Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House is one of the best American novels of the twentieth century, and if you haven’t read it, you should do so as soon as you can. It’s a book about disappointment: the disappointment of family life, the disappointment of consumerism, the disappointment of academia. But more than this, it is about the disappointment that comes from having to continue on living after the death of someone who made you realize that life could be other than midddling. The Professor’s House came out the same year as a book with a similar theme, The Great Gatsby, and I have a theory that one of Cather’s earlier works, 1919’s My Antonia, was where Fitzgerald got his idea to tell Gatsby’s story from the perspective of someone who was both skeptical of and probably hot to bone the novel’s titular subject.
Anyway, as a Cather lover, I am excited for the long-awaited release of some of her letters. The reason why her letters haven’t been made public until now is a fairly predictable: she didn’t want them to be, and so she placed some steely gatekeepers in charge of her estate. Jennifer Howard documents all of this very well in a recent article in The Chronicle, but I was particularly struck by the article’s opening:
In November 1938, buffeted by the death of her dear friend Isabelle McClung Hambourg, Willa Cather poured her heart out to her brother Roscoe in a letter. She sent it from the Shattuck Inn in New Hampshire, a spot Isabelle had first taken her years earlier.
“You cannot imagine what her death means to me,” Cather wrote. “No other living person cared as much about my work, through 38 years, as she did. As for me, I have cared too much, about people and about places—cared too hard. It made me, as a writer. But it will break me in the end. I feel as if I couldn’t go another step.”
Let’s table the fact that Roscoe Cather is an incredible name (ideal for someone born in the nineteenth century). The second paragraph sounds like something Godfrey St. Peter, the professor of The Professor’s House, would have said after the death of Tom Outland, the rough but brilliant youth who wandered into his life only to die in World War I. It also sounds like what Nick Carraway is trying to avoid feeling when he puts on his false hard-boiled act at various points throughout The Great Gatsby. Cather and Fitzgerald both understood that caring too much is the source of great art. Any artist who claims not to give a shit about people and places is either fronting to avoid crying in public, or not a real artist. Caring means inviting disappointment to bed down with you from time to time. The fact that Cather tried to hide her letters from the public for so long couldn’t keep those of us who love her work from seeing how well she understood this often uncomfortable twinning.