Willa Cather’s letters

Christopher S. Busch reviews The Selected Letters of Willa Cather:

Hers are letters of deep affection and understanding. Tender, enduring relationships appear again and again. Having lost her father and then, in 1930, standing by as her mother’s condition deteriorated, she writes to commiserate with Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who had just lost hermother: “These vanishings, that come one after another, have such an impoverishing effect upon those of us who are left—our world suddenly becomes so diminished—the landmarks disappear and all the splendid distances behind us close up. These losses, one after another, make one feel as if one were going on in a play after most of the principal characters are dead.”

Cather took things to heart, both her experience and that of others. During the Dust Bowl she provided coffee, clothing, toys, and boxes of fruit to friends and former neighbors in Nebraska, even going so far as to pay the interest on their farm mortgages: “I got off all my Christmas boxes to my old women on the farms out west. For three of them, thank God, I have been able to save their farms by paying their interest. About nothing ever gave me such pleasure as being able to help them keep their land—the land they’ve worked on since I was ten years old!”

Writing to Irene Miner Weisz in 1945 (to whom, along with Irene’s sister, Carrie, she had dedicated My Antonia), she describes a visit with her brother Roscoe: “The three summers I spent in Wyoming with him and his wife were among the happiest of my life. Now I don’t care about writing any more books. Now I know that nothing really matters to us but the people we love.” …

To Read Bain, a sociology professor, she writes: “I do not regard the Roman Church merely as ‘artistic material.’ If the external form and ceremonial of that Church happens to be more beautiful than that of other churches, it certainly corresponds to some beautiful vision within. It is sacred, if for no other reason than that is the faith that has been most loved by human creatures, and loved over the greatest stretch of centuries.”

During the last decades of her life, Cather began to lament the cultural decline she saw in America and the devastation brought on by World War II. A sense of loss pervades many of the later letters. To Tomáš Masaryk, a founder and president of Czechoslovakia, she complains, “We live in a strange world, at a strange time. . . . We behave as though we could create a new scale of values by the mere act of besmirching the old.”

At times she seems to want to flee the modern world for a safer place, a more ordered time. How fortunate fellow writer Zoë Akins is, she exclaims, to be able to retreat to her secluded home: “It always brings me peace to think that when the world is full of misery and madness, you can shut yourself up there and forget that the heritage of all the ages is being threatened.” To Viola Roseboro, the fiction editor at McClure’s, she wonders, “Why on earth do we, in all the countless stretch of years, just in our little moment, have to witness everything laid waste?”

Reading Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” in January has turned out to be one of my favorite activities of the year. It’s an unselfconscious portrait of frontier America that’s both raw and emotionally intense. It stays with you—particularly the portrait of authentic love for Antonia, and the long view of the life she makes and the ways we respond to our God-haunted world.