One of my favorite pastimes is using primary sources such as letters, diaries, old account books, and news stories to interpret the past. Learning about history directly from someone who lived it sparks an interest that brings that era to life better than any textbook can. You can imagine the fun a retired English teacher and self-professed Cather geek is having reading The Selected Letters of Willa Cather.
Once I got over the guilt of reading postings my favorite author never intended for public consumption, I’ve relished every letter. I particularly enjoyed those offering insights into O Pioneers! My Antonia, A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, Song of the Lark, and Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Her business correspondence reveals how involved this artist was involved in everything from the selection of covers, paper, fonts, and artwork and fascinates me. More personal missives disclose that she loved the West and those who called it home. Here’s a woman who left Nebraska to spend most of her life navigating life in the world’s largest cities. Despite her urban prowess, she tells one mail recipient that she’s “just a corn farmer.” In other notes, she details Southwest adventures and how she hopes her novels set in that locale make its beauty clear to those who’ve never visited.
Her letters aren’t terse communications. She writes so that you sense you’re eavesdropping on private conversation. I loved when she explained how novels poured from her pen. In one passage she mentions how writing is akin to channeling as if she’s the receiver of otherworldly signals. Though she’s been gone decades, I feel like I’m chatting with a friend to learn how her artistic process works.
In addition to insights into this Nebraska novelist’s published collections, Cather offers tidbits about life in the early 1900s. Her readers view Pittsburg, New York, Europe, and Red Cloud to learn about theater, opera, magazine editing, setting up apartments, socializing, and eventually World War I through her observant lens. Her commentary about editing is so frank that I’m sure she’s spinning in her grave to think private words are now public. Her anecdotes about France after the war personalize that tragedy more clearly than anything except battlefield photos can.
As I savor this peek into the past, it makes me wonder what future students of history will lose now that so few of us compose beautifully written conversations with friends, loved ones, and colleagues. Digital contacts are typically brief and to the point, sharing few insights into a writer’s character. Besides, once a computer program is outdated, it’s difficult to access stored material. How many of us have floppy discs we can’t open?
It’s a thrill to crawl inside the mind of a writer I’ve loved since I was a teen. However, this time machine made of postal notes sets off noisy alarms. Good historical research requires access to primary sources. If we have no well-written letters and journals for future historians to examine, scholars lose personal perspectives into the era they study. What a loss!