The fan letter correspondence of Willa Cather: Challenging the divide between professional and common reader

Courtney A. Bates

Washington University in Saint Louis, Saint Louis, Missouri, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Although 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.

[0.2] Keywords—Common reader; Fan mail; Professional reader

Bates, Courtney A. 2011. "The Fan Letter Correspondence of Willa Cather: Challenging the Divide between Professional and Common Reader." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6.

1. Introduction

[1.1] "I am confessedly a Willa Cather fan," begins Dorothy Canfield Fisher's 1932 Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC) review of Obscure Destinies, a collection of short stories by American writer Willa Cather (quoted in Madigan 2007, 77). Today Cather is perhaps best known for A Lost Lady (1923), The Professor's House (1925), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), as well as O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918), which are regularly taught in high schools and universities. During their lives, Canfield was Cather's friend, correspondent, and roughly her professional equal. And while Cather has achieved an iconic status that Canfield lacks, each had widely published short stories and nonfiction works and both were best-selling authors. Canfield's works included The Brimming Cup (1921) and The Home-Maker (1925). Cather's best-selling work included her World War I novel One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923, and Shadows on the Rock, which was published in 1931—the same year she appeared on Time magazine's cover (Woodress 1987, 433). While Cather might have had more standing as a major American author, Canfield was also recognized as an educational reform activist and a literary critic with national voice in the BOMC. As a judge for the Club, Canfield certainly had the authority to declare or profess her support for Cather. She might have also reviewed Cather from the position of a fellow author or friend. Yet she positions herself in a confessional and intimate position, implying that she imagines recommendations are felt more strongly when they come from a fan.

[1.2] This article focuses primarily on unpublished announcements of fandom found in the 54 fan letters sent to and saved by Cather, which are held by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (UNL) Special Collections and which have received little scholarly attention.

[1.3] Nevertheless, I begin with Canfield's statement because it helps me extend the work of fan studies scholars like Henry Jenkins and Matt Hills, who describe the subject-position of the acafan, which blurs the distinctions previously made between the academic and the fan. Today's literary scholars often draw a sharp distinction between common readers, usually located in private diaries, letters, and book marginalia, and professional readers such as university academics and magazine reviewers, who had public platforms for publishing their trained and influential opinions. I would like to use Jenkins's and Hills's momentum to challenge that division. Unlike many current scholars, Cather recognized the flexibility of the two categories when she asked Canfield to critique a draft of her World War I novel One of Ours by "read[ing] simply as the general reader might, in order to spot errors or false notes" (Stout 2007, 36). Canfield likely would have appreciated such directions since she also corresponded with her own fans throughout her career. Jennifer Parchesky's "'You Make Us Articulate': Reading, Education, and Community in Dorothy Canfield's Middlebrow America" offers a thoughtful analysis of Canfield's fan letters. Parchesky briefly acknowledges that fan letters were "a genre of amateur writing that was widely accepted and even conventionalized" (2002, 232), and even notes that Canfield's archive contains "admiring letters from publishers, editors, critics, professionals, and other writers [who] use much the same enthusiastic rhetoric as those from Canfield's other fans." Yet Parchesky mostly uses fan letters as a reflection of a developing third mode of reading, neither high- nor lowbrow but belonging to an emergent middle class' reading values, which emphasize reading as a project of lifelong learning. Parchesky focuses on readers' attitudes toward reading as reflected in the letters, in which they see themselves as an important cultural middle ground between the entertainment-focused masses and the pretentious literary elite.

[1.4] The existing single-author studies of fan letters grapple with the idiosyncratic nature of the available archives, including what the author or publishing house intentionally saved while acknowledging what might have also been lost. No single-author study can illustrate every available trend or mode within the genre of fan letters, but the scholars who have studied these collections offer compelling arguments for the ways in which single authors can also illuminate the wider period and authorial context. In addition to Parchesky's work on Canfield, Reading Acts: U.S. Reader's Interactions with Literature, 1800–1850 (2002) includes Barbara Ryan's "'A Real Basis from Which to Judge': Fan Mail to Gene Stratton-Porter," which demonstrates how the nature writer and her daughter resisted professional reviewers by respectively saving and republishing her letters from common readers. Continuing Parchesky's exploration of middlebrow readers, Amy Blair's "Main Street Reading Main Street" (2007) explores the fan letters of Sinclair Lewis, suggesting that many readers short-circuited reviewers' analyses of the novel as a critique of small-town life by instead identifying with the characters and town. Scott Sandage's "The Gaze of Success: Failed Men and the Sentimental Marketplace, 1873–1893" (1999) explores the "begging letters," which we might consider a subgenre of fan letters, sent to John D. Rockefeller. Scholars of British modernism Anna Snaith (2000) and Melba Cuddy-Keane (2005) each offer analysis of the fan letters of Virginia Woolf.

[1.5] My own project, however, focuses on the fan letter itself as a platform appropriated by many kinds of readers who are attracted to its practices, discourse, and the possibility of a more personalized reader-author relationship. This article will demonstrate that although the methods of reading and readerly values of fan letters were at odds with professional approaches taught at the time, this difference made the format attractive to professionals, nonprofessionals, and Cather herself. The letters sent to Cather reveal an alternative mode of reading equally approachable and attractive enough for both groups. In some cases, such as Canfield's review, professionals appropriate the methods of fan letters when its rhetoric promises to engage or persuade the reading public. At other times, professionals, whom we would imagine as having some degree of satisfying cultural influence, supplement that position by corresponding with authors in private fan mail. Fan letters offer a specific, gratifying mode of reading and authorial interaction unavailable elsewhere.

[1.6] To be sure, individuals that we might consider common, nonprofessional readers appear in Cather's archive, whether self-identified as soldier, nurse, mother, or lawyer. Professionals—teacher, professor, published author—write her as well. Rather than merely acknowledging that Cather's archive holds letters from a mixed company of individuals, I argue that we should attribute her varied readership to the attractions of fan letter discourse. By this time, the conventions of fan letter discourse were relatively well established. Educators often assigned students the task of writing fan letters as a way to practice their letter-writing skills and learn lessons of moral value from worthy public or published figures (Ryan 2002, 169; Parchesky 2002, 253). Fans often declare themselves as fans in the opening lines of their letters. The announcement takes many forms, such as imagining that a letter by such an appreciative stranger would be perceived as a welcome pleasure or, as in Annie Kimball's letter, a "trespass on the time of a busy author, even in the form of 'bouquets and thanks' for literary pleasure enjoyed" (Slote Collection).

[1.7] Although professional and common readers often used the format and rhetoric of fan letters, contemporary scholars set the two in opposition with one another. In her essay "Becoming Noncanonical: The Case against Willa Cather" (1989), Sharon O'Brien argues that fan letters promoted an alternative reader relationship, which concludes as a zero-sum game between common and professional readers (note 1). She contends that Cather treated fan letters as "evidence that the reader/writer relationship could resemble the private bonds of affection and friendship; her letters from readers doubtless helped her to keep writing by offsetting the criticism of her professional readers" (253–54). At the time she wrote her article, O'Brien did not have the benefit of reading the actual archival letters, but only had brief quotations as they appear in the memoir Willa Cather Living, written by Edith Lewis (1953), Cather's partner and literary executor. More recently, Charles Johanningsmeier (2010) has called for a historicized analysis of Cather's readers by offering two possible interpretive experiences based on whether a reader encountered Cather's The Professor's House as a widely circulated, serialized novel in Collier's or a finely printed book. He suggests that "the physical form of Collier's encouraged its reader to read its contents quickly…they expected fictions in the magazine to provide easy entertainment," whereas the book form would appeal to more formally trained readers. Those readers, more sympathetic to the main character of the professor, would exhibit a willingness for "extended perusal" and "arduous exercises in literary interpretation" (92). Yet as we will see, the letters Cather chose to keep and her preferred reading practices eschew both the disposable and exegete reading methods that Johannigsmeier attributes to each form.

[1.8] Cather's exchange of letters with her readers should be attributed to more than an ego-driven expression of mutual admiration; both reader and author have complex reasons for engaging with each other. For fans, the attraction may seem obvious, since the platform allowed readers personalized, direct contact with an admired author. Despite readers' assertions that their experience of the text was somehow complete, emotionally or aesthetically, the fan letter reveals the desire to supplement that experience. Readers mitigate their own sense of anonymity by writing back to the author their own story—the fan letter is an attempt to make the author inhabit the reader's space and experience. Fan letters can assuage the disconcerting contradiction that readers are both deeply familiar with and also unknown to their favorite authors. The subsequent reply allows readers to test the reality of their connection with an author and possibly reassure them they had read the text rightly. Yet Cather herself valued the experience, as seen in her career-long engagement with readers. For Cather, fan letters created an individuated author-reader relationship and supplied criteria for evaluation based on the knowledge available to a general reader: their emotional responses and familiarity with scenes that Cather describes and their devoted, repeated readings of her texts. Further, she used them to confirm her writings had elicited emotional response from her readers, since Cather preferred estimating the value of a work based on its emotional impact rather than a more formal assessment of its craft. In some cases, they facilitated Cather's enjoyment of a kind of writing-back, in which fans gave her the chance to return imaginatively to places that she had written about or hear more about subjects that she had depicted.

[1.9] Though it is impossible to get an exact count of Cather's reader correspondence, she received hundreds if not thousands of fan letters. Lewis noted that a "flood of letters…poured in to her" (1953, 187). Cather took steps to moderate the deluge (publishing open letters, creating biographical pamphlets for her editor to distribute, hiring a secretary to screen her incoming mail), but she nonetheless devoted a great deal of time to replying to her fans. Cather began replying as early as 1913, though the existing correspondence suggests that the volume of mail dramatically increased after the publication of One of Ours in 1922. She often replied to readers in the military, noting to her editor Ferris Greenslet in 1945 that she had "so many letters from soldiers that they became emotionally wearing" (Cather 2007, 1693). Janis Stout's A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather includes summaries of over 50 surviving letters in which Cather seems to be replying to fans. As we will see, Cather thought of such correspondence as expressly private and disallowed readers' requests to publish her replies. This refusal has its reciprocal for today's scholars: current Cather scholars struggle with a continued inability to quote directly from any of her personal correspondence, which she prohibited in her will. In this article, the third-person paraphrases of Cather's private letters, made available more broadly by Calendar of Letters, must substitute for direct quotations from her private letters (note 2).

[1.10] These fan letters are not a random sampling of the letters from readers that Cather received, although it is important to acknowledge some of the mystery of how these letters survived after Cather's death. Rather, Cather enjoyed these kinds of letters enough to preserve them during her life. In a short response to a request from 1922, she wrote, "Sorry she is not at home and can't provide letters from ordinary readers," indicating that she saved mail from those she considered general readers (Jewell and Stout 2007, 0611). Her guidelines were clear cut, as suggested by an answer to a fan in 1931: "Out of many fan letters, it is easy to recognize one of substance" (Jewell and Stout, 1033). Though we do not have the specific directions that Cather gave to her secretary Sarah Bloom, Bloom sorted through and forwarded certain letters, which suggests they shared an understanding of the fan letters Cather considered worthwhile. Though Lewis writes that Cather tried to answer all letters herself and only used Bloom for "the routine part of her correspondence," it seems Bloom's task was to actually pick which letters would interest Cather and then forward them on to her (1953, 188). She writes to Charles McAllister Wilcox, for example, that she is "glad [her] secretary sent his letter on to her" (Jewell and Stout 2007, 1067). When Lewis composed her memoirs of Cather, she excerpted from several readers' letters, showing that they were important documents available to Lewis, perhaps set aside by Cather herself as instances of exemplary reading. Of the 12 favorite letters Lewis used in her memoir, half are excerpts from letters in the current UNL archives (Lewis 1953, 122).

[1.11] Cather certainly received a number of negative letters; some she forwarded to friends and family to illustrate and decry their offensive nature. One reply indicated that she occasionally answered such notes, as she wrote in 1924 to a Mr. Miller: "Sorry he is irritated by her writing, but he will go on being irritated. Does not agree with his standard of judgment. Writes to please herself. Reason she took the male point of view in Antonia was certainly not to try to sound like a man" (Jewell and Stout 2007, 0750). Evidently Cather did not preserve negative letters, and they do not appear in the UNL archives. Although after the publication of One of Ours (the book most represented in the UNL archive) Cather complained to a friend that she "keeps getting accusing letters from pacifists who think the book extols war," no such opinion is preserved in those fan letters (Jewell and Stout 2007, 0620). Largely it seems she ignored and discarded negative letters. Each surviving letter in the UNL archive testifies to the readers' enjoyment of Cather's works, whether written as long panegyrics or in a few, appreciative sentences.

2. Not "dry-as-dust" professors but the warmth of readers

[2.1] In the 1890s, Cather's college coursework at the University of Nebraska in English and composition exposed her to the first professional mode that she rejected—philology, which replaced an emotional response to the text with an objective study of minute linguistic patterns. This relatively new, scientific approach to language focused on the analysis of single sounds, words, and grammatical construction, along with historical facts such as bibliography, sources, and translation (Graff 1987, 39). Using these formalized methods of a developing discipline, English departments distanced their own academic methods of reading from the evaluative "criticism of taste" written by reviewers airing their refined literary opinions in print (Shumway 1994, 108). Cather's experience led her to conclude in a letter to a friend, "she had decided she could never be a scholar, that she was not meant for that" (Lewis 1953, 32). Cather felt, according to Lewis, that such elaborate, even mathematical textual analysis "reduced all that was great in literature, the noblest flights of the human spirit, to dry-as-dust, arbitrary formulae" (1953, 34). The vestiges of philological methods—and Cather's aversion for it—remained after it fell out of wider academic fashion in the following century. For example, in a 1928 letter to Burgess Johnson, an English professor of whom she seemed to approve, Cather derided this larger tendency: "Most English teachers have never actually written a thing and think being scholarly means avoiding any taint of common sense. One critic makes a big point of the broad a sounds in female names in her books. Could quote others equally foolish" (Jewell and Stout 2007, 0933).

[2.2] Her antipathy toward academic habits would reappear in her admission that she "mostly sends a form letter to students and to English teachers" in reply to their letters, a particularly canny response to those who appear to build their career around "arbitrary formulae" of literary analysis (Jewell and Stout 2007, 1490).

[2.3] Those instructors and students deserved such treatment, according to Cather, since they also had the distasteful habit of explaining a text through outside information. Her comment in "On Death Comes for the Archbishop" that "it is foolish convention that we must have everything interpreted for us in written language" seems to also apply to the aversion she felt toward the English instructors' role of exegete (1949, 6). At a time when Cather was arguing that great literature could speak directly to the reader, other authors, critics, and publishers were making the case that highbrow literature could only be approached with the help of another trained individual who had a grasp of the text's technique (Travis 1998, 26). Cather resisted the assumption that readers needed special training to enjoy a text; replying to one fan, Mr. Phillipson, she asserted that it was "not a disaster to miss out on a college education" (Jewell and Stout 2007, 1539).

[2.4] Rather than elite interpretive training, Cather and her selected fans based their readerly authority on descriptions of emotive response to a text. Cather said in a 1925 interview, "A writer's own interest in a story is the essential thing. If there is a flash of warmth in him it is repeated in the reader. The emotion is bigger than style…An artist has an emotion, and the first thing that he wants to do with it is to find some form to put it in, a design" (Cather 1986a, 78). Cather's confirmation that she has gotten to the essential thing depends on its reception and reflection by readers. For some fans, the signs of their visceral responses evince their careful reading. Elmer Ellsworth wrote, "I turned the last page [of One of Ours] several hours ago, but my throat still dully aches—choked by all the things which 'Claude's' simple story has made me feel" (Southwick Collection). Sallie Neve wrote of Death Comes for the Archbishop, "I shed many tears of course—who wouldn't—but best of all I caught the spirit of courage from brave Father Joseph Vaillant and a new peace with God from Dear Bishop Latour. Never have I read a more beautiful story and one which left so lasting an impression on me" (Macdonald in Southwick Collection). Langston Hughes, whose literary star had been secured in the firmament in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance, certainly could have found an audience for a published review of Cather's novel on a slave-holding family and one slave's ultimate escape to Canada. Instead, he sent a private, single-sentence letter. He, too, uses the rhetoric of emotional sensitivity: "Thank you for your moving and beautiful book of 'Sapphira and the Slave Girl,' and for the sympathy with which you have treated my people" (Southwick Collection, photocopy, figure 1). While these fans may write at varying lengths and with differing methods of illustrating their relationship to the text, their consistent description of their emotional response assures Cather that the mark she aimed for had been struck.

Hughes letter to Cather, 1941

Figure 1. Hughes's letter to Cather dated March 21, 1941. Hughes, himself a recipient of fan letters that are now held in at Yale's Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, must have understood the attractions of the genre both as a receiver and author of fan letters. [View larger image.]

3. Not how-to but "how do you…"

[3.1] Although fans undoubtedly found direct contact with an author enticing, Cather's expectations for her readers—and their methods as reflected in the fan letters—showcased the importance of reading obliquely. In Not Under Forty, Cather says about the reading experience and artistic creation: "Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel" (1939, 50). Long before 1936, when Cather would write the preceding in "The Novel Demeuble," Cather's fans suggested that they listened for this impression while reading. Further, the rhetoric they use to describe its detection is often as indirect as "the thing not named" in the novel. Fans often describe their vigorous effort to see a pattern in the prose through analogy rather than a clear explanation of the craft itself. Using the metaphor of a "rare piece of lace woven with an intricate design," Robert Raines wrote to Cather in 1922 about One of Ours, calling its pattern "more discernable to some than others—each according to his appreciation and understanding" (Southwick Collection, figure 2). In the same year, Coleman McCampbell would describe Cather's writerly voice using the metaphor of "a buoy held under water—restrained but exerting a constant pull" (Southwick Collection). In the same gesture, the readers affirm their closeness to Cather, praise her writing, and assert their own discernment of the text's meaning without risking or compromising it.

Raines letter to Cather, 1921

Figure 2. Although Robert Raines's 1921 letter to Cather uses a typical greeting, "My Dear Miss Cather," other readers' salutations were more formal. The published fan letters addressed to S. S. McClure in "Letters about My Autobiography" (McClure's, June 1914) demonstrate that readers addressed men in the same range of manner. [View larger image.]

[3.2] While some fans used the indirectness of analogies to praise rather than explain their own reading of Cather's work, many others expressed the challenge faced by any attempt to articulate the impact of her work by showcasing their own linguistic limitations. Suzanne Chapin likened herself to a character at the outset of her letter, "I don't know how to express myself—I feel like Claude after his talk with Mademoiselle de Courcy" (Southwick Collection). Coleman McCampbell wrote that he "can't shout the usual words of extravagant praise like 'extraordinary,' 'remarkable,' 'revelation,' 'masterpiece,' 'superb'—for they fall flat and colorless" next to her book, much like the understatement of "isn't it wonderful?" when applied to the Grand Canyon (Southwick Collection). A former soldier said he "cannot express the emotions which you have aroused" from his days of camaraderie (Southwick Collection). They depict their emotional response to Cather's written word as so profound that it limits their ability to speak to her. This failure of self-expression actually demonstrates their emotional sensitivity and apprehension. The frequent expression of deep emotional resonance and the humble gesture of their own writerly lack suggests that these are features that Cather thought worthy of collecting.

[3.3] The fans' habit of offering praise as an inability-to-say occurs within another emerging professionalization: the composition and the creative writing teacher, each of whom proposed to teach individuals how to become articulate authors (note 3). After the turn of the century, the academic vogue of philology declined as English departments recognized a limited need for trained philologists. Instead, they shifted to the larger task of educating a growing professional-managerial class, who required specialized writing skills required for their jobs (Shumway 1994, 101). Between 1900 and 1925, and concomitant with this utilitarian trend, was the growing instruction of creative writing, which focused on self-expression rather than journalistic skills (Myers 1996, 61). Such creative writing courses were available in the classroom, correspondence courses, and by self-taught instruction; the rise of the magazine industry at the time encouraged many to imagine themselves as potential contributors if they could master a short-story formula (Myer 1996, 67–68). Thus, like the dry-as-dust formulas of the philologists, the creative writing books and courses had their own how-to idiom describing the winning techniques required for publication (Myers 1996, 69).

[3.4] In 1922, Cather experimented with creative writing instruction at the three-week Bread Loaf Summer Writer's Conference. Though her letters indicate that "People at Bread Loaf were very friendly" and that she "enjoyed her three weeks at Bread Loaf," she refused invitations for a second visit for the rest of her career (Stout 2007, 93). Creative writing instruction, which treated writing as a quickly learned practice, contradicted Cather's idea of slowly developing an individual's inherent artistry. Nonetheless, some readers wrote to Cather asking for writing advice, a request she found annoying. She wrote succinctly to Henry Chester Tracy in 1922 that she could not "give him any advice on how to write a story except to wait until he feels compelled by his material" (Jewell and Stout 2007, 0606). In 1934, likely after many more such requests, she replied irritably that she was "Too tired of answering questions from men writing books on creative writing to answer his. Silly to try to teach it anyway. People should be taught to write clear, correct English and let creative writing take care of itself" (Jewell and Stout 2007, 1243). The movement toward creative writing instruction was the latest iteration of such taxing requests. As managing editor for McClure's from 1906 to 1911, Cather also had reviewed poorly written manuscript submissions and answered inquiries for writing advice, tasks she found enervating (note 4). When corresponding with her own readers, she continued to avoid letters that echoed the magazine grind and threatened to slip into the public sphere via textbooks or other forms of circulated advice (Woodress 1987, 203). Cather evaded both the academic asking her to interpret her own work and the composition teacher, student, or aspirant asking her to explain her own techniques.

[3.5] By the 1920s, Cather's career was no longer boosted by reviewers as an excellent example of local color writing. Concomitant with the concern of technique in creative writing was the call among literary reviewers for technical experimentation (Acocella 2000, 22). Cather refuted such priorities in a speech given at Bowdoin College in 1925: "There is much talk in the critical magazines and in colleges about the technique of the novel. I never hear the talk among writers. Sometimes I think it is something the critics invented for the sake of argument" (Cather 1986b, 155). Within the fan letters, a space outside colleges and magazines, this concern for technique is secondary. For example, Stanley Weiser wrote in 1926, "There is no one whose technique I admire more, Miss Cather [than yours,] but to feel that technique is of more worth than Claude is to feel that theology is greater than God" (Southwick Collection). When fans acknowledge that her expressive ability exceeds their own, they may offer Cather sense of security for her own position as author at a time when competition among publishing authors was growing. I imagine one of the most satisfying letters in light of this concern must have been that of Calvin Lewis, an English composition teacher at Hamilton College. Though he used Cather as a model in the classroom, he acknowledged that his students can become good writers only "if they have enough natural ability and determination to begin with" (Southwick Collection). He detailed which of Cather's techniques he encourages his students to try—an unintrusive narrator, vivid details paired with concise description—yet he recognized something ungraspable beyond craftsmanship. "How do you…" becomes a refrain used five times throughout the letter, concluding: "How you manage to make everything seem as if you had a hand in it is beyond my ken. How do you do it?" (figure 3). One who might have positioned himself as an academic interpreter instead becomes a fan expressing his awe.

Lewis letter to Cather, 1922

Lewis letter to Cather, 1922

Figure 3. Calvin Lewis's 1922 letter to Cather balances the formal properties of professor, a typed document on university letterhead, with the more personal, handwritten note, "Will my poor eyes excuse the machine made letter?" The mention of her lectures at Bread Loaf suggest that he may have seen her—even met her—at the conference, but the mode of the letter suggests he is more comfortable approaching her as a fan than an acquaintance. [View larger image (1).] [View larger image (2).]

4. A timeless rather than timely or momentary reader

[4.1] Although several letters mention Cather's critical reception by reviewers, one pair of letters from James Magee offers a telling glimpse of how she responded to fans who wished to discuss her public treatment by critics. In 1940, Magee wrote that he was spurred to contact Cather after reading a review of Cather's Shadows on the Rock, since it suggested what he called the first word of "even near-criticism" of what he considered one of her "loveliest books" (Slote Papers). How did Cather reply to the fan's understanding of the critic's response? She didn't. Magee began his second letter to Cather by showing his initial puzzlement at her answer: "In your letter you did not comment on that review in the New York Times Book Review which I did not like very much. That was the occasion for my letter to you." Since Cather had been silent, he went on to supply some of his own ideas as to why the review received no comment, "You probably take things in their stride and were not too disturbed. For that matter I guess it was not awfully uncomplimentary" (Slote Papers). In the 34 letters that can safely be assumed to be replies to fans, Cather does not once mention any critical review of her work. She willingly discusses what parts of her writing have nonfiction counterparts, or comments on authors she also enjoys reading, but nothing suggests that Cather engaged with her fans in a discussion of her critical reception. Since Cather did write to family and friends about such reviews, this pattern seems to support O'Brien's claim that these fan letters were a place apart from the professional conversations and estimations.

[4.2] Instead of the timely estimates of published reviews, readers' letters more often emphasize their evaluation of Cather's work based on a longer history and connection with the work. In over 25 letters from the archives, fans use firsthand knowledge to judge positively Cather's authorial skill. As Wendell Beiser wrote, "As one who served in France as well as a book lover I want to thank you for your truthful account of things as they really were in France" (Southwick Collection). Several Catholic ministers wrote to Cather because of their connection to the location and historical antecedents to the characters of Death Comes for the Archbishop, stating that Cather had "drawn a picture which in beauty and accuracy has seldom been excelled" (Malone Kurth Collection). These readers base their credibility as critics not on their formal training but on the experiential resonance they feel—if Cather wanted proof that her texts were favorably received and read in what she considered the right manner, these are the letters that do so.

[4.3] More than just validating the accuracy of Cather's work, some of these fans relate their own story of a location or event on which Cather had written. Perhaps the saddest is from Kirk Bryan, the soldier who wrote of his emotional recognition of his days in the service while reading One of Ours. Like Cather's character Claude, Bryan shipped out by rail. In Willa Cather Living, Lewis quotes his exhilaration at the outset of his service, which also uses the emotive rhetoric of self-recognition that exceeds his expressive powers: "I cannot express the emotions you have aroused—I have not felt them since I went through Hoboken in a troop train" (1953, 123). Yet the remainder of the letter, which Lewis does not include but can be found in its entirety in the original letter in the archive, is fraught with frustration, and offers a vision what might have happened if Claude had lived to return home:

[4.4] Now what has our effort gained? That we the fighting men of a great nation should find the "Baylisses" are great and powerful. We do not envy them their power. We did not, do not want anything for ourselves, but they bunk the people and they bunk us. This seems to be the great land of bunk. Even our buddies are lead astray by the bonus bunk…Those who died in action are lucky.

[4.5] Other examples are largely a happier continuation of Cather's texts. The nephew of Annie Adams Fields, a social center of the literary scene in Boston, wrote to Cather after reading her description of Fields in her essay "148 Charles Street" in Not Under Forty. He not only thanked her for capturing his deceased relation so clearly but also shared some of his own memories (Kurth Collection). He combined original quotations by Cather with his own: "The 'short laugh from that same fragile force' which could possibly do 'police duty' was so very characteristic, particularly when there had been something said which offended what Miss [Sarah Orne] Jewett used to call the 'May' grandmother inheritance." In this way, Cather's story is echoed back to her as something new even while such a credible source confirms the veracity of her description.

[4.6] Although fans may not offer an academic's close reading, they show that they attend to fine details. Janet Masterton, for example, opened her letter by saying "This is the story of a clause [that appears in Sapphira and the Slave Girl]—'beyond that was Rommey, where people of some account lived'" (Kurth Collection). A six-page handwritten letter follows, detailing a trip she took to Virginia that was inspired by several readings of the novel. She describes for Cather the changes that have occurred to its buildings, streets, and current residents. Like the inability-to-say gesture, she closed her relation of the trip by remarking, "I don't think it is necessary for me to tell you how much I enjoy your books—this letter speaks for me."

[4.7] Cather's reply to Masterson is effervescent, describing her letter as "marvelous, with a true sense of personality. People have been traveling to Quebec by Shadows on the Rock and New Mexico by Death Comes for the Archbishop, and now Virginia by Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Hasn't been back since completing it, or to Quebec since Shadows or New Mexico since Archbishop. Loses a place once she writes about it" (Jewell and Stout 2007, 1662).

[4.8] These fan letters offer more than just the pleasure of knowing that people have been inspired to travel to or remember a location Cather has written about. Instead, they allow Cather a method of recovering those places, too, by hearing about them through her readers. In 1932, she wrote to a fan in Nebraska that she "doesn't answer all the letters she gets, but enjoyed Mrs. Carstens's [so much that she is replying, since her letter is] almost like a visit home" (Jewell and Stout 2007, 1133). As an alternative to professional formulas for writing, these letters are lived histories of the fans. Together, author and fan exchange the emotional resonance of a place and moment. Thus, Cather reads some of her fan letters for the same reason that readers enjoy Cather's works—she too is looking for an opportunity to connect to a place through an evocative depiction of it.

[4.9] Cather announced a special antipathy for disposable reading, stating in her 1925 Bowdoin speech that the current state of the novel had "resolved into human convenience to be bought and thrown away at the end of a journey" (Cather 1989, 155). Cather's deep involvement in the production of her books demonstrates their importance to her as objects and the ways she attempted to orchestrate readers' relationships with the text through its physical features. She selected not only illustrations and cover design but also the finer details such as page format, paper quality, and ink color; she believed that the form of the book should correspond to its mood and thus she directed its creation accordingly (Rosowski 1992, ix). In her collection of fan letters, then, Cather preferred those that exhibit reading habits that reject the prominent quick-read for a long-term relationship with the text. The letters that Cather kept frequently demonstrate how readers treated her books as objects worthy of repeated enjoyment and special treatment. One spectacular example of rereading appears in a fan letter by British Officer George Bullock, stationed in Borneo—the same one Edith Lewis excerpts from in her memoir on Cather. Lewis shares the following from his letter: "if I have read [Death Comes for the Archbishop] once I must have read it a hundred times" as one of the single texts he has to read at his station (1953, 187). Fans describe well-used books to substantiate their claims of careful reading. Cather must have been particularly satisfied when Bullock wrote that his copy "has reached a state when it can no longer be described as other than a tattered remnant of its former self, but, although I shall certainly buy another copy for my small library it will never be discarded" (Slote Papers).

[4.10] In a second example of using readers' reception as a criterion for professional judgment, Dorothy Canfield supported her promotion of My Antonia for the BOMC's April 1929 selection for "Outstanding Older Book" by describing physical evidence of repeated reading. She describes routinely looking in public libraries for copies of My Antonia; the results of her investigation have been so consistent that "by this time I know beforehand that it will bear witness to long and hard use" and that its "worn and shabby [aspect demonstrates the] lasting love of our people for that beautiful book" (quoted in Madigan 2007, 10). Canfield suggests that when readers recognize the book's value through a library copy, they should buy a copy of their own for continued use as devotional object: "The next step should be to move it from the public library shelf to the home shelf, to see it in every American's house as the stuff of Life." Often Cather's fans use just such stories to demonstrate their connection with Cather's works. Harriet McKibben, who most often read copies from the library, mentioned that she bought her own copy of her favorite, One of Ours, "this Christmas as a present to myself. I am reading it for the second time" (Southwick Collection). Stanley Weiser, a fan who wrote to Cather twice, said in 1922 that he was so displeased with Edmund Wilson's review of One of Ours that he purchased a second copy: "I decided I must have one of Knopf's special editions if there were any to be had. I forthwith went over my bank account and I am now the proud possessor of number 307" (Southwick Collection). His countermeasures suggest that he imagines using these devoted and private reading practices in opposition to public and critical professional reading methods.

[4.11] As I have shown, professionals poached fan letter methods when they promised to be effective, whether they offered the personal satisfaction of a private letter or seemed a good public stratagem for enticing a purchase. At the same time, Cather's preference for fan-letter-like relations also informed her professional choices. Cather's decision to move from publisher Houghton Mifflin to Knopf is described by Erika Hamilton in "Advertising Cather during the Transition Years (1914–1922)" (2007). Hamilton demonstrates that Cather selected Knopf for many reasons but foremost because she preferred his advertising methods. Knopf's book advertisements often used direct quotations of warm praise, as opposed to Houghton Mifflin's distanced and "academic" phrasing. Hamilton argues that "Cather wanted advertisements to exude sincere enthusiasm and excitement" rather than "impressive formality…She believed a reviewer's enthusiastic tone was more important and influential than words of commendation"; Alfred Knopf's business style, which focused on expressing his own admiration for an author and maintaining a personalized and long-term relationship with those he represented, appealed to values that also fueled Cather's fan letter relationships (Hamilton 2007, 14). Knopf's book advertisement offers another example of a professional using the rhetoric of fan letters as a means of promoting an author (figure 4). Cather preferred a fannish editorial voice, suggesting an overlap rather than a strict dichotomy between the two groups.

Book advertisement, 1922

Figure 4. Knopf New York Times book advertisement from September 3, 1922. Erika Hamilton notes that some of Knopf's advertisements look "like personal letters to a friend complete with paragraphs and his signature in script" (2007, 14). I would suggest that they look like fan letters—addressed to Cather and to fellow readers. The first-person "I have the honor" emphasizes Knopf's own emotional response, while his description of readers' response, "Here you will say…," frames and anticipates many of the letters that appear in the archive, which indeed respond to Cather's work as "an authentic masterpiece—a novel to rank with the finest of this or any age." [View larger image.]

[4.12] In a further blending of public-professional and common-private readers, Cather used private letters to preface the reading of her work by her contemporary professional reviewers. Today, through archival materials, scholars have rediscovered Cather's efforts to influence her reputation through book production and self-promotion. Janis Stout details one aspect of this image-making when describing what she calls Cather's "campaign" to favorably influence reviewers, including Dorothy Canfield, Carl Van Doren, and H. L. Mencken, prior to the publication of One of Ours. Cather's self-promotion among professionals was not a wide success—only Canfield's review was positive. Scholars have used Cather's forms of self-promotion to counter what Stout calls "the once widely accepted image of Willa Cather as…withdrawn from society in general" and nearly compulsive about her privacy. Yet Stout acknowledges that although Cather carefully developed her public persona, she "continued to chafe when her public got too close" (Stout 2007, 40). Cather strictly monitored her correspondence for possible breaches in privacy. For example, Cather quickly rebuffed a professional's request when he sought to break the boundaries of private fan mail. Cather wrote to Carlton Wells, a professor at the Department of English at the University of Michigan: "No, can't allow him to publish quotations from her earlier letter. Assumed the writer of such an intelligent letter as the one he wrote would know better than to try to use it for publicity. P.S.: Had not realized she was writing to an English teacher who meant to read her letter to his class. Is usually cautious, but apparently not cautious enough" (Jewell and Stout 2007, 1294).

[4.13] We might see fan letters, then, as a well-suited (though not always perfect) venue for Cather's attempts to maintain the boundary between artist and promoter. Fan letter correspondence diffused many of the troubling aspects of self-promotion. When fans write, usually the readers' purchase of and connection with the work is already complete. The bounds of privacy assumed (but not always realized) in epistolary exchange allowed her to continue to court readers' goodwill as well as agree or disagree with their interpretations. If Cather was only moderately successful at shaping the prereading of her professional readers, fan mail shows that she continued shaping an individual's reading and interpretation after the initial act of reading, whether that reader was a professional or common reader. Moreover, if the latest trend among Cather scholars uses archival material to uncover the degree to which Cather crafted her public, authorial persona, then it seems only fitting that the same archive would show that she imagined an ideal reader and maintained a personal collection of letters that reflected an idealized reader-author relationship.

[4.14] Cather applied to herself the same reading standards she had for her audience, as exemplified by one of the few personal editions from her private library. Charles Mignon offers a close reading of her copy of Death Comes for the Archbishop, which he describes as a "personal scrapbook" (1999, 172). After carefully directing the printing and illustrative features of this 1930 English edition, Cather treated it with the kind of devoted readerly usage that fans of the archive also describe. Indeed, a fan letter pasted onto the back of the book indicates the value Cather placed on this copy as well as correspondence with her readers. The letter from Agnes Thompson, dated 1928, begins with a rhetorical gesture common to such letters, which often assert that the value of the book exceeds its market price: "Death Came [sic] for the Archbishop has given me such great pleasure that I should like to make a return more personal than the royalty on my copy." As a gift, the letter enclosed a picture of Kit Carson, who appears as a character in the novel. Also in this copy, Cather adds pictures of herself on horseback in the southwest, leading Mignon to conclude, "she has placed herself imaginatively in the scene…an outward sign of her spiritual kinship" with the main character, Father Latour (174). Thus the proximity tightens between author and reader as well as fictional and historical persons as they become incorporated into the same bound object and imagined landscape. Cather's personal copy emphasizes repeated reading, a personal connection to a text, and travel based on the text.

[4.15] A well-loved book stands as an alternative to professional reading. Fan letters might well have been a refuge from professional methods of reading, if not from professionals themselves, since they occasionally switch readerly methods. Fan letters illustrate the circulation and appreciation of her work; they also offer a continuation of her narratives by adding their work to hers. These fan letters reveal that throughout her career, Cather was interested in the reception of her work not only in published reviews but also by her readers in the broadest sense. Her replies to fans praised their sensitive, emotional readings, and engaged them in descriptions of their own experience while ignoring comments about professional criticism. In contrast with reviews, which usually only appear directly after publication, these fan letters allowed Cather to confirm that her texts were considered and reconsidered well after the initial response that appeared in print. In these letters, we see professionals recognizing, using, and appreciating fan letter rhetoric. We also find an author's appreciation for common-reader approaches to her work. The very structure of this journal, Transformative Works and Cultures, proposes to be a place where academics and fan communities can speak to each other, share or swap subject positions, and "come together" (TWC Editor 2008). Just as this journal is one platform for such mixed interaction, we see in the fan letters that this not-so-new interaction can appear in other fan-centric mediums as well.

5. Acknowledgments

[5.1] Images and letter excerpts from the Archives & Special Collections of University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries are used with permission. I am especially grateful for the help of Joshua Caster, Kay Walters, Mary Ellen Ducey, and Andrew Jewell. Reproduction of the Langston Hughes letter is also with permission from Harold Ober Associates, with special thanks to Craig Tenney for his assistance.

[5.2] This article would not have been possible without a travel grant awarded by the English Department at Washington University in Saint Louis for archival research at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

6. Notes

1. Estimations of Cather's literary importance by reviewers varied widely during her career; literary scholars subsequently had long debates on her place within the literary canon; the most recent iteration of this debate has been longer studies of the history of her treatment by reviewers and scholars. In addition to O'Brien's "Becoming Noncanonical," see Susan Kress's "Who Stole Willa Cather?" (2002); Joan Acocella's Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism (2000); Elizabeth Ammon's "Cather and the New Canon: 'The Old Beauty' and the Issue of Empire" (1996); Deborah Carlin's Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading. John J. Murphy's Critical Essays on Willa Cather (1984) includes critical reviews from her life as well as an introduction to scholarly trends. Conversely, we might follow the lead of biographer James Woodress, who, among others, acknowledged that the general reading public kept Cather afloat and in print while she suffered various valuations by reviewers and critics (1980, 334). I acknowledge that later in Cather's career the reviews tended to be less appreciative, but my main argument uses the fan letters to demonstrate that the boundaries between the two groups are less rigid than previously depicted.

2. Janis Stout's A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather offers summaries of all those known letters by Cather at the time of the book's publication in 2002. In June 2007 the Willa Cather Archive, with editor Andrew Jewell, began an expanded digital edition including new letters as they became available. All citations from Cather's letters are the paraphrases made available by Stout and Jewell's digital edition; a four-digit identification number, which can be used to locate Cather's paraphrased letter online, are given here. On occasions when Cather published open letters or gave interviews, the words from those texts that appear here are Cather's own. The direct quotations from the fan letters that appear here are permissible. For more information on the history of Cather's archived letters, including Jewell's reversal of the widely held belief that Cather burned a large portion of her letters before her death, please see Jewell's "'Curious Survivals': The Letters of Willa Cather" (2008).

3. Cather taught English as a high school teacher from 1901 to 1906 while living in Pittsburgh. She distinguished between teaching students how to write clearly and creating room for students to become writers on their own. In a 1925 interview, Cather asserted, "Without a doubt the schools develop good mechanical writers, and if a born artist happens to take the course it won't do him any harm. In my opinion, you can't kill an artist any more than you can make one" (Bohlke 77–78).

4. Working for McClure also exposed her to some of the pleasures of fan letters. In 1914 she was the ghostwriter for his autobiography, which concluded with a selection of fan letters sent during its serial appearance. Cather subsequently incorporated some of them when she revised the magazine pieces into a book. Many of the letters exhibit the values of Cather's own fan letter collection—evaluating the success of the story based on personal experience or emotional resonance, for example. Additionally, the autobiography exhibits how the seemingly private genre of fan letters can easily slip into the public realm, thereby popularizing both the impulse to write and the rhetorical patterns used to give that urge expression.

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