The fan letter correspondence of Willa Cather: Challenging the divide between professional and common reader
AbstractAlthough literary scholars, including those who study American novelist Willa Cather, typically have drawn distinctions between real and professional readers, this article overturns the assumption that Cather's fan letters are merely the purview of common readers. Since both common and professional readers appear in her archive, I argue that the misplaced emphasis on who writes fan letters would be constructively replaced by treating fan letters as a genre used by many kinds of readers. Both professionals and nonprofessionals wrote fan letters to Cather and used its rhetorical methods, since it offered an attractive alternative to professional reading modes popularized by English departments of the 1890s and magazine discourse of the first quarter of the twentieth century. The fan letters create an author-reader relationship based on repeated readings and affective responses to the text as well as personal familiarity with its locations and characters. Moreover, I argue that the letters in Cather's archive are not a random sampling but are the letters that she preserved, enjoyed, and encouraged. Within the period's fraught debates about the purpose and nature of literature and the qualifications needed to interpret and judge it, the fan letter exchange creates a more detailed understanding of Cather's relationship with her audience—what reading methods she sought and preferred over others.
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