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#1741: Willa Cather to E. K. Brown, October 7, 1946

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⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ My dear Mr. Brown1:

I have been delayed in writing to you by a whirlwind of repairs in this apartment house3 - repairs not requested by me and over which I had no control. Moreover, this is a difficult letter to write. It is hard for me to tell you in temperate language how deeply I appreciate4 your careful and sympathetic reading5 of my books.

The fact that I have not been writing much lately is largely due to the fact that I rather lost enthusiasm. Four years ago my brother Douglass6, who loved the Southwest7 and with whom I used to knock about in that part of this country8, died very suddenly of a heart seizure in California9. Just one year ago this past September my brother Roscoe10, who was in the sheep business in western Wyoming11 for many years, and with whom I used to spend long vacations in the summer time, died in his sleep at Colusa, California12, where he had retired to escape the severe winter climate of Wyoming13.

As for my books, I think I agree with your estimate in almost every instance. Of course, I know that "Death Comes for the Archbishop"14 is my best book. I was seven years in getting the material for it, but I never made notes because I did not expect to write a book about the Southwest. It was too big and too various. But it gave me more pleasure than any other part of this continent, and I made many trips down there simply as a matter of self-indulgence. You see, the story of the Southwest involved too many individuals - little related to each other. Strange: how long and pleasantly one can reach after a design, and how quietly and simply it comes to one at last. I shall always remember the late afternoon when I was sitting in a very gravelly, uncomfortable spot up by the Martyr's Cross15, east of Santa Feé16, watching the Sangre de Cristo Mountains color with the sunset. 2 I suddenly, without any questioning, said to myself:

"The real story of the early Southwest is the story of the missionary priests. They all came from France17, and came here with a background: cultivated minds and a large vision - and a noble purpose."

From that evening on I began to find out what I could about those missionary priests18 - and everything I found out about them made me admire them the more. Even then I made very few notes, because the material stayed with me. Poor Mary Austin19 always claimed that the "Archbishop" was written in her house, in Santa Feé. Now I hear that a mad woman, called Wheelwright20, claims that it was written in her house. In truth, the book was written in the course of one year, most of it was written in a house near Jaffrey, New Hampshire21. (Jaffrey lies at the foot of Mount Monadnock) - iIt was finished in my own apartment on Bank Street22, in New York2. I read the book through last spring (when I was recuperating from an illness) - the first time I have read it through since it was published. And I was pleased with it because it reflected some of the pleasure I used to feel when I wandered about that country by railroad and spring wagon and on horseback. I never used the automobile very much because I got more pleasure out of closeness than speed.

Now let me tell you a story, because I think I can always write better in narrative. I was very much disappointed in "O Pioneers"23, not disappointed in the reviews but in my own review of it. My credentials were honest, but I had made a mistake. I loved the Norwegian colony in Nebraska24. They were rather stiff and severe - and very exclusive. And I loved the French colony up North, because they were gay and spirited and had such an attractive religion. But the Norwegian and the French people never liked each other. They didn't fight - but they didn't mix. Now, in "O Pioneers", I tried to blend what God himself had put asunder,and I saw that I had been an idiot. I had then an excellent opportunity to make my residence in London25, and there was engaged in getting interesting matter for American publishing houses. Mr. McClure26 had sent me over twice for that purpose and I brought him back 3 good material. I had two good friends there in London who would always help me to get such material - William Heinemann27 and William Archer28.

In the early spring of 1913 (it must have been), the spring after "O Pioneers" was published, I was taking a walk on Riverside Drive of a Sunday morning when I saw someone waving to me from across the street. It was Louis Brandeis29. His wife was a Miss Goldmark30, and the Goldmarks31 then lived on Riverside Drive. He came across the street, shook hands with me and said: "Miss Cather, I have read your book."
I was delighted to see him, but I answered rather grumpily: "I'm sorry."
He gave me one of those searching looks of his and said:
"Now, that's not quite sincere,. bBut the book is."

Then we had a long talk, walking up and down. What he had to say was that whatever faults the book had, there was real feeling in it for some places and some people, and the thing that he, personally, did not find in contemporary writers was just that thing. He named three, I remember. Mrs. Wharton32 was one of them. (She being no longer living, I can use her name.) I know now that this talk was in the middle of Brandeis' terrible struggle about the railroads. You would have thought that he would be worn to a thread, but he was as handsome and gay as when I used to go to his house in Boston33, in 1910 or and 1911. The very scholarly and thorough book34 by Professor Mason35 of Princeton, explaining all of Brandeis' great work, never lets the living man, so witty and gay, once walk across the page.!

The truth is that after that talk with him, I changed my plans. I blundered on and didn't do much better, but I kept myself free from editorial work and was learning by failures. I never saw Louis Brandeis again. He probably took a glance at my two subsequent books and sighed and gave up the quest. It takes people (some people) a long while to learn what they really love, and what they love best.

I think you underestimate, a little, Mr. Brown, the pioneers among the early railroad builders in the West. Some of them were men of imagination - — — 4 imagination of a high order. When I was very young - a child, indeed - I saw Jim Hill36, and stood respectfully listening to him as he talked to a group of Burlington operatives. I think he was a great dreamer and a great man.

If one is any judge of one's own processes, I never conscientiously paid much attention to language. If the language tells more in the "Archbishop" than in other books it isn't due to any painstakingness on my part, any more than there is a design when the lid of a saucepan begins to hop because the water underneath it is boiling. When one cares enough, the language for that feeling comes. Good Heavens, we have language enough behind us! No other people has such a glorious heritage of language. We have the King James translation of the Bible37 and Shakespeare38, and Chaucer39 - (not below either of them in his humor and his strange kind of tenderness.). If a writer cares enough and is too self-respecting to be willing to make a fool of himself, the language comes as naturally as people laugh or cry.

Now tThis is a long, wandering letter, Mr. Brown, and maybe it isn't at all to the point. bBut it tells you the why of some things, at least. May I say that I am glad you had a good word for "My Mortal Enemy"40. It was lucky that by that time I had got into the hands of a broad-minded publisher41. Houghton Mifflin would surely have sent that story back to me for extensive revisions.

I don't think much of "Lucy Gayheart"42 either. But, strangely enough, I think it picks up after all the Gayhearts are safe in the family burial lot. I think the last chapters, which deal entirely with the effect of Lucy on the hard-boiled business man, are rather interesting.

It has been a great satisfaction to me to find in your article how the various books struck a thoughtful and scholarly man. It takes a long while to learn to do anything passably well. And when the material was so exciting (and exhausting to one), maybe it took longer than it would have done if one had only had a cooler head and a better sense of form.

With deep appreciation Yours Willa Cather
FROM CATHER 570 PARK AVE3., NEW YORK CITY2 Mr. E. K. Brown1 University of Chicago Chicago, Illinois43 Department of English NEW YORK, N.Y.2 NOV 7 1230 PM RECEIVED
NOV 8 1946