Willa Cather’s Ghost Is Probably Pissed That Willa Cather’s Letters Are Being Published

Illustration for article titled Willa Cather’s Ghost Is Probably Pissed That Willa Cather’s Letters Are Being Published

Since Willa Cather has been dead good long while now, the literary powers-that-be have decided to publish an anthology of her correspondence, despite the fact that Cather herself really, really didn't want her letters published. Like ever. If you decide to purchase a copy of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, you'll just have to keep in mind that, with every page you turn, you're dancing a little more zestfully on Willa Cather's grave.


Despite what very well might turn into a lifetime of haunting from an especially articulate and observant ghost, University of Nebraska associate professor Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout decided to publish (with Knopf) 566 of the roughly 3,000 Cather letters that have survived in some 75 archives spread across the country. The letters will offer some insight into Cather's personal life, which the New York Times describes in terms of J.D. Salinger secrecy — Cather wanted to be known exclusively through her books, and it was believed for a long while that she'd destroyed most of her correspondence.

Not so, according to Jewell. Although he and Stout admit in their preface that publishing the letters "flagrantly" violates Cather's wishes, the idea that Cather really wanted all of her letters destroyed is poppycock. "There's really no evidence for the idea that she wanted all her letters destroyed," explained Jewell. He added, "It's just one of those pieces of gossip that has taken hold in published scholarship."

Twenty years ago, only a few hundred of Cather's letters were thought to have survived, but by 2002, Stout had tracked down more than 1,800 letters. There was so much more correspondence than scholars had previously believed, that Stout and Jewell began drawing up a book proposal five years ago in the hope that the legal restrictions on Cather's material would soon be eased. That happened in 2011, when the author's nephew and executor, Charles Cather, died. The copyrights on Cather's material passed on to the Willa Cather Trust, and the ban on quotation and publication of the letters (along with the ban on film adaptations) fell away like an old scab.

Besides, Cather really wanted her work to be widely perused, and making her letters widely available can only help burnish her reputation. Jewell and Stout insist that they haven't included any letters that might damage Cather's reputation. They do reveal, however, that her primary emotional attachments were to women, and that she had some lively back-and-forths with some of the most notable literary celebrities of her day — F. Scott Fitzgerald and H.L. Mencken.

The letters should be a boon to Cather scholars, who, in the 1980s and ‘90s, were engaged in a fierce debate over Cather's sexuality, and the role it played in her fiction. Feminist and queer theory scholars began to read a lot of pyschosexual turmoil into Cather's work, prompting a harsh rebuke from Joan Acocella in a 1995 issue of the New Yorker.

All that controversy can be put to rest now — we'll all soon get to have a long peek into the personal correspondence that Willa Cather would probably rather us not have read. Then again, she probably wouldn't want Michael Bay to make an adaptation of O Pioneers! starring Megatron and Mark Wahlberg as uneasy partners in the farming business just trying to put their pasts behind them and till the earth, but putting Megatron in an adaptation of Cather's work will help her writing reach larger audience.


O Revelations! Letters, Once Banned, Flesh Out Willa Cather [NY Times]


If someone doesn't want their letters read, why publish them? What about respecting their last wishes? Is that not a thing anymore?