Skip to main content
Return to Speeches Table of Contents Source File: cat.bohlke.s.07.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 Pulitzer Prizes for 1932 were awarded in the dinner of the Friends of the Princeton Library at the Hotel Plaza in New York on 4 May 1933. Winners of the prizes in other years were asked to give brief addresses. Willa Cather was invited to represent fiction. She replied that she had not accepted an invitation to a public dinner for over three years but that she would be happy to attend the Princeton gala (ALS to Whitney Darrow, 24 January 1933, Darrow Collection, Firestone Library, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey). As Herbert Putnam, librarian of Congress pointed out, the audience included "most of the crowned heads of literature" (New York Times, 5 May 1933). Dr. William Lyon Phelps of Yale University was the toastmaster, and among the audience were Governor Wilbur Cross, Robert Frost, Hamlin Garland, Burton J. Hendrick, Ellen Glasgow, M.A. DeWolfe Howe, Morrie Ryskind, Walter Winchell, Ira Gershwin, and General John J. Pershing. Pershing, an instructor in mathematics and military science at the University of Nebraska during Cather's years there, had received a law degree the same year she graduated. He had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1931. Stephen Vincent Benét, Edna Ferber, Zona Gale, Booth Tarkington, Thorton Wilder, E.A. Robinson, and George S. Kaufman were unable to attend (Whitney Darrow Collection, Firestone Library, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey). Besides Cather, Elmer Rice represented drama; James Truslow Adams, history; Henry James, biography; and Robert Frost, poetry. The 1932 prizewinners were T.S. Stribling for fiction; Maxwell Anderson, drama; Allan Nevins, biography; Archibald MacLeish, poetry; and the late Frederick Jackson Turner, history.

The awards and the speeches were broadcast to a nationwide audience over the National Broadcasting Company. It was Cather's only radio speech and has never before been published.


The novel, if it can be called a form of art, is a new arrival among the arts, and its most interesting developments are still to come. All the other arts are centuries older. Looking back over its short history, perhaps the most arresting thing one notices about the novel is its amazing elasticity and variety. Like the Tarnhelm which the Nibelungs made for Alberich, this lightly woven net of words has the power of transformation, can present a giant, a dragon, a mouse or a worm.

It is really astonishing what a long gallery of great books we must call novels for lack of a better word. Anna Karenina is a novel, and Robinson Crusoe is a novel. Thais is a novel, The Pilgrim's Progress and Don Quixote are novels. Because this is the most modern of literary forms, for the last three centuries the modern spirit has adopted it more often than any other. It gets, we say, nearer people, great masses of people. It has a claim upon quick recognition, and suffers the penalty of speedy oblivion. The mediocre ones are soon forgotten, no matter what their momentary vogue may have been; and the very great ones, which survive, are seldom read; they are taken for granted.

Although this form of imaginative prose in its short history presents such a rich variety of subject matter, until very lately the American novelist has been confined, or has confined himself, to two themes; how the young man got his girl, whether by matrimony or otherwise, and how he succeeded in business. Whatever embellishments he brought into the fringes of his story, (dialect, local color, landscape gardening, historical padding), the real subject of his book must be one of these two themes; or happily, both of them! The square-headed and determined young editor who declared that he would publish only stories of youth, love, and success, concisely announced a very general sentiment. Most people, and most editors, and most writers, sincerely believed that there were no other major motives in literature, and never had been. They believed that while architecture, painting, music, were concerned with such aspects not only of human behavior but of human thought, and with all the mysterious experiences of the thing we call soul, literature had been dedicated to the telling of these two stories over and over through the centuries. Of course only a people with very little background and very childish tastes could have any patience with such a shallow conception. How large a part do "youth, love, and success" play in the great Greek dramas? Or in the great epics? "Success" in our sense, never! In the Elizabethan drama these things have their place, certainly, along with the other passions and motives and moods that govern the actions of men.

The great group of Russian novelists who flashed out in the north like a new constellation at about the middle of the last century did more for the future than they knew. They had no benumbing literary traditions behind them. They had a glorious language, new to literature, but old in human feeling and wisdom and suffering, and they were themselves men singularly direct and powerful, with sympathies as wide as humanity. They were all very big men, physically, (or rugged health, with the exception of Dostoevsky), and had no need to be continually defending their virility in print. Horse racing and dog racing and hunting are almost the best of Tolstoy. In Gogol, Turgenev, Lermontov, the earth speaks louder than the people.

That group of writers fixed the attention of every sensitive imagination the world over; the old icebergs began melting, the old forms began to break up. Joseph Conrad wrote The Nigger of the Narcissus without a woman in it, and no glory or promotions for anybody at the end of the voyage. Gradually our own writers began to look around them and see a few things in God's world. So long as their eyes were fixed on youth, love, and success they could see nothing whatever; they were like men being carried to the operating table; they were in a nervous chill because they knew they weren't always bubbling over with these three desirable things, and they wondered how long they could go on making the gesture. Constantly putting the accent in the same place is a terribly degrading habit for a writer. It makes his book a barrel organ tune, and him an organ grinder. Life isn't like that; it's so disconcertingly unexpected.

We have begun to look about us, but we have a long way to go. We cling to our old formulae; for the moment we stress the bad girl instead of the good, the rowdy who is kicked out of his great corporation instead of the smoothly polished young man who becomes its president. We won't face the fact that it's the formula itself which is pernicious, the frame-up.

When we learn to give our purpose the form that exactly clothes it and no more; when we make a form for every story instead of trying to crowd it into one of the stock moulds on the shelf, then we shall be on the right road, at least. We all start with something true, and then in the effort to make it bigger than it really is, we try to weld something false onto it; something delightful, usually, but that was not in the original impulse. . . .

The novel is the child of democracy and of the coming years. There is a Latin inscription on the wall of the Luxembourg art gallery in Paris which expresses a sane and rational attitude towards Art. It reads something like this: "Because of the past, we have hope for the future. "And we may say that for this latest and, not loveliest, child of the arts; From the past, from the Russian and the French and the English past, we may hope for the future.