Monday, August 19, 2019

'The Plain Old-Fashioned Writer'

Willa Cather is the novelist I most thoroughly misunderstood when young and have most profoundly reevaluated with age. I read O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark and My √Āntonia – the so-called prairie trilogy – over the summer of 1971. I remember few details of my reactions, but I definitely pigeonholed her as a minor regionalist, cousin to Sherwood Anderson. After one year as an English major I had already learned to dismiss books by patronizingly mislabeling them. Not one professor mentioned her work, I’m certain.

Now she is central, and this has nothing to do with her sex. With Melville and James, Cather ranks not only as our finest native-born novelist (thus deferring the Nabokov-and-Singer question) but our finest writer, period. Even her minutiae are worthy of attention. Take the letter she wrote on this date, Aug. 19, in 1944. A Nebraska-born photographer with Life magazine, Jane Speiser, had proposed that she and Cather collaborate on a photo-and-text prairie project. Gently but resolutely, Cather turns her down:

“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.”

On one level, this is a routine business letter, one any prominent writer might compose. On another, Cather is protecting her literary turf and formulating her writerly credo:

“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?”

This is at once gracious and adamant. She knows she will disappoint Speiser but has no wish to hurt her feelings. Cather recounts the ways in which Nebraska is no longer, after thirty years and more, her Nebraska. (Within a few years, Wright Morris would be writing and photographing his Nebraska.) Savor her graciousness without rancor and her pride of authorship:

“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.)”

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