Friday, June 10, 2016

“English professors have many wiles”

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:

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,

Willa Cather

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).
Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

comments: 2

Pete said...

Pretty bold of those editors to publish a letter in which Cather states, "I never allow quotations from personal letters to be printed." Just what type of letters did they publish?

Michael Leddy said...

It’s close to 700 pages of letters. Cather’s will forbade publication of her letters but left decisions about publication to her executors. (That doesn’t seem clear to me either.) The editors acknowledge that Cather would not have wanted this book published.