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#2441: Willa Cather to Jean Speiser, August 19, 1944

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Miss J. Speiser1 LIFE3 Time and Life Building Rockefeller Center New York 20, New York4
Dear Miss Speiser:

I take it for granted that you are very young and full of enthusiasm -- that is, when you have an idea, you take a run with it. That is the right mood for your age but you mustn't expect people of more experience to keep step with you.

A word about those books5 which you call the Nebraska books. If there is anything that interests you in these books, it is not detailed description (when you examine them you will see that there is very little of that) but an individual feeling in the writer -- in other words a purely emotional thing. Now all the cameras in the world cannot take a picture of a feeling or a state of mind, can they?

Moreover, a prairie country is a fluid country and is continually changing. In a mountain country, or the Maine6 sea coast, you have fixed features which remain the same and can be photographed. But the state of Nebraska7 has been absolutely made over five or six times since I have known it. The Nebraska of My Antonia8 was fast vanishing when I was eight years old -- my first acquaintance with it. There are no stretches of red grass in that country any more and have not been for twenty-five or thirty years. Such grassland still exists I believe in Cherry County9 but I have never been in Cherry County. All the conditions which prevail in the period of A Lost Lady10 have absolutely disappeared not only tyopographically but socially. I was fortunate enough to catch the last flicker of life in the veterans of the railroad building period. I do not remember much Nebraska "atmosphere" in Lucy Gayheart11 but my friends who live on the Platte River write me that the river has been completely destroyed and has practically disappeared. The New Deal undertook12 to convey the water of the Platte River to some distant Miss Speiser - 2 part of the state and built an enormous aqueduct costing many millions. The aqueduct burst13 and ruined the farms near the spot where the break occurred. This I have by hearsay from Kearney14.

The very absence of detail and tradition in a prairie country were among the charm which fascinated adventurous youth fifty years ago. In place of detail there was sound and space, youth and hope. You can't, dear Miss Speiser, photograph any of those things. The photographs of those stretches of farm land and those muddy rivers would be photographs of dead bodies. There is nothing sharp or dramatic in them.

Even color photography of the best kind could not do much. The feeling that you have and I have about the prairie country, I honestly believe, is incommunicable by any literal representation. There just for once the plain old-fashioned writer has it over the brilliant mechanical perfected process. (This doesn't always hold: your camera can thrill me (with mountains, processions and battle fields) but it can't make me know how it feels to be in a prairie country on a fine autumn day.)

May I just add that I am glad that there are some people, like you and Mr. Longwell15, actually living in New York and very much up-to-date, who remember the prairie country with pleasure. A number of stories by young Nebraska writers have been sent me (some of them published in the State University Annual) and they all seem to be about dirty farm hands and dirty farmers' wives and their dirty behavior. Oh, yes, and awful smells! I have been a lot among farm people and farm hands in seasons of heavy work and I can't remember having been tortured by those male and female smells which pervade these new crop stories. I really do prefer the real estate salesman's blurb to this particular school of realism. This, of course I cut out in the final copy.

I hate to be disobliging but I am sure you will understand why I can't collaborate in the plan you outline with enthusiasm. You can't revisit places which no longer exist. I do not know much about color photography -- you might get some good pictures but you couldn't photograph the types which are no Miss Speiser - 3 more or the farming processes which were picturesque but which are no longer in use.

With good wishes and appreciation of your interest, I am

Most cordially yours,