Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Willa You Let Me Read Your Letters?

intr.v. snoopedsnoop·ingsnoops

To pry into the private affairs of others, especially by prowling about.

Looking where we shouldn’t seems to becoming more and more acceptable or at least it’s becoming more prevalent. I don’t know about you, but I got in BiG trouble if I got caught snooping. Parents, siblings, friends, even strangers don’t appreciate having their hidden stuff exposed. And face it, we all have stuff we want to remain hidden.

This is why I am having such difficulty with my latest selected tome of erudition.


Right there. It says it right there. Willa Cather’s letters were hidden.  She didn’t want them hanging out in the public eye.  In fact, it’s taken about seventy years after her death to get these letters out.  Why?  Cather expressly stated in her will that she did not want her correspondence bandied about. Aren’t last wishes significant? Apparently not. If the agenda and credentials are proper enough it is deemed in everyone’s best interest to snoop and reveal.* No shame attached. In fact, no contrite apologies. Furthermore, the editors, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, justify their snooping in the book’s introduction:

Before Willa Cather died, she did what she could to prevent this book from ever existing. She made a will that clearly forbade all publication of her letters, in full or in part. And now we flagrantly defy Cather’s will in the belief that her decision, made in the last, dark years of her life and honored for more than half a century, is outweighed by the value of making these letters available to readers all over the world. [highlights are mine]

Hmm, “forbade” means to me “don’t do that.”  What about “flagrantly defy”? Do I hear a little self-righteousness bragging, as in “I know it’s wrong, but I’m going to be proud out loud anyway”? Tsk.

As interested as I am in Willa Cather, I feel it’s wrong to snoop her letters.  Just because they are published by a reputable and respected publisher doesn’t mean it’s ethical. Literary vultures waited until the will expired in 2011 and swooped down for the feast.  Here is a paradox: if these two editors so respect Willa Cather, why aren’t they respecting her last wishes? Don’t get me started about trotting out King Tut’s burial goods for the paying public.  I guess celebrities are open season dead or alive.

Granted, the letters represent only 20% of the entire collection, and none are present that might tarnish or stain Cather, (says  the editors). I still feel mighty uncomfortable reading her private correspondence. There are family matters, personal matters, circumstances and situations that  reveal too much of a peek behind the privacy curtain.

As much I appreciate learning about Cather’s background, which helps provide more depth to enjoying and understanding her prairie trilogy (Song of the Lark, O Pioneers, My Antonia), I have  shut the book after about 200 pages, right about the third section, about when she left her editor position at McClure’s to pursue writing full time. The best is yet to come, yet sorry, I’m gonna pass. I respect Willa as an author too much to rummage around in her personal life.

Maybe, it’s me. Snooping for the cause of erudition is still snooping.

What do you think, readers?  Should Willa Cather’s wishes been respected? Should her letters have been left alone, should they not have been dusted off and printed up, even if it’s in the quest  harkening the light of “literary illumination”?

Willa is not amused.

*This could easily segway into a Snowden blog,, couldn’t it?

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10 thoughts on “Willa You Let Me Read Your Letters?

  1. I’m with you there, private should mean private especially when it’s been so categorically stated. I don’t get the fascination with everything a celebrity says or does, if I like an author/actor/singer it’s because I like their work and who they are as a person is largely irrelevant. (Unless they’re a truly awful person in which case I want to know abotu it so I can avoid adding to their vast wealth!)

    • I confess I tend to look up info on people. There is a fascination about what makes people tick, isn’t there? Yet, when it is so emphatically stated, as in Cather’s case, privacy should be respected.
      Thanks for your comments!

  2. I think this is why people destroy their correspondence and papers.

    I wonder where the letters have been all this time? And were they available for study, just not general publication?

    • From what I read they had been safely stashed away while others had been destroyed. Scholars claim it is in the best interest to “study” her letters to better understand Cather’s writing. She specifically said she wanted her works to stand on their own merit and not be judged by her personal life. It’s sad her wishes were disregarded.

      • I agree – if it’s what she wanted, it would be nice to have respected it. And I think the point of letting the works stand on their own is exactly right. As an artist, I am always being asked what a particular piece means, or the like – with people wanting some kind of personal story or explanation. I just say, Once I create it, it has its own meaning and each person has to find it for himself.

        I think this is what Cather was trying to do? I like it that she took herself out of the picture and felt her work could do all the talking that would be needed…Thanks for this post.

      • Thanks for stopping by and I appreciate your comments.
        Blue Skies,
        Cricket Muse

  3. How fascinating! I admit being intrigued by her letters (ex. what’s in them that she didn’t want read) but I do believe that they shouldn’t be published if she didn’t want them to. Perhaps a good compromise would have been to have them available for study in a library somewhere? …. Oh dear , I don’t know, that’s not great either… why didn’t she just destroy them all?!

    • Quite a few were destryed, but what do you do about letters that people keep? What I really wonder is what we will work with since people don’t write letters anymore? Do saved Tweets count?

  4. So sad. The privacy of our mind is the only thing we really own. But once our thoughts are committed to paper there is always the possibility that they will be made public.

    • Very true. It will be intredting to see what the fallout will be from the Facebook generation. Thoughtless comments made as teens may prove haunting and daunting in later years.

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