Walt Whitman said by way of introduction to his masterwork, Leaves of Grass, "Camerado, this is no book; Who touches this touches a man." Issued as both proud assertion and warning, Whitman's boast applies in at least some sense to this work of John March. Like Leaves of Grass, it evolved over a man's lifetime, changing as he changed and finding its shape as it went: "jagged, imperfect and lovely," to borrow a phrase from the late cartoonist Walt Kelly. 1 Like Whitman, who promised to wait for us somewhere in the future if we would wade faithfully through the lilt and lag of his verbiage, John March also waits for us. In spite of these similarities, John March is anything but Whitman's created persona: a self-proclaimed brawling, fleshy, effusive, insatiable singer of songs to himself, a man Emily Dickinson had disapprovingly assumed was rather disgraceful. John March's song was never to or of himself, but was, instead, for forty or fifty years, entirely to and of Willa Cather. What, I asked myself, would possess a man to spend half a lifetime tracing the proper nouns and other allusions in Willa Cather's work? Maybe, I concluded, it was the same demon that has compelled me to spend six years of my life following John March's tracks.
Characteristically, March called this work simply A Handbook of Willa Cather, revealing himself to be unpretentious, businesslike, self-effacing, and focused on the task. His aim was to exclude traces of his own personality and instead to explore, doggedly and untiringly, every character and allusion in Willa Cather's work that he deemed worthy of the search. Of course, he failed on all counts, and it is perhaps a blessing that he did. Not every allusion can be found, and not every character can have a living model; and sometimes one has to settle for an educated guess or confess to a dead end in the search. Then, too, time can prove one to have been entirely wrong. Moreover, no writer left alone with such a task, even an encyclopedia researcher like John March, can avoid stamping his or her work with an individual imprint and worldview. Furthermore, the very act of selection is a self-revealing process. As we note in the preface, John March consigned a great many items to an appendix, deeming them, he said, of insufficient importance to merit an entry in the main body of his work: His list for inclusion in the book proper would not with any exactitude match my list, or that of anyone else; it is his, personally. These are his leaves of grass, and this, in spite of himself, is his song.
John March, I think, saw his manuscript primarily, maybe exclusively, as a reference tool. In the beginning, I, too, was prepared to see it in only that way. Even in rough manuscript it is, indeed, a valuable reference aid, as the editors of the Willa Cather critical editions currently in preparation through the University of Nebraska Press have already discovered. However, the months--nay, years--I have spent working with the manuscript have shown me that it is much more than a reference tool. It yields an intangible point of view, a perspective that bespeaks authorial presence. John March has selected what suited him and told about it what he chose. The distinctive filter of his singular mind may not be obvious in the reading of individual