This volume includes 566 letters, less than one-fifth of those that have been preserved, but it seems clear that the ones chosen by the editors are representative. This is not a sanitized selection. A number reveal that Willa Cather (1873-1947) was not always able to transcend the prejudices of her time; in an 1897 letter, she praises her boss by telling him, “You’re a white man sure,” and complains in 1924 that black maids—“nice little darkies”—too often “get tired of working and ‘go South.’ ” She writes to her brother Roscoe in 1916 that her close friend Isabelle McClung “has married a very brilliant and perfectly poisonous Jew,” and, in 1922, she refers to John Galsworthy’s “new Jew play.”
The willingness of the editors to include letters with such distasteful expressions suggests that the reader is able to take the portrait of Cather provided by the letters as a whole at face value. Many demonstrate the intensity and loyalty of Cather’s feelings for those she admired and cared about. In a 1905 letter, she declares that Isabelle McClung has been her moral guide, since Cather had “never known her to do one thing unkind or ungenerous or ignoble. . . . If I contemplated doing anything base or ugly, she is the one who would detect it first and feel it most keenly.” Jan Hambourg, the “perfectly poisonous Jew,” eventually gained her respect and affection. After Isabelle McClung Hambourg died in 1938, Cather wrote to Edith McClung, Isabelle’s sister, praising “Jan’s absolute devotion to her [Isabelle] during her long illness,” noting especially the way Jan would “give her her bath, lift her when it was hard for her to rise, and by so many delicate attentions disguise her actual infirmities from everyone.”
Cather’s feelings for her family, especially her parents and her two brothers, were equally long-lived and intense. She wrote to her mother in 1919: “I find myself loving to do things with you now, just as I did when I was a little girl.” And in a 1925 letter, she deprecates quarreling, saying, “I can’t quarrel. . . . I couldn’t be angry with you now if I tried. I think one of the consolations of growing older is that one comes to understand one’s parents better. I am too much like you in many ways to criticize you.” Her brother Douglass died unexpectedly in 1938, a few months before the death of Isabelle McClung Hambourg. She wrote to a friend: “With Douglass and Isabelle both gone out of my life, I scarcely know how I shall go on.” In 1945 she wrote to the widow of her brother Roscoe that Roscoe “was my best critic. . . . He knew me better than I knew myself. . . . The fact is that now I have no one to judge me, no one to tell me if I am off the true pitch—no other judgment that I care a bang about.”
Only a few of the letters touch on politics. When the United States first entered the Great War in 1917, Cather believed, with Woodrow Wilson, that the cause was just, writing to her sister Elsie that “the United States has never had such a chance before; no country ever has. We can literally save Democracy—or lose it—for the whole world.” When the armistice was declared, Cather was certain that something magnificent had been achieved. She wrote to her aunt, whose son G. P. Cather had been killed in action, “Think of it, for the first time since human society has existed upon this planet, the sun rose this morning upon a world in which not one great monarchy or tyranny existed.”
Only a few years later, however, the world transformation she had hoped for had not happened. In a 1922 letter, she wrote, “It seems to me that everything has gone wrong since the Armistice. Why they celebrate that day with anything but fasts and sack-cloth and ashes, I don’t know.”
Claude Wheeler, the main character of Cather’s One of Ours (1922), was based on the life and death of her cousin G. P. Cather. Numerous letters testify to her continuing admiration and affection for the soldiers themselves. She proudly exclaimed to her brother Roscoe, “Aren’t the American boys some soldiers!” In December 1918, she wrote:
I don’t do much now but run about to see wounded soldiers. They are nearly all fine fellows—I don’t see how one country can have so many nice ones and so few rottens. . . . After dinner I went to the theatre with six of them who had landed that morning—six western boys alone in New York on Christmas Eve. We had some time, I can tell you! No, I don’t do anything but run about with soldiers.