Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"Important, Responsible Work": Willa Cather's Office Stories and Her Necessary Editorial Career

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"Important, Responsible Work": Willa Cather's Office Stories and Her Necessary Editorial Career

Article excerpt

In December 1908 Sarah Orne Jewett wrote a much-quoted letter to Willa Cather, in which she urged the younger woman to leave her "incessant, important, responsible work" as an editor at McClure's magazine to devote herself to her own writing. (1) Cather scholars and fans like this letter, since leaving McClure's freed Cather to concentrate on her fiction. But Cather's career in a powerful position in the premier mass medium of her age was transformative. The office was still a new space for women and "going to business" was still a new activity for them. Magazine publishing had considerable attractions for educated women of Cather's period. Cather's work supplied her with income and contacts, and it shaped her writing.

Much scholarship on Cather looks at her editorial work as at best a necessary preamble to various aspects of her life. Editing got Cather out of Nebraska to work on the Home Monthly in Pittsburgh, and thereby introduced her to Isabella McClung, and through her, to contacts and a sense of herself as a serious writer; editing got Cather to New York to work on McClure k and so introduced her to the New York literary scene and Edith Lewis; editing sent Cather to Boston on a project to conduct research on Mary Baker Eddy for McClure's and thereby introduced her to Sarah Ome Jewett and Annie Fields; editing eventually gave Cather enough distance from Nebraska to write about it. Finally, however, most scholars see Cather's editorial work on McClure's as a distraction and a misdirection of energies.

Undergirding that critical consensus are Cather's own anguished complaints, in correspondence with other writers, about how draining editorial work was for her. She responded in this vein, for example, to a 1908 letter from Jewett urging that she leave editorial work behind. We might note, however, that Jewett's December letter follows two in which Jewett laments her own preoccupation and lack of strength or concentration for writing. Jewett and Cather did not meet until after Jewett's carriage accident made many activities exhausting for her, essentially stopping Jewett's writing. Her letter to Cather stems in part from her own sense of being daunted by the effort of writing. Jewett's shifting pronouns reveal that she identifies with Cather; her wishes for Cather are tied to her wishes for herself. She writes, "I do think that it is impossible for you to work so hard and yet have your gifts mature as they should--when one's first working power has spent itself nothing ever brings it back just the same, and I do wish in my heart that the force of this very year could have gone into three or four stories." (2) Jewett goes on to endorse a Romantic notion of genius recollecting in tranquility, writing in seclusion, and finding a stillness from which to write. "To work in silence and with all one's heart, that is the writer's lot; he is the only artist who must be a solitary, and yet needs the widest outlook upon the world." It is a seductive image of what the writer needs, endorsed by critics who have traced the route of Cather's settling in to the room of her own on a high floor at Isabelle McClung's family home, sitting in seclusion looking out at the world, or to the tent of her own in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where she summered. But it is not the whole truth.

Cather responds to the portion of Jewett's letter that envisions the office as a lair of dangers and distractions, keeping her from her true calling. Her reply plays to that vision with dramatic panache, in a torrent of metaphors. She compares the energy she puts out during the day at McClure's to that of a trapeze performer, worried about an imminent fall; she reports that the work dilutes and weakens her and that reading manuscripts is like sitting in a tepid bath and leaves her irritated with either heat or cold. She is "dispossessed and bereft" of herself; her mind becomes a card catalog of notes with only the most limited application. …

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