Thursday, November 14, 2013


Sixty-five years ago when Willa Cather died she left unambiguous orders in her will strictly forbidding publication of her letters. Until just this year, the author's executors honored her preference to be remembered only for the writings she knowingly published and not for writings she never intended or prepared for publication.

Counter-arguments inevitably prevailed with the literary estate in the long run, however. And now is the long run. A solidly-edited volume more than 700 pages long has appeared from Cather's own long-time publisher Knopf.

Reading it for myself (with the fascination of a lifelong fan) I have reached letters written in 1929. The passage below was addressed in that year to a scholar who had asked about literary models.

"Your inquiry regarding a possible French influence is hard to answer. I began to read French when I was fifteen or sixteen, and for a great many years enjoyed the French prose writers from Victor Hugo down to Maupassant much more than I did English writers of the same periods. I never cared so much for French poetry as for English poetry; but almost any French prose seemed to me a little better than English prose, quite apart from the quality of the writer. Before I was twenty I had read all the novels of Balzac a good many times. Now I do not read him very often. I don't think I ever longed to "imitate" one French writer more than another, but in all the great French writers I have felt a greater freedom than in English writers of the same period; they experimented more often and had a wider range of variety  usually seemed a little more direct and sincere. About nearly all the fine old English novelists (before Thomas Hardy) there is a curiously professional tone toward the reader, a joviality a good deal like that of the landlord welcoming guests at an inn. When I was much younger this tone irritated me, I remember. I do not mind it so much now; it seems a manner like other manners, but perhaps the absence of this conventional geniality in French novelists pleased me, beside their range of interest was so much wider  their theme was not always the same story of how some one got settled in life."