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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

1921: NEW YORK

The Bookman was one of the first periodicals to give Cather national exposure. In 1905 the brief article/interview entitled "Miss Cather" had appeared in the July issue. In 1921 it was again the first magazine of any national prominence to interview Cather after the successful publication of My Ántonia and Youth and the Bright Medusa. The interview is a familiar one, and various portions of it have been quoted on numerous occasions. In it the newly recognized author talks about her dependence upon memory, her early attempts at writing, her sources, her work habits, and something about the effect she is trying to achieve in her writing. The interviewer, who has obviously done some homework, brings her career up to date by providing other, supplementary material.

Archer Latrobe Carroll (1894- ), joined the Century Company as a member of the editorial staff following his graduation from Harvard University in 1918. In 1920 he became a staff writer for the Foreign Press Service. From 1924 to 1934 he was on the editorial staff of Liberty magazine and then began his career as a free-lance writer. With his wife, Ruth Robinson Carroll, he has written a number of successful children's books, including the award-winning Peanut (1953) and Digby the Only Dog (1955).


On the Nebraska prairie some years ago, a little girl rode about on her pony, among settlements of Scandinavians and Bohemians, listening to their conversation, fascinated by their personalities. She was Willa Sibert Cather, who, as a woman, was to give in her novels the story of their struggle with the soil. Ever since those early years, she has been studying people, until she is today one of that small group of American writers who tell of life with beauty and entire earnestness. She has won the praise of those critics whose standards are highest, whose condemnation of insincerity and distortion is severest. Listen to Randolph Bourne: "She has outgrown provincialism and can now be reckoned among those who are richly interpreting youth all over the world. " And to H. L. Mencken: "There is no other American author of her sex, now in view, whose future promises so much."

Miss Cather's reputation is of recent growth. Though her first novel, "Alexander's Bridge", was published in 1912, she remained comparatively unknown until about five years ago. Then critics realized that every successive book of hers had shown an advance, and began to look forward with interest to her future work. She is, however, still unknown to large sections of the American reading public.

Not long ago, she sat in her New York apartment in Greenwich Village, and talked to me about her books. She seems just the one to have written them. She is sincere, vigorous, self-controlled. There is no flippancy about her. She has not made herself the heroine of any of her novels, but she is akin to her own heroines. In "The Song of the Lark", one of the characters remarks that Thea Kronborg, the central figure, "doesn't sigh every time the wind blows". Miss Cather herself is that sort. She has a mental sturdiness.

She spoke of the beginnings of her impulse to write.

"When I was about nine," she said, "father took me from our place near Winchester, Virginia, to a ranch in Nebraska. Few of our neighbors were Americans—most of them were Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, and Bohemians. I grew fond of some of these immigrants—particularly the old women, who used to tell me of their home country. I used to think them underrated, and wanted to explain them to their neighbors. Their stories used to go round and round in my head at night. This was, with me, the initial impulse. I didn't know any writing people. I had an enthusiasm for a kind of country and a kind of people, rather than ambition.

"I've always had a habit of remembering mannerisms, turns of speech," she explained. "The phraseology of those people stuck in my mind. If I had made notes, or should make them now, the material collected would be dead. No, it's memory—the memory that goes with the vocation. When I sit down to write, turns of phrase I've forgotten for years come back like white ink before fire. I think that most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen. That's the important period: when one's not writing. Those years determine whether one's work will be poor and thin or rich and fine."

After a high school preparation, Miss Cather entered the University of Nebraska. She said, of this time:

"Back in the files of the college magazine, there were once several of my perfectly honest but very clumsy attempts to give the story of some of the Scandinavian and Bohemian settlers who lived not far from my father's farm. In these sketches, I simply tried to tell about the people, without much regard for style. These early stories were bald, clumsy, and emotional. As I got toward my senior year, I began to admire, for the first time, writing for writing's sake. In those days, no one seemed so wonderful as Henry James; for me, he was the perfect writer."

When Willa Cather graduated at nineteen, her instructors and friends expected her to become a "writer" in a few months, and achieve popular success. But they were disappointed. For almost nine years she wrote little besides a volume of verse, the experimental "April Twilights", and a dozen stories for magazines. Most of these stories she now dismisses as "affected" and "bad".

"It wasn't that I didn't want to write," she said of this period. "But I was too interested in trying to find out something about the world and about people. I worked on the Pittsburg 'Leader', taught English in the Allegheny High School, went abroad for long periods, and traveled in the west. I couldn't have got as much out of those nine years if I'd been writing."

In 1905 there was published a collection of her stories, "The Troll Garden". Largely by reason of these, she was offered a position on "McClure's Magazine", of which she was managing editor from 1908 until 1912.

"I took a salaried position," she said, "because I didn't want to write directly to sell. I didn't want to compromise. Not that the magazine demands were wrong. But they were definite. I had a delightful sense of freedom when I'd saved up enough to take a house in Cherry Valley, New York, and could begin work on my first novel, 'Alexander's Bridge'.

"In 'Alexander's Bridge' I was still more preoccupied with trying to write well than with anything else. It takes a great deal of experience to become natural. People grow in honesty as they grow in anything else. A painter or writer must learn to distinguish what is his own from that which he admires. I never abandoned trying to make a compromise between the kind of matter that my experience had given me and the manner of writing which I admired, until I began my second novel, 'O Pioneers!' And from the first chapter, I decided not to 'write' at all—simply to give myself up to the pleasure of recapturing in memory people and places I had believed forgotten. This was what my friend Sarah Orne Jewett had advised me to do. She said to me that if my life had lain in a part of the world that was without a literature, and I couldn't tell about it truthfully in the form I most admired, I'd have to make a kind of writing that would tell it, no matter what I lost in the process."

"O Pioneers!" placed Miss Cather definitely among the writers who count. It is an epic of the early struggles of Swedish and Bohemian settlers in Nebraska —a book of beauty and power. In taking for a title the name of one of Walt Whitman's poems, the author drew attention to his influence upon the mood of her narrative.

In "The Song of the Lark", Willa Cather chose a less impressionistic method. It is longer than "O Pioneers!", less concentrated, resembling more closely the conventional psychological novel. It is the story of Thea Kronborg, a Swedish-American singer, who wrenches herself away from an environment antagonistic to art, and becomes an opera "star". Critics took widely divergent attitudes toward the book. To many, it has not the same aliveness as "O Pioneers!" Randolph Bourne found it a digression into a field for which Miss Cather was not really fitted, either by her style, or her enthusiasm. But Edward Everett Hale discovered in it "a sense of something less common than life: namely, art as it exists in life—a very curious and elusive thing, but so beautiful, when one gets it, that one forgets all else."

Miss Cather's most recent novel, "My Ántonia", is a fuller evocation of the "old, old west" than was "0 Pioneers!" The descriptions of the western prairie, brief, poignant, lift us from our easy chairs and set us down on those high plains. The book is ruthless, poetical, tremendously alive. It is the finest thing Miss Cather has written. H. L. Mencken laid it down with the conviction that it is the best piece of fiction done by any woman in America. The portrayal of Ántonia is masterly.

"She was a Bohemian girl," Miss Cather said, "who was good to me when I was a child. I saw a great deal of her from the time I was eight until I was twelve. She was big-hearted and essentially romantic."

Willa Cather's foreigners are true to type. August Brunius, after noting that the Swede, as presented by writers outside his own country, usually seems absurd to a Swedish reader, goes on to say that in "O Pioneers!" and "The Song of the Lark", Swedes are presented with true insight and art. Small wonder that all Miss Cather's books have been translated into the Scandinavian and are to be translated into French.

Her latest volume, "Youth and the Bright Medusa", is a collection of eight short stories. Simply and vividly told, they are studies of the artistic temperament. In them, there is none of the usual sentimentalizing about the artist. They are widely recognized as work of distinction. An anonymous critic in "The Nation" slyly remarks that the collection "represents the triumph of mind over Nebraska".

Willa Cather's best work is satisfying because it is sincere. In her books, there is none of the sweet reek that pervades the pages of so many "lady novelists". Love, to her, is "not a simple state, like measles". Her treatment of sex is without either squeamishness or sensuality. She loves the west, and the arts, particularly music, and she has sought to express feelings and convictions on these subjects. She tried, failed, and kept on trying until she succeeded. For example, we have her word for it that at college she attempted to tell about immigrants in rough sketches. She drew them more skillfully in "The Bohemian Girl", a short story which appeared in "McClure's Magazine" in 1912. Then came "O Pioneers!", a work of art. In "My Ántonia", she reached what she had been advancing toward for many years. Similarly in her exploration of the minds and emotions of artists, she has striven to tell the truth—the truth stripped of sentimentality. She experimented in "The Troll Garden", succeeded partially in "Youth and the Bright Medusa", grasped fully what she had sought in "The Song of the Lark". It would, of course, be unfair to speak of the books and stories that led up to this novel and to "My Ántonia" as preliminary studies, for there is too much in them not touched upon in the two later novels. But there is a certain summing up, in these books, of two subjects which have interested Miss Cather profoundly: the life of foreigners in the west, and the mind and heart of the artist. Of the books, the author herself said: "I think 'My Ántonia' is the most successfully done. 'The Song of the Lark' was the most interesting to write."

"I work from two and a half to three hours a day," Miss Cather went on to say. "I don't hold myself to longer hours; if I did, I wouldn't gain by it. The only reason I write is because it interests me more than any other activity I've ever found. I like riding, going to operas and concerts, travel in the west; but on the whole writing interests me more than anything else. If I made a chore of it, my enthusiasm would die. I make it an adventure every day. I get more entertainment from it than any I could buy, except the privilege of hearing a few great musicians and singers. To listen to them interests me as much as a good morning's work.

"For me, the morning is the best time to write. During the other hours of the day I attend to my housekeeping, take walks in Central Park, go to concerts, and see something of my friends. I try to keep myself fit, fresh: one has to be in as good form to write as to sing. When not working, I shut work from my mind."

At present Miss Cather is writing a new novel—she says of it:

"What I always want to do is to make the 'writing' count for less and less and the people for more. In this new novel I'm trying to cut out all analysis, observation, description, even the picture-making quality, in order to make things and people tell their own story simply by juxtaposition, without any persuasion or explanation on my part.

"Just as if I put here on the table a green vase, and beside it a yellow orange. Now, those two things affect each other. Side by side, they produce a reaction which neither of them will produce alone. Why should I try to say anything clever, or by any colorful rhetoric detract attention from those two objects, the relation they have to each other and the effect they have upon each other? I want the reader to see the orange and the vase—beyond that, I am out of it. Mere cleverness must go. I'd like the writing to be so lost in the object, that it doesn't exist for the reader—except for the reader who knows how difficult it is to lose writing in the object. One must choose one's audience, and the audience I try to write for is the one interested in the effect the green vase brings out in the orange, and the orange in the green vase."

Miss Cather has never sought publicity, or quick success. It took her three years to write "The Song of the Lark", and three to write "My Antonia". Of the two paths of art—give the public what it wants, or make your work so fine that the public will want it—she has consistently chosen the path of fine work. She is moving unhurriedly toward a richer self-expression.

Bookman, 3 May 1921.