Skip to main content
Return to Public Letters Table of Contents Source File: cat.bohlke.l.03.xml

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

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986

1922: ST. PAUL

Thomas Alexander Boyd (1898 -1935) was a journalist, editor, biographer, and novelist. Following service in World War I, he became a reporter for a St. Paul, Minnesota, newspaper and later became literary editor of the St. Paul Daily News, where his weekly column, "The Literary Punchbowl," produced a lively exchange of ideas. On 12 February 1922, the literary page of the Daily News ran a large picture of Willa Cather next to Boyd's editorial, "A Revaluation." In that editorial, Boyd called for a redefinition of the term novel. He claimed that satire, romance, extravaganzas, tracts, and picturesque stories were all being called novels, and that such sweeping inclusion was misleading. The true novelist was not, in Boyd's opinion, to have any underlying motive in his fiction writing: "To be a novelist the writer must make of himself the sounding-board of life. Complete objectivity should be his aim and to his work he must bring boundless observation. Willa Cather once said that the effect produced by the sight of an orange lying on a green table cover was sufficiently striking. A number eleven shoe set beside the orange would be incongruous" (p. 6). Boyd went on to say that the novelist should not make use of actual experiences; that would make it peculiar to one person and not pertinent to a larger audience. "To be a true novelist—the sounding-board—the novelist must be content with a certain self-effacement." Objectivity would lead to humility.

He concluded the column with the definitions of a novel as found in the Encyclopedia Britannica and Webster's Standard Dictionary.

Whether Cather was a regular reader of the St. Paul Daily News is not known. Perhaps it was her picture on the page and the reference to her in the column that caused the article to be called to her attention. She responded to the ideas presented by Boyd in a letter that was printed in "The Literary Punchbowl" on 5 March 1922.


In your editorial "A Revaluation" all that you say is true, and yet I do not think you make it clear why it is true. Of course a writer of imaginative literature must not be literal; he must be able to be literal; he must know everything he touches well enough for that. But if he is an artist he will not be literal, because no artist can be. If he has the proper equipment to be a writer of fiction at all, he will never have to puzzle as to how far he should be literal; he has a selective machine in his brain that decides all that for him. If he has not such an instrument, he had better choose another profession.

An artist uses any particular scene or incident not to show how much he knows about it, or because it is in itself interesting. He uses it because of a certain effect of color or emotion that will contribute to his story as a whole, because it is in the mood of the story, or helps to make the mood. Therefore, in writing this scene, he will use as much detail as will convey his impression, no more. . . . The writer does not 'efface' himself, as you say; he loses himself in the amplitude of his impressions, and in the exciting business of finding all his memories, long-forgotten scenes and faces, running off his pen, as if they were in the ink, and not in his brain at all.

St. Paul Daily News, 5 March 1922.