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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


In May 1925, Bowdoin College commemorated the centennial year of a class that included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne with "An Institute of Modern Literature." Mrs. Helen Hartley Jenkins of New York City provided most of the necessary funds in memory of her daughter. The Society of Bowdoin Women provided one of the lectures—Willa Cather's. The institute was an ambitious undertaking that ran from Monday evening, May 4, until Friday evening, May 15, and included a number of notable literary figures, among them Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, Henry Seidel Canby, Irving Babbitt, John Dos Passos, and Cather. The afternoon and evening lectures were open to the public; on the following morning, the lecturer had a discussion that was open only to Bowdoin students.

Cather's speech at 8:15 p.m. on Wednesday, 13 May, was reported by the Christian Science Monitor, at considerable length and by the Boston Globe on the following day.


Brunswick, Me., May 14Willa Cather, whom critics have accorded a rare place as technician and artist in the field of the novel, reluctantly discussed technique in the novel here last evening before the Institute of Modern Literature. Reluctantly because she is a novelist who believes that there has already been too much talk about technique, who says that the only place where she never hears any discussion of it, any suggestion that such a thing actually exists, is among writers, and that therefore she felt she might not bring to the subject such sympathy and knowledge as had been expected of her.

Professor Frederick Brown introduced Miss Cather, whose lecture was arranged by the generosity of the Society of Bowdoin Women. Professor Brown paid tribute to Miss Cather's unremitting effort in editing the Mayflower edition of the poems of Sarah Orne Jewett, upon whom Bowdoin College conferred an honorary degree, and identified Miss Jewett as Miss Cather's literary mentor. Professor Brown felt that the upholding of sound and beautiful tradition in American letters had been in considerable measure due to Miss Cather.

Miss Cather did not proceed with her formal talk until she had paid tribute to Miss Jewett. "I want to confirm the saying of Professor Brown as to my purpose in coming here," she said. "Longfellow and Hawthorne, whose commencement anniversaries you celebrate, did not bring me here. After all, Longfellow and Hawthorne both undoubtedly had good credits, and, therefore, they had to graduate from Bowdoin College. But this institution did not have to confer a degree upon Sarah Orne Jewett, so fine an artist, among the foremost in this country. And by conferring the degree Bowdoin College placed itself irrevocably on the side of the highest tradition in American letters. I have come, therefore, to express my gratitude to Bowdoin College."

There was a space of silence. Sarah Orne Jewett's friends were in the audience. Her sister was there. Maine knew and loved Miss Jewett, and the institute paid her thus its tribute of honor and grateful memory.

Miss Cather took up her subject:

The subject is so big that the best thing to do would be to wish you good-night and not speak at all. On the novel in general I have rather pessimistic views, I think. I sometimes think the modern novel, the cinema, and the radio form an equal menace to human culture. The novel has resolved into a human convenience to be bought and thrown away at the end of a journey. The cinema has had an almost devastating effect on the theater. Playwriting goes on about as well as usual, but the cheap and easy substitutes for art are the enemies of art. Illiteracy was never an enemy of art. In the old days all forms of literature appealed to the small select audiences. I tried to get Longfellow's Golden Legend in Portland this afternoon to send away to my niece. The bookseller said he didn't have it and would not sell it if he did. He said he was cutting out all his two dollar books because people wanted Zane Grey and such.

At its best the novel has warmth and nearness to us all. Perhaps the novel has become too democratic, too easy to write. The language of the novel is a common language, known to everyone. Among fifty friends there may be many who know they have not much culture in music or art, but if your friends are like mine every one of such a number believes himself a final authority on the novel and quite capable, if he had a minute, to sit down and write one.

Back in the beginning of art, when art was intertwined inseparable with religion, there had to be great preparation for its ceremonials. The creature who hoped for an uplifted moment often endured privation in preparation for that moment. I do not think we should sit at home, in the clothes in which we have been working all day, and turn on the radio to hear the Boston Symphony. I think something more than passivity should be expected of the recipient of any such bounty of Brahms.

There is much talk in the critical magazines and in colleges about the technique of the novel. I never hear the talk among writers. Sometimes I think it is something the critics invented for the sake of argument. Of course there are several things that do make up what people mean by "technique," this thing about which young professors talk so much.

I suppose plot is a part of technique. There are two kinds of novel writing. One affects the plot a lot, the other not at all. Critics and teachers, I think, do not realize that they often pull one kind over into the other. Shakespeare thought so little of plot that he never made one, but even in him there is always a spiritual plot inside the crude, coarse, often violent plot he borrowed from Plutarch or someone else. He never cared where he got his plots. Sometimes the spiritual and crude plots fuse beautifully, as in Othello. All the lovely writing in A Winter's Tale, on the contrary, is in the pastoral places. It is manifestly wrong to consider plot as an essential part of the novel, when the writer has obviously not considered it.

Then there is characterization. I have found chapters and chapters on characterization in text books intended to be read by young people who did not know how to discriminate between the uses of "which and "that," iniquitous chapters certain to destroy true skill. Characterization is not an adroit process. It is difficult because it is so simple. The characters we want most to present are the characters whose charm we have felt most strongly.

Hate is a fruitful emotion, but it has not produced great literature. Dante's Inferno and the whole Commedia is inverted evil, hatred of evil because of the love of good. The great characters in literature are born out of love, often out of some beautiful experience of the writer. There is clumsiness and adroitness in everything. But when I hear speakers telling how characterization was done I feel they are going afar.

Atmosphere was invaluable to the novel before it was called that or had a name. Atmosphere should be felt and not heard. It has been overdone by the method of exploitation. Thomas Hardy understood atmosphere as perhaps few writers have, but Hardy's atmosphere is never obtrusive. It is like the sea on your Maine shore—always there. It is not my intention, however, to abuse my fellow writers.

Another thing we do not hear as much about, but which is very important, is the writer's relation to his material. Not only his emotional, moral, and spiritual relation, but his physical relation to it. The writer of a novel must decide at the outset upon his viewpoint. It is as important as the engineer's deciding on the strain of a bridge. And his relation to it may not constantly change without serious faults of form and coherency. I think there is frequently a too facetious relationship to material. Almost no writer dares write except as if he had something to sell.

Ah, if only there were such a thing as technique. The violinist makes his language by his technique. The actor by his. Pavlowa practices technique each day when she is at sea. I have watched her. . . . But what can the writer do? Pot hooks? Hangers? There is nothing so valueless as good writing. If he wrote a good book two years ago he cannot go back and write it over. The novel must vary between excitement, which has its value, and that purer beauty which satisfies us like an old Grecian urn. But let us not talk overly about technique which will divest the novel of its best quality. The author who writes to please, not his publisher or critics, but himself, first comes close, I believe, to what the novel should be. It is not a perfect way, but it is good.

Christian Science Monitor, 14 May 1925.


Willa Cather Names Them in Bowdoin Lecture

The modern novel, the motion picture, and the radio are a menace to human culture, declared Willa Cather, the author, in a lecture last evening on "The Talk About Technique" at the Bowdoin College Institute of Modern Literature.

Miss Cather was introduced by Prof. Frederic W. Brown, who said that she came to the institute as a tribute to Sarah Orne Jewett, for whom she had for many years had the greatest admiration, and who has been one of the few women to receive an honorary degree from Bowdoin. The lectureship for the evening was made possible by the society of Bowdoin women.

In opening he lecture Miss Cather said that is was good fortune rather than any special merit that made Bowdoin the Alma Mater of Longfellow and Hawthorne, but in the case of Sarah Orne Jewett it was a case of selection.

Regarding the novel in general, Miss Cather said that she had rather pessimistic feelings. The present-day novel was largely used as an aid to travelers, she said, to assist them in passing the time while riding from place to place.

"The novel, as we know it today, is the child of democracy, and is not a high form of art. A novel today partakes of all of our infirmities. The novel is too easy to write and too easy to read. You join a group of a dozen friends and you will find some one who cannot pass on music or a painting, but who does not hesitate to criticize a novel, and most of the group feel that they could write one.

"In critical magazines, at dinners, and at women's colleges one hears much talk about technique, but you never hear it mentioned or talked of by writers. Young critics and young professors usually have much to say about it to their classes.

"Atmosphere was just as effective before it had a name. It is only the writer's personal relation with the locality. It should be felt and not heard. The writer's relationship to his material is not only his emotional and moral relationship, but also his spiritual. Every thoughtful writer has to decide on his relationship as necessarily as the architect has to figure the strain on a bridge. It is really a technical matter in which the fine artist excels and the clumsy one remains clumsy.

"Technique, as it applies to a novel, is full of faults, as nearly all great novels have great blemishes from the standpoint of technique. Novels live by their plusses, not by their minuses. They live because of what they have, not because of what they lack. You cannot improve on the technique of a great writer, because his faults are necessary. Laboratory methods are best in science, but have not place in art."

In closing, she mentioned Carmen, which she characterized as one of the greatest love stories of all times.

Special Dispatch to the Boston Evening Globe, 14 May 1925.

The proceedings of the Bowdoin conference were finally recorded in book form in 1926. An Institute of Modern Literature contained the full text of the introductory remarks made by the president of Bowdoin College, Kenneth C. M. Sills; an address on Hawthorne and Longfellow given by Bliss Perry of Harvard; and address on "The Class of 1825" by Edward Page Mitchell, class of 1871; and a series of articles by Arthur G. Staples on the various speeches, which appeared originally in the Lewiston (Maine) Evening Journal. These articles were introduced by "A Statement of Fact," which pointed out that such hurried written against newspaper deadlines "assures nothing except freedom from guile and utmost candor." Apparently the book was prepared with the same velocity.The article about Cather's speech misspells her name in the title.

Arthur G. Staples (1862-1940), Bowdoin, class of 1882, was editor of the Lewiston Evening Journal for twenty-one years. He was employed by the paper for fifty-seven years. At the time of his death he was called "one of the best known newspaper men in the north-east"(New York Times, 3 April 1940, p. 23, col .2). He was long active in the Republican party in Maine and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention from 1904-1924.


What No One Knows about Technique

Willa Cather is substantial. She is a "Seventy-Four, Line of Battle," about which one may fancy the bumboats of the days of "Midshipman Easy" to be puttering, much as certain "best sellers" putter around the great artists today.

She spoke at the Bowdoin Institute at Brunswick, Wednesday evening, on the "Technique of the Novel," leaving the novel as she always does, "unfurnished"—just a place for a passion and a flame and an art that is artless.

Just to indicate what Maine thinks of Willa Cather, let us say that our patient folk gathered at Memorial Hall at Bowdoin College, hours before the opening of the lecture and half filled it as soon as the janitor had fumbled the key in the lock and turned on the lights. Here and there an industrious dame did her knitting or another did a crossword puzzle, or read a book. If Miss Cather were to come again and talk—even though it be on the most uninteresting of topics, "The Freudian Backlash of the Binomial Theorem," for instance, the old campus would be again filled with cars and the roads to her charming presence would be blocked.

These distinguished men and women may think it impertinent to describe them in print—but they must remember that they are as the coming of Barnum and Bailey to us after all. We have not heard so many lions roar in ages, up in Maine. Big and little lions of the race of the superlions. Some have piped in numbers; some have sung their ditties; all have desiccated art and left its disjected members as scrapes for the housekeepers to take away, or serve as ordered.

But Miss Cather, without suggesting any discriminations or comparisons to the detriment of the most delightful and useful expositions of genius, which have preceded her, has left perhaps the most profound and enduring impression on this Institute. She has the gift of expression vocally, she has the poise of Womanliness, the modest of self-negation and that indefinable thing called Charm.

"Why," said a young girl next to us, one seat behind, "I thought Willa Cather was a mere girl."

THAT is due to her name—"Willa" should never grow mature or substantial. "Willa" should always be girlish, dreamful, passionate and Edna Millayish. But instead, here is a woman of fifty, with a face of exquisite intellectuality and sensitiveness and a suggestion of capability, dignity, force, thought, culture and all those things that one finds in the faculties of SOME colleges. She looks as though she belonged in a home, head of a family and leading a "movement." Harriet Martineaut, Mary A. Livermore—that sort.

And so natural and simple of method, and sweet of personality—well, one must be guarded in adjectives when one is rather carried off his feet.

A certain morning newspaper Thursday, opens its story of Miss Cather's address by saying, "Terming the modern novel as the commuter's convenience, Miss Cather denounced the novel, the cinema, and the radio as being menaces to human culture, all three being cheap easy amusements to the degradation of aesthetic culture."

Surely Miss Cather "denounced" nothing. She never did at all. She does not find fault with sociological movements. She said these things casually, as one might say that the rain will spoil a new spring "bunnit;" but Miss Cather would not "denounce" the rain.

Her address, instead of "denouncing" the novel, ennobled it. She gave us the Novel Demeuble (there should be a couple of acute accents on that word Demeuble). She took away from the so-called modern novel, all of its plush furniture, its what-nots, its essential realisms (as for instance, why should one in telling of the love affair of a butcher, relate the methods of killing beef-cattle and give recipes for making sausage?) and she left us the suggestion that the Art of the novel transcends that of any other form of expression in certain ways—chiefly as the theater for the play of emotions, or as she often said, instincts; not taken "straight," but flaring up like flames through the tale itself.

Miss Cather was introduced as speaking under the auspices of the Society of Bowdoin Women. Professor Brown, who has had much to do with the selection of speakers, said that perhaps even at that Miss Cather might not have come to Bowdoin, were she not the friend throughout life of Sarah Orne Jewett, an honorary alumnus of Bowdoin, and it was through affection towards this close friend that Miss Cather had been turned toward Maine.

The suggestions of Professor Brown were approved by Miss Cather as she came forward to the reading desk. She carried a silk bag in her hand, a "practical" bag, large enough to carry manuscript and other material which is none of our business. But we mention it because she took out a watch and laid it down and said, sotto voice, "A watch is the most essential part of a lecture." Miss Cather wore (being a man, I do not know about these things), but would have called it a "wrap" over a blouse of Persian orange silk or maybe it was not Persian orange at all, and the wrap was trimmed with the same color and occasionally slipped down over her shoulders, and Miss Cather would pull it back. One person next to the settee along with me said it was a "Doctor's gown;" but it was NOT. It was just what Miss Cather should have worn, and that shows how far gone we are in adoration.

Miss Cather talked one hour and twenty-five minutes, and if you expect a verbatim report of it or even a summary of it, you will have to go to some other shop. I can not do it. Every sentence fitted into the next—even though Miss Cather said it was desultory. And she said something all the while along lines that she has said many times before in her writings and especially in her discussion of the Novel. These comments of hers on the novel are exactly on the same basis of what an intelligent editor says of the newspaper.

It is much like what the Scotchman said of his third wife, recently wedded: "She's a vairry good woman; but she's nae God's masterpiece." Miss Cather is like an honest editor who worships the possibilities of the newspaper, yet recognizes its shortcomings. And Miss Cather has been an editor; has grubbed along the lines of reporters and has known the gray of the morning when the paper was closed and tight, as perhaps was the sporting editor.

In short, Miss Cather seeks to strip the Novel of its extra and inessential furnishings and set it up as we have said—the four walls and place for plain furnishings out of one's own intellectual, physical, spiritual stock.

Her lecture opened with a tribute to Sarah Orne Jewett, her friend. She said it was an accident that Longfellow and Hawthorne were graduated from Bowdoin. They had to be graduated; their marks were all right. But Bowdoin chose Sarah Orne Jewett to be an honorary alumnus and that is to Bowdoin's credit. Here was selection.

Miss Cather began her theme of the Novel with reference to the belief of some scientists who are pessimistic regarding endurance of human life on earth, that the end will come by the ultimate domination of insect life—the bug and the parasite will kill.

The analogy of this with the endurance of Art, especially Aestheticisms, is apparent. Art may be killed by the insect world of its own. The cinema is killing the theater, i.e., the art of the actor; the radio is killing the lecture; the novel of a certain sort may be killing the greater literature. The novel is the child of democracy. It is the commuter's convenience. But all search of true art and Aesthetics requires some preparation. One must get himself into a proper state of mind. One does not sit down in his business suit or her kitchen dress to listen in at the radio to hear a symphony concert by the Boston Symphony. It requires a certain mental house-cleaning and that is reached by regaining one's equanimity, or a change of garb, or a moment's reading or contemplation.

In old days, literature appealed to a small audience. Miss Cather had stopped at a bookseller's in Portland to buy Longfellow's Golden Legend—she used to read it and love it—but the bookseller said that he did not keep such books; as a matter of fact, he was about through selling anything over $2 books—all they want is Zane Grey—at which the undergraduates "wooded up" on the stage and Miss Cather turned and smiled with appreciation at the students—for she, too, had been a schoolmarm.

Machine labor had done old-fashioned thoroughness to the death. The man who made a perfect shoe or a perfect chair was an artist. He put himself into it—and that is what makes the artist of the novel. Machine made shoes, machine made chairs, machine made art or machine made novels are not aesthetic. The expert craftsman had to be educated; had to have aesthetic education—even though he did not read or write.

Education is merely learning to do things well. It is better than a superficial education of the land. Old-fashioned people did not read at all or they read the Bible and the Almanac. The modern novel is the child of the democracy; the old-fashioned novel dealt with courts and pageants; they were tales of another life, whereas the modern novel dealing with its subjects as it does, cannot be the highest form of Art. It can never satisfy the aesthetic longing as does Keats' Ode to a Greek Urn. The modern novel is a hybrid—a Castor and Pollux, half of the time in the stars and half in the grubby earth.

You see how far Miss Cather's lecture transcends the limits of any abstract or description. It was a constant reflection of intellectual consideration of many problems of society and literature. The novel manufactured to entertain great multitudes must be considered exactly as one considers other merchantable matters—soap or perfume or cheap furniture. Fine quality is a distinct disadvantage in articles made for great numbers of people to be sold to those who want change rather than a thing that wears.

After this and more of a prelude, Miss Cather began on the stated subject of her lecture, "Technique." Really she knew nothing about it. Technique is an overlay. She had never heard a writer discuss it and she had been much among them. It is never mentioned. It is reserved for teachers of rhetoric and novel-writing among young professors in colleges and among critics. They use it. She seemingly had no objection—if they knew what it was. She wished them well.

There is technique in violin playing or in acting. Later on, in the address, Miss Cather referred to this with some pathos and sadness. The violinist may arise after a bad night and yet play right on—that's technique; practice on a single theme and in a fixed matter.

The actor may have met a tragic hour, and his mind be far away; but he goes along because he has the technique. But the writer cannot. What he did yesterday counts nothing. He must not repeat. He must not even play his tunes or tell his tales in the same way. There is no technique, for him. His sole duty is to put himself on the paper, and yet he must be absent of mind or suffering of body.

The "Spiritual Plot"

Plot—that is heard much of among critics and is discussed by the book-makers on such subjects. They say "the plot shows poverty of invention." Great literature has no plot. There is no plot in Greek dramas. Shakespeare made no plots as such. He took a tale from Plutarch or Boccaccio or Chaucer and he added another plot to it. He had two plots, in fact, but they are not invention. The second plot was the spiritual plot. It is inside the rough plot of the tale. That was always a structure of his own. In some of his plays the two plots fuse into one—as in Othello. In others they do not fuse at all—as in Winter's Tale. We are not interested in the tale or the plot at all. We are interested in Perdita chiefly and that fair country. So it is wrong to consider plot where no plot is intended.

The Text-Book of Iniquities

There are text-books that are full of iniquities—awful things that deal with these matters. Miss Cather had recently picked up one that her niece had to use at public school. It required the child to name twelve instances where Silas Marner acted so and so and to state twelve more instances where Silas Marner suggests certain moral obliquities. We cannot remember these special twelve demands and have no need to remember them, but they amounted to a showing of the ridiculous sort of schoolmaster teaching that is going on. It made me think of Gerald Stanley Lee's old book, The Lost Art of Reading, in which the University of Chicago professor shows Keats how the Ode to a Grecian Urn should have been written. "If Shakespeare came to Chicago," he would be analyzed by some young chap who wanted to tell him how.

Characterization was similarly dealt with, as a matter of technique, and in speaking of this Miss Cather moved some more furniture—little of it real antique; most of it modern.

Nobody lays traps in writing a novel—nobody should. There is no technique of that sort. Characterization for instance is another word used by the critics. It is so simple; it is not adroit; it is not technique. What makes anyone want to present character? It is because it is interesting. Some unusual experience with someone makes one desire to present that character. It is primarily a matter of love. There is a literature of Hate—but Miss Cather passed it over, saying that it is minor and not productive, gives not pleasure, and all of the best examples such as Dante, are really negative love—hate depicted as a tribute to the paramountcy of love.

All great character depiction is born of love. There are no rules and no tricks about it. She spoke of a talk with a dear friend, George Arliss, the actor, regarding William Archer, a mutual friend, beloved by them. They talked about Archer and probably gave as fine a characterization of him as possible—no technique; just plain telling of reasons for loving him.

When her nephew comes to Miss Cather on the wharf as she comes from Europe, and tells her about the young lady to whom he has become engaged—her faults perhaps, her virtues surely, her charm, her loveliness, her winsomeness; he is doing characterization in a way to stump the novelist or technician.

What About Atmosphere?

Atmosphere. It was just as effective before it had a name. It may be said to be the personal relation of the artist with the country or the surroundings of which he is writing. Thomas Hardy had it—he knew how. Miss Cather spoke of another writer who tried to have it and did not get it. It is not a matter of notebooks. Local color is often a tight collar. People who are tone deaf as it were for the surroundings, should not attempt it. They dwell in the fog.

Then there is the most important thing—the novelist's own attitude—even his physical attitude; the point from which he proposes to look at his subject; for it looks different from different points of view.

This appertains also to spiritual and intellectual and moral viewpoints. There is much playing up of something to sell—much over joviality and sentimentalism on people who do not feel that way. It is enough to tell the tale simply. Nor is it well to write of instincts as if they were all. We do not care for these novels of nothing but amorous instincts. They are of value only when they flame up as volcanic fires through the crust. Miss Cather did give these a sound scoring. She mentioned a book wherein the amorous episodes of Anna Karenina were isolated and published—a flat, common love story of human weaknesses. But as it appears in Tolstoi's majestic tale, an incident growing out of environment tearing the upper crust of life—it is tragic.

Forget Technical Faults

Finally—for we must hurry on—technique is not the thing. All great novels are full of technical faults. Miss Cather mentioned them—Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, Turgenieff's works, The Scarlet Letter—full of them. Forget them. Read them for the depiction of the spiritual, mental, soulful life of the great genius that wrote them. Two books that she knew about were written by professors of colleges who had mastered technique. You have not read them. Nobody did.

Then to close up her thesis, Miss Cather told the story of Carmen, written without technique; carrying every fault that technicians would observe; yet undying. A love tale of immense tragic power. Not a kiss in it; not a love scene. So, too, she analyzed two forms of tales—Stevenson's Kidnapped, Conrad's Nigger of the Narcissus, and told how they violated all canons of technical art; but breathed the force and beauty of the artist.

Then Miss Cather looked at her watch and said, "O-o-o-h," and the audience broke into applause intended to encourage her to go on and on. She had been talking for an hour and ten minutes.

She talked ten minutes more, about the finest things: Miss Jewett, Maine, the artist's technique of which we have spoken previously, such as the violinist's technique; Pavlowa's technique as contrasted with that of the writer and finally spoke of Marcelle Proust's great book that was majestic for three volumes and futility for the fourth and that yet would be immortal. She told of a talk with Joseph Hergesheimer about his recent book and closed all too soon with the tribute to Miss Jewett.

And then having moved all of the furniture of stuffiness out of the novel, she showed us the four walls, the theater of passion and of love, the playhouse of the personality of genius who shall make it noble if he himself is noble; despite plot or characterization, or atmosphere, or technique. It is just self projected into the aesthetic and artistic spectrum of human life.

An Institute of Modern Literature (Lewiston, Me: Lewiston Journal Co., 1926).