Seeking Life Whole: Willa Cather and the Brewsters

Seeking Life Whole: Willa Cather and the Brewsters

Seeking Life Whole: Willa Cather and the Brewsters

Seeking Life Whole: Willa Cather and the Brewsters

Excerpt

To the list of Willa Cather's closest friends and confidants- Louise Pound, Isabelle McClung Hambourg, Edith Lewis, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and Zoë Akins, for instance—we now know that we should add the names of Earl and Achsah Brewster. Cather’s friendship with the Brewsters, which has only recently come to light, began when Cather first came to New York in the early 1900s and extended to the end of her life. Not only did the Brewsters become cherished fellow artists and friends, but they also clearly piqued the curiosity of Cather the novelist, for in both character and range of experience they were idiosyncratic, even eccentric, and lived in a world very much of their own making.

The Brewsters had moved from New York to Italy immediately after their marriage in 1910; except for a short visit in 1923, they never again returned to America. With their daughter, Harwood, they spent nearly twenty years in southern Italy, interspersed with travels to Greece, France, Ceylon, and India. Following six years near the Côte d’Azur, they finally settled in northern India, where they remained until their deaths.

Dedicated painters and writers, intellectual and deeply spiritual, the Brewsters were in equal measure a product of their time and truly sui generis. Born in 1878, they were influenced by such turn-of-the-century artistic, religious, and cultural currents as abstractionism, antimodernism, Theosophy, and the newly rediscovered Buddhism. Their love of nature, their pursuit of beauty and simplicity in art and life, and their rejection of a materialistic society place them within a philosophical movement that reaches back to Whitman and the Transcendentalists, and anticipates modern-day interest in Eastern religions. Like the Transcendentalists, the Brewsters sought ‘’elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion” (Shi 1985, 128), though managed still to accommodate a flair for silk and brocade, a habit of carting around the family silver, and an uncanny ability to find themselves in some of the loveliest homes in Europe while on the verge of destitution.

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