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#0094: Willa Cather to Dorothy Canfield, [March 1904]

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My Dearest Dorothy1;

This will be a hard letter to write, as yours to me must have been. We have surely got into a snarl somehow, and I think you are right that its best to admit it. The worst of it is that its nothing that one can really put ones finger on. Of course I've always been conscious that I was ill tempered and ungrateful and that I behaved very childishly in abroad3 two years ago, and frankly, I dont see how you could overlook it. There is just a terribly low streak of something both ill tempered and ill bred that comes out in me only too often. It was surely not your fault that I didn't understand French and that I felt very provincial and helpless and ignorant, and its incredible that any grown person should have behaved as I did. It makes me ll ill to think of it, it surely does. Ive realized what a disappointment it must have been to you, too, after you had made such an effort to be with me. Oh, the whole thing was simply beastly!—and I've no one but myself to blame. I suppose I am one of those perverse beings who get stiff and haughty when they know they are in the wrong, for I've felt a little constrained ever since, knowing all the while that the unpleasantness was all of my manufacture. That's an ugly thing to admit, but its only fair to own up to one's pettiness. It is just a grudge against myself that in some way gives me a sense of aloofness. That's one thing.

Then we have both changed. Teaching school4 is a quieting, settling, ageing occupation, that makes one reliable and thoughtful and consciencious, but it is not good for ones disposition. I think I must take it too seriously, for it seems to take out of me most of the elements that used to be most active between you and me. You ask about what verse I'm doing,—my dear girl, I have not done a line, literally not one line since I did the Provencal Legend5 last December. It's simply a case of no tunes ever flitting across my tired and torpid brain. I'm really alarmed, Dorothy, at the rate at which I seem to be losing the capacity for emotion. I often wonder whether that is like other things, that one can simply spend it all and then have 3 3 to go without for the rest of ones days. The Francis Hill6 you've heard me speak of so often, the fine lad whose companionship has meant so much to both Isabelle7 and I me,, told me only last week with a tremor in his voice, that he was not going to see me any more for a while. He said I had grown formal and cold and absent minded to the degree that he simply couldnt stand it, that he wanted at least to keep the memory of our old jovial comradeship unspoiled. I have not seen him since and dont know when I shall—he comes to see Isabelle in the morning while I am at school. He says when he sees me, the person he addresses by my name is simply not I at all. As for Isabelle, she is growing old and sad under this prolonged winter of discontent8. I dont know myself, I have'nt encountered the person who used to go down to the Nevins9 for many months. I sometimes wonder whether there is not some physical cause for it. I went to the doctor to ask whether it might not be a case of pre-mature arrival at old age, physically. He laughed at me 4 and gave me a tonic, but Hoffs malt10 does not reach the spot.

Just as I cant find myself, so I cant find you. I insist that you, too, have greatly changed. I cant define it, but I feel it maddeningly. You used to complain of losing yourself, but in those good days I never really lost you. Yes, in a certain way I feel that you are always there. If I were in trouble or ill I should know where to turn. The physical person of you, the almost family tie between us, the old wish for well being, hold perfectly staunch. But the spirit of you eludes me. Perhaps it is because our lives are so different. I hesitate to speak of it, partially because you asked me not to, partially because it may be largely due to my own torpid and unnatural state. When Francis and Isabelle have lost me, seeing me every day, how can I expect to project myself to one at a distance, how can I believe that my own feelings and impressions concerning you are trustworthy or at all reliable. Yet I am as sure of the change in you as I can well be of anything. Now what all these psychic mysteries do not affect is my feeling for you, 5 that is the same because the roots of it go back prior to all change, back to a time when I was prodigally rich in the one thing which makes life worth the living, and was fabulously happy, even if I didn't know it at the time. But what it does painfully effect is our intercourse. That we both feel. How is one going to shake hands, for example, it ones hand has been cut off? Now I am patiently expecting that mine will grow out again, like a lobster's claw, but it seems to take a long time for it to come. If I had left Pittsburgh2 when my [illegible] judgement told me to, four years ago, while you were in Paris11, I might not be so far afield now. I believe the truth is that one simply has to pay, hour by hour, for every whit they have taken of happiness, of excitement, exaltation—call it whatever you will—that they had no right to take. I th did not know it then. I flattered myself that I was doing very well to respect all the written commandments one could do as one pleased if one respected all the written laws,. But I find there are unwritten ones which, if one disregards them, one must pay for just as dearly. The or Even the consolation that I hurt no one but myself has failed 6 me, for in this aftermath of apathy and dullness you and Isabelle and Francis are called upon to pay into the bank. Hard work seems to be the only escape for me. I am dull, and poor company for myself or anyone else. I suspect in years agone I sup overdid the romantic aspect of things generally, and my sack cloth and ashes12 is to be bound in chains of apathy in a Hades13 of dullness for a thousand days. It may be that the life I live is too monotonous for me, that I'm reflecting the greyness around me. I fell into it all when I was tired and sore and in real grief, but the 8[?] real grief, oh, that was an easy thing compared to living with myself now. I lost something, or I contracted some [illegible] disease of the will, or I played to myel myself and lied posed to myself until my poor spirit will never again hold up its head.—But that's all talk, it will. I'll come out of this if only you can wait for me, and elope with a tenor when I am forty. Could ye not watch with me one hour?14 You've already done more than that, but if you can hold out a little longer I feel sure it that this period of hibernating will pass. I will cast my dead skin and emerge—and oh if it were but to find you again as you used to be! That would be another spring indeed! I hope for it, far away as it seems. I wrote you once desperately how changed you seemed to me,—I know I must seem so to you, since I am to myself. But surely, if we tell the truth to each other—we have'nt always done that lately—the fog between us will grow thin at last.

Thank you, Dorothy, for what you say 9 of the Wagner matinee15. When you wrote me about your boy story16 the Outlook17 was not to be had here. I went twice to the Library, but their copy was in use. I've ordered one from the publisher and shall write you of it later.

I've [illegible] looked over this letter and am in despair at not having put anything intelligibly. I'm having to write another meaningless explanation to Francis Hill. Isabelle told me to say to him that what he felt was just that I have lost the quality of "abandon" which I once had and which people expect to find in me. She says that if she had not seen me for three years, she would not know me now, and that it's only because she lives with me and believes that I make an honest effort that she can still care for me and believe in me. Perhaps that will help you to understand. I think its that same quality you miss in my letters. Now I've written you the introspective sort of letter I hate to write—you'll bear me witness that I seldom write much about my "feelings" now—and it takes me a whole, dreary Sunday to write it. I only hope to make you feel that it is not only toward you that I have changed, but toward everyone, every thing, and most of all toward myself. Goodbye for this time, Dorothy. Let Auld Lang Syne18 count for as much as you can. The present is not worth talking about, so far as I'm concerned. I suppose living with an honest person like Isabelle has taught me what a sham I am—and always have been. I've lost a good deal. "Honest, my Lord?"19 Well, I'm at least trying to be that. I've given up living on visions and manufactured excitement. It makes me dull and cross and uninteresting, but I'll be honest if it takes every nerve and idea. Do you know what I mean, I wonder? I hope so.


I can't, in common descency say much about the trying and complicated household20 in which I live, but you must realize that such conditions do not contribute to ones being oneself. There is a continual restraint necessary.