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Return to Interviews Table of Contents Source File: cat.bohlke.i.23.xml

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

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986


In 1925, after finishing the manuscript of The Professor's House, Cather fulfilled speaking engagements at Bowdoin College, the University of Chicago, and the Women's City Club in Cleveland. Her schedule that year alone reveals the falsification of her claim to have given only one lecture previously, to say nothing of her whirlwind speaking tour in 1921 (see "Speeches" section). She had visited Red Cloud; gone back to New York; gone to Jaffrey, New Hampshire; returned to New York; then lectured in Chicago on 17 November, accompanied by her friend Irene Miner Weisz; and stopped in Cleveland en route back to New York.

This interview, apparently done shortly after Cather arrived at her hotel, reveals both the warm and the bristling sides of Cather's personality. The lost invitation referred to was undoubtedly part of the trunk of mail that once fell to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. However, in describing the incident to Mary Ellen Chase, Cather called it the "happiest moment of my whole life" ("Five Literary Portraits," Massachusetts Review, Spring 1962).

Cather's fondness for good cooking has been documented many times and is apparent in her fiction. She wrote to Julian Street that she had studied French cookery for fifteen years under her cook and that she learned the art of it more thoroughly than she had ever learned anything else. The only problem with such proficiency was that if she wanted something really good, she had to go into the kitchen and make it herself (ALS, 9 November 1939, Julian Street Papers, Firestone Library, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey). Her comments here make unsurprising Rebecca West's later declaration that a gathering of distinguished epicures and gourmets in London had reached the verdict that Willa Cather was "one of the two best women cooks in the world. " The other was, ironically enough, the anarchist Emma Goldman, the aunt of David Hochstein (New York Times, 19 March 1933).

As happens frequently in her interviews, Cather's claims to have "studied medicine" at the University of Nebraska are a bit of a distortion.


Because a letter was lost in the bottom of one of the great chasms in the canyon country of which Willa Cather writes, the authoress, considered by some critics the greatest woman writer, was in Cleveland Friday to speak for the first time here.

The letter was from the Woman's City Club, asking Miss Cather to lecture before that organization this winter.

"It's only the second lecture I have ever made in my life," explained Miss Cather at the Statler Friday. "But since the letter was lost and unanswered so many months, it seemed rude not to atone some way."

She speaks at the Women's City Club Friday evening.

This woman writer, who won the Pulitzer prize for her novel One of Ours, is an elusive creature, shunning publicity and "fussing" of any sort.

Only sleuthing revealed her at her hotel, and not even officials of the club appeared to know when their lecturer would arrive, and where she would be.

"I figure," said Miss Cather when cornered, "that if there's anything at all interesting about a writer it comes out in her books."

Her sentences are crisp and almost terse. One feels almost a constant antagonism between Miss Cather and the world, until one realizes that perhaps it is merely the mantle of self-defense against the probings of a curious world.

Critics have said that Willa Cather is not yet used to her fame; that "it just happened," and she does not consider herself a great authoress at all, but only one of the seven brothers and sisters out west who came east part of the time to write about the west.

Miss Cather's austere face warms when speaking of her family. "My home is out there with them," she says. "I just come east about five months out of the year to get away from the folks I love, and work."

"And are you working on a new novel now?" I asked Miss Cather.


"When will we have it?"

A period of ominous silence. Then, flushed with a slight peeve, Miss Cather brusquely exploded. "Say, even my publishers don't dare ask me that! I get my books out when I can, and not before."

"And its title, please?"

"I never give out titles or any information about my books until they are ready," she replied.

But she will talk about cooking and life in Greenwich Village before it became Bohemia, Inc.

Miss Cather is forty-nine. She took her little suite in the bizarre village before it was that—when it was just a gentle spot of old Georgian red brick homes with brass knockers, filled with folks who liked quiet and rest and mellow living.

"I still insist that I am in that sort of a village," said Miss Cather. "The rest just flows over my head." Yes, she likes to cook, and her greatest worry is finding good cooks!

"My mind and my stomach are one," she laughed. "I think and work with whatever it is that digests. I think the preparation of foods the most important thing in life. And America is too young a nation to realize it. It makes musical discords in the cooking realm."

One recalls Ántonia in Miss Cather's My Ántonia who didn't "want to die and stop cooking."

Miss Cather never meant to be a writer. She studied medicine at the University of Nebraska, where she graduated and was side-tracked into the teaching of English when English profs praised her themes.

She was a reporter and dramatic critic in Pittsburgh for several years, and in between assignments wrote her April Twilights, poems which filled her first published book in 1903.

She claims that every bit of her material was gathered before she was twenty when, as a child, she rode her pony over the "Great Divide" after mail, and played in the canyon country, and the wide prairies.

"I never have had any intellectual excitement more intense than spending a morning with a pioneer woman at butter making and hearing her talk," says Miss Cather. "It was 'agettin under her skin that always set me thinking."

The authoress says she must get back to this fountainhead of her work and replenish her being at least once a year. This fountainhead is Nebraska and points west, "the hinterlands with the yokels," of our more sophisticated writers. "I just cannot write when outside of America, " she says. "I must have the American speech around me, touching the springs of memory. America works on my mind like light on a photographic plate."

"I seem to be the sort of person who really is a reporter in fiction. I can only write about what I have seen and felt and been close to. I must write things as they are. Sarah Orne Jewett told me always to do that."

She is a shy woman, claiming that "what I am shows in my books. I don't like to talk." She breezed into Cleveland Friday morning in a bright green and gray fur coat with gold and black velvet toque, and bright green bag to match. But she's no Bohemian!

Cleveland Press, 20 November 1925.