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#2032: Willa Cather to Norman Foerster, January 14 and 20, 1931

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Willa Cather ⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ Dear Norman Foerster1:

No, I cannot accept your kind invitation. I simply never give lectures or talks of the kind you suggest. I used to, very occasionally, but since my mother3 has been an invalid I have had no time for these things.

I have not written you before because I have wanted to write you a long letter about your book4, and Heaven only knows when I will have time to do so. I am just finishing a new book5 of my own and will soon go to my mother in California6. I read your book very carefully and with great interest. I am awfully glad you wrote it, and I agree with you in the main - in your opinions on the history of criticism and the critical mind, but I do feel that you take a little group of American critics7, I might say of New York critics, too seriously. This of course is entirely confidential, but I think of the men you mention, Mr. Canby8 andRandolph Bourne9 and, in a less degree, Canby, were the only ones who had that instantaneous perception and absolute conviction about quality that which a good critic must have. You understand me; it is a thing like an ear for music. You can tell when a singer flats, or you cannot tell. You cannot be taught to distinguish that error.

Toward Standards
N. F.

Take, for example, an intelligent and serious man10 like Stuart Sherman11. (And please don't think there is anything personal in this - he always treated me very generously indeed.12) I knew him quite well. He was absolutely lacking in the quality I speak of. He could take a writer as a subject; talk about him and read about him and worry his brain over the matter, and say a great many ⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ interesting things about this writer - many of them true. But it was all from the outside. It was a thing worked up, studied out.

What I mean is this: if suppose that Sherman had read all the novels of Joseph Conrad13 except the "Nigger of the Narcisus"14, if that he had written about them and read what other critics had to say about them until he knew a great deal about these books and their quality. If all this were true, and I had taken a dozen pages from the "Nigger of the Narcisus" and mixed them up with a dozen other pages written by Conrad's fairly intelligent imitators (people like Francis Brett Young15 for example), it would have been utterly impossible for Stuart Sherman to pick out the Conrad pages from the second rate stuff.

A fine critic must have something more than a studious nature and high ideals, and the very best criticisms I happen to know were was not written by professional critics at all. Henry James16 was a very fine critic I think; and so was Walter Pater17. And so was #Prosper Meérimeée.18

I don't mean that all fine artists in prose have been good critics. Of course Turgenev19 was a very poor critic.

But on the whole, composers are the best judges of new musical compositions and writers are the best judges of new kinds of writing. I mean that they are better judges than either musical scholars or literary scholars. But this is only a little of a great deal that I would like to say to you about your book, which does exactly what a book of that sort ought to do - makes me want to come back at you and have it out with you, both where I agree and where I disagree.

Always cordially yours, Willa Cather #Do you know his essay20 on Gogol21? That's what I call criticism! ⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ Jan 14, 1931

P.S. This letter was written some days ago—but my secretary22 begged me not to send it. "Just the sort of indiscreet letter that falls into the wrong hands and makes you a lot of enemies for nothing," says she. However, as she has gone to Cuba23 for her vacation, I think I'll send it anyhow. I feel that it won't fall into the wrong hands, and that you won't quote me—even to your publisher24, who is rather a chatter-box.

Yours, Willa Cather