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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

1926: NEW YORK

The theme of fame and its demands is again taken up in this 1926 interview from The Writer magazine. The tone of interview has a curious backward look about it. The content is much closer to those early pieces when Cather was not well known. The subject is her early days on the prairie, the small towns, family, immigrants—all the topics that constituted her first public appearances. Gone are the opinions about present-day American culture and art, except for the contrast between the East and the Midwest. Instead, we learn that she goes to Rin-Tin-Tin movies.

Part of this shift could well be the responsibility of the interviewer, but it also corresponds to a backward vision that appears in her letters at this time in her life. The changes she observed in New York City were unsettling to her, and she talked often of moving someplace else—back to Nebraska, or even to San Francisco. She had recently completed the writing of My Mortal Enemy, a book that also possibly reflects her unrest in this period.

John Chapin Mosher (1892-1942) was a free-lance writer and author of short stories. He was born and died in New York City.


Fame has no glamour for Willa Cather, for she has known its way and workings for twenty years, to be sure only recently as a possession of her own, but for years before that she was in a position to learn its mechanism in the cases of other people. When she came to McClure's Magazine the zest for "human interest" articles, the passion for the inside story of the celebrated, had begun, and she saw the machinery by which the great are revealed to the world, and by what strategies many of them contrive to keep before the public eye. It is a disillusioning and distasteful performance, and she knew at once that never, if she should become a public figure, would she have anything of it. Since My Ántonia this resolution has been no abstract remote problem.

It is her aim now to live as she has lived for many years, and not be battered with invitations and callers, autograph seekers and celebrity hunters. Before her work received its great acclaim she had succeeded in living as she wished. In New York that is a triumph, worth in itself of a Pulitzer prize. Out of the enormous mélée of the city she picked and chose, as though, when she came there first from the prairies, she had known all about the city, and what was for her, and what was trash.

That apartment of hers in an old street near Washington Square bears witness to the discrimination of her life, and to the substantial standards by which it has been guided. The photographs and paintings on the walls are of people and places which have enriched her life, and the many shelves of books (Tolstoy, Conrad, Merimee, Proust) are those which she has most enjoyed.

Here she sees the people she wants to see—tries to, at least, and here in the mornings she works. No friend would dream of calling upon Miss Cather in the mornings. That she writes only two or three hours a day is one detail of her career that the young and aspiring may ponder on. The rest of the time she devotes to operas and concerts, long walks in Washington Square; has a few people in to tea or to dinner. There is no doubt too that there is something in the rumor that she has been remarked at the movies, during a performance of Rin-tin-tin.

This is her New York life, and it isn't very exciting to her, or very significant. For the music she lives here, and of course for the demands of her business. But her heart is far west on the Nebraska plains, with the Bohemians, Danes, Czechs, the pioneers. They are real people to her, and this trim tailored world of critics and clever urban people is just a bit fatuous in her eyes.

She is distinctly not one of those artists who has had to revolt against the confines of the home. That struggle of the artist in provincial America does not touch the story of her career. She stands an embarrassing refutation to the whole theory.

Certainly no environment would seem less promising to the literary career than Red Cloud, Nebraska, except that it was the scene of Willa Cather's early days there, blessedly untouched by the blight of suburban "culture." She was nine years old when she was brought there to her grandmother's house from Winchester, Virginia. The neighbors were Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Bohemians. On Sundays she went sometimes to the Norwegian church, with a sermon in Norwegian, sometimes to a Danish, or a Swedish, or a French Catholic, or Czech, or German Lutheran. There was a Czech theatre. —And New York considers itself cosmopolitan.

"It is in that great cosmopolitan country known as the Middle West that we may hope to see the hard molds of American provincialism broken up."

She graduated from the University of Nebraska at nineteen, and for about nine years did little writing except a few stories for magazines, some of which were later collected in The Troll Garden, and one or two included in Youth and the Bright Medusa. It was a period of jobs, a job on the Pittsburgh Leader, teaching English in the Allegheny High School, saving up for trips abroad, and for travel in the west. Then came the story, "Paul's Case," which so interested S. S. McClure that he invited her to join his staff on McClure's Magazine. The New York phase began.

In her editorial capacity she met prima donnas, actors and actresses, journalists, the artists and celebrities of the city. She was a girl in her twenties with a background of a ranch and a schoolhouse. She was in the heart of the best New York has to give, and serenely and with assurance she knew her way in this world, and knew that, compared with that Nebraska life, this was only glitter and trifling.

Not that she was blind to its power. Those early stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa, show the spell of the great personalities she met then. But with her keener eye she saw too the struggle that a great singer, say, must undergo.

Her interest in such people was not romantic, but akin to that knowledge she had of the struggle to survive on the western plains. It was the effort their ambition and their genius forced upon them that was significant to her, rather than their beauty and romance.

She was four years with McClure's, and then with enough money saved up, she rented a house in Cherry Valley, New York, and spent a summer writing her first novel, Alexander's Bridge. That novel was swayed a little by the life she had just been leading, the New York contribution. All her following achievement was to prove how little that really meant to her. "When I began to remember," she has said, "I began to write." There came then O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark, and the west had claimed her back for its own forever.

Now her portrait by Bakst hangs in Omaha. My Ántonia is translated into French and Czech, and all her books are translated into Swedish. She is the first citizen of Nebraska, and it is her first country. When she first left Red Cloud, she cried in complete misery, and on every possible occasion she makes her way back there. The town is no longer pioneer; it has its garages and moving picture "Bijoux," and very possibly its "New York Store," which would be a heresy indeed. But its roots are her own. She can remember her grandmother's house, when first the turf dwellings were being replaced with clapboard structures she remembers those mornings when she rode on horse-back twelve miles for the mail.

"From east to west, this plain measures five hundred miles; in appearance it resembles the wheatlands of Russia, which fed the continent of Europe for so many years. Like little Russia, it is watered by slow-flowing, muddy rivers, which run full in the spring, often cutting into the farm-lands along their banks; but by midsummer they die low and slumber, their current split by glistening white sandbars half overgrown with scrub willows."

When she speaks of this country it is with great longing and homesickness for it. Her small sitting-room may be crowded with critics, artists, editors, each caught in the strait-jacket that the New York intelligensia is, and the argot of the New York intelligensia fills the place. But if the West is brought up for discussion, Willa Cather will dominate the room, and it is a strange spell she casts with her accurate and ardent speech.

What she does is almost unkind. She manages so easily to shake the conviction of all these people that New York is the only place in America in which to live. She instills a cruel dubiety as to the value of the Manhattan program. Is it possible that there is a life more vivid on the Nebraskan plain than this one of first nights and special performances, that the Avenue is dull and dingy compared with the wheat fields? Is it possible that those stolid toiling men and women on the plains have a surer wisdom than these traveled and urban people?

It is perhaps fortunate that the New York habit has so strong a hold on its victims. Otherwise we might have the picture of a caravan of covered wagons filled with literary and artistic people, critics and columnists, with maids and managers, trouping out to the great prairies. Fortunate, that is, for Nebraska.

The Writer, November 1926, 527-30.