Friday, May 17, 2013


Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings

Willa Cather in costume as Peter Paragon
in 1892 for a Union Girls’ Dramatic Club
production of The Fatal Pin. From the
Nebraska State Historical Society blog.
Willa Cather has been much in the news recently, with the publication of a collection of over 500 of her letters, selected from the 3,000 known to exist in various archives around the country. It’s a major literary event for Cather scholars and fans, but in an interview with The New York Times the editors of the new book admit that the anthology “flagrantly” violates Cather’s will, the enforcement of which expired in 2011 with the death of her nephew Charles Cather. Nevertheless, “there’s really no evidence for the idea that she wanted all her letters destroyed,” said Andrew Jewell, who edited the volume with Janis Stout. In a front-page appraisal in The New York Times Book Review, Tom Perrotta does not even try to reconcile the private demand of someone who is long dead with the public appetite for the personal details of one of America’s greatest authors:
Willa Cather really didn’t want me to read her letters. And she was hoping you would mind your own business as well. I know this because I just committed a serious violation of her privacy, reading the more than 500 letters [reprinted in the volume] despite the author’s repeated, explicit wishes to the contrary. . . . What these letters illustrate so beautifully is the literary journey of Willa Cather. . . . These letters bring her fuzzy image into much sharper focus, and for that we owe Jewell and Stout a debt of gratitude, and Willa Cather a sincere apology.
Cather published her first story in a professional magazine when she was just a freshman at the University of Nebraska. An assignment she had written greatly impressed her English professor, Herbert Bates, and he forwarded the story to the Boston-based literary magazine The Mahogany Tree. The editors immediately accepted it and published “Peter” in the May 1892 issue. Its lead character was based on the father of a Bohemian immigrant servant in Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, and the story would end up having a long shelf life, undergoing repeated revisions during her career. She first reprinted it with minor changes later that year in the Hesperian, the oldest of the several literary magazines published at the university. When she lived in Pittsburgh, she published a third version of the story while employed for a six-month stint in 1900 at a weekly paper called Library (which folded when its capital ran dry). And, finally, she incorporated the episode on which the story is based into her masterpiece My Ántonia (1918).

Although Cather was elated by the publication of her first story, she never reprinted the early versions in her books—and she later expressed regrets that her professor had convinced her to publish her stories before her prose style had matured. Biographer Phyllis C. Robinson remarks that, when older, Cather “warned aspiring young writers against too early publication.” Yet, like her long-suppressed letters, her first published story (which we present here in its very first version) strikingly illustrates the beginning of “the literary journey of Willa Cather.”

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“No, Antone, I have told thee many times, no, thou shalt not sell it until I am gone.”
“But I need money; what good is that old fiddle to thee? . . .” If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.