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The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

The novelist's letters are rich and varied and make a valuable addition to the world of letters.

(Page 3 of 3)

Cather's insistence on her own independence picks up extra force as she links it with assertions that art is independent of the concerns and duties of life, and is, indeed, preferable to them: "I have been running away from myself all my life ... and have been happiest when I was running fastest. Those last three winters of my mother's life held me close to myself and to the beginnings of things, and it was like being held against things too sad to live with."

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Still, as the years pass the letters show Cather's increasing recognition of the irreconcilability of independence and freedom with fulfilling love. Writing to her brother in her dismay after Isabelle got married, she said, "[L]ife is so awfully one-sided: if you keep free you're too damned free, and if you tie up – why there you are."

Aside from the great matters of life and art, Cather's letters deal the details of publishing her books; others praise fellow writers or thank reviewers – some of whom are good friends and were put up to the job by Cather herself. There are letters lamenting the state of the world and of literature; others encourage aspirant writers to ignore the "conventional machinery" of fiction and follow their own ideas. There are some real scorchers, too, including a tirade on the incompetence of Marguerite Yourcenar's translation of "Death Comes for the Archbishop," a hot denunciation of Houghton Mifflin's buttoned-up Bostonian reluctance to promote Cather's work, and a number of chilly-eyed dissections of obnoxious people. ("I've been doing target practice with a pistol, and I know the day will come when I shall let drive at Tooker. I cannot stand either his information or his nobleness much longer.")  There are also missives aplenty in which she complains about her accommodations, health, and certain members of her family. ("Was there ever anybody who could always throw the monkey-wrench into the machine and add a spray of cypress to the holly wreath, like our sister Elsie?")

Throughout the letters Willa Cather shows herself exceedingly jealous of her privacy, and it is clear that she would not rejoice in this collection. But readers will, for it is a truly valuable addition to the world of letters in every sense.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

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