Reading Room May 2013

4 of 15
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
752 pages; Knopf
"I'm not fond of writing letters," Willa Cather confided to poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, but nearly seven decades after the celebrated novelist's death, it's clear the lady protested too much. Collected for the first time, Cather's prolific correspondence displays the range and depth of her relationships and traces the evolution of her fact, from her youth on the Nebraska prairie to her sorrow-drenched decline in New York. In that pre-textng, pre-Twitter age, she kept the postal service busy. Cather moved among the eminent literary circles of her day, corresponding with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis and Langston Hughes—but the intimacies of her life she reserved mostly for family and friends. In The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (Knopf), both sides come to life. Virtually every letter contains some insight about writing, a hammer or chisel for her toolbox. "As one grows older one cares less about clever writing and more about a simple and faithful presentation," she once confessed. "But to reach this, one must have gone through the period where one would die, so to speak, for the fine phrase." In her last years, Cather withdrew into a cone of morose isolation, plagued by ill health and the horrors of World War II. "I have cared too much, about people and places—cared too hard," she wrote to her brother. "It made me, as a writer. But it will beak me in the end." By turns effusive, despairing, mischievous, vain and bighearted, Selected Letters unfolds like an epistolary autobiography, teeming with rich period detail and the savvy observations of a complicated artist at the height of her powers. 
— Hamilton Cain