In January 1936, Willa Cather wrote to Carlton F. Wells, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, thanking him for a letter in which he commented on Cather’s use of a Mendelssohn oratorio in the novel Lucy Gayheart . “You are one in about seventy-five thousand,” she told Wells, the only reader who had noticed how and why Cather had made a slight change in the oratorio’s text. Wells wrote back, asking if Cather’s letter could be printed in William Lyon Phelps’s syndicated newspaper column. Cather replied on January 23:
Dear Mr. Wells:Related reading
I am sorry not to be able to oblige you, but I never allow quotations from personal letters to be printed. When, among a great number of the rather flat and dreary letters I receive, I come upon that is alive and intelligent, I am rather prone to answer it in a somewhat intimate and unembarrassed tone. I take for granted that a person who writes a discriminating and intelligent letter is the sort of person who would not use any portion of my letter for publicity of any kind.
Very sincerely yours,
I should like to oblige Mr. Phelps, but I shall do that at some other time, and in some other way. I did not even know that I was writing to your English class, Mr. Wells. English professors have many wiles, but I honestly thought you were interested in the question you asked me. O tempora, O mores! (The second “O” looks like a zero, certainly!) Enough: I become more cautious every day.
W. S. C.
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather , ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (New York: Knopf, 2013).
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