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Return to Public Letters Table of Contents Source File: cat.bohlke.l.09.xml

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

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986


The College English Association was formed in 1939 and soon thereafter began publishing a newsletter, entitled at various times the CEA Critic, and, more simply, the News Letter of the CEA. In one of the very early issues, Henry Seidel Canby, a longtime friend of Willa Cather, was prevailed upon to write a short essay about the place of contemporary fiction in the teaching of literature. Following Canby's contribution, Cather was also asked to respond to the general topic. Her first reply was printed in the December 1939 issue. The discussion generated so much correspondence and controversy that the following year she was asked to reply again. Her response was to allow a portion of a letter to "a friend" be reprinted. Those four paragraphs, concerning the structure of The Professor's House, were reprinted in On Writing, but without the preceding letter or any contextual explanation. Incidentally the Mesa Verde was discovered by Richard and Al Wetherill in 1882. Cather misspells the name on other occasions.

At its inception the News Letter was published at Union College in Schenectady, New York. In 1970, the publication split into the CEA Critic and the CEA Forum.


My dear Editor:

Like Mr. Canby, I do not believe in courses in contemporary literature, and for just the reasons which he advances, namely: I think that the material is still too untested for satisfactory teaching, and that the very large majority of teachers are not sufficiently in the atmosphere of the writing world to interpret and discriminate in any definite way.

But I am afraid you will not think me very obliging if I merely quote Mr. Canby—you will think I am taking a very easy way of replying to your question.

I have also other reasons. In the first place, most American boys are hurried into active life so early, that even the few who have the possibility of developing literary taste have scarcely time to do so. Unless they read the great English classics in high school and in college, they never find time to read them. And that means that in their maturity they have no background. By "classics" I certainly do not mean rather special things like the works of Sir Thomas Browne or De Quincy, but the great books that still influence the life and thought and standards of the English speaking peoples. Within the last five years, for example, an amazing number of quotations from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets have been pertinently used in the editorial columns of the New York Times and the New York Herald-Tribune. In each case the editor used them not to exhibit his knowledge, but to drive home his point. I think we should all, in our school days, be given a chance at Shakespeare, Milton, Fielding, Jane Austen—coming down as late as Thackeray, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy. I don't mean that Macbeth or The Egoist or Henry Esmond can be "taught" at all. I mean that the students can be "exposed," so to speak, to the classics. If the germ "takes," even in very few, it will develop, and give them a great deal of pleasure in life. And those who do not catch the infection will certainly not be at all harmed. As regards contemporary literature, the work of living authors, I think young people should be allowed to discover for themselves what they like. For young people, half the pleasure of reading new books is in finding them out for themselves. If a boy goes quite wild about a very silly new book, his teacher can never convince him that it is not good. If he finds a really good one out for himself, it counts with him for a great deal more than if he had been told he must read it. No book can be called a "classic" until it is a hundred years old, surely. How many so-called "classics" have you seen die in your own lifetime, Mr. Johnson? A fine taste for literature is largely a matter of the ear, and is as rare as absolute pitch in music. But a great many boys and girls can enjoy a great play like Julius Caesar because of its relation to life, and they do get something out of the power and beauty of the lines.

While I do not believe that English literature can be "taught" in the sense that Latin can be taught, I know from experience that an instructor who is really steeped in his subject, who loves both literature and life, can, by merely expressing his own honest enthusiasms, or his honest objections, have a great influence on young people. If the English teacher is vain and opinionated, and wishes to astonish his classes by a lot of diagrams and formulae which are supposed to explain to them how Julius Caesar was written, and why Far From the Madding Crowd is a fine novel, he will prejudice his better students against the subject he teaches, and will immensely reinforce the self-satisfaction of the shallow and conceited ones.

Willa Cather

News Letter of the CEA, December 1939.


(Members of the CEA will recall the discussion started by Mr. Henry Canby and carried on in these columns over the desirability of English courses exclusively devoted to contemporary literature. In the course of that argument it was pointed out that much writing of the moment is experimental, and that the author himself is testing devices and techniques which later may be abandoned.

Miss Willa Cather who has been overburdened by letters from strangers, especially teachers and students, asking her judgment on literary matters, may have had her burden made heavier as a result of her contribution to this argument in last December's "News Letter." Yet she graciously permits us to reprint the following paragraphs from a letter to a friend which will serve to illustrate her own experimental attitude in one of her books. —Ed.)

Let me try to answer your question. When I wrote The Professor's House, I wished to try two experiments in form. The first is the device often used by the early French and Spanish novelists; that of inserting the Nouvelle into the Roman. "Tom Outland's Story" has been published in French and Polish and Dutch, as a short narrative for school children studying English. But the experiment which interested me was something a little more vague, and was very much akin to the arrangement followed in sonatas in which the academic sonata form was handled somewhat freely. Just before I began the book I had seen, in Paris, an exhibition of old and modern Dutch paintings. In many of them, the scene presented was a living room warmly furnished, or a kitchen full of food and coppers. But in most of the interiors, whether drawing-room or kitchen, there was a square window, open, through which one saw the masts of ships or a stretch of gray sea. The feeling of the sea that one got through those square windows was remarkable, and gave me a sense of the fleets of Dutch ships that ply quietly on all the waters of the globe—to Java, etc.

In my book I tried to make Professor St. Peter's house rather overcrowded and stuffy with new things; American proprieties, clothes, furs, petty ambitions, quivering jealousies—until one got rather stifled. Then I wanted to open the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, and the fine disregard of trivialities which was in Tom Outland's face and in his behaviour.

The above concerned me as a writer only, but the Blue Mesa (the Mesa Verde) actually was discovered by a young cowpuncher in just this way. The great explorer Nordenkjoeld, wrote a scientific book about this discovery, and I myself had the good fortune to hear the story of it from a very old man, brother to Dick Wetherell. Dick Wetherell as a young boy forded Mancos River and rode into the Mesa after lost cattle. I followed the real story very closely in Tom Outland's narrative.

Willa Cather

News Letter of the CEA, October 1940.