Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Bookkeeper’s Wife

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

Hand-colored photograph, c. 1905–1910, from one of a series of postcards issued by Metropolitan Life to advertise its services. The caption reads “Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.’s Home Office Bldg. N.Y. City. Glimpse of the Filing Section. The largest outfit of steel filing cases in the world.” (Image from eBay)

In October 1917 Willa Cather made tentative arrangements with Century magazine to publish a thematically linked series of short stories, and she sent a letter about the matter to Ferris Greenslet, her editor at Houghton Mifflin.
The Century people begin the series “Office Wives” in January. They want the book rights also. I don’t imagine you will mind, as there is not much money in a book of short stories, and this series would not be ready for book publication until next fall. I told [Century editor Douglas Zabriskie Doty] I thought they could have the book all right, but I did not absolutely promise. At least, I don't think I did.
The stories would be ostensibly informed by Cather’s firsthand experiences in the business world. She had worked as an editor, columnist, and occasional business manager at Home Monthly in Pittsburgh; as the telegraph desk reporter and headline writer for the Pittsburg Leader, a daily newspaper; and, most significantly, as a staff member from 1906 to 1912 at McClure’s magazine, where she became the managing editor.

By the time she began working at McClure’s, Cather had published some three dozen stories (most of which would never be collected or reprinted in her lifetime), a book of poetry (she later destroyed all the copies she could get her hands on), and The Troll Garden, a collection of seven short stories that had impressed, among others, Sarah Orne Jewett. She had not yet finished a novel and, in December 1908, Jewett warned Cather, in a letter often quoted by biographers, that her writing career was “being hindered by such incessant, important, responsible work as you have in your hands now.” Cather’s background—her “Nebraska life, a child’s Virginia, and now an intimate knowledge of what we are pleased to call the ‘Bohemia’ of newspaper and magazine-office life”—were “uncommon equipment” for a writer, and Jewett urged Cather to leave her job and turn those experiences into the stuff of literature.

Cather had been hired after Ida M. Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and several other prominent staff members had walked out on publisher Samuel McClure, and she responded to Jewett:
What Mr. McClure wants is to make me into as good an imitation of Miss Tarbell as he can. He wants me to write articles on popular science, so called, (and other things) for half of each week, and attend to the office work in the other half. That combination would be quite possible—and, I fear, perfectly deadening. He wants, above all things, good, clear-cut journalism. The which I do not despise, but I get nothing to breathe out of it and no satisfaction.

Mr. McClure tells me that he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories, that I am a good executive and I had better let it go at that. I sometimes, indeed I very often think that he is right.
Although the job kept her from writing fiction—Cather managed to finish only half a dozen stories while she was at McClure’s—another three years went by before she took Jewett’s advice, left the magazine, and became a full-time author, publishing her first four novels between 1912 and 1918. Nevertheless, her experiences as an editor doubtlessly improved both her writing and her confidence, not to mention her connections in the publishing world. “It is not nothing for a woman from the provinces in the West to exert power in the literary circles of the East,” writes Ellen Gruber Garvey in an essay about Cather’s magazine work. “Cather figured out what she liked and wanted to develop in her own writing by considering what she didn’t like in other people’s writing; she learned eventually to avoid the stock characters and visible plotting of much magazine fiction (and her own early fiction), while still absorbing what did occasionally appeal to her.”

Later in the decade, when she was between novels, Cather revisited Jewett’s suggestion to transform the “Bohemia” of the business world into fiction. In 1916, Century published “The Bookkeeper’s Wife,” her first story about the dynamic between women and men in the workplace. She then submitted two stories, “Ardessa” and “Little Annie,” for the proposed “Office Wives” series. Doty paid $350 for “Ardessa” but declined the other tale, telling Cather’s agent that it was too depressing to publish during the war. (It was accepted a year later by H. L. Mencken and published as “Her Boss” in The Smart Set.) The rough draft for a fourth story, “Explosives,” was submitted to Century but never appeared; the manuscript is lost and all we have is its rather suggestive title. Cather then gave up on the series; Woodress speculates that she was simply too busy finishing her next novel, My Ántonia, to give “Office Wives” the attention it deserved, but her enthusiasm for the collection may well have been tempered by the tepid reception of the last two stories.

The very title for the series, “Office Wives,” seems to have been a subtle act of provocation; of the five working women featured in Cather’s three stories—stenographers, typists, clerical workers—only Stella Bixby, “the bookkeeper's wife,” is married. (It would be another decade before Faith Baldwin’s best-selling novel The Office Wife and its mildly scandalous pre-Code movie adaptation popularized the term.) Cather explores the ways in which working women and their male supervisors mirror, in a distorted fashion, the domestic arrangements between wives and husbands. Ardessa, for example, is “like a sultan’s bride” in her exalted position as secretary to a magazine editor; when she is demoted and transferred to a new department, she becomes a “bartered bride.” The stories depict how the freedom and independence available to women in the workplace are still limited by their dependence on and subservience to men. “Through these female characters, Cather avoids the formulaic fantasy of popular stories of New Women and instead presents a realistic portrait of many an urban working woman’s experience,” writes Amber Harris Leichner in an article for Cather Studies. “Ultimately, Cather’s office stories are pessimistic about clerical work as a means for urban women to accomplish something more individually meaningful than an economic independence that may prove temporary.”

Notes: A Floradora pompadour is the hairstyle of the six “Floradora Girls” featured in the popular musical comedy Floradora (1899) by Leslie Stuart and Owen Hall. First performed in England, it opened in New York on November 10, 1900, ran for more than 500 performances, and was frequently revived.

For more on Cather’s relationship with S. S. McClure and her employment at his magazine, see the introduction to “The Enchanted Bluff,” a previous Story of the Week selection.

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Nobody but the janitor was stirring about the offices of the Remsen Paper Company, and still Percy Bixby sat at his desk, crouched on his high stool and staring out at the tops of the tall buildings flushed with the winter sunset, at the hundreds of windows, so many rectangles of white electric light, flashing against the broad waves of violet that ebbed across the sky. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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