Monday, April 15, 2019

Willa Cather write what she knows - you don’t see them quite enough from the outside

Willa Cather had published a book of stories, The Troll Garden (1905), a major theme of which is the hostility of her native Midwest to artists.  She was having trouble moving forward as a writer.  My understanding is that her friendship with Sarah Orne Jewett helped her change.  “I want you to be surer of your backgrounds,” Jewett wrote in a 1908letter, meaning her Nebraska childhood, and for that matter her life in New York writing for a magazine.  Jewett is giving the “write what you know” advice, but with more depth.  “These are uncommon equipment, but you don’t see them quite enough from the outside…”

Cather found a couple of ways to embrace her subject yet be outside of her material.  In a 1921 interview feature, Cather says: “[Jewett] said to me that if my life had lain in a part of the world that was without a literature, and I couldn't tell about it truthfully in the form I most admired, I'd have to make a kind of writing that would tell it, no matter what I lost in the process.”

That last phrase is interesting.  What did she lose, I wonder?  “A painter or writer must learn to distinguish what is his own from that which he admires.”  She gives up what she admires to find what is her own.

So, two ways to keep her distance.  One is to use frames heavily, a story-within-a-story structure like in The Professor’s House or distancing narrators as in A Lost Lady and My Ántonia.  Both are novels about idealized women, the wealthy wife of a retired railroad magnate in the former and a group of immigrant servants in the latter, but with the stories witnessed or told by the young men who have idealized them.  Lots of ways for the character not to be Cather, when he shares her memories. 

The “Introduction” to My Ántonia is an almost comical denial that the book is written by Cather. No, this is by her friend Jim Burden, who started out writing a few memories of one particular “Bohemian girl” and somehow wrote an entire memoir.  “My own story was never written, but the following narrative is Jim’s manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me.”  Cather never writes anything except the Introduction, yet it is her name on the cover!  These writers, what thieves.

Of course we all know that the existence of the frame changes the “aboutness” of the story, too, that it is also “about” the narrator or observer, maybe even largely about the narrator.

We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it.  It was a kind of freemasonry, we said.  (Introduction)

There is that new form, that new kind of writing, I guess, one that can do two things at once, or three, or more.

I’ll try one more of those things tomorrow, although or because I do not understand it well.  Let’s look at classical Cather.


  1. "She gives up what she admires to find what is her own."

    Yes, I think good artists come to the realization that they are not their artistic heroes and have no choice but to be themselves. You can always pick up someone else's tools, but you'll never have that person's eye, ears, imagination.

    These Cather posts are good stuff. I should see what else we have of hers on the shelf. I'd forgotten about the whole "my friend wrote a book" framing story for Antonia. That dodge is as old as Cervantes but it's got remarkable staying power. I've recently read a couple of contemporary novels structured as "a book that somehow or other came into my hands."

  2. The "you know I never did write my version oh well" joke is pretty good.

    The 1921 interview is quite good, even though I do not exactly understand some of it.

  3. I always assumed, naively, that the frame story in My Ántonia might be a way for Cather to gain more credence, in the way so many female authors used male pseudonyms. It's a fascinating device though, the way it's often used to buy protection for the writer from inquisitorial minds - not that I think that's what's going on here.

  4. Edmund Wilson reviewing The Lost Lady in 1924:

    "Miss Cather seems to suffer from a disability like that of Henry James: it is almost impossible for her to describe an emotion or an action except at secondhand" (The Shores of Light, 41).

    Not true! But approaching something true. Cather wants a lot of distance, most of the time.