Women I've Known
23 April 2037
Dear Ms. Cather:
This inquiry may surprise you, but since I know that throughout your life you've striven to keep an open mind, and to respond in a forthright, honest way to those interested in your work, I hoped you would entertain an inquiry about one of your stories from an unlikely but most sincere and respectful source.
Though a professor emeritus from a state university in Georgia (I retired many years ago), I've lately been invited to teach at a private liberal arts college in your native state of Nebraska, a one-year post I'm enjoying very much. My syllabus includes your enigmatic short story "Paul's Case," and in the course of doing research I've become intensely fascinated not only by the story but also by your life. There are dozens of biographies, of course, and I've read several of the best. As for the story, its gay themes have been explored ad infinitum during the last few decades, but there is surprisingly little material relating its own vision of hegemonic, heterosexist intimidation and the covert realities of your own relationships with women, not to mention such tangential issues as cross-dressing and vivisection as deconstructions of the female body.
Most artists are disinclined to analyze their own work; I know this is true of you, and certainly I respect your position. However, if you might enlighten me to some degree regarding your intentions in writing "Paul's Case," and especially in relating Paul's experiences as a gay, sensitive music-lover to your own struggles as a gay woman and artist, I would be most appreciative.
I felt sanguine about writing you at this time because you have reached the point in your career when, as I hope you'll agree, "a backward glance" might yield a valuable perspective; and a point at which you have attained a status enabling you to speak as forthrightly as you wish, even on sensitive matters, without caring what anyone thinks. I understand your decision not to allow publication of your letters, and I pledge not to publish any reply you'd deign to send my way. At most, I would paraphrase salient passages for the purposes of my research.
I hoped you might be sympathetic to my position, as well, as a long-retired critic who yet feels they might have one more good article in them. I don't ask for special consideration due to my advanced age, or even because we are, as the young people like to say, "members of the family"; rather I address you as one writer to another, divided by time but united by sensibility. After a young colleague -- a handsome young man I think you'd like very much -- offered to assist me with the technological difficulties of this correspondence, I found I could not resist. Without him, I would be reduced merely to composing this letter in my head, since I remain something of a Luddite where technology is concerned. According to my friend, this letter will have appeared on your front porch, genie-like, inside a silver-toned "cyberspace envelope," which will likewise bear your response back to me. You need only re-tuck the envelope and leave it just where you found it; my friend's state-of-the-art computer software does the rest. I wish I could explain further, but I'm unaccustomed to dealing in cyberspace or writing through the space-time continuum.
In any case, this is all beside the main point, and perhaps uninteresting to you. You cannot imagine the interest with which, Ms. Cather, I await your kind reply.
Georgina Johnstone, Ph.D.
P.S. I forgot to mention that I've been involved in gay studies throughout my long career.
April 24, 1937
Dear Professor Johnstone:
I must tell you frankly that I found your letter long and puzzling in about equal measures. (In addition to other typographical errors, I noted with amusement that you mis-typed "2037" for "1937." Again to be frank, I am sure neither of us would care to live that long, considering the "progress" our world is making.)
As to your specific inquiry, "Paul's Case" is a story written in my youth and though I remember it well and fondly, I think a story should stand or fall on its own merits, regardless of what the author might say about it.
I wish you luck in your research and hope you will understand the brevity of my response.
(Miss) Willa Cather
P.S. I'm very glad to hear that you enjoy your studies.
April 30, 2037
Dear Willa Cather:
Thanks for your prompt reply. Of course, in my first letter I did not account for inevitable misunderstandings regarding the date of my letter and other "typographical errors." Although I could explain these, I'm afraid we would get sidetracked from my queries about "Paul's Case," which is considered the finest of your stories. According to the biographies, we are in agreement there.
It occurred to me that instead of rambling on about theoretical matters, I might have a better chance of a detailed reply from a straightforward, no-nonsense woman such as yourself (I like to think I'm the same kind of woman) if I simply sent you a list of questions that get to the heart of my critical inquiries. This strikes me as a compromise that we could both "live with," as the saying goes. So here are the questions, which I might want to follow up briefly after receiving your replies.
"Paul's Case" is a riddling story in some ways. On the one hand, it deals with a sensitive and artistic young person who lives in Pittsburgh and longs for a life filled with beauty and art. Also, as the incident with the "boy from Yale" makes clear, he is gay and yet, this being the nineteenth century, he must hide his gayness. In all these respects, the story seems highly autobiographical. But on the other hand, Paul is clearly immature and self-destructive: he has internalized his society's homophobia, as his suicide makes clear. His theft of a large sum of money, which he uses to treat himself to a "last fling" in New York -- staying at a suite in the Waldorf, surrounding himself with flowers and champagne, etc. -- suggests also a complete lack of morality (in the larger, more generous meaning of that term). Did you feel this seeming discrepancy in his characterization, as you wrote the story? Did you project onto Paul the personal qualities you most admired in yourself, but also the qualities you most loathed? Did this inner conflict, as you wrote the story, account for the virtues that has made it live as a work of art -- namely, the vividness and energy of its prose? Did the story thus serve as a vehicle through which you worked out personal issues regarding your own character?
At the time you wrote the story, you were living with Isabelle McClung and her family. Now Ms. McClung, if I may say so, was your first great, gay love; and her wealthy family provided an elegant atmosphere that included not only art and beauty, but also a stable environment in which you could, and did, produce some of your best fiction. Was the bedroom into which you and Ms. McClung repaired after dinner in some ways your personal equivalent of Paul's suite at the Waldorf? Was Ms. McClung the equivalent of Paul's "boy from Yale"? (This seems to make sense, given, of course, the biological reality that women naturally prefer long-term, nesting relationships, while men, especially very young men, prefer fleeting liaisons of the kind that Paul enjoys.)
Was Paul's suicide a fictional analogue to your feeling, during this happy and productive period of your youth, that you had, as the saying goes, "burned your bridges," and that you were determined to escape the philistine realities you'd suffered earlier in your life (on the plains of Nebraska, in the high school classrooms of industrialized Pittsburgh) into Ms. McClung's world of love and beauty? And regardless of the personal cost?
Alternatively, it has also struck me that Paul might resemble an even more youthful self: namely, the Willa Cather of your undergraduate years at the University of Nebraska, a girl who dressed and groomed herself as a boy and who called herself, variously, "William," "Willie," or "Bill." That Willa Cather, of course, loved her beautiful and feminine young fellow-student Louise Pound with the same kind of wayward passion that Paul exhibits toward everything he loves but cannot have. In this reading, perhaps, Paul's suicide could be viewed as a working-out of those undergraduate suicidal impulses you clearly entertained (you wouldn't allow publication of your letters to Ms. Pound or to anyone, Ms. Cather, but I have seen them) and that you gratified figuratively by "killing," as it were, William/Willie/Billy, resuming female dress and hair styles for the rest of your life. Do you find that this reading has any merit?
You based "Paul's Case," of course, on a former student of yours who'd come under disciplinary review at the high school where you taught, and on the case of two other boys who had stolen money and left town for a wild spending spree not unlike Paul's. Did you realize that as you used this source material, the story had a kind of hidden, even taboo subtext? Were you consciously hiding the latter beneath the surface respectability of the former?
I hope you will not find these questions either too tedious or too intrusive. I have run them by the young man I mentioned in my previous letter -- he's a huge Willa Cather fan, by the way -- and though naturally he is more concerned with the technological minutiae of getting my letters to you than with their literary content, he seems to find them not lacking in substance and relevance.
Thank you again for your patience, and I confidently await your kind reply.
Georgina Johnstone, Ph.D.
P.S. If I might add a personal query. I've always been uncertain of exactly how to pronounce your last name: should the consonants "th" be spoken as in "rather" or as in "wrath"?
May 5, 1937
Dear Professor Johnstone:
Again I will be frank and say that I was surprised to get another of those unusual "silver-toned" envelopes from you. (My postman says the letters have not arrived through him. Have you employed some nocturnal delivery boy, who deposits and removes your envelopes, under cover of night? It is rather disconcerting.)
I cannot say I enjoyed this second letter any more than the first, especially since I am confounded as to how you know so much about me. By "biographies" I presume you mean those newspaper interviews I once gave, but no longer do. And my instincts are correct, it would seem.
Regarding the personal matters, I think I will just say that yes, Miss McClung (now Mrs. Hambourg) was my "first great, gay love," in a sense. (I must admit that I rather like the phrase.) In fact, she was the happiest, most carefree person I have ever had the privilege of loving, if truth be known.
I tell you this against my better judgment, particularly since I find your numbered questions all but incomprehensible. As I said before, the story had better stand on its own or not at all. I will remark, however, that Paul may exude a kind of surface "gaiety," but that happy people do not normally throw themselves in front of speeding trains.
Though I certainly wish you the best in your research, I would not be the forthright person you take me for if I didn't say that I don't think I can be of any further help to you. Good luck.
(Miss) Willa Cather
P.S. It rhymes with "blather."
May 10, 2037
I do understand. Really I do. In my scholarly zeal, I failed to account for the fact that to you, I am a complete stranger, whereas you have been, for these many decades, a vividly real and powerful personality in my life. Having read and reread your books so many times, having read every scrap of secondary material ever produced about you, I'm not exaggerating if I suggest I know you better -- or feel that I do -- than I know any of my colleagues or even my closest friends.
I was discussing this with my new friend, Jeff Pentland, the other day. (He's the youthful computer buff I told you about.) He has a thing, if I may use such a colloquial term, for two or three screen actresses of the 1940s and 50s; his collections of material about them, and his formidable depth of knowledge about all facets of their lives, testify to his scholarly passion. Like Paul, who waited so patiently outside the stage door to glimpse his favorite opera star as she left the theater, gay boys to this day suffer extremes of "heroine-worship." As we were saying the other day, this may be pleasurable to the fan, but disconcerting or even annoying to the heroine. So, I hope you will forgive my persistence in writing you again; certainly I do not mean to be obnoxious, or intrusive.
It occurred to us that perhaps I should share a few more details of my life, so that you might feel that you know me a little, and thus slightly rectify the imbalance. I don't mean to try and curry favor by stressing, first, that I am no longer a young person, and that my article on "Paul's Case" may well be my last publication of what has been, if I may say so, a long and fairly productive scholarly career. In fact, some of my colleagues are amazed that at the age of 84, I continue to teach and write at all. I suppose they think I should be sitting on my front-porch rocker, an idea that does sound appealing when you're 34, but when the time to start rocking actually arrives, seems instead profoundly boring, and a little sad. So I hope to die "with my boots on," as people say.
Second, I am somewhat isolated here. Except for Jeff Pentland, who is one of those gay boys who enjoys befriending elderly people (thank God for them!), I really have no friends, unless the occasional busy colleague who asks me to coffee, or to lunch, can be counted as such. The condition of the "visiting professor" has always been solitary, since everyone knows this time next year he'll be gone, and there's no reason to invest time in him. There's not even anyone, much, to talk with on the telephone. I've outlived all my family, and virtually all my close friends (including my "great, gay loves," Willa; if there's anything more melancholy than outliving people, I hope I die before I find it out). So, I teach my two classes of colorful, energetic undergraduates, I hold my office hours (the students almost never drop by), and the rest of my time is devoted to researching my article on "Paul's Case," and on you.
It's my reason for being, I might say, without exaggeration.
I've heard you speak (yes, in those old interviews) about how central and all-consuming a book becomes, once you've begun it. Everything else recedes in importance. So I feel certain that you can understand what I'm saying, and sympathize.
All that said, I hoped you might entertain a few somewhat briefer, and I hope not "incomprehensible," questions that are less cumbersome and that are, I hope, nothing at all like "blather." (I suppose I was hurt by that, a little. Literary critics do have feelings, too, Willa.)
Anyway, here are the questions. Thanks in advance for whatever input you might wish to give an elderly person who is simply doing his best to add a soupcon of insight into the great art of the great Willa Cather.
In the context of "Paul's Case," which ends with a gay character's suicide, please discuss his feelings as they relate to feelings you had about any of the following women: Louise Pound, Isabelle McClung, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Zoe Akins, or Edith Lewis. Am I leaving anyone out?
Paul worships opera stars because they are great artists, but he is doomed to remain on the periphery as one of the faceless audience; the woman he idolizes never so much as acknowledges him. Is this a common attitude, do you think, among artists -- among writers, for instance -- once they become well known? Can they not be bothered to interact with the hoi polloi, once they are securely rich and famous? Is that the way it works, Willa?
Why did you make the neurotic and self-destructive Paul a male character, whereas in most of your fiction you idealize female characters (I need only mention Antonia, I think) beyond all semblance of reality? Is there a reverse sexism at work here, do you think?
Do you know that without scholars and professors, your work probably would be unknown today? People under thirty only want to read what was written in the last two weeks. Are you aware of that, Willa?
Paul is entirely friendless. Aren't you, in 1937, entirely friendless as well? Can the entrance of a well-meaning admirer of your work into your life really mean so little to you?
As before, I look forward to your answer, which I know will be ample and generous and contain not one iota of blather.
May 17, 1937
Dear Georgina (if I may),
I am sorry if my previous letters made you angry. That was not my objective. You might consider that there is material in all your letters to make their recipient angry ("great artist" or not), but I don't think you are in a position to perceive that.
No, I would not have guessed you were 84. If I ever reach that age, I hope I am half as energetic and feisty as you seem to be. Your letters, including your pose as a critic of the future, testify to a lively and fertile imagination, among other qualities.
Now, Georgina, I will try to answer your questions. (By the way, is "Georgina" your real name? I thought I detected a slip, in your most recent letter.) I don't know what ever gave you the idea that I like women to the exclusion of men. If you know so much about me, you should know also how much I revere my former employer, Mr. McClure, and my present publisher, Mr. Knopf, among many other fine gentlemen it has been my pleasure to know.
Now I don't care to number the answers, but here they are.
First, as to your uncanny knowledge of women who have been important in my life. Yes, Georgina, of all the women I've known, these five are perhaps the most important, but there are many others with whom I have enjoyed close and confiding friendships. These friendships, however, are something of a personal matter, and I do not really think any details would help you or anyone to understand "Paul's Case." And no, his suicide has only to do with what happens to him in the story. Possibly I wrote some intemperate letters to Louise when I was nineteen or twenty, but perhaps everyone writes intemperate letters when they are nineteen or twenty. Perhaps even you did, if you can remember back that far.
As for writing to, or "acknowledging," people who write to say they like my work, I used to answer such letters faithfully, and sometimes at great length, but after a while, frankly, I found that I began to repeat myself, and my letters got shorter and shorter. Nor did the letters I received become either more respectful or more intelligence as I became well known; quite the opposite, in fact. At some point, I decided that I needed to save my writing energies for my novels, or otherwise they would not get written. But the last thing I ever want to appear is snobbish, or big-headed.
I already answered your question about my liking women and not men, so I will move ahead to the one about readers. We will just have to agree to disagree about whether "scholars and professors" keep my work alive. I don't think they do. Though I was thrilled and grateful to get the Pulitzer, and a few honorary degrees here and there, those wouldn't have come my way, I am convinced, if ordinary people had not bought my books in large numbers. I am happy to report that is still the case, and that I make a comfortable living from my novels. If only a few academics were reading me, I would probably have to go back to journalism or high school teaching. Now I could be wrong about this, but that's my view of the matter.
I cannot imagine where you got the idea that I am "entirely friendless," since I have many close friends of both sexes, and I enjoy them very much. Even when I travel to Europe (with my close friend Edith, usually) there are friends in almost every capital whom I am pleased to visit.
I admit I was affected, however, by your description of your own life, and wonder if you are not just presuming that my position is similar to yours. You sound like you have much to offer your friend Mr. Pentland, however, and I am sure that you could find other worthwhile colleagues who would befriend you if you would give them a chance. When I think back over a long lifetime of friendships, Georgina, I must tell you that my heart fills and I get a little teary-eyed. True, most of the closest friends have been women, and I find that all the women I've known, especially those with whom I've shared many hours of intimate talks, frank discussions on many topics, mutual sharing of emotions and personal matters that have helped me escape the essential isolation that all of us, as human beings, have as our condition throughout life -- well, without the women, I could not have been the writer I am, or even the person I am. It makes me feel very lucky that I have experienced such wonderful friendships and to be honest, Georgina, I am grateful that you have forced me to sit down and acknowledge this fact, in writing. (Even though, as you say, I do not allow my letters to be published, and I know you will respect my privacy in this regard.)
By the way, I am not familiar with the college where you teach, but I would be happy to send letters of introduction to my many friends at the University over in Lincoln, if that would please you. I also have many non-academic friends there.
Well, I feel I've rattled on too long. Though I've been little help in your scholarly project, perhaps I've enabled you to understand my point of view. Your last letter certainly helped me to understand yours. If you ever find yourself in New York, I would be pleased if you would call on me.
P.S. Loneliness is nothing to be ashamed of, Georgina.
10 June 2037
What a wise woman you are. Though decades younger than me, you have a generosity and understanding I simply don't possess, at least not without the urging of a great soul or mentor like yourself. Thank you.
I apologize for my previous letter. It was written out of loneliness and bitterness and all the other plaints that bedevil both my stage in life and my profession. How willingly an elderly critic would trade places with a middle-aged novelist! Oh, in an instant, Willa.
One sentence in your letter, intended so kindly, brought instead a reaction of such frustrated longing that several weeks have passed before I was able to write again. I'm speaking of your invitation to visit you in New York. You can scarcely imagine how that affected me. It forced me to recognize my actual motivation in writing you. I'd wanted to discuss "Paul's Case," I thought. I wanted to discuss "biographical issues," I thought. But intuitively you've understood the ordinary, pathetic truth: I simply want to be your friend! Yet we are separated by such a barrier as not all the generous feelings in the world, combined with the most sophisticated form of travel now available, could overcome. My friend Jeff Pentland says that the new technology enabling me to write you through the warping time-waves of a century will some day, almost certainly, allow actual time travel for human beings. Oh, if only I could live long enough to experience this! But Jeff tells me frankly it will be another hundred years, at least, before that comes to pass. (Jeff is such a sweet boy, by the way. As you might have gathered, I've developed quite a "crush" on him, and though the emotions are unrequited, his friendship remains steadfast.) I hardly know what to do, now that the spring term has concluded and my teaching duties are over. Move back South, to Atlanta, where I have outlived everyone? Linger on here in Nebraska, rather pathetically, because of my crush on a young technology professor? How odd that I, at my age, should feel so homeless and adrift.
But I've decided to visit New York, after all, and if he consents, I will bring Jeff Pentland with me. (If, of course, he will allow me to pay his expenses.) We will, in spirit, accept your kind invitation: we will come to the address printed on that last, lovely letter you've sent, and we'll hope the house is still standing. If the occupants will not let us glance inside, into the parlor where you would have received us, then we'll be bold and peer in at windows (an odd couple indeed, this elderly person accompanied by a tall, well-knit companion!) and try to imagine the scene.
"I'm pleased you could come," you might say, offering us tea, and perhaps a wedge of spice cake.
"You can't imagine how pleased I am," I would say, quickly adding: "I suppose you can see, that you correctly guessed my secret."
And we would both laugh, cordially, and settle into overstuffed chairs arranged companionably around the fireplace.
But I should spare you my fantasy, Willa, of this meeting that will never happen. In any case, now I'm the one who writes with a sore heart, and tears filling my eyes.
I should close, Willa, by promising not to bother you any more. Though I live in the value-free year of 2037, I do try to keep my promises. I'm old-fashioned, that way. I can't say how much your letters mean to me, and I will treasure them always.
P.S. Thanks for your care in re-tucking the special envelope, but Jeff Pentland asks that you refrain from using white paste to seal the letter. Evidently that mucks up the works.
June 11, 1937
Your letter does concern me, a little. That you persist in using the date "2037," which I now see is not a typing error but an error of another kind, I am especially concerned.
If you do visit Lincoln, I also know a wonderful doctor there, whose card I would be happy to send along if you think that would be useful. And as for your "fantasy," I can promise you that I would more than welcome a visit from you, which probably would be much as you describe it! (But then, you have read my interviews, so I guess you know my domestic procedures quite well.)
Above all, I wish you good health. I wish you clarity of mind, and a peaceful heart. These are the important things, as we grow older.
P.S. Thank you for being such a loyal reader.
12 June 2037
We're fated to misunderstand one another, it seems. (I quail at the fantasy that you might be writing a new story entitled "Georgina's Case.")
Can any one person know another? For all these weeks I've subsisted on the idea that I might know you, Willa Cather! That somehow I might build a bridge back through your fictional character Paul, back to the mind and heart that created him! But I've abandoned my article, finally. All I'd managed was a frail and spurious linkage of words, words, words. Perhaps even your great story "Paul's Case" is merely that? Perhaps you, like me, sit spinning your words outward in the fiction that they mean something, when actually they're only a colorful distraction from the silent abyss of space and time that surrounds us all?
For any kind of writer, even a literary critic, such an insight can mean only that the rest is silence. Without words, a critic cannot exist, nor can the hopeful correspondent. (Even though my friend Jeff Pentland and I have promised to write, following his imminent departure for graduate school in Wisconsin, it's difficult to imagine that we really will -- that such a tissue of mere words could sustain itself.)
Will you try to think of me as a friend, dear Willa? As an eccentric footnote, perhaps, added to that distinguished list of women you've known? That's a consoling thought, at least.
There's no point in your answering this letter, I'm afraid. By the time it reaches you, both Jeff and I will have left Nebraska. And instead of signing the letter, I'll leave poor Georgina in the fictional ash-heap where she belongs. But I wanted you to know that I appreciated your "P.S." and would have liked to respond You're welcome. And I'll keep reading you, too.