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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


Cather's whirlwind speaking tour of the Midwest caught the eye of people beyond her homeland. Dr. Wilbur Cross wrote to her requesting a transcript of her remarks, but Cather replied that there existed no such thing. She said that not a single word of her speeches had been put on paper, and, consequently, she could not provide him with the required manuscript. Further, she noted, she would have prepared it much more carefully for print than for an informal lecture—because in the latter a person can quite easily modify extravagent statements (TLS to Wilbur Cross, 10 January 1922, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut).

Many Nebraska papers reported Cather's speeches, and her old classmate at the University of Nebraska, Harvey Newbranch (1875-1959), who was by that time editor of the Omaha World-Herald, editorialized on her greatness—and her authentic voice for Nebraska.


"No nation has ever produced great art that has not made a high art of cookery, because art appeals primarily to the senses," declared Miss Willa Sibert Cather, who spoke Saturday afternoon before the Omaha Society of Fine Arts at the Fontenelle on the subject, "Standardization and Art."

Miss Cather told her audience that one of the things which retarded art in America was the indiscriminate Americanization work of overzealous patriots who implant into the foreign minds a distaste for all they have brought of value from their own country.

"The Americanization committee worker who persuades an old Bohemian housewife that it is better for her to feed her family out of tin cans instead of cooking them a steaming goose for dinner is committing a crime against art," declared Miss Cather, who kept her audience laughing and gasping at the daring but simple exposition she gave the meaning of art.

Laws which stifle personal liberty are forever a bar to the real development of art, Miss Cather insists.

"No Nebraska child now growing up will ever have a mastery of a foreign language," said Miss Cather, "because your legislature has made it a crime to teach a foreign language to a child in its formative years—the only period when it can really lay a foundation for a thorough understanding of a foreign tongue.

"Why," she added, "your laws are so rigid in Nebraska that a Nebraska farm boy can't stage a wrestling match in his barn unless he gives the state a minute description of himself and pays five dollars. One may receive a permit to travel all over France for $1.50, for a year, but a Nebraska farm boy has to pay five dollars to wrestle in his barn."

Omaha World-Herald, 30 October 1921.


Miss Willa Cather is expected to come to Lincoln Monday afternoon from Omaha where she has given several addresses. She will be a guest at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Max Westermann for a couple of days, leaving for New York, Wednesday. Miss Cather had much to say of Nebraska's "cramping laws" in her lecture at the Fontenelle hotel.

"Nebraska is particularly blessed with laws calculated to regulate the personal life of her citizens," said Miss Cather according to an Omaha report. "They are not laws that trample you underfoot and crush you but laws that just sort of cramp one. Laws that put the state on a plane between despotism and personal liberty.

"Why, it costs two farm boys five dollars and the filling out of a questionnaire as long as your arm if they want to go out in the barn loft and hold a wrestling match for the neighbors after the day's work is done. It costs them five dollars, and you can get a passport good for a year in France for $1.50."

Miss Cather denounced the language law vehemently, declaring that no child born in Nebraska can hope to gain a fluent speaking knowledge of a foreign language because the languages are barred from the schools under the eighth grade.

"Will it make a boy or a girl any less American to know one or two other languages?" she asked. "According to that sort of argument, your one hundred percent American would be a deaf mute."

"Art can find no place in such an atmosphere as these laws create," declared Miss Cather. "Art must have freedom. Some people seem afraid to say or do anything that is the least bit different from the things everyone else says and does. They think anything irregular is naughty. It was an irregular thing that Father Damien did when he went to the South Sea islands to devote his life to helping the poor lepers. That was just as irregular as any of the reported antics of James A. Stillman—more irregular, indeed, because it was so much rarer! Yet we don't censure Father Damien for his noble work."

Miss Cather added that "cookery is one of the fundamentals of true art," and declared that "any American housewife who teaches her good Bohemian or other foreign neighbor that it is as well for her to feed her family off a can of salmon as a roast goose is committing a crime against Americanism and art.

"Too many women are trying to take short cuts to everything," she said. "They take short cuts in their housework, short cuts in their reading—short cuts, short cuts. We have music by machines, we travel by machines—soon we will be having machines to do our thinking. There are no short cuts in art. Art has nothing to do with smartness. Times may change, inventions may alter a world, but birth, love, maternity, and death cannot be changed."

Lincoln Evening State Journal, 31 October 1921.


Miss Willa Cather, noted authoress, spoke before the Omaha Society of Fine Arts Saturday afternoon at the Fontelle hotel. The subject doesn't matter.

"I am not a public speaker," said Miss Cather, and perhaps she is not. That, too, does not matter.

What does matter very much is that she is a great woman, and one feels it when she speaks as one knows it when she writes.

She sounds all her "r's" speaking in a rich, incisive voice. She was gowned with the good taste any woman in a small Nebraska town might show, but no suggestion of Fifth Avenue shops. Utter absence of superficiality was there in Willa Cather. As a true perceiver of the true art, did she impress her audience. Miss Cather calls Red Cloud, Nebraska, where her parents are, home, despite years of residence in New York and abroad.

"Nebraska is not as propitious" a place for an artist as it was twenty years ago, she declared, adding that the same is true of the entire country. Among the things she named as having "helped retard art" are: standardization, indiscriminate Americanism, false conventions of thought and expression, aversion to taking pains, and superficial culture.

Speaking of standardization, she said: "Nebraska is particularly blessed with legislation that restricts personal liberty." The law forbidding instruction in foreign languages below the eighth grade and the anti-wrestling laws were cited. "Everybody is afraid of not being standard. There is no snobbishness so cowardly as that which thinks the only way to be correct is to be like everyone else.

"Art is made out of the love of old and intimate things. We always understand the common things."

One common thing for which she made a plea was the cottonwood tree, against which she charged there is social prejudice. "They are not smart," she said.

"Art cannot live in an atmosphere of manufactured cheer, much less can it be born," Miss Cather declared in a brief discussion of the "Sunny Jim" and "Pollyanna schools" of "grape nuts" optimism.

"Life is a struggle or a torpor. All art must be serious, and comedy is the most serious of all. Art and religion express the same thing in us,—that hunger for beauty that we, of all animals, have.

"It has been said, 'Genius is the capacity for taking pains,'" she quoted. "Art is taking the pains for the love of it; art is just taking pains. A man must be made for his art; he must work for it, and he must work intelligently. Art thrives best where the personal life is richest, fullest, and warmest, from the kitchen up."

Letters are a "dead form of love," she stated, in referring to the warm details of life we are omitting to save time. "Time for what?" she asked.

"The poorest approach to art yet discovered is by way of the encyclopedia," Miss Cather told her audience.

"The greatest love of art we have is among simple, earnest people who love the natural things."

Amid the "money madness, the movies, and machine-made music" we have today, Miss Cather has a hope born on Armistice day. "The war developed a new look in the faces of people," she concluded, "a look like the pioneers used to have when they were conquering the soil. A new color was over the land. I cannot name it," she said. "But it was the color of glory."

Omaha Bee, 30 and 31 October 1921.


"Don't try to imitate New York," was the plea of Willa Sibert Cather, Nebraska author, at a dinner given in her honor by the Nebraska League of Women Voters at the Brandeis tea room last night.

"It seems to me as I travel out through the great middle west, the people are trying to imitate New York," said Miss Cather. Red Cloud and Hastings are trying to be like Omaha; Omaha and Chicago are trying to be like New York. One thing I like about New York is that there we wear the kinds of hats we like, we wear the kind of clothes that please us."

Miss Cather urged that cities develop individuality. "I wish that I could see across the continent a string of cities having their own particular kind of life, as the cities of the old world," she declared. "Does Marseilles try to be like Paris? Does Bordeaux try to be like Paris? Do Venice and Naples try to be like Rome? The people of Bordeaux are proud of their own dinner hour. They are proud of their own cooking."

Omaha World-Herald, 30 October 1921.


Miss Willa Cather was the guest of honor at a dinner given Saturday evening by the Omaha branch of the League of Women Voters at the Brandeis tea room at Omaha. About two hundred were present. Miss Cather was the principal speaker. She criticized western towns for trying to duplicate New York in dress and manners. She urged the women to be more independent and not follow Chicago or New York. They should be more original . . . .

At the afternoon meeting of the Omaha league, Miss Cather attacked the Nebraska boxing law, criticizing it severely, and also the language law, saying of the latter that in a short time the children of Nebraska would know no other language than English and be only partially educated. She said there were too many repressive laws in Nebraska.

Nebraska State Journal, 30 October 1921.


Why shouldn't we imitate?

This question may well be asked in view of the advice given by Willa Sibert Cather, distinguished Nebraska author, in her lecture here.

"It seems to me as I travel out through the great middle west, the people are trying to imitate New York," Miss Cather said. Her observing eyes have seen the smaller cities aping the greater. And she pleads for development of individuality.

If New York is successful and truly great, would it not be proper to copy that city's industry, gaiety, seriousness, and sadness? Should we not even imitate a great personality?

Decidedly not. Imitations are never the original. And counterfeits are an abomination. Monkeys imitate; so do children until they grow up and learn to reason. Intelligence seeks the cause and tries to discover principles. Where there is complete agreement between an individual's standards and those of his community, it is proper for him to conform. But he cannot agree with custom that is opposed to his essential ideas of what is right without becoming an improper person.

The proper person seeks full expression of the essential qualities of his being. If a community or even the world does not give him room, he is apt to be called an improper person. But so long as he remains sincere and devoted to the standard of what he considers correct, he is proper to himself even if he is not to the community standard.

To men who are really proper, the race owes whatever progress it has made. The so-called "proper" person, who bows to conventional modes of conduct because it is considered right, regardless of whether it is, is among the host of imitators who contribute nothing to progress.

When the race, the community, or the individual becomes more interested in discovering principles that are eternal, many old customs will be reverenced more highly; many will be abandoned and viewed as moss-grown ruins of the medieval age.

The desire must be to discover the spirit that made men, cities, and nations great. And again, tradition must be challenged in the reputation it has given outstanding men. The individualist travels a rugged road. Perhaps it is best so. The imitator of others may travel a safe and easier road, but he is not entitled to wear the crown jewels.

Miss Cather, as Omaha had an opportunity to learn during her short visit, practices what she preaches. She had the courage to be simply and frankly herself. She proclaims the truth as she believes it, serenely indifferent whether her angle of vision be that of the multitude or not. She does not strive to make "a good impression" in the conventional sense. She would scorn to resort to protective coloration. Her passion is to express herself, to reveal, as she sees it, human life with its joys and sorrows, its frailties and beauty, its needs, its aspirations, its rights that dignify it, honestly and with candor.

It is this essential integrity of mind and soul that has made it possible for Willa Cather to do work worthwhile, work that will live. The world is surfeited with people who do not care to be themselves, who are afraid to trust their own minds, who let others do their thinking for them, and regulate their living for them, and form their flabby characters for them. Whether writers or what not, they count in the census figures and in doing the necessary humdrum work of the world—and that is about all that they count. Progress towards beauty and truth depends on those who know themselves and are themselves, who carry their hearts on their sleeves.

Nebraska may well be proud of Willa Cather. She is sprung from its soil. She was taught in its schools. Her soul was given texture and form on its sweeping plains, under its clear skies, in contact with the hardy pioneers who subdued its frontiers. And her voice, at once brave and tender in its sympathy, is like a refreshing breeze from its illimitable spaces, carrying invigoration for every human life where cowardice and cant and hypocrisy have wrought their soul-destroying work.

Omaha World-Herald, November 1921.