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.

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.