Why I didn’t read Willa Cather’s letters.
The short answer? I had to return the library book.
The long answer? Well, it starts with the fact that Willa Cather didn’t want me to read them.
“Before Willa Cather died, she did what she could to prevent this book from ever existing,” write editors Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout in the first sentence of their introduction to The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. “[Cather] made a will that clearly forbade all publication of her letters, in full or in part. And now we flagrantly defy Cather’s will in the belief that her decision, made in the last, dark years of her life and honored for more than half a century, is outweighed by the value of making these letters available to readers all over the world.”
A tough call, I think, weighing the rights and wishes of an author against those of her readers. Do readers really have such rights?
Various biographers of Cather have hypothesized as to why she constructed a will so overtly aimed at controlling the use of her correspondence, why she seemed so obsessed with protecting her privacy. I don’t know the details of Cather’s biography nor am I very familiar with her personality beyond what one can gather about an author’s mind through her fiction (more of a texture than a portrait). But as a letter writer myself, I can absolutely understand the desire to protect the privacy of my correspondence, to keep that avenue between my mind, writing the letter, and the mind that I’m writing it to, as narrow as possible. You can give a lot of yourself away in letters, especially if you’re writing to someone you trust. It’s one of the great things about the form, I think. I keep copies or images of most of my letters and whenever I look back over them, I realize I’ve admitted things I wasn’t aware of admitting, that I’ve struggled overtly with things I thought I was keeping closely under wraps, that I’m more palpably and vulnerably present on the page than I either intended or suspected myself to be. In my letters I see myself captured in moments of time so often exceptionally slender and always irrevocably past.
Cather may have had greater control over what she disclosed and did not disclose to her correspondents than I do—but even so, she had a right to protect her own privacy and she exercised it to its fullest extent. I don’t think there’s any great moral harm in collecting her letters at this point and I can understand the argument that her stature as a canonical American author demands this sort of breach of her personal privacy as a matter of respect for her public presence within the American literary tradition. This is a different era than the one Cather lived and died in—privacy is a different thing, maybe an impossible thing. I didn’t read the introduction to The Selected Letters of Willa Cather closely enough to remember whether or not the editors make a guess about Cather herself would say about her letters being published in this form today.
I’m not a Willa Cather scholar. I’m a Willa Cather admirer—I love the clean, elusive complexity of her prose, her confidence as a writer, the quiet theatricality in her use of frame narratives, and, most of all, the way she tells a damn good story. I know far less about her life and her character than Jewell and Stout. But I’ll hazard a guess: I bet Cather would say “Leave my letters alone. Go read my novels.” So until I’ve finished them all, I’ll do that.