Cather had begun working on One of Ours in 1918. Her progress on the novel was slow and difficult. By the spring of 1921, she was writing friends about the trouble she was having in finishing the book. In January of that year the Writers' Club of New York had designated Cather one of the six great American novelists, along with Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, James Branch Cabell, Booth Tarkington, and Gertrude Atherton. In April, Sinclair Lewis in a speech to the Omaha Society of Fine Arts said that Cather was "a greater author than he dared hope to ever be." He went on to call her one of the "biggest things Nebraska has produced" and concluded, "Willa Sibert Cather is greater than General Pershing; she is incomparably greater than William Jennings Bryan. She is Nebraska's foremost citizen because through her stories she has made the outside world know Nebraska as no one else has done" (Argus, 14 April 1921). Mr. Cather sent a newspaper clipping about the speech to his daughter. Willa Cather must have seen another account of the speech, for on the day it appeared in the Argus she wrote Sinclair Lewis thanking him for his kind remarks. She was happy that he had read her books and liked them, but she was even more touched that he told her own people. She felt he probably did more to get Nebraskans to read her books than her own books could do. The respect of other young writers like Lewis meant more to her than almost anything else in the writing business (J. P. Morgan Library, New York, New York).
Also in April, Cather went to Toronto to stay with Jan and Isabelle Hambourg for a few months. Working steadily there, she completed One of Ours and sent it off to Knopf. In September she visited Red Cloud for the first time in three years. The Nebraska State Journal of 24 September 1921 reported that she had written to her old friend, Dr. Julius Tyndale, about the relief she felt in having finished this new work. "Now," she was quoted, "I am going to lie in the hammock for a few weeks." Elsewhere in that same issue, the Journal quotes the telegram sent to Cather by Knopf after he had read the manuscript.
Cather was at a new peak in public recognition and fame, but she must certainly have felt not only relief but a kind of freedom as well, for she stayed on in Nebraska for over three months. During that time she delivered an unusual number of public speeches and granted interviews to almost every major paper in the state. It was an unprecedented and unrepeated flash of visibility, during which she spoke out on many issues, some of which were rather controversial (see "Speeches" section).
The famous Nebraska author often described the conflicting emotions she had concerning her home state, and that conflict is apparent in the interviews and speeches of this period. She is by turns sentimental, nostalgic, critical, and ridiculing.
In September 1921, Cather stopped by the office of W. D. Edson, editor and publisher of the Webster County Argus, for a chat. The resulting article is not a formal interview, but it is a well-ordered summary of the conversation, presented in indirect discourse. The tone is conciliatory and would seem to express an authentic fondness for her hometown. The audience for whom she was speaking was not the usual one, and no doubt this accounts for the absence of more exciting and exaggerated tales that appear in other interviews. The readers of this page would know. They would remember.
The article was reprinted in the Nebraska State Journal on 9 October 1921 and reprinted in Resources for American Literary Study (Spring 1979).
It always gives us much pleasure when some reader of the Argus here on a visit calls at the office for a friendly chat because of the feeling that those who read the paper and those who are charged with its preparation belong to one big family. Naturally we were especially pleased when last Friday Miss Willa Cather, whose address is New York City, but who is at home in Red Cloud, New York, London, Paris, or any other city on earth in which she happens to be, called at this office for that reason. Miss Cather is enjoying a several weeks' visit with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. C. F. Cather.
While her work has called her to other scenes Miss Cather told us that there is not any place in this world that is more interesting to her than Red Cloud. She came here from Virginia with her parents when a child, and here grew to womanhood, graduating from the local high school. During part of her course she wrote school items for the Argus, which may have been her first contributions to the public press. In those days she was often called upon to stay in her father's office while he was at the court house making abstracts or was out of the city on other business. She had her own desk in the office, and here she did much studying and writing. But the matter which she deems of greatest importance in this connection was the acquaintances formed with the leaders in the life of the community who, calling to transact business with her father, remained to visit with her, telling her of personal affairs in the way that grownups will disclose to a child matters which they would not discuss with a mature person. Often she accompanied Dr. Damerall or Dr. McKeeby on their long trips into the country, and listened with childish admiration as they talked on a variety of subjects from their personal experiences. There were no trained nurses here in those days, so sometimes she was called upon to assist them with surgical operations. In the best homes of the city she was always a welcome visitor. Red Cloud had many men and women of exceptional ability. Miss Cather looks back to her association with these as one of the brightest and most helpful periods of her life.
But the time came when it was necessary that she leave her home and friends. Greater opportunities in other places called her. Times were hard in Nebraska. Her father had acquired large holdings of land, but these were not producing enough revenue to pay the taxes. She could not be contented to stay here and depend upon her parents for support. But the thought of leaving her family and friends who meant so much to her was almost too much, and she confessed during her visit the other day that at one time she was actually on the point of giving up, when some words of timely counsel from Mr. and Mrs. O. C. Case gave her new courage and led her to go on with her plans for self improvement.
The interest which has been felt by Red Cloud people in My Ántonia, many of the scenes of which are laid in this city, led us to turn the conversation to that subject. Three characters of the story, Miss Cather said, were intended as comparatively faithful pictures of citizens of Red Cloud about 1888 or 1889. These were the author's grandparents, whose characteristics made a deep impression upon her youthful mind when she first came here from Virginia, and Mrs. J. L. Miner—the Mrs. Harling of the book, in whose home she was a frequent guest. In the first draft of the story the picture of Mrs. Harling was of a very different character. While the manuscript was being revised by the author, news came to her of Mrs. Miner's death. So profound an impression did this make upon her, and so active were the memories of old times brought to mind by the news that she made changes in some parts of the book in honor of her friend of early days.
Another character in the book, she informed us, was in part a picture of a former Red Cloud man, and in part of a man she had known in the east. For some reason, she said, this treatment of a character is a very natural one for an author to give. We inquired if these were not because the life of the average person is so commonplace that a faithful delineation of him alone would not make interesting reading. Miss Cather wholly disagreed with this view. She contended that the average person has just as interesting emotions and experiences as public personages. She knew Red Cloud people whose experiences were no less intense and thrilling than those of the public personages with whom she was well acquainted. She found people here just as interesting as those she met in London and Paris, although in a different way. She summed up the matter by saying that if a person is wide awake and not self-centered he can see those interesting things in the life of those about him.
My Ántonia has been translated into a number of different languages, and has had a very large sale. Miss Cather is very familiar with the French tongue, and was able to revise the manuscript after the translator had completed his work in that language. This gentleman was a very scholarly man and in the main did excellent work, but he was a little handicapped by never having lived in the prairie states. Miss Cather found that when he came to the word "gopher" at various places in the book he had used the French word meaning "mole." This might have passed among the French readers had it not been for a passage where the gophers were spoken of as playing about in the sun.
Miss Cather writes of Nebraska, not from any sense of duty, but because her early life was so bound up with this commonwealth that this part of the world is of greatest interest to her. She has just completed a new book, some of the scenes of which are laid in this part of the state. That it is bound to be one of her greatest successes is indicated by a telegram received from her publisher, after reading the last installment of the manuscript.
Just finished the book. Congratulations. It is masterly, a perfectly gorgeous novel, far ahead of anything you have ever yet done, and far ahead of anything I have read in a very long while. With it your position should be secure forever. I shall be proud to have my name associated with it.Webster County Argus, 29 September 1921.