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from Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986


Cather felt that in many important ways her career as an author really began with the publication of O Pioneers!.The book was received favorably and with considerable excitement by many reviewers, who saw in it several things that were quite new, including its location and its immigrant cast of characters. It also resulted in her first full-length interview, in the Philadelphia Record, by an interviewer signed only as "F.H." As Bernice Slote has often noted, this first interview is of great importance since it was used for many years following by reviewers and even by other interviewers as a source of biographical information (Kingdom of Art, p. 445). Of some subjects, Cather would never again speak publicly with such candor and comprehensive detail: her arrival in Nebraska, her first attempts at writing, her debt to Sarah Orne Jewett. In other subjects the beginnings of a life-long continuity can be observed: the necessity of honesty, of writing from one's own experience, the importance of simplification.

O Pioneers! had been reviewed in the Record the previous day, 9 August 1913, by P.A. Kinsley, who called it a "story of abundant merit," and went on to say, "We hope Miss Cather will not neglect to till the promising field for fiction she is among the first, if not actually the first, to disclose."


Miss Willa Sibert Cather, whose new novel, O Pioneers! has just placed her in the foremost rank of American novelists, began to do newspaper work on the Nebraska State Journal while she was still an undergraduate in the University at Lincoln. From Lincoln Miss Cather came East as far as Pittsburgh, to go on the regular staff of the Daily Leader.

Leaving the newspaper life, while still very young, Miss Cather then accepted a position to teach, first Latin and afterward English, in the Pittsburgh High School. It was during this time that she wrote the verse and short stories which secured her the post of associate editor of McClure's Magazine and took her finally to New York.

Miss Cather's new novel, O Pioneers! is of special interest to Philadelphians—this magnificently grave and simple and poetic picture of early days on the uplands of Nebraska—if only for the strong influence of Whitman which the writing shows. There is the wise, clean-earthed philosophy of Whitman in the selection of the book's theme, too, and Miss Cather quotes her title direct from our superb white-bearded old lover of the world.

Though Miss Cather no longer spends all her time in the McClure Publications offices, on Fourth Avenue (she was managing editor of McClure's Magazine for four years), she is still connected with that publishing house; and I was eager to have her opinion of modern short-story writing in the United States.

"My own favorite American writers? said Miss Cather. "Well, I've never changed in that respect much since I was a girl at school. There were great ones I liked best then and still like—Mark Twain, Henry James and Sarah Orne Jewett."

"You must have read a lot of work by new people while you were editor of McClure's?" I suggested.

"Yes," smiled Miss Cather, "I suppose I read a good many thousand stories, some good and some bad."

"And what seemed to you to be the trouble with most of the mediocre ones?"

"Simply this," replied Miss Cather unhesitatingly, "that the writer had not felt them strongly enough before he wrote them. Like everything else in the world, this is a question of —how far. No one person knows much more about writing than another. I expect that when people think they know anything about it, then their case is hopeless. But in my course of reading thousands of stories, I was strengthened in the conclusion that I had come to before; that nothing was really worth while that did not cut pretty deep, and that the main thing always was to be honest.

So many of the stories that come into magazines are a combination of the genuine and the fake. A writer has really a story to tell, and he has evidently tried to make it fit the outline of some story that he admires, or that he believes has been successful. You can not always tell just where a writer stops being himself and begins to attitudinize in a story, but when you finish it, you have a feeling that he has been trying to fool himself. I think a writer ought to get into his copy as he really is, in his everyday clothes. His readers are thrown with him in a personal relation, just as if they were traveling with him; and if he is not sincere, there is no possibility of any sort of comradeship.

"I think many story writers try to multiply their ideas instead of trying to simplify them; that is, they often try to make a story out of every idea they have, to get returns on every situation that suggests itself. And, as a result, their work is entertaining, journalistic and thin. Whether it is a pianist, or a singer, or a writer, art ought to simplify—that seems to me to be the whole process. Millet did hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated, but when he came to paint 'The Sower,' the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. It was probably the hundred sketches that went before that made the picture what it finally became—a process of simplifying all the time—of sacrificing many things that were in themselves interesting and pleasing, and all the time getting closer to the one thing—It.

"Of course I am talking now about the kind of writing that interests me most—I take it that is what you want me to do. There is The Three Guardsmen kind, which is, perhaps, quite as fine in its way, where the whole zest of the thing is the rapid multiplication of fancies and devices. That kind of writing, at its best, is like fencing and dancing, the games that live forever. But the other kind, the kind that I am talking about, is pretty well summed up in a letter of Miss Sarah Orne Jewett's, that I found among some of her papers in South Berwick after her death:

"'Ah, it is things like that, which haunt the mind for years, and at last write themselves down, that belong, whether little or great, to literature.'

"It is that kind of honesty, that earnest endeavor to tell truly the thing that haunts the mind, that I love in Miss Jewett's own work. Reading her books from the beginning one finds that often she tried a character or a theme over and over, first, in one story and then in another, before she at last realized it completely on the page. That wonderful story, 'Martha's Lady,' for instance, was hinted at and felt for in several of her earlier stories. And so was the old woman in 'The Queen's Twin.'

I dedicated my novel O Pioneers! to Miss Jewett because I had talked over some of the characters in it with her one day at Manchester, and in this book I tried to tell the story of the people as truthfully and simply as if I were telling it to her by word of mouth."

"How did you come to write about that flat part of the prairie west, Miss Cather, which not many people find interesting?"

"I happen to be interested in the Scandinavian and Bohemian pioneers of Nebraska," said the young novelist, "because I lived among them when I was a child. When I was eight years old, my father moved from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to that Western country. My grandfather and grandmother had moved to Nebraska eight years before we left Virginia; they were among the real pioneers.

"But it was still wild enough and bleak enough when we got there. My grandfather's homestead was about eighteen miles from Red Cloud—a little town on the Burlington, named after the old Indian chief who used to come hunting in that country, and who buried his daughter on the top of one of the river bluffs south of the town. Her grave had been looted for her rich furs and beadwork long before my family went West, but we children used to find arrowheads there and some of the bones of her pony that had been strangled above her grave."

"What was the country like when you got there?"

"I shall never forget my introduction to it. We drove out from Red Cloud to my grandfather's homestead one day in April. I was sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on to the side of the wagon box to steady myself—the roads were mostly faint trails over the bunch grass in those days. The land was open range and there was almost no fencing. As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything—it was a kind of erasure of personality.

"I would not know how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been jerked away from all these and thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron. I had heard my father say you had to show grit in a new country, and I would have got on pretty well during that ride if it had not been for the larks. Every now and then one flew up and sang a few splendid notes and dropped down into the grass again. That reminded me of something—I don't know what, but my one purpose in life just then was not to cry, and every time they did it, I thought I should go under.

"For the first week or two on the homestead I had that kind of contraction of the stomach which comes from homesickness. I didn't like canned things anyhow, and I made an agreement with myself that I would not eat much until I got back to Virginia and could get some fresh mutton. I think the first thing that interested me after I got to the homestead was a heavy hickory cane with a steel tip which my grandmother always carried with her when she went to the garden to kill rattlesnakes. She had killed a good many snakes with it, and that seemed to argue that life might not be so flat as it looked there.

"We had very few American neighbors—they were mostly Swedes and Danes, Norwegians and Bohemians. I liked them from the first and they made up for what I missed in the country. I particularly liked the old women, they understood my homesickness and were kind to me. I had met 'traveled' people in Virginia and in Washington, but these old women on the farms were the first people who ever gave me the real feeling of an older world across the sea. Even when they spoke very little English, the old women somehow managed to tell me a great many stories about the old country. They talk more freely to a child than to grown people, and I always felt as if every word they said to me counted for twenty.

"I have never found any intellectual excitement any more intense than I used to feel when I spent a morning with one of those old women at her baking or butter making. I used to ride home in the most unreasonable state of excitement; I always felt as if they told me so much more than they said—as if I had actually got inside another person's skin. If one begins that early, it is the story of the maneating tiger over again—no other adventure ever carries one quite so far."

"Some of your early short stories were about these people, were they not?"

"Yes, but most of them were poor. It is always hard to write about the things that are near to your heart, from a kind of instinct of self-protection you distort them and disguise them. Those stories were so poor that they discouraged me. I decided that I wouldn't write any more about the country and people for which I had such personal feeling.

"Then I had the good fortune to meet Sarah Orne Jewett, who had read all of my early stories and had very clear and definite opinions about them and about where my work fell short. She said, 'Write it as it is, don't try to make it like this or that. You can't do it in anybody else's way—you will have to make a way of your own. If the way happens to be new, don't let that frighten you. Don't try to write the kind of short story that this or that magazine wants—write the truth, and let them take it or leave it.'

"I was not at all sure, however, that my feeling about the Western country and my Scandinavian friends was the truth—I thought perhaps that going among them so young I had a romantic personal feeling about them. I thought that Americans in general must see only the humorous side of the Scandinavian—the side often presented in vaudeville dialect sketches—because nobody had ever tried to write about the Swedish settler seriously.

"What has pleased me most in the cordial reception the West has given this new book of mine, is that the reviewers in all those Western States say the thing seems to them true to the country and the people. That is a great satisfaction. The reviews have concerned themselves a good deal more with the subject matter of the story than with my way of telling it, and I am glad of that. I care a lot more about the country and the people than I care about my own way of writing or anybody else's way of writing.

F.H. Special Correspondence of the Philadelphia Record, 10 August 1913.