#29. “Phraseologies of the frontier”: Willa Cather
Andrew Jewell is the co-editor of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Though she settled in urban New York, Willa Cather’s (1873–1947) claim for writing a Great American Novel rests on an oeuvre in which European refinement repeatedly meets the rugged American wilderness head-on at frontiers which arguably no longer exist. Cather wrote 1927’s Death Comes for the Archbishop about two French priests establishing a diocese in New Mexico as she felt that “the story of the Catholic Church in that country was the most interesting of all its stories”. The mythic lure of historical pioneers at unhospitable frontiers has lost none of its lustre in the seventy years since her death; Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, for example, was among the best films of the 2000s. Cather is, in Andrew’s opinion, a very rare example of a writer who, after reaching maturity, did not produce a failure: here, he considers what she might have thought of the twenty-first century.
Words: Andrew Jewell
1. #WillaCather: social media marketing
Willa Cather sometimes claimed to have little interest in promoting her books, and she resisted interviews and lectures once she became an established writer. Her letters reveal, though, that she was a practical professional who was continually concerned with how her publishers were marketing her novels. She would not have had a Twitter feed or a Death Comes for the Archbishop Facebook page, but she would have made sure her publishers pursued every promotional angle. As she told her editor Ferris Greenslet, shortly before leaving his firm for another that would better promote her work, “Books like mine require a special kind of publicity work.”
2. Same-sex marriage
In 1908, about two years after moving to New York to take a job with McClure’s Magazine, Cather moved into an apartment at 82 Washington Place. She shared this new apartment with Edith Lewis, and the two women lived together until Cather’s death in 1947. Cather never married, and she likely bristled at the thought of assuming the role of “wife” and all of its social obligations, but she did sustain a loving, committed, and distinctive relationship with another woman for nearly forty years. Cather and Lewis created their own model for a family, one bound by a shared devotion and not by cultural expectations.
3. Environmental consciousness
Cather celebrated the natural world and those who cared for it and deplored the careless treatment of resources that emerged with the highly materialistic culture of the US in the 1920s. Sometimes Cather’s works use sensitivity toward the natural environment as a sign of a character’s foresightedness, as when Alexandra Bergson, in O Pioneers!, sees the rough Nebraska land with “love and yearning” or Bishop Latour, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, admires how the Navajo “pass through a country . . . and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air.”
Alternatively, she constructs heart-breaking episodes from a disregard for living things, as in the scene, early in One of Ours, when a man, responding to his wife’s request that he pick cherries she cannot reach, chops down a tree in full fruit:
“It lay on the ground beside its bleeding stump. . . . For days afterwards Claude went down to the orchard and watched the tree grow sicker, wilt and wither away.”
Had Cather lived to witness the intensifying environmental crisis, I suspect it would have demanded even more attention in her writing. She may have even been inspired to political activism – a practice she avoided – though I doubt it would have been on a grand scale. She would have been more likely to fight to protect a specific place she loved, like the prairies of Nebraska or the sea surrounding Grand Manan Island.
4. Food culture
The resurgent interest in home cooking and quality food and the vast expansion of food choices in grocery stores would have greatly appealed to Cather. She prided herself on her ability to cook and sometimes shared her menus – fried chicken, green beans, polenta, fresh tomato salad, and gooseberries anglaise – with her correspondents. She employed a French cook for many years and, when summering at her cottage on Grand Manan Island, sometimes had her publisher send her Italian tomato paste, garlic, wild rice and caviar. One even wonders if she would have written a preface for a cookbook featuring recipes from the Great Plains or old Virginia: she knew these foodways and would have had much to say on the subject.
5. Speed of contemporary travel
Cather lived a peripatetic life, continually moving from place to place, maintaining a permanent residence in New York for most of her life but staying elsewhere for months at a time. But she did not constantly sample new places, she returned again and again to the same places: Jaffrey, New Hampshire, or Red Cloud, Nebraska, or Santa Fe, New Mexico. And, when she visited a place, she did not go for a few days to fulfil an obligation, but lingered for weeks or months at a time. Our current ability to breakfast in Washington, D. C., and then be home to cook dinner in Lincoln, Nebraska, would have been bewildering. She was a traveller, but she travelled slow. Indeed, as the Navajo Eusabio says to the dying Bishop Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop: “Men travel faster now, but I do not know if they go to better things.”
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (2013), co-edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, is published by Knopf, available in good bookshops.
© 2013, The Fertile Fact / Andrew Jewell