We’ve all heard something to the effect that when the going gets tough the tough get going. Sometimes, though, it’s not so easy to get going. Take author Willa Cather, for instance. Nineteen-sixteen was an annus horribilis for the author of the acclaimed novels O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915), two-thirds of what would become her heralded Prairie Trilogy (all set in her beloved Nebraska, where she grew up, and praised by Sinclair Lewis for revealing Nebraska life “as no one else has done”). The first blow came when one of her closest friends, Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, left her for a man she later married (Cather’s sexual orientation remains in dispute among scholars, some of whom make much hay of her closest friendships being with women, including editor Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived for the last 39 years of her life), and then Isabelle’s father, Judge McClung, died, leaving Cather in despair over having lost what she thought would be a home. Apart from these jolts, she endured a tortured relationship with her upwardly mobile family, whose members disapproved of the meager financial prospects a writer’s life offered.
In a letter to her younger brother written on July 8, 1916, the then-43-year-old Cather lays bare her personal struggles with the abovementioned issues as well as her own feelings about being an outsider in her own family and losing her motivation as a writer. But in the end she knows she must forge ahead and try to break through the darkness enveloping her. As Maria Popova writes in “Willa Cather on Writing Through Troubled Times: A Moving Letter to Her Younger Brother” (newly published in Brain Pickings:
In this single short missive, Cather condenses so many common struggles–for acceptance by our family, for acceptance of our family, for acceptance by others, for not letting sadness squeeze the creative impulse out of us, for overcoming self-doubt and dancing with the fear, and perhaps most of all for plowing ahead even when the internal engine loses steam.
My Dear Douglass,
I shall always be sorry that I went home last summer, because I seemed to get in wrong at every turn. It seems not to be anything that I do, in particular, but my personality in general, what I am and think and like and dislike, that you all find exasperating after a little while. I’m not so well pleased with myself, my dear boy, as you sometimes seem to think. Only in my business one has to advertise a little or drop out—I surely do not advertise or talk about myself as much as most people who write for a living–or one has to drop out. I can’t see how it would help any of my family any if I lay down on my oars and quit that rough-and-tumble game. It would be easy enough to do that. I’ve had a very hard winter and have got no work done except two short stories–one very poor. Judge McClung’s death and Isabelle’s marriage have made a tremendous difference in my life. The loss of a home like that leaves one pretty lonely and miserable. I can fight it out, but I’ve not as much heart for anything as I had a year ago. I suppose the test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please. I suppose it’s playing the game after that, that counts.
However, the truth is usually gloomy, and one doesn’t have to talk about it all the time, thank goodness… I know I’m “trying”. Most women who have been able to make over a hundred dollars a month in office work, have been spoiled by it in one way or another. It is bad for all of them and it was bad for me… I won’t sit around and weep. I can’t be hurt again as badly as I was last summer. After this I’ll be more philosophical; I won’t expect too much, and I mean to enjoy any goodwill or friendship I get from any of my family. I enjoy every single member of my family when they are half-way friendly toward me. I enjoy them a great deal more now than I did in my younger days when I kept trying to make everybody over. My first impulse, of course, is to think that my own way of seeing things is the right way. But my second thought is always to admit that this is wrong and that I have been often mistaken. I even think I’ve grown a good deal milder in the last year–I’ve had trouble enough and losses enough. Three friends died during the winter whom it seemed to me I could not get on without. And perhaps the disapproval I got at home last summer has been good for me. I am quite a meek proposition now, I can tell you. I think I’ve had my belting, and it has taken the fizz out of me all right–and I’ll tell you this, it’s positively shipwreck for work. I doubt whether I’ll ever write anything worth while again. To write well you have to be all wrapped up in your game and think it awfully worth while. I only hope I’m not so spiritless I won’t be able to make a living. I had two stories turned down this winter because they had no “pep” in them. The editors said they hadn’t and I knew they hadn’t…
Time is good for violent people.
Yours with much love
Ms. Cather regained her “pep” rather gloriously. Two years after this letter to her brother she published the third volume of her Prairie Trilogy, the classic My Ántonia; and in 1923 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel One of Ours.
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
Edited By Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout
This first publication of the letters of one of America’s most consistently admired writers is both an exciting and a significant literary event. Willa Cather, wanting to be judged on her work alone, clearly forbade the publication of her letters in her will. But in 2013, more than sixty-five years after her death, with her literary reputation as secure as a reputation can be, the letters became available for publication.
The 566 letters collected here, nearly 20 percent of the total, range from the funny (and mostly misspelled) reports of life in Red Cloud in the 1880s that Cather wrote as a teenager, through those from her college years at the University of Nebraska, her time as a journalist in Pittsburgh and New York, and during her growing eminence as a novelist. Postcards and letters describe her many travels around the United States and abroad, and they record her last years in the 1940s, when the loss of loved ones and the disasters of World War II brought her near to despair. Written to family and close friends and to such luminaries as Sarah Orne Jewett, Robert Frost, Yehudi Menuhin, Sinclair Lewis, and the president of Czechoslovakia, Thomas Masaryk, they reveal her in her daily life as a woman and writer passionately interested in people, literature, and the arts in general.
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather is available online at The Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Purchase from the website and support the non-profit Foundation.