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#1620: Willa Cather to Mr. Phillipson, March 15, 1943

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⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ Dear Mr. Phillipson1:

The high school teacher whom you mention must have been more than “sensitive and kindly”; she evidently had a feeling for sound sentence structure. I get hundreds of letters from college students, friendly and enthusiastic, but the weakness of their sentence structure is often appalling. They seem convinced that friendly and enthusiastic clauses need have no particular relation to each other or to the main stem of the sentence. Sometimes these letters show insight and a real feeling for literature. But how can these boys expect to play sonatas when they cannot play scales? I am chiefly interested in your letter because you seem to have a feeling for the English sentence. In writing, that is the beginning of everything.

You ask me about “Paul’s Case”3. I once had in my latin class4 a nervous, jerky boy who was always trying to make himself “interesting”, and to prove that he had special recognition and special favours from members of a stock company whichthen playeding in the town theater. You will recognize one part of Paul. The other part of Paul is simply the feeling I myself had about New York City2 and the old Waldorf Astoria5 (not the horrid structure6 which now stands on Park Avenue)., Wwhen I first left college7 and was teaching latin in the Pittsburgh8 High School. I used to come to New York occasionally then, and that is the way the City seemed to me. Of course, I never ran away, or jumped under a railway train: neither did the real Paul, in so far as I know. But that is the way stories are usually made - a grafting of some outside figure with some part of the writer’s self.

You speak of a “universal longing for a world beautiful”. In the first place, this longing is by no means universal. It is rather exceptional. And don’t, please, speak of a world beautiful.! That is the only bad phrase in your ⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩letter. But it is bad. It is what I call “women’s club phraseology”. You could have said that better, had you tried. But a desire for beauty - a strong desire - is the important thing, is the real gift. And it is a blessed gift which cannot be altogether thwarted or starved, because there is beauty everywhere. I have never stayed in Rochester9, but I have been through it, on the train, in the winter-time, and I thought the snow-covered country around it glorious. If you will ask at the public library for a book of mine called “The Song of the Lark”10, you will find out how I feel about this desire which is so hard to name. Rebecca West11 calls it “the strange necessity”. If one has that desire, no circumstances can keep him from the treasure house of the world. All the great literature and the great music and the great art are his. As much of these things, I mean, as his desire can reach. And after all, we deserve only what we can reach - though the process of reaching it may be slow.

Very cordially yours, Willa Cather