Postal Reading Challenge: Why I Didn’t Read Willa Cather’s Letters.

(part of the Postal Reading Challenge hosted by Melwyk at The Indextrious Reader)

Why I didn’t read Willa Cather’s letters.

Willa Cather in 1926. Photograph by Edward Steichen.

Willa Cather in 1926. Photograph by Edward Steichen.

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.

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Postal Reading Challenge: Dear Tiny Heart

In January or thereabouts, I signed on to a Postal Reading Challenge created by Melwyk at  The Indextrious Reader. I was coming of What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, a book I adored, and I was (still am) purposefully and naively ignoring the demands of graduate school and the way it makes it impossible for me to read for pleasure, let alone to writing about doing so, so I’ve been a bit slow on the uptake getting the Postal Reading challenge underway. However, at the end of spring quarter my advisor loaned me a copy of Dear Tiny Heart: The Letters of Jane Heap and Florence Reynolds and this mixture of pleasure and obligation (not a book for a class, but still a book given to me by a professor) was just enough to get me to read and write about a collection of letters for the first time this year.

As the full title indicates, Dear Tiny Heart collects the correspondence of modernist artist and writer Jane Heap and Florence Reynolds, one of Heap’s early lovers and her lifelong friend and supporter. To my eye, this is a slim, fragile book; the extant correspondence, as edited for this collection, is largely one-sided, comprised mostly of of Heap’s letters to Reynolds. This is completely understandable from a publishing or scholarly perspective, since Jane Heap is the major draw here. An understudied figure within the lively and much-examined world of transatlantic modernism, Heap co-edited the literary magazine, the Little Review, with her lover Margaret Anderson and her correspondence reveals her central position within the New York and Parisian artistic and literary circles better known for figures like Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But I missed the other side of the correspondence—original and engaging as Heap is (and she is!), I wanted to hear more from Reynolds, the steady, constant presence to whom Heap wrote regularly for nearly forty years. In the end though, the steady and constant correspondence of ordinary people is not the sort that is often published, unless the letters are distinguished either by extraordinary literary merit or the unusualness of the situation in which they were written.

Heap offers both: she is extraordinary and unusual. Dear Tiny Heart reveals the personal reflections of a woman who quietly and matter-of-factly (although sometimes exasperatedly) lived the life of a sexual radical. Heap (often best known in today for her androgynous self-presentation—you would probably recognize a picture of her sooner than the title of anything she published) offers intense, humorous and quick-moving renditions of her infatuations, relationships, jealousies and ruptures with other women and she writes often of her anything-but-ordinary family life. Despite her persistent need for money and her rapidly shifting, bohemian lifestyle, Heap adopted her ex-lover Anderson’s two nephews, supporting them financially and never failing in her loyalty as parent (even if she incisively notes their adolescent foibles and failings in her letters to Reynolds). Almost 90 years before ABC’s Modern Family, Heap writes, amusedly and quite accurately, “we’re moderns, those boys and I.”
There isn’t a wide audience for letters, certainly not for letters by a relatively unknown female modernist and her entirely unknown friend. This is the sort of book that takes advantage of its partial alliance to multiple existent demands in order justify its own creation. I don’t mean this in any way as a slight; the editors created a collection that could find several audiences, clearly and intentionally appealing to those who want to know more about the messy and passionate lives of high modernists in the 1920s, to scholars of 20th-Century lesbian identity, or to those interested in an artist’s reflections on her own growth and maturity. It’s interesting to consider the importance of these priorities in the editorial shaping of this and other collections of correspondence.
Dear Tiny Heart’s final section shifts the balance of addresser and addressee from Heap to Reynolds, containing letters written during World War II. These letters felt particularly moving and pertinent to me right now, as Reynolds grapples with her position of comfort and safety in a world where the threat and reality of violence elsewhere is brought home to her constantly with every radio broadcast and newspaper headline. Heap, writing from London, describes the craters from land mines streets away from her home and attests her commitment to staying where she is, despite Reynold’s concerns. Both writers are clearly conscious of government surveillance and censorship, writing circuitously at points to disguise certain details of their relationship, but offering personal reflections on the grim and overwhelming international political situation all the while. That’s what I love about reading letters: the way written conversations from the past resonate with my life (and my written conversations) in the present. In the end, Dear Tiny Heart left me wishing I could read Heap and Reynold’s fuller correspondence—hardly a bad feeling to have on the final page of anything worth reading.

What There Is To Say We Have Said

Since September I’ve had very, very little time to read for pleasure. Mostly I just miss it. I miss getting to read what I want, when I want. I miss being entirely free to follow my own whims and inclinations. But there has been one palpable upside to having the majority of my daily and weekly reading chosen for me, and it’s that when I do choose to read for pleasure, the choice becomes particularly meaningful and whatever book I turn to, if I’ve any hope of reading it cover to cover, has to remain the same book for months at a time.

And reading What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, a few pages at a time every day for months, has been such a gift. I cannot think of a more wonderful book to let linger in my life. What There Is To Say We Have Said is the best book I have ever read about friendship. It’s also one of the best books I’ve ever read about writing and about the writing life (both as life in the world and life in the mind). I’ve enjoyed returning to it late at night, or while hastily drinking morning coffee, or during the occasional half-hour stolen from the work of reading and writing other things.

This book collects more than 50 years worth of correspondence between Eudora Welty and William and Emily Maxwell, beautifully edited by Suzanne Marrs. Welty and Maxwell began writing one another early in their careers when Eudora was trying to sell stories to The New Yorker and Bill was a fiction editor at the magazine. The personal rapidly overtakes the professional, however, and the letters quickly become letters about a friendship in which the terrain of the writing life becomes a mental geography that can be shared, via letters, despite the distance that separates Eudora’s home in Jackson, Mississippi, from the Maxwell’s residences in and around New York City.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m going to miss it terribly. I’ve travelled from letters opening with “Dear Mr. Maxwell” and “Dear Miss Welty,” and closing with “Sincerely” and “Yours,” to ones beginning “Dearest Bill” and “Dearest Eudora”, ending “Much love, E.” and “My Love, B.” and along the way I’ve fallen completely in love with both Bill and Eudora and with the incredible kindness, generosity and fellow-feeling they cultivated and maintained for one another over more than half a century, so much of it spent far away from one another, so much of it built through letters.

I don’t think I’ll be able to express how much I’ll miss reading these letters every day with anywhere near the eloquence that Welty and Maxwell give to how much they miss each other. So I’ll let them speak, each for themselves a little, and only add that I cannot think of a book I’ve wanted to recommend, to nearly everyone I know, as highly as this one, but that I’ve simultaneously wanted to keep to myself, to reserve as the sort of gift that should only be given when great meaning and emotion are called for, but when it’s necessary to express great meaning and emotion in the simplest and most unpretentiously affectionate of terms. Which is what great gifts often do, I think.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

From William Maxwell to Eudroa Welty, January 22, 1959; after the death of Bill’s father on January 14th, and Eudora’s brother, a few days earlier.

 

Dear Eudora: 

We have been making similar discoveries, I suspect. Though perhaps you already knew. When I emerged from the tent in the country, I found myself looking into the face of the little boy I played with when I was five years old. And so concerned for me it was. And the next person I saw was the little girl I knew best, who was like a sister to me. Both strangers for thirty-five years—and neither the least estranged. Such kindness, and such extraordinary surprises—about my father; even about my mother. So that i now find that a funeral is not the dreadful travesty I used to think, but one of the moments when everybody, quite simply, agrees to live on a plane of reality. 

I wish we could be near you, and run in with food, and offer you surprising memories of your brother. I wish I could hold those little girls on my lap, and tell them it is terrible but that one somehow lives through even the most terrible things. I wish I could answer the telephone for you, and sit with your mother—I wish, in short, that Jackson was Lincoln, and that we had played together when we were little, and I know that because you are you, you will take the wish for the fact— 

My love to your dear, kind, extraordinary

mother, my love, as always, to you

Bill 

 

Excerpts from a letter from Eudora Welty to William Maxwell, January 14, 1972

 

Dearest Bill, 

There’s one more slice of your cake still for the future—still moist, still heavenly and rich as Croesus, and the way I have treasured it (hoarding it and eating it at the same time) and meted it out is the only way I still have one slice. Only my nearest and dearest have had the chance of a crumb…Most of it, in case you haven’t guessed the real truth, but you have, I’ve saved for myself—eaten peacefully by the window in the breakfast room where I can look out at the bird feeder and see the birds eating what to them may be fruitcake like mine, coming to them like manna out of the loving kindness of friends. But I know what makes my feast. You and Emmy are diviners, and so it came to you how this year I couldn’t beat and stir my cake, but then what made it even nicer was that you are so much better cooks! Not Better cooks than diviners—you aren’t. Better cooks than me. I was so happy with that cake. It had angelica in it again, didn’t it? 

It was lovely to think of you in the country for Christmas. I knew you’d have real candles on the tree. Emmy’s cricket is on its hob on the living room mantle by the clock, still, and Brookie’s house aglow still stands on the mantle by the clock up here in my room. It smells like cake. 

I’m so glad her rose bloomed. I remember how she held that slender little wand of it that evening. You may be right and love just as coaxing as daylight, to a rose. 

I think that’s what your stories do, too—coax the flower. Their gentleness is a form of concentration, and their strength comes out of what was intuitive, always,—in the end they stand unprotected—that’s the bloom. (It’s hard to say it in so many words.) Don’t worry. Being so full of truth, they’re strong as iron…

…I had a dream one night in which you appeared—there were rows of of bins and boxes and drawers all lined up, which were a sort of file system of ashes. Each one had the day of the week written over it. You said, “There is nothing at all that cannot be recovered, we only need to know the day it happened on.”…

…My hand is better, and you can see I can type which doesn’t pain me though it may not look well, it may pain you, and it gets better all the time. I’m beginning to think about some new stories and think it will do its part—now if only the brain will. 

My love to all of you. Take care. My thanks for so many things, so often thought about.

Happy New Year

from Eudora

 

talking about the future.

William Maxwell to Eudora Welty, 9 August 1979: 

We will be celebrating my birthday in Santa Fe, and Emmy’s birthday in Portland, Oregon, and Labor Day in Yorktown Heights, after which we are going back to the Cape for the rest of September. So far as I know. One speaks with such confidence about the future. Out of necessity, I suppose. Once you admit how unprotected by anything all human life is you are already obliged in self defense to take refuge in madness. So instead, I say, confidently, that we both look forward to hearing all about Oxford when you come to dinner in November. Or whenever. 

My love, 

B.