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#0351: Willa Cather to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, March 15 [1916]

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NUMBER FIVE BANK STREET3 Dear Dorothy1:

I'm so glad you had fun with it, and so grateful to you for telling me so. It is a carelessly written book4 because I had so much fun writing it I could not be careful. Even in the proofs I fooled myself into my own fairy tale and raced ahead. The year and a half I spent writing it—about six months of the time vacation but with the story more or less in mind—went by like a dream. I never had a dull hour with her—if I'd had to work harder I'd have taken more pain and the book would be a better one. I had a lot of the chapters of the German part written, but they seemed to destroy the composition; for of course it's all really done from the Moonstone point of view. The German part had to be so different in tone, even in language, that it destroyed my point, though it made a more consistent book. For, of course, my point was not the development of a genius—my point is always Moonstone, what she got from it, what she gave back to it. It is really written in the speech of Moonstone, and when a very cultivated Russian-Jew5 tells me the English is loose and lacks distinction, he is right. It's not the purest Ritz-Carlton English that a Continentalized Russian would know at all. The whole book is practically in indirect discourse, quotation once removed. I used single quotes and double quotes until I was exhausted and gave it up.

Yes, most of the reviews have been sympathetic, but a few high, alabaster brows have clouded with pain. They say they wanted her to lose her voice, or "do something exquisite," not by any means to go through with her job successfully. I send you the best of these6 adverse reviews, the only interesting one. He7 is quite right about the title—its trashy and poor. NUMBER FIVE BANK STREET He puts his finger on another thing. The book is done in two manners—one intimate, one remote. She goes on, but I stand still in Moonstone with Tillie, and I write from Moonstone. That change in presentation was in the very germ of the idea, and my doubt as to whether it would be convincing kept me back from writing the book for several years. But it's not because the early experience is more real that than the later. It's because the heroine's life became less and less personal. The early years are the most interesting—they were to her, too. The personal life of singers like Ternina8 and Fremstad9 arrive at the vanishing point. There is just about as much left of them as Dr. Archie saw when Thea got home after singing Elsa10. Of course if you're doing a gay Geraldine11, that's another story. I think the book rather 'peters out', but it's because all in Thea that is proper material for fiction 'peters out', not, Heaven knows, because my interest is any less. I think that is a flaw; but I think almost any novel about an artist must have that flaw, for the order of their development is from the personal to the impersonal, when they cease to be proper material for a human story. The last chapters were written not so much for Thea as for Moonstone and Dr. Archie. She had to make good to them. And a singer is the only artist who makes good to Moonstone. Red Cloud12 people go to Kansas City13 to hear Farrar and Mary Garden14. It's half art and half natural phenomenon; it's personal, concrete, a living woman, a living voice there before them. Anyhow, it's the combination that "gets" them. Patti15, Jenny Lind16, Malebran17.

Then in Red Cloud they truly love, as they say "the voice." It fills them with pleasure and content. She had to be a singer for them, not because I happen to go to the opera a great deal. I wasn't trying to NUMBER FIVE BANK STREET put something over on Red Cloud. I was writing it from their point of view. And they did like it very much. I was out there when the book came out, and the way they talked it over was a great satisfaction.

No, Dorothy. I've been unable to start a new book this winter. Judge McClung18 died in November, and the breaking-up of my old home19 there was a sad thing to live through. On April 3d Isabelle20 is to marry Jan Hambourg, violinist, younger brother of Mark Hambourg21—but very much nicer. I am glad, for she is very happy, but the final closing up of that long Pittsburgh22 chapter is very hard, all the same. May Willard23 is coming on to stay with me for the wedding reception, which will be at Sherry's24. Jan and I are not very congenial. He's a strong personality—one likes him or one doesn't. So, although Isabelle will be in New York2 a good deal, things can't, of course, be as they were. It's an amazing change in one's life, you see, and on the best terms one can figure out, a devastating loss to me. My old friend Mrs. Fields25, of Boston26, died last winter. A good many doors have been closing. The next book27 is there, ready to be begun, but I've felt indifferently toward it. When my interest is out of commission, I have very little wit to work with.

Are you never coming to New York? There are such a lot of things I'd love to talk over with you. Don't you think the general misery let loose in the world gets to one? I believe that when nations war and the race milk and cream go sour and the hens refuse to lay. Of course the pursuit of happiness is not the reality it's supposed to be. The pursuit of pain seems to be just as irradicable a human instinct, and it breaks out in spite of all the wisdom in the world. There were three Poles dining here with me last night. Why do the Poles always have to bleed, no matter who cuts? I wish you were coming down, and that I could put these things up to you.

Please return this New Republic28 notice. It presents the other side which it's only reasonable to consider. The book mov moves about, and yet all hangs on the Moonstone relation—which latter fact this Mr. Bourne did not get. Anyhow, I'm glad the story gave you the same kind of "let-oneself go" feeling it gave me. Send me another note.

Yours Willa