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#0182: Willa Cather to Norman Foerster, July 20, 1910

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EDITORIAL ROOMS (Harvard N.F.) My dear Norman1:-

I am genuinely and heartily delighted to hear how splendidly you have been getting on in English, both as regards the scholarly side of it and the practical side. The mMonthly4, which you say you have sent me, has not turned up yet, but will doubtless do so, and I shall read it with the greatest interest. I am starting away for a week in the mountains5, tomorrow, and that is why I am acknowledging your letter today before I have read the article6 on Gilbert White7.

I always felt that you would learn to write well some day, if you cared to and had the patience. And now, your real work has just begun. The distance between excellent writing and good writing, that has a commercial value because it is unique and individual, is the longest distance in the world. I am not speaking now of bad writing that has a commercial value, because there are millions of reasons why bad writing should have a commercial value. But there is only one reason why good writing should have it. A man must have experienced things pretty keenly and must have got pretty close to things before his experiences or the degree of his nearness can matter to many people in this frenzied workshop of a country.

When you were a young lad, I always thought you were well equipped and that the only thing which that might tell against you was a certain mild self-sureness that almost approached self-satisfaction. This was quite inoffensive to other people, but I used to wonder whether it might not become a habit of mind and settle into a sort of philosophic self-content, which is apt to keep people from experiencing things very keenly and genuinely, and, as people grow older, to result in a sort MCCLURE'S MAGAZINE
EDITORIAL ROOMS N. F. —2— constitutional mental phlegm. When you tell me that your writing tends toward the manner of both Pater8 and Arnold9, I would be a little bit alarmed, if it were not true that every writer I know, at some time thought he wrote like Pater.

Now as to the practical aspects of the case: As to a book of essays; we have no book publishing business. We sold our book publishing business to Doubleday Page and Company10 two years ago. They publish a good many nature books, however, and if you have anything you want to try there, I shall be glad to give you an introduction. I should think, though, that your kind of nature book might be much more in Houghton Mifflin Co.'s line. The head of the book publishing department there, Ferris Greenslet11, is an old and dear friend of mine, and I should be glad to give you a letter to him, if you ever wish to approach them12. As to magazine work, the McClure motto is "A great deal of matter and as little manner as may be." We like scientific subjects handled in a style rather scientific than literary. But I am not sure that it might not be a good drill for you to try, at some time or other, some popular science articles in which the information end was uppermost. For instance, I thought about you a long time in connection with an article13 which I have just had written on John Brashear14, of Pittsburg15. I remembered some themes that you did once on the Allegheny river valley as one saw it from the hilltops, and I thought you would be able to get the feeling of the place into the background - and Professor Brashear and his background do so belong together. But I thought you were probably busy with commencement matters and, when I mentioned you in writing to Mr. McClure16, he replied: "Aren't recent graduates often apt to be mannered and to be averse to MCCLURE'S MAGAZINE
EDITORIAL ROOMS N. F. —3— giving information?" We wanted the facts about Mr. Brashear told pretty plainly, for the facts' sake, so I sent Mr. Edwin T. Brewster17 of Andover18, who has done a good deal of scientific writing for us, out to Pittsburg. Now, if you want to try a practical commission of this sort for us sometime, I shall be more than glad to give you a chance. Nature articles in the nature of essays, of course, go more properly to the Atlantic Monthly19, as the interest of such essays is primarily literary rather than scientific. The popular scientific article, of course, must be done mainly for the sake of conveying certain information. In short, the scientific theme must not be used as a hook on which to hang a certain kind of writing. Huxley20, I think, is one of the best of scientific writers. He was never in the least too technical or too obscure or too literary.


This is, of course, random advice that occurs to me as I read your letter over. The commercial scientific article and the literary essay are two wholly different things. Of course, an ideal article on Mr. Brashear would have just as much feeling and just as much literary depth as the writer could put into it, but instead of being brought to the front, that it would be so restrained and and crushed into the background as to be scarcely noticeable and all the more potent for that fact.

This seems to have become a long gossipy letter of the kind that I do not often have time to write and, even if you do not agree with me, I hope you will take it as a proof of my pleasure in your collegiate success and my interest in your future.

Faithfully Willa Sibert Cather Mr. Norman Forester, 13 Holsworthy Hall, Cambridge, Mass.21

Mr. McClure has been ill22 in Europe23 for six months and I have been running the magazine alone. I shall not get away for more than a week or two until he returns in October. So come to see me if you are in N.Y.2 I go abroad this winter.24