The talk in Catherland these days is about the letters. Cather’s will forbade verbatim quotation from her correspondence, probably in an attempt to keep scholars at bay (“information vampires,” she called them). The Cather estate lifted that restriction to allow the publication, in 2013, of “The Selected Letters of Willa Cather,” edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. In January, when Cather’s letters enter the public domain, the Willa Cather Archive, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will begin to publish her complete correspondence online, drawing on a collection of more than three thousand items. The letters echo her voice—“confident, elegant, detailed, openhearted,” as Jewell and Stout describe it. She was, they admit, a “rather histrionic character.” She is abrupt, candid, self-pitying, given to dubious generalizations (“People who go and have grotesque accidents are clowns”), and relentless toward her publishers (“The blue behind the lettering seems to me rather dark and heavy for a jacket,” she writes to Knopf). Although illness and loss shadow her final years, the fire never dies. In 1943, she compliments a college student on his style, but the words “the world beautiful” elicit a rebuke: “That is the only bad phrase in your letter. But it is bad. It is what I call ‘women’s club phraseology.’ You could have said that better, had you tried.”
The Nebraskan was first a Virginian. She was born in 1873, in Back Creek Valley, near Winchester, on the north end of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her background was deeply Southern. Three of her uncles had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and several of the family’s African-American servants had been enslaved in her great-grandparents’ household—histories that Cather brought to life in her final novel, “Sapphira and the Slave Girl,” published in 1940. Cather’s father, Charles, managed a sheep farm; when the barn burned, in 1883, the family moved to Nebraska, following other members of the wider Cather clan. They first lived on a homestead north of Red Cloud, then in town, where Charles Cather made a respectable living selling farm loans and insurance. Less than fifteen years earlier, only a few white families had occupied the area; now a community of twenty-five hundred people had sprung up.
The transfer west came as an enormous shock: Cather felt as if she had been cast out of civilization. “It was a kind of erasure of personality,” she later said. Jim Burden, who replicates Cather’s childhood journey in “My Ántonia” and also goes back East as an adult, feels similarly: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out.” Yet Cather soon made peace with this strange new life; erasure permitted self-invention. At around the age of fifteen, she flirted with a male persona, signing her name William Cather, Jr., or Wm. Cather, M.D. She settled on the given name Willa, a variation of her baptismal name, Wilella; she later added the middle name Sibert. On display at the Cather Center is the family Bible, open to the page on which a mature editorial hand has changed Wilella to Willa, added Sibert, and altered her date of birth from 1873 to 1876.
The young Cather was a fury of enthusiasms, scouring her corner of the world for information. As she rode her pony from farm to farm, she found tenacious clusters of European immigrants: Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Czechs, and Germans. Through them, she absorbed a far more variegated cultural experience than she would have encountered in Virginia. The immigrants did not come from high social stations, but many carried with them considerable learning. Jim Burden declares, “There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Ántonia’s father.”
There was also music. Not long ago, while researching Cather’s lifelong love of Wagner’s operas, I came across a hitherto unseen trace of Red Cloud’s Europeanness. Several sources mention that Cather studied piano with a music teacher named Schindelmeisser. This man served as the model for the character of Wunsch, in “The Song of the Lark”—a dissolute but impassioned immigrant musician who is among the first to glimpse the talent of Thea Kronborg, destined to become a leading Wagner singer. After digging through newspaper archives, census records, telephone directories, and shipping manifests, I concluded that he was Albert Schindelmeisser, the son of Louis Schindelmeisser, a distinguished German composer and conductor of the mid-nineteenth century, and an ally of Wagner and Liszt.
The life story that can be reconstructed from circumstantial evidence is a rather sad one, suitable for one of Cather’s darker prairie tales. Schindelmeisser came to America in 1862, when he was twenty, and got a job teaching at Lawrence University, in Wisconsin. In an article for the Lawrence college paper, he wrote, “Of all arts music is the most pure and elevated, the most ennobling in its influences.” By 1870, however, he had left the college and established a pattern of being unwilling or unable to stay in one place for any length of time. He worked in Kansas and Iowa as a teacher and a piano tuner, then popped up in Red Cloud in 1884 and 1885. A notice of an event at the Baptist church, to which the Cather family belonged, said that “Mr Schindlemeisser, at the piano, showed himself master of the situation and called forth loud applause.” By 1886, though, he was back in Kansas. After that, the trail grows thin. Notices of unclaimed letters suggest that he passed through Kansas City and Macon, Missouri. He was in Nashville in 1898. The name does not appear in the 1900 census. He was known to be a heavy drinker, and alcoholism is likely the best explanation for his erratic career. In “The Song of the Lark,” Wunsch’s drinking eventually forces him to leave town, but his acknowledgment of Thea Kronborg’s talent encourages her to pursue singing.
From this roughshod Europe of the mind, Cather also emerged with a complex understanding of American identity. Her symphonic landscapes are inflected with myriad accents, cultures, personal narratives—all stored away in a prodigious memory. When she went off to college, at the University of Nebraska, she was already an imperious cosmopolitan, entirely unafraid to make her views known. She had thought of studying science or medicine, but her command of prose pulled her toward writing. In 1893, she published her first journalistic piece for the Lincoln Nebraska State Journal: thus began a two-decade run as a literary critic, drama and music critic, all-purpose reporter, and editor. She went on to Pittsburgh, editing a women’s magazine, and ended up in New York, working at McClure’s, the great American magazine of the Gilded Age.
Cather was a mercurial but brilliant critic, veering between ecstatic raves and brutal takedowns. The takedowns were disconcerting to performers who came to town expecting a docile press. The “meat-ax young girl,” she was called. An unlucky actress was characterized as an “unattractive, putty-faced, backachy, headachy little minx.” One actor, she wrote, “stops just where elocution ends and acting begins.” Her reporting was not always trustworthy. In a piece about the painter Edward Burne-Jones, she claims to have interviewed Burne-Jones’s former valet; no such person seems to have existed. But the writing tends to be more distinctive than in her apprentice fiction of the same period.
The prairie figures in some of Cather’s early stories, but she focusses more often on artists, actors, singers, and writers—denizens of the transatlantic world that she herself joined in short order. These are evocative tales, but the sketches of high-society types are sometimes breathless and thin. When the prairie does enter the picture, as in the 1904 story “A Wagner Matinée,” Cather regains her lordly confidence: “The world there was the flat world of the ancients; to the east, a cornfield that stretched to daybreak; to the west, a corral that reached to sunset; between, the conquests of peace, dearer bought than those of war.” She made her first European trip in 1902, in the company of a wealthy Pittsburgh friend, Isabelle McClung, with whom she was evidently in love. On a train ride through rural France, Cather experienced an epiphany: on seeing a “reaper of a well-known American make,” she imagined a girl sitting on it, between her father’s feet. She understood that Nebraska had already given her the stuff of epics. “O Pioneers!” appeared in 1913, and her mature career began.