Monday, January 5, 2015

Willa Cather, snoot

From a 1934 letter to Egbert Samuel Oliver, the twenty-ninth professor who wrote to Willa Cather on the subject of teaching creative writing in college. Cather referred to it as “‘Creative Writing,’” and she called the attempt to teach it “sheer nonsense”:

I do wish that colleges taught people to write passably clear and correct English, however. More than half of the twenty-eight professors who have written to me within the last few months were quite unable to use “which” and “that” and “would” and “should” correctly — at least, they did not honor me by using them correctly in their letters of request. They made many other errors of the same sort, which a well-trained high school student avoids.

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (New York: Knopf, 2013).
I wonder if Cather kept a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage on her desk. That and which: sounds like a Fowlerite to me.

Related reading
Bryan Garner glosses snoot

comments: 4

Anonymous said...

I don't see her as a snoot. If people are going to teach creative writing, they should demonstrate a mastery of English--know the rules before you break them. It's like wanting to play jazz without first mastering scales. To endure and respond to 28 letters tells me that she grew tired of writing the same letter again and again. As a writer, part of her job is to be a caretaker of the language. Then again, I'm an English professor, so it could well be that I'm just as snooty.

Michael Leddy said...

“Then again, I'm an English professor, so it could well be that I'm just as snooty.”

Uh, me too.

If you were to look at Bryan Garner’s explanation (“the word denotes a well-informed language-lover and word connoisseur”; “the language needs a neutral-to-positive word for this idea”) or other posts here, you would see that there’s nothing condemnatory in my calling Cather a snoot. My respect for her work (about which I’ve written on several occasions) is vast.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I was going off the OED rather than DFW. My apologies for the misreading, and I do hope it catches on.

Michael Leddy said...

No worries. : ) The world needs more snoots of the Wallace-Garner sort.