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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

1931: NEW YORK

In September 1930, Good Housekeeping magazine announced a solemn and self-proclaimed "grand" task: "a search for the twelve greatest living American women" (84). The magazine asked its readers to consider thoughtfully the women they considered great and to assist in answering their challenge "for the mass mind," whatever that creature might be. The readers were to mark a ballot enclosed in the magazine, listing the twelve native-born or naturalized women they considered great. Their first choice was to be on line one; the other eleven could be in any order. They were to accompany their ballot with a letter of two hundred words or less giving the reasons for their selection. The ballots were to run in the September through December issues. As an incentive to nominators, there was a total of $5,000 offered in prizes, ranging from a $500 first prize to one hundred sixth prizes of $10 each. The contest was to close in December, and the January issue would announce the first of the twelve winners, based on the tabulations of votes and the decisions of the judges, since "this investigation [was] not in any sense a popularity contest." One test of greatness took into account how high the nominee would be held in the esteem of the world in fifty or a hundred years.

The panel of judges included Dr. Henry Van Dyke, noted clergyman and writer; Newton D. Baker, secretary of war during the Wilson administration; Otto H. Kahn, banker, president of the Metropolitan Opera and director of the American Federation of Arts; Booth Tarkington, the novelist; and Bruce Barton, editor and journalist.

Each announcement of one of the twelve winners was to be accompanied by an interview with the subject and a "full-page portrait in four colors, painted by special commission, of the first women in Good Housekeeping's Gallery of Great Women." In October, progress on the search was reported, along with the information that "For the painting of these portraits Good Housekeeping has commissioned Leon Gordon, a brilliant young artist whose canvasses have given him a place of genuine importance in contemporary American art." In November, the issue announced the three hundred "frontrunners," and talked briefly of the letters of support that had been coming in. In December, it was announced that the list of nominations was nearing seven hundred. The January issue announced the first winner: Cecelia Beaux. The following months' winners included: Jane Addams, Grace Abbot, Martha Berry, Carrie Chapman Catt, Grace Coolidge, Minnie Maddern Fiske, Helen Keller, Dr. Florence Rena Sabin, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, and Dr. Mary E. Woolley.

The September issue announced Willa Cather as one of the twelve honorees. The painting was a lovely and interesting one— quite different from any done before, in particular from the Bakst portrait hanging in the Omaha Public Library. It showed Willa Cather as the "Virginia lady'' Bernice Slote always said she wanted to be (see frontispiece). Following the announcements in the magazine, the portraits were exhibited at the Mitch Galleries (New York Times, 24 November 1931, p. 22; col. 6). The artist, Leon Gordon (1889-1943), went on to paint Will Rogers, President Coolidge, Winston Churchill, John L. Lewis, and Helen Keller. He went to Florida to paint the parents of Congressman Claude Pepper and died of a heart attack in his hotel room in Tallahassee on the last day of 1943. Although Gordon had tried to sell the collection of portraits, and his heirs later tried to do the same, his studio was destroyed by fire in 1956, along with the originals of the entire Good Housekeeping commission.

Cather's interviewer for the Good Housekeeping article was Alice Booth (Hartwell). She was an associate editor of Good Housekeeping at the time of the interview. Born in Bloomington, Indiana, she had been educated at Indiana University and Columbia University. Her Anthology of Mother Stories had appeared in 1928, and another anthology, The Best Stories in Good Housekeeping, appeared in 1931. Her articles appeared frequently in Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, HouseBeautiful, Parents, McCall's, the New York Tribune, and other publications. Booth's interview again brings out Cather's down-to-earth quality.

America's Twelve Greatest Women

WILLA CATHER Who Believes There is Nothing in the World Finer to Write About Than Life, Just as It Is, and People, Just as They Are

It was a winter day when I first met Willa Cather—a keen, still day of icy cold. Her high suite in a Fifth Avenue hotel looked on eastern skies, pale blue with fleecy clouds. All the windows had been opened, and the air in the room fairly stung with the February chill.

Wrapped in a long coat of velvet, worn to the shade and sheen of antique amber, Miss Cater tramped up and down, as we talked about people—and books—and life. Occasionally she flung out a fine, strong hand, groping for a word—and when it came it was never a foreign word, never a high-flown word, never a complicated word—but just the exactly right word.

Her great collar of tawny fox framed a face extraordinary in its honesty and in its intelligence. So often honest people are inclined to take things for granted and not observe accurately the motives of others. One feels that Miss Cather would never be deceived about another's honesty. Her eyes are as keen as they are truthful. And her every word, every intonation, was marked by simplicity and complete lack of pretense or affectation.

The woman who had written "One of Ours," the Pulitzer Prize novel of 1922, "Death Comes for the Archbishop," that superb word-painting which I believe will go down in history as long as books will last, "The Professor's House," "My Ántonia," a dozen others; who had been honored with degrees conferred upon her by the University of Nebraska, the University of Michigan, the University of California, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale; who had been acclaimed as the greatest living American novelist by the most distinguished critics of our time—that woman stood here before me. And I knew that always and always I would read her books with the memory of that crystal-clear, shadowless winter day in my mind, and the icy pure breath of that winter cold in my nostrils. . . .

I think it was Amelia Barr who said that the most successful way to develop an author was to change his environment just when he was at the impressionable age. And she cited a long list of notable writers who had had this experience. Willa Cather's name might well head that list. At the age of eight, her family left Virginia, a state bound in tradition, lapped in bonds of history and custom, and went to Nebraska, where there was no tradition and no custom, and an alien race, strange to our soil, was just beginning to make history. The child Willa left a state where grandfathers were everything, for a state where only the survival of the race, so that there might be grandchildren, counted.

She learned to know these people engaged in a superb war with nature—Bohemians, Danes, Norwegians, Russians—and something in her responded to their simplicity and their courage and their pathos. She made friends with the old men and the old women bending their backs in toil to smooth the way for the coming generation. She made friends with the children transplanted to this new world and beginning to learn of it and for it. And something of the great fields and the wide skies and the character and temperament of the people became part of her soul-stuff, so that she could never quite get away from them.

Instead of going to school, she spent her days riding about the country on her pony, making friends with these people who seemed an integral part of the country itself, like the mountains, like the trees; and in the evening she learned to know the English classics by reading them aloud to her two grandmothers. High school in the little town of Red Cloud was her first formal education.

When she went away to college she was homesick, and, reaching back to the grain country in memory she began to write for the college paper little sketches of the people she had known—descriptions, stories. When she came East to Pittsburgh to teach, she continued to write of the country and the people which had been a part of her girlhood, although the love of music, which has also been a factor of her life, had already influenced the beginning of what was to be a book of stories involving musicians.

For several years she taught, enthusiastically, joying in the vivid contact with youth, and the eager response to learning she met with in her pupils. And then opportunity came.

She had sent stories to McClure's Magazine, then at the peak of its power and position, and Mr. McClure offered to publish some of them and to give her a position as assistant editor on his magazine.

Before she left for New York City, Willa Cather did something that proves for all time her ability to see herself with the same honesty with which she sees other people—she took the completed manuscript of a finished book, and tore it to pieces and threw it in the waste basket.

"It wasn't good enough," she said simply.

But would any of the rest of us have had the faith in our own judgment to make that decision—and the ruthlessness to execute sentence on our own work!

As an editor Willa Cather found her writing slowed up—almost impossible. A book of short stories came out soon after she began her editorship—but for five years no book was listed from her pen. She resolved inexorably to set aside a portion of her earnings, so that she might stop all work but writing.

In those days on a magazine, dozens of people came to her asking advice—what to write and how to write it—ignorant of the fact that the person who really has something to write usually asks advice from no one. Willa Cather, I imagine, never asked anyone what to write, or how to write it.

"Unless you have something in you so fierce," she used to tell them, "that it simply pours itself out in a torrent, heedless of rules or bounds—then do not bother to write anything at all. Why should you? The time for revision is after a thing is on paper— not before."

She knew—this girl who had torn up a book written in spite of herself—that genius—true genius—can not be restrained, can not be commanded; only a cool critical judgment can take up the work of ordering and assorting an irresistible outpouring of the creative soul.

Finally the day came when she left her desk—that desk where she had met so many noteworthy people—that desk where she had edited so many of their books—for the life upon which she had fixed all the forces of her strong character.

A friend of Miss Cather's told me that once she had asked her:

"In setting aside a sum of money to live on until your writing began to pay, how accurately did you calculate? Was it too much or too little or just enough?"

And Miss Cather answered, "Oh, it was far too much—much more than was necessary!"

From the beginning Willa Cather was a name that editors and critics knew and watched. With "My Ántonia" it became a name that every one knew.

Those earlier books of hers, she told me, were just a little different from her later ones—the old man she used later in "My Ántonia," for instance.

"In those days," she said, "I was afraid that people, just as they were, were not quite good enough. I felt I had to trim them up, to 'prettify' them. I had just heard Bernhardt, and the magic of her voice was still in my ears—and so I made my old man a violinist—a good violinist, who had once played an obligation with a great singer, when she came to the little theatre in which he was first violin in the orchestra. I made that a frill for him . . . and did not realize that old Shimerda, just as he was, was good enough for anybody. He was not a violinist. He was just a fiddler—and not even a very good fiddler. He did not need to be. He was enough just as he was."

And so in her later books Willa Cather has portrayed people—just as they are. And the success of her method was acknowledged when in 1922 "One of Ours" received the Pulitzer Prize. This story of an inarticulate youth of the Nebraska corn lands, whose whole nature was released, converted, by the Great War, which acted as a solvent, is an amazing piece of writing, the wonder consisting in just how Miss Cather gets her effects without seeming to get them.

Technically speaking, all her appeal is direct. Her characters act before you, as they would on a stage, and you are left to draw your own conclusions about them, while the usual method of a novelist is to qualify them with adjectives calculated to inspire you with the author's idea of them. Never, for instance, does Miss Cather use the adjectives "sweet," "noble," "charming," "delightful," and others of their ilk. She never seeks to influence you in your opinion. To you the principal male actor in a novel of hers may be a hero or a villain, according as you make up your mind about him. She gives you the character merely. Take him or leave him, on what he says, on what he does.

I read "A Lost Lady" as it was published serially in the old Century Magazine and I remember well my waiting from month to month, and the picture of Mrs. Forrester as it grew before my eyes. I shared with Niel the shock of complete disillusionment when he came to leave wild-roses at his lovely lady's window—and discovered that she was indeed a lost lady, after all. To this day she is as vivid to me as some of the old neighbors I knew then but have never seen since . . . an unforgettable portrait of an unforgettable woman. And I knew at once that here was a book, and here was a writer, that were amazing, new, strange, vital, and of extraordinary power.

Sometimes Miss Cather's books are constructed on a technical problem—like "The Professor's House." That book is a singular mixture of the manner of "One of Ours," and of "Death Comes for the Archbishop," which followed it. From the stark realism of the upper room where the sewing machine and the stuffed dress-body held sway, to the golden sunshine of the enchanted mesa where the two boys dug for treasure is all the distance between the corn fields of Nebraska and the mellow, sun-kissed walls of the Archbishop's cathedral.

"The Professor's House" was constructed on an old Italian form, Miss Cather told me—the roman in the nouvelle—a full novel-length book in which the story is interrupted by a long personal narrative. And also her conception was influenced by those Dutch pictures which show a trick lighting and double scene—one in particular which she remembered, cast in a dull, grayed interior—and showing through an open window a sunlit wharf with fishing boats ready to set off for all the magic ports of the seven seas—brighter and more alluring for the very grayness of medium surrounding that open window into all the possibilities and all the promise of a rainbow future.

Cleverly, subtly, "The Professor's House" duplicates this effect—for surely never was sunshine so golden as that on the enchanted mesa the Professor could visualize only across the plateau of a dingy, roll-top desk crowded with all the minutiae of a thoroughly dulled and detailed existence.

"Death Comes for the Archbishop" wrote itself, Miss Cather told me. Completely visioned, it went from day to day with miraculous swiftness. Six months—and the thing was done. Six months for that piece of peerless prose, rippling into exquisite rhythms of color and sound.

"It wrote itself," she said, "and in only six months."

Yet few people who do not write know the labor those six months cost. Day after day Miss Cather works all morning long. And work, to an author, does not mean the slow, industrious, idle performance of a task—but work like the work of a runner trying to break a speed record—work like sending so many words a minute over a telegraph wire—fingers racing, chasing, in frenzied effort with pen or pencil or typewriter to keep up with an idea that now stops dead and will not start—and now travels faster than any force can keep up with.

Writing is a driving, grueling effort. After a long morning of it—for a morning is the limit of a high-tension, high-pressure job—Miss Cather is exhausted, mentally and physically, and must sleep before she can go on with life.

After the writing is done, there is revision, endless revision. Most of Miss Cather's work is done by hand in the first draft, completely rewritten by hand in the second draft, and then typed. Hers is no novel-a-week method. A book a year, by the hardest kind of hard work, is about the peak of her output.

"Death Comes for the Archbishop" will always be my favorite, I suppose, if only for its lovely singing sentences and its purple shadows and its mellow sunlight. Next comes "A Lost Lady," with its matchless portrait of a woman who "always had the power of suggesting things lovelier than herself."

But Miss Cather's latest novel, "Shadows on the Rock," strikes out in a new direction and in a new manner. Cast late in the 17th century, when Quebec was making a desperate stand against all the forces of this new continent, it has both the simplicity and the understanding of "One of Ours." Some of the black cold of the Nebraska prairies has gone into those winter nights when the frost pressed close, like an enemy, and the light and color of France seemed like a dream that would never come true. Some of the house-pride and cozy comfort of those peasant women, working to create a tiny oasis of well-remembered cheer on the bleak prairies of the Northern grain fields, must have animated these new descriptions of little Cécile, doing in faith and love the tasks her mother taught her, which would always keep alive the French tradition of good living.

Softly, gently, effortlessly, Miss Cather paints her picture. Never once is there a straining after effect, never once a glaring color. It is like a tiny, warm picture of a tiny, warm house. It is like an old ballad, sung without accompaniment, before the fire on a winter evening.

But it is more than that, too. It is a promise and a wonderment for the future. For here is a woman who has written in her life fourteen books—books in which not only the subject matter, but the style and technique, have varied. No one knows what she will do next. Perhaps she herself does not know. More than any other writer that I have ever heard of, she has avoided imprisonment in any one environment, in any one set of characters, in any one method, even in any one way of writing. Her mind, as well as her manner, is capable of infinite variation.

So that of her next book we can only wonder. . . . Will it be another "Lost Lady" or another "One of Ours " or another "Archbishop" or something completely new and different?

One thing about it we can promise ourselves—that it will be a piece of superb workmanship, a book over which no pains have been spared, a book which is as good as Willa Cather can make it . . . or it will be no book at all.

Good Housekeeping (September 1931):34, 196-98.