Skip to main content

#0267: Willa Cather to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, [November to December 1913]

More about this letter…
Plain view:

Guide to Reading Letter Transcriptions

Some of these features are only visible when "plain text" is off.

Textual Feature Appearance
passage deleted with a strikethrough mark deleted passage
passage deleted by overwritten added letters overwritten passage
passage added above the line passage with added text above
passage added on the line passage with added text inline
passage added in the margin passage with text added in margin
handwritten addition to a typewritten letter typed passage with added handwritten text
missing or unreadable text missing text noted with "[illegible]"
uncertain transcriptions word[?]
notes written by someone other than Willa Cather Note in another's hand
printed letterhead text printed text
text printed on postcards, envelopes, etc. printed text
text of date and place stamps stamped text
passage written by Cather on separate enclosure. written text

All this material4, of course, is delightful, and the writing is certainly so. But in letters the all the elements of a story seem to become discussion. Even the stories which Turgenev5 wrote in letter form seem to me failures. The people seem too self-conscious, and the story spoils the discussion and yet does not make good as a story. Letters seem to be very well to keep two people who have a story between them in touch with each other; but in a book made up only of letters, the story seems is left out. All this you of course know already. I wish the Sicilian episode might have been a story by itself, standing on its own. It has so much in it, and one does get glimpses of a powerful and moving story. But the heroine is never what one feels she must be because she has, in the nature of the case, to keep calling attention to things—to scenery, curtains, people, to herself in this setting, and to her own feelings. Of her personality one gets very little. YouOne only see her when she is employed in the artificial task of writing—always one never sees her more fully and unconsciously through any atmosphere, gray or azure. Why were you ever tempted to try such a stunt! As for the man’s letters, they are well enough, but you could easily have written them yourself. If I did not know that they were not yours, I would take it for granted that you had written them “in character,” so to speak.

Don’t feel that you must reply to me as to this comment. It’s unsatisfactory, I know.


Perhaps I ought to make a list of the things I like in themselves. All[?] the real story seems so good, but it is so so cramped and shut in and cross-lighted by its setting that it has not the effect it should have. The heroine, for one, stands in her own light every minute. She writes too well, she writes too much. How can one idealize a heroine if she is always talking? One feels that this one might stir one up if only one could come upon her as a person. You see, every effect you get in a letter is second hand—a thing thought over, the first thrill gone. I don’t see how you were persuaded to try such an experiment, with so many wrecks to warn you. Because one gets nothing of your girl but her ideas, one feels that her ideas matter too much to her. That is true of every story I’ve ever read in letter form, the Turgenev ones as well as the others—except one, and I forget the name of that. The people either seem soft and moony or hard and chattery;—or they seem simply shameless, as in the Kempton-Wace Letters6.

Probably there are not many people who feel so strongly about this form. And I’m not trying to make out a case against it, but to truthfully tell you that it seems to me a cruel sort of cage for anya story. Much better critics than I may not feel this at all. They might be more than willing to shelve the story for the comment, the interpretation of what happened. You were rather hard on me the other time, because you seemed to feel that I gave my impression [illegible] of the paper somewhat as if I d it were evidence—which I truly did not. I know so little about the country or the people with which to paper dealt that I could only say whether it got across to me.

P.S. This is Sunday and I’m wrung out with a headache, so please excuse this incoherence. If I could talk to you about it I would not tax your patience so much.

Yours W.S.C.