In the career of every talented writer there is a moment of surpassing interest . . . but first I had better remark that not every writer of talent achieves a career. Some will pass their whole lives in obscurity. Others, still more unfortunate, find a success which is too easy, too brilliant, and comes to soon. The subsequent years are a sort of long anti-climax -- to call them a career would hardly be exact.
However, let us take the case of a luckier author. He will work for twenty or thirty years, without great reward or the hopes of it, struggling constantly to write his own personality into novels or essays or poems. It is rather difficult to appreciate -- the personality, I mean -- and although he finds favorable critics and a few enthusiastic readers, the mass of the public is hugely indifferent. His last book is no better calculated than the others to change their attitude. Then comes the fascinating moment to which I referred.
Without warning, and for reasons which nobody can explain, his new novel begins to sell. It climbs rapidly into the ranks of Six Best, while his publishers hurry to announce the Seventh Large Printing (or Eighth or Eleventh). Copies of the book are seen on the Twentieth Century Limited and the Bronx Express. Meanwhile the author is besieged with dinner invitations, demands for autographs, offers for lectures at so much per evening, press clippings at so much per thousand, and by journalists in a never-ending army. He has reached the fascinating and dangerous moment of his first popular success.
And generally his reaction is to wonder why the deuce his novel sold. Thus, in the recent case of Miss Willa Cather . . . but let me arrange the scene. It represents a comfortable apartment south of Fourteenth Street. Above the fireplace is an immense drawing of -- whom would you say? -- George Sand. There is a shelf of books, and at the extreme right of it, a copy of "The Professor's House."
This was the novel which occupied my mind. Of course the story is interesting -- has any critic remarked, in his pages of ontological praise, that Miss Cather's primary gift is the ability to tell a straight-forward story? Of course the style, being hers, is final and direct . But the same judgment applies to her other novels -- six others, to be exact -- and nobody understands why "The Professor's House" has been singled out for success.
"It isn't the sort of novel one would expect to be popular," Miss Cather says. "It's a Siamese twin of a book. That is, the original conception included two separate themes -- the story of Professor St. Peter and the adventures of Tom Outland on the mesa. The transition from the first theme to the second isn't demanded by logic or continuity. They have a purely emotional connection, like two movements in a symphony. With the Professor we have been in an atmosphere of stuffy family relations. At a certain point we smash the doors, go out into the open. Or it's like a painting--enough of the blue; now we'll have red. That is the way the story came to me. Why it proved successful, I don't know. Perhaps it's because people like the scenes on the mesa."
For my own part I am certain that Tom Outland's adventures on the mesa, exciting as they were, had little to do with the popularity of the novel.There is a moment when the public is finally ready to accept the state of mind, the attitude toward life and writing, in a word the personality of a particular novelist. This moment, in Miss Cather's case, happened to follow the publication of "The Professor's House." It might have been five years before or ten years after. The time was determined by chance, but I am certain the the success itself was inevitable.
And it involves something deeper than the demands for autographs, requests for lectures, and six large printings (or is it twelve?). These are only the gilt trademark, the tin-foil wrappings of success. Fundamentally it consists in making people accept a new ideal of the novel, involving to some degree a new attitude toward life. Am I becoming too metaphysical? I only meant to say that the moment of success is particularly opportune for examining Miss Cather's qualities as a novelist.
In our search for these qualities, let us start with an event which has colored her whole career. We are back in the year 1885. About that time a little girl left her home near Winchester, Virginia, and rode westward with her family toward a Nebraska ranch [ranch?]. I have always believed that the opening pages of "My Antonia" were a description of Miss Cather's early travels. There was the stuffy ride to Chicago in a day-coach. The lunches of sweet chocolate and peanut bars. The conductors with their kindly, teasing, embarrassing questions. The halt at a station which was only a black spot on the prairie. Finally the long drive at night, jolting sleepily in the straw at the bottom of a wagon.
During the next few weeks she became familiar with her neighbors. . . [. . .]. And finally, as a comment on all her life until the sixteenth year, "That's the important period -- when one's not writing."
She began to write while attending the state university; her first sketches described her immigrant neighbors. When she graduated, in 1895, her classmates prophesized an immediate success, but for many years she seemed to accomplish little. She worked as a reporter on the Pittsburgh Leader [. . .] In 1903 she published a volume of poems which did not set the world on fire. Chiefly they were a record -- on blameless verse -- of her early European travels.
Her first volume of short stories appeared in 1905. They are not in file at the New York Public Library, and I suppose they were no better than twenty other collections which appeared in the same year. Miss Cather has never seen fit to have them reissued. However, they met the taste of the day, and it was largely owing to the publication of "The Troll Garden" that Miss Cather was appointed managing editor of of McClure's Magazine.
She says of her experience as an editor: "I became thoroughly familiar with the current literary standards . . ." [. . .]
She worked for six years at McClure's. So far there had been little to distinguish her career from that of other successful women with an interest in the art. Chiefly there was her interest in old neighbors of Nebraska prairies. There was the cold technical competence of her first poems. Finally, when judged by her later achievements, she had shown a tremendous patience, a willingness to wait before choosing the best moment to achieve her ends. The moment was near. It was in 1911, I believe, that she resigned her position and moved into the country to write novels.
[...] And her second novel -- "O Pioneers!" -- was vastly better than the first.
Here is the chronology of her later works, all of them worth rereading: [. . . ]. In 1918, "My Antonia", which was the first to receive wide critical recognition. [. . .] In 1922, "One of Ours", which I find more pretentious and less successful than any of the others. "A Lost Lady," in 1923; probably this brief novel is still her masterpiece. And then, last autumn, the general success of "The Professor's House."
Except to say that all of them are good, it is difficult to generalize about her seven novels. She is not the sort of writer whose second book repeats the first, whose third repeats the second, whose fourth . . . whose fifth . .. so on indefinitely. Her novels are not to be confused with a trademarked article of commerce, which can be purchased like Ivory Soap with the certainty of receiving a standardized product. For her, every new book is a new problem; it requires a new attitude, a new method, a different solution. Yet all of her novels have something in common. When read in their order of appearance, they give the impression of constant development in one direction, and of certain definite qualities which belong to all.
The development is away from "writing" -- by which Miss Cather means fine writing, clever writing, formal writing -- and toward a simple account of people and things felt and remembered. In her first novels one encounters many descriptive or analytical passages which may be clipped out of the book and pasted in an anthology. Nothing of the sort in her recent work. Everything "belongs"; every landscape is seen through the eyes of her characters and colored with their emotions; nothing could be subtracted without weakening the effect of the novel. [. . .]
So much for the development toward her later books. As for qualities common to all, the most obvious is that of possessing hard definite outlines, finish without false brilliance; in one sense of the word, perfection. Listen to how the critics are affected. "Her stories," one of them writes, "have the radiance of burnished glass." And another: "A veritable Koh-i-noor in the rhinestone and paste tiara of contemporary literature." Still others quote Pater and speak of "burning with a hard gem-like flame." All this I tried and I failed to express in the question, "Am I right in thinking that you spend a great deal of time in polishing your work?"
"I hate the word 'polish' like the rest of literary patter. I work fast and I rewrite. I'm not satisfied till a sentence has the exact shape of the idea I wish it to convey." Perhaps, among all the definitions of style, this is the best: -- for a sentence to have the exact shape of the idea it is intended to convey. And perhaps the reason her novels seem diamond-hard and flawless is because, instead of fumbling with technique, she keeps her mind on people and what they are thinking and doing.
Then for a second quality, her honesty of vision. I ought to have mentioned it first of all, but delayed because it seems less peculiarly her own. It is a virtue she shares with most good writers -- this faculty of seeing people with sympathy but without sentiment, of exactly telling their experiences, of emphasizing neither the good nor the bad, of changing nothing to meet popular taste. This faculty is one she acquired with effort, and she says, "It take a great deal of experience to become natural. People grow in honesty as they grow in anything else."
A third quality is her interest in people with high ambitions (I note that these ambitions are often frustrated). Notice, for example, her choice of heroes. One is a waif and becomes a great inventor (and dies in war). One is the child of a poverty-stricken Canuck family; he write a magnificent work on the Spanish explorers. Another grows up on the prairie and becomes a successful corporation lawyer (unhappily married). As for the heroines, Thea Kronborg is almost typical. If you remember, she was the daughter of a preacher in Moonstone, Colorado. She went to Germany to study music. At the end, after Thea's great success as a singer, Miss Cather writers:
"This story attempts . . . to give some account of how a Moonstone girl found her way out of a vague, easy-going world into a life of disciplined endeavor. Any account of the loyalty of young hearts to an exalted ideal, and the passion with which they strive, will always, in some of us, rekindle generous emotions."
That last sentence might serve as an epigraph to all her work. As for the "life of disciplined endeavor" -- what phrase could better apply to Miss Cather's own career? The long apprenticeship, the experience on a great magazine, the patience, the struggle to write a novel without cleverness or rhetoric or lies. Finally the success which came neither too late nor too soon. She is not the sort of writer to be ruined by success, and one is certain that the best of her novels still are hidden in the future.
Today her life is organized for work. I don't mean to say that she works constantly -- which rarely pats -- but she has fixed periods of writing and of leisure. Six months of every year she spends with her relatives in the West, away from pen and paper, without even a notebook hidden in her valise. During this time she must gain new forces from the soil, like the mythical Antaeus. At any rate, these months in the West serve as a reservoir of new material. She spends one or two of the remaining months in Canada or New Hampshire; then she falls to work in her apartment south of Fourteenth Street. On her attitude to work, we shall have more to say.
But the general outlines of the portrait are complete. We have seen that Miss Cather's novels deal chiefly with things remembered from her youth. That she learned technique and style and has since been endeavoring to forget it. That her style is almost flawless because it has "the exact shape of the idea it is intended to convey." That she has an active rather than a passive temperament and admires ambitious people. That her ideal life is one of disciplined endeavor. Our discoveries, indeed, were nothing startling. But they are enough to show that Miss Cather, in the ancient quarrel between classic and romantic, belongs to the side of Arnold and Addison, of Virgil and Racine. Among contemporary American novels, hers are perhaps the finest example of the classical ideal.
And curiously, she lives in Greenwich village. She exists among the cliques and coteries, among the broken debris of the romantic tradition, as if she were somewhere three thousand miles away. Instead of explaining the obvious faults of the modern novel, she writes. Instead of theorizing or falling into gossip, she writes. Instead of paying visits, going to Sam's place with the gang, learning the Charleston, opening a friendly bottle or playing out the third rubber: -- instead of all this she thinks and writes.
"I write because it interests me more than any other activity I've ever found. I like reading, going to operas and concerts, travel in the West, but more than anything else . . . the thing that interests me is the novel I'm writing now. I want to retain all my energy, my strength, my wit, my playfulness for that."