to do Willa's biography.

A new book of his which appeared this spring—a critical study of Matthew Arnold—seemed to us added evidence of his fine ability as a writer.

Mr. Brown came to New York in May at Mr. Knopf's and my request and we went over the thing thoroughly with him. Both Mr. Knopf and I feel that he is a person of the highest standards, fitted by his scholarship and his gifts as a writer and his long-felt interest and sympathy with Willa's work, to write the kind of biography she would have approved.

I have told Mr. Brown that through your life-long friendship with Willa, and your close companionship with her as a child and a young girl, you can give him better material than anyone else about her life in Red Cloud. I hope so much, Mrs. Sherwood, that you will help him all you can when he comes there. I feel sure that Willa would have wished it. I think when you see him you will feel the same confidences in him that Mr. Knopf and I feel. (Lewis to Sherwood, 27 July 1948)

(Go back.)
 6. Just after E. K. Brown died, his wife, Margaret, wrote to Fisher: "If Edward had known the true and hopeless nature of his illness (melano sarcoma) he would, I think, have finished the book. But of course I valued his peace of mind more than anything else and didn't tell him" (28 April 1951). Ernest Sirluck, who shared an office with Brown during his illness, writes that Brown turned to a "quack" in Toronto "when his doctors had told him there was no hope" (183). While Margaret did confide her husband's condition to Sirluck and to his wife, Lesley, she did so without her husband's knowledge. Margaret said they could discuss the matter with Edward only if he brought it up. He never did; nor did he tell any of his close Toronto friends that he had cancer. Sirluck concludes: "I have never understood why he was so insistent about keeping his illness secret" (184). (Go back.)
 7. Professor Gordon Roper, who knew the Browns when he was at the University of Chicago with them, described Margaret as "a dish"— an impressive woman striking in appearance and dress, unlike most faculty wives (pers. comm., 6 August 2003). Ernest Sirluck, who met Margaret while he was an undergraduate at Manitoba, describes her as "an attractive young woman who was cutting her own considerable swath in Winnipeg society (she was an American with money and knowledge of how to use it)" (40). (Go back.)
 8. In her 11 August 1951 letter to Fisher, Margaret is a bit perplexed that her husband did not anticipate a course of action should he die before the Cather biography was finished. Not an academic and his sole literary executor, she concludes that he knew she was good at seeking and taking expert advice. Some of that material—most significantly, a ten-page letter dated 10 December 1950 describing Pittsburgh during Cather's time there—is in the Leon Edel Papers at McGill University. (Go back.)
 9. In his 12 May 1951 memorandum to Margaret Brown, Sirluck notes that "two-thirds of the introduction has been written" and that the chapter on the Pittsburgh years "would require both research and criticism"; in addition, a chapter on Cather's last years (1941-47) is needed, as is a conclusion that provides an estimate of her career. While Brown had done most of the introduction, "the quality of the work" on it "is not as high as the quality of the rest of the book." Regarding the Pittsburgh chapter, Brown had written his analysis of The Troll Garden, the "major critical portion of the chapter." In addition to this assessment of the manuscript, Sirluck made suggestions regarding the person to finish the job, the nature of the contract, and the function of the preface. He thought Knopf should select the person, who would be paid for the work without any claim to royalties. The book's preface should make clear just what material was added to Brown's and, if required, any difference of viewpoint in the concluding critical assessment of Cather's career should be specified. (Go back.)
 10. Throughout these exchanges, Margaret sees Knopf's position as one of expediency; in view of his ongoing relationship with Lewis over the Cather copyrights, having Lewis finish Brown's book is the easiest thing to do. (Go back.)
 11. Indicative of this attitude toward Lewis is a commonly held belief that she is buried, in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, at Cather's feet. She is not: she is beside Cather to the right, her stone flush with the ground beside Cather's large stone replete with My Ántonia quotation and incorrect birth date. (Go back.)
 12. Manuscript materials that have recently come to light suggest that Lewis was deeply involved in shaping Cather's fiction. A manuscript of The Professor's House at the University of Nebraska, for example, reveals that Lewis made numerous, and substantive, revisions to the text. Many of these were retained in the published book. See Philip L. and Helen Southwick Collection, Love Library, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Melissa Homestead and Anne Kaufman are now at work on an extended biographical analysis of Lewis that has already radically changed the accepted view of the Lewis-Cather partnership. They promise to change that view much further. (Go back.)
 13. Brown notes, and it is confirmed by Lewis's subsequent correspondence with Leon Edel, that Lewis consistently referred to the Brown-Edel book as "the Biography"—that is, always a proper noun. See, for example, Lewis to Edel, 23 October 1951. (Go back.)
 14. Ernest Sirluck offered me his recollection of these "difficult days": The only thing I might add is that Leon Edel was fully aware of the difficulty posed by the difference between his approach to biography, which emphasized psychological analysis, and Brown's, which emphasized the explication of texts. He came to Chicago at Peggy Brown's invitation, and after going through Edward's materials met with me for an entire morning. I knew the quality of his work and wanted him to do the job, while he wanted to be sure that I understood the difference between his approach and Edward's. We talked at length about the difference between completing another man's work and writing an autonomous portion of a book, and he finally said he was willing to subordinate his role to Edward's for his old friend's sake. I thought then and still think it was rather a noble act. (Sirluck to author, e-mail, 16 January 2004) (Go back.)
 15. Margaret Brown also read—and warmly approved of—the manuscript, marveling at Edel's ability to add material while retaining her husband's tone and pace (Brown to Edel, 1 October [1952]). Edel also had Fisher sent a set of page proofs (Edel to Fisher, 18 October 1952). Only Lewis, apparently, offered line-by-line commentary. (Go back.)


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