Telling Lives/Telling Lies: Willa Cather Biographers

Posted by Sue Hallgarth on May 31, 2013

An excerpt from an Interview with Andrew Jewell, co-editor of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (Knopf, 2013) by Rebecca Cross in “A New Peek at Willa Cather’s Private Life,” The Big Read Blog, May 21, 2013:

What do you think the anthology reveals about Cather, both as a writer and as a woman?

JEWELL: To my mind, it upends a lot of the stereotypes about her. Many people saw her as sort of reserved, sometimes isolated and grumpy, and as a writer that didn’t have much to do with the world. I think the reality that the letters reveal is just the opposite. She was very vibrant, she was very connected to a wide circle of friends and family. She was funny in ways that people find surprising. You can’t deny when you read the letters the life you feel there on the page. It’s a nice counterbalance to some of the portrayals that have been in her biographies. I think the reason for that [portrayal] in her biographies is partially—consciously or subconsciously—what emerged from the inaccessibility of her correspondence.

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Problematic Sources

The most reliable sources for information about Willa Cather have always been Cather’s surviving correspondence and the memoir Willa Cather Living by Edith Lewis, the woman who lived with Cather and shared her life for almost forty years. But until the recent publication of The Selected Letters, neither the letters nor Lewis’ memoir carried much weight in countering the stereotypes that have defined Willa Cather since her death in 1947 and all but buried her life partner, Edith Lewis.

Because Cather’s letters were unavailable for quotation or publication, biographers often turned to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant—the only one among Cather’s friends besides Lewis to publish a memoir—as a kind of final authority, expecting her to be less directly connected and therefore more accurate or reliable than Lewis. Valuable as Sergeant’s record is, problems arise when scholars place undue emphasis on the hierarchical implications of her remark that Cather and Lewis were like “captain” and “first mate.” Or when they assume that Sergeant, more than Lewis, was Cather’s intellectual peer. Scholars also overlook the fact that Sergeant was close to Cather for only a few years early in her career, and they fail to grasp the implications of Sergeant’s complaint that Cather refused to emulate Sergeant’s political ideology and activism.[1] In short, Sergeant’s view of Cather is biased, and she was less than generous in her estimate of Edith Lewis. Bias and the failure or refusal to recognize the importance of Lewis in Willa Cather’s life have fostered distortions and encouraged misleading stereotypes.

Summaries and paraphrases of Cather’s unpublished words have also proven problematic. As the co-editors of Cather’s Selected Letters declare in their introduction, “second-hand approximations can never precisely convey what she said herself.” And those approximations—along with a tendency to read Cather’s fiction into her life—have too often been presented as “fact” by both biographers and scholars of Cather’s work. If reliable paraphrase is difficult, the practice of fusing fiction and fact, always dubious for literary analysis, is even more objectionable in biography.

Making Edith Lewis Disappear

Edith Lewis Passport Picture, 1920
1920 Passport Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Of all the stereotypes developed about Cather over the years, the most damaging to our understanding of her are those about her relationship to Edith Lewis. When James Woodress laid claim to paraphrasing all of Cather’s extant letters in his 1987 biography, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, his view became the standard.[2] If Lewis barely makes an entrance in Sharon O’Brien’s 1987 biography, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice—which ends as Cather’s literary career begins—in Woodress’ biography Cather fades into her fiction, and Lewis gradually slips from view.[3]

More often than not, Woodress mentions Lewis only to cite or quote from her memoir.[4] Yet in his Preface, he warns about using her memoir as a source and in the text, pauses twice to say he agrees with Lewis’ judgment and twice to challenge her accuracy. In both challenges—one about gaps in Cather’s early schooling and her spelling ability, and the other about which wrist pained Cather at a given time—he is wrong.[5] And while the frequency of his citations to Lewis’ memoir never declines, several strange things happen to Lewis in the last one hundred of his five-hundred page text: Woodress unaccountably stops noting references to Lewis in Cather’s letters, increasingly describes events as though she were not involved in them, and levels charges against her that have no basis beyond his own assumptions.

Each of these odd twists had an impact on Cather criticism. The increasing omission of Lewis from Woodress’ account is reflected in Patricia L. Yongue’s assertion that Cather relied “less and less upon Lewis as a traveling companion.”[6] But Cather’s letters and Lewis’ personnel records from J. W. Thompson reveal that the specifics of their travel arrangements were just the reverse of what Woodress implied. Instead of traveling less often together, Lewis and Cather increasingly took more trips of longer duration—to Europe, Canada, California, and finally, to Maine.[7]

Worse than Woodress’ omissions are three outright errors in significant assertions:  that Sarah Bloom rather than Edith Lewis was with Cather the afternoon she died; that Lewis destroyed Cather’s last, unfinished novel; and that Lewis placed the wrong year on Cather’s tombstone in order “to perpetuate the confusion” over Cather’s birthdate.[8]

In an earlier biography, Leon Edel had mentioned that Lewis ordered the engraving for Cather’s tombstone with the wrong birth date, but Edel never said when or why.[9] Woodress apparently inferred the timing and furnished Lewis with a motive. When George Kates discussed the story Cather was still working on when she died, Kates declared twice in passive voice that Cather’s incomplete Avignon manuscript “was destroyed,” but unlike Woodress, Kates named Lewis only as the person who helped him reconstruct its contents, not as its destroyer.[10]

Edith Lewis and the Day Willa Cather Died

Of Woodress’ three errors, the most troublesome carries the implication that Lewis did not care enough about Willa Cather to be present the day she died. The Brown-Edel biography placed them at home together, but Woodress apparently found the information he used in The New York Times.[11] Cather’s April 25, 1947 obituary in the Times never once named Edith Lewis or Cather’s secretary Sarah Bloom. What the second sentence in the article did say was: “After Miss Cather’s death a secretary, who was with her at the time, was too upset to talk about it.” That “secretary” was not Sarah Bloom but Edith Lewis. Still another biographer, Phyllis Robinson, seems also to have inferred that when the Times reported Cather as dying at 4:30 p.m. at home on a Thursday, Lewis was likely to have been at the office.[12] But the fact is that Lewis was at home, specifically to be with Cather. Fourteen months earlier, when Cather was hospitalized with influenza, Lewis began a final, extended leave of absence from J. Walter Thompson. Because Cather’s health remained precarious, Lewis never again returned to the office.[13]

The actual scene of Cather’s death, as recounted in an unpublished letter written the day after Cather died by Lewis’ younger sister Ruth P. Lewis to their brother Harold G. Lewis, places Edith Lewis very much at Willa Cather’s side.[14] Ruth happened to call Edith on that Thursday about 4:45 p.m. to set up a luncheon for the next day, but when a Dr. White answered, Ruth was startled.

Edith came to the phone and I guess tried to tell me but was so upset she couldn’t, so the doctor came on again and said, ‘Miss Lewis is very much upset and can’t talk as Miss Cather died just a few minutes ago. She wants to know if you can come right over’….

When I got there at about 6:00 Miss Bloom, Miss Cather’s secretary for the last thirty years, was there and the undertaker and assistant just finishing their work in Miss Cather’s room.

It seems that she hadn’t been well and had been in bed for about a week, complaining of sort of neuritis in her neck and end of her spine. Edith had had the doctor and he’d taken her pulse, temperature, etc.—about the day before and hadn’t seen anything to be alarmed about.

However, he was going to try to get a room for her at the Roosevelt Hospital, as next door they’ve been tearing down a building and she just couldn’t get any rest. He was having a little difficulty about a room, but yesterday phoned he’d gotten one and would send an ambulance in the p.m. for her.

Edith says Miss Cather seemed to feel better in the a.m., that she ate a good breakfast and lunch and then they both decided they’d take naps.

Edith woke at about 3:00 as the noise in the street kept her from sleeping and she was reading on her bed, when Miss Cather appeared at her door and said, ‘Edith I feel terribly ill.’  With that she had two very severe vomiting attacks.

The maid, Laura, was there yesterday, thank heaven. She was a practical nurse, formerly, so was invaluable. While she got Miss Cather into bed and changed her clothes, etc. Edith went out and called the doctor. He wasn’t in but the nurse said she thought she could reach him and have him come right over.

In the meantime Miss Cather got steadily worse and then developed a terrific pain in the top of her head and base of her spine. Edith went to the elevator and asked the man to try to get some doctor, anyone, in the neighborhood, as many doctors have offices there. They could get no one. In the meantime the ambulance arrived but it was a private one and no intern with it so they couldn’t help.

A few minutes later the doctor arrived but she was gone!  Cerebral hemorrhage. By the time I got there they had got Miss Bloom and she was wonderful.

The letter goes on to say that Sarah Bloom took charge of contacting relatives and friends. Cather’s good friend, the pianist Ethel Litchfield, immediately came up from Philadelphia to help Lewis, and two of Cather’s brothers planned to fly in from California for the service, but old friends and family in Nebraska, Colorado, and Pennsylvania also had to be called and cablegrams sent to Sigrid Undset, Earl Brewster, and Marutha Menuhin. Bloom made the initial phone call to George S. Austermann about a burial plot in Jaffrey, New Hampshire because, Ruth Lewis tells her brother, “Miss Cather always wanted to be buried in Jaffrey, N.H. Did not want to be in Red Cloud. She did much of her early writing up there [in Jaffrey] and loved it, as you remember.”

Ruth Lewis goes on to describe how Edith, with Sarah Bloom’s help, picked out the casket, arranged for travel to Jaffrey, and planned a small, private ceremony at home on Monday. Because Cather had “not attended church much in N.Y. especially in recent years and didn’t care for any of the ministers particularly,” Ruth Lewis suggested they contact Dr. Lathrop, a Unitarian minister from Springfield, Massachusetts who had conducted the funeral service for Lewis’ mother in 1928. At their request, Ruth Lewis felt sure, Dr. Lathrop would read the Episcopal service for Cather, because Cather had joined that church in Red Cloud. And so, with a drawing together of family and friends, Willa Cather was laid to rest on April 28, 1947.

In this private portrait Ruth Lewis wrote to her brother without thought of publication, Edith Lewis occupies her rightful position at the heart of the Cather-Lewis household, surrounded and supported by mutual friends and members from both sides of their extended families. Cather was seventy-three and Lewis sixty-five when Cather died.

Rewriting/Righting the Critical Record

For the next twenty-five years, including the last few that were physically difficult for her, Lewis attended to the details of her famous partner’s estate yet remained vitally interested in expanding her own horizons (taking several extensive trips through Europe and America between 1948 and 1951), encouraging others in their work (Stephen Tennant, the flamboyantly-gay British aristocrat, poet, and painter whom Cather and Lewis befriended toward the end of Cather’s life) and reaching out to young scholars like Ted Jones, George Kates and Patricia L. Yongue.[15]

However she appeared to Cather biographers from 1950 on, Lewis was never the Dickensian parody Edel’s characterization suggests, a modern Miss Havisham caught in “a state of curious exaltation” and “piety,” living out the rest of her years in their Park Avenue apartment where “everything had been kept as it was at the hour Miss Cather died.”[16] Lonely, yes. Flooded with memories she wanted to share, absolutely. Concerned about Cather’s posthumous reputation, certainly—to the point of being difficult about revealing anything about their personal lives, especially to scholars whose academic “objectivity” or other biases might interfere with empathic understanding and appreciation of Cather’s life and work.

It would take almost forty years before the “second wave” of feminism, still in its infancy when Lewis died in 1972, began seriously to question the embedded norms, gender stereotypes, and heterosexist assumptions that marginalize women writers and more particularly, with varying degrees of vehemence, exclude spinsters and lesbians. Whenever biographers rely on paraphrase, summary, and an assumption that a writer’s work reflects her life, it comes as no surprise that they create stereotyped images: Edel gave us a writer whose sexual life could be deduced from her novels; Woodress described a woman so devoted to art she had no time for sex, much less with lesbian inclinations; and if O’Brien recognized Cather as lesbian, she considered her to be plagued by an internalized homophobia that necessarily led to self-loathing and depression.

Cather was never an easy “fit” for heterosexual norms from the moment in her teens when she cut her off hair and called herself William. And her long relationship with Lewis only made more dramatic the critical gyrations and contortions required for shaping Cather into the mold of American respectability. For some, linking Cather to lesbianism meant that her novels might be taken out of the hands of children, her books banned.[17] The better option for those intent upon “preserving” Cather’s reputation was not to see. Or simply to reshape, to lop off the parts that do not fit, Edith Lewis first among them.

Yet placing even the most positive “protective” cast on such critical motives ignores the significance of their twisted impact: on biographical interpretations of Willa Cather, Edith Lewis, and their life together; on critical understandings of Cather’s craft and her exploration of attitudes toward women, men, gender, sex, and sexuality; and on the assessment of Cather’s achievement and her place in the literary canon. The more facts emerge about Edith Lewis and her long life together with Willa Cather, the more possible it is to rewrite the critical record with greater accuracy and empathy. The lives of one of the twentieth-century’s major artists and her life-long partner deserve no less.

[1] Back to Post. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1954), 202. Samples of interpretations include Phyllis C. Robinson, Willa: The Life of Willa Cather (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1983), 208; Sharon O’Brien, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (New York: Oxford University Press), 355; Mildred Bennett, “At the Feet of Willa Cather: A Personal Account of Edith Lewis as Protector,” Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter 33 (Fall 1989), 20, and James Woodress, “Willa Cather and Her Friends,” Critical Essays on Willa Cather, ed. John J. Murphy (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1984), 90.

[2] Back to Post. Woodress’ chronological arrangement of Cather’s letters in Willa Cather: A Literary Life (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987) seems generally reliable but may not always be correct. His citations make no distinction between letters that were dated and those to which dates have been attributed. It should also be understood that no paraphrase arrives in print without first being filtered through a writer’s consciousness. That is why James Woodress presently provides the overriding consciousness behind most interpretations of Cather’s work and of her life with Lewis. The biographical sections of whole books are now based entirely on Woodress’ paraphrases, modified by some attention to Sharon O’Brien, as in Merrill Maguire Skaggs’s After the World Broke in Two.

[3] Back to Post. Woodress unfortunately failed to heed his own admonition—“It is a risky business to infer biographical fact from fiction”—and turned Cather into her narrators and characters, suggesting simply that readers use the endnotes to find out when his sources for Cather’s Literary Life are her letters and when they are her works of art. See “Writing Cather’s Biography,” Cather Studies, Volume 1 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), 109, and “Cather and Her Friends,” 82, where Woodress also cautions against “deducing biographical data from fiction.”  Woodress’ most elaborate defense of his practice appears in Willa Cather: A Literary Life (xiv-xv) where, explaining how biographers like himself are hampered by “roadblocks” Cather and Lewis “threw up…to frustrate pursuit,” he simply declares that Cather wrote “a great deal of autobiographical fiction,” thereby freeing himself—and others who follow his lead—to reverse the logic of biography by using Cather’s “fiction to document her life” and her letters and other documents merely “to corroborate…events…that have passed through the crucible of her imagination to emerge in her stories and novels.”

[4] Back to Post. Of the seventy indexed references to Lewis in Willa Cather: A Literary Life (and others that do not appear in index or footnotes), at least forty-two represent paraphrases or quotations from Lewis’ Willa Cather Living.

[5] Back to Post. Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, 518, 557.

[6] Back to Post. Patricia Yongue, “Edith Lewis Living,” Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Newsletter, 33.3, (Fall, 1989), 14. For examples of the kind of critical distortions Yongue’s analysis led to, see Linda A. Westervelt, Beyond Innocence, Or, The Altersroman in Modern Fiction (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 67, or Janis Stout, Strategies of Reticence: Silence and Meaning in the Lives of Jane Austin, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and Joan Didion (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1990), 91. Since 2000, Stout has moved to more positive views of Edith Lewis. See her Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000) and The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (New York: Knopf, 2013).

[7] Back to Post. It is true that Irene Miner Weiss, an old friend from Red Cloud, accompanied Cather through the Nebraska portion of a brief 1921 lecture tour; that between 1929 and 1931 Cather made three trips to California, apparently without Lewis, to be with her ailing mother; and that Lewis probably did not join Cather on all of her short trips to spas in Pennsylvania or Atlantic City.

[8] Back to Post. Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, 504, 493, 516.

[9] Back to Post. Edel, “Homage to Willa Cather,” The Art of Willa Cather, eds. Bernice Slote and Virginia Faulkner (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1974), 198.

[10] Back to Post. George Kates, “Willa Cather’s Unfinished Avignon Story,” Willa Cather, Five Stories (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), 178, 197, 200.

[11] Back to Post. E. K. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, completed by Leon Edel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), 330; and “Willa Cather Dies, Noted Novelist, 70,” The New York Times (April 25, 1947), 70.

[12] Back to Post. Robinson, 208.

[13] Back to Post. Personnel File, J. Walter Thompson Archives, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University.

[14] Back to Post. Ruth P. Lewis to Harold G. Lewis, April 25, 1947, privately owned.

[15] Back to Post. Philip Hoare, Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1990) and Kates, Willa Cather, Five Stories. In private correspondence, Yongue mentioned to me that Lewis began a correspondence with Yongue during the last two years of her life, encouraged Yongue to visit her at the Park Avenue apartment, and sent Yongue copies of reviews and other pieces about Cather. The same kind of encouragement was true for Ted Jones, who told me that he visited Lewis in the Park Avenue apartment before completing his 1969 master’s thesis at the University of New Brunswick, Willa Cather in the Northeast.

[16] Back to Post. Edel, “Homage to Willa Cather,” 190. For an interesting discussion about the complexity of the decision and Edith Lewis’ concerns over who would do Cather’s “official” biography, see Robert Thacker, “’A Critic Who was Worthy of Her’: The Writing of Willa Cather: A Critical Biography,” Cather Studies: Willa Cather as Cultural Icon, 7 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 303-328.

[17] Back to Post. These sentiments were reported in private conversations.

One thought on “Telling Lives/Telling Lies: Willa Cather Biographers

  1. Her apparent infatuation with the Mexican-American young man, Julio, while visiting the southwest, makes one consider the possibility that she may have been bisexual.

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