Main Content & Search

Literary Scholarship

From Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Fire Under the Andes.  New York: Knopf, 1927,  pp. 273-275 

     When Willa Cather came to New York from Pittsburgh it was to join the staff of McClure’s Magazine.  But the magazine under the stimulating direction of S. S. McClure, at the height of the muck-raking era, offered no real oasis to the writer of novels.  Yet the editor managed to produce a number of short stories and a short novel, called Alexander’s Bridge.  The latter represented in theme and technique more of a concession to popular standards than she ever permitted herself again.  Willa Cather was devoted to her “Chief,” but she had as much resistance to muck-raking and social reform then as she has to the psychology of Freud to-day, perhaps for the same reason.  The spirit of the age, as I have suggested, does not greatly affect her at any time, and she fought the implications of the magazine world, all the six years of her stay in it.  The one great happiness that she found in a magazine assignment came to her in Boston, because her sojourn there brought about a friendship with Sarah Orne Jewett that proved one of the richest of her life.  The letters to Willa Cather in the published letters of the New England author reveal her sense of the promise of the fresh young Westerner, and suggest the degree to which a creative mind which has schooled itself to canons of honesty and perfection may be yeast and wine to another in a more malleable stage.  I can imagine the author of A Lost Lady writing just such a letter as this of Sarah Jewett’s, of December 1908, to a girl she took an interest in:

     My dear Willa:

            I cannot help saying what I think about your writing and its being hindered by such incessant, important, responsible work as you have in your hands now…. If you don't keep and guard and mature your force, and above all have time and quiet to perfect your work, you will be writing things not much better than you did five years ago …. You must find a quiet place near the best companions (not those who admire and wonder at everything one does, but those who know the good things with delight!) … Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality -- you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it -- we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. …. To work in silence and with all one's heart, that is the writer's lot; he is the only artist who must be solitary, and yet needs the widest outlook upon the world.

             The most complete expression of Willa Cather’s own artistic creed is to be found in the admirable preface to a selection of Sarah Orne Jewett’s work that she has recently edited:  “The artist spends his life loving things that haunt him, in having his mind teased by them, in trying to get them down on paper exactly as they are to him.”  And to achieve anything noble, anything enduring, he must give himself absolutely to his material.  The gift of sympathy is his greatest gift, the fine thing which alone can make his work fine.  “He fades away into the land and people of his heart, he dies of love only to be born again.”  So Sarah Jewett died in The Country of the Pointed Firs, so Willa Cather died a prairie death in O Pioneers! and again, a greater, in My Antonia, A Lost Lady, in the first half of One of Ours.

Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.

Main Contents
Literary Scholarship