"Important, responsible work": Willa Cather's office stories and her necessary editorial career.
Much scholarship on Cather looks at her editorial work as at best a necessary preamble to various aspects of her life. Editing got Cather out of Nebraska to work on the Home Monthly in Pittsburgh, and thereby introduced her to Isabella McClung, and through her, to contacts and a sense of herself as a serious writer; editing got Cather to New York to work on McClure k and so introduced her to the New York literary scene and Edith Lewis; editing sent Cather to Boston on a project to conduct research on Mary Baker Eddy for McClure's and thereby introduced her to Sarah Ome Jewett and Annie Fields; editing eventually gave Cather enough distance from Nebraska to write about it. Finally, however, most scholars see Cather's editorial work on McClure's as a distraction and a misdirection of energies.
Undergirding that critical consensus are Cather's own anguished complaints, in correspondence with other writers, about how draining editorial work was for her. She responded in this vein, for example, to a 1908 letter from Jewett urging that she leave editorial work behind. We might note, however, that Jewett's December letter follows two in which Jewett laments her own preoccupation and lack of strength or concentration for writing. Jewett and Cather did not meet until after Jewett's carriage accident made many activities exhausting for her, essentially stopping Jewett's writing. Her letter to Cather stems in part from her own sense of being daunted by the effort of writing. Jewett's shifting pronouns reveal that she identifies with Cather; her wishes for Cather are tied to her wishes for herself. She writes, "I do think that it is impossible for you to work so hard and yet have your gifts mature as they should--when one's first working power has spent itself nothing ever brings it back just the same, and I do wish in my heart that the force of this very year could have gone into three or four stories." (2) Jewett goes on to endorse a Romantic notion of genius recollecting in tranquility, writing in seclusion, and finding a stillness from which to write. "To work in silence and with all one's heart, that is the writer's lot; he is the only artist who must be a solitary, and yet needs the widest outlook upon the world." It is a seductive image of what the writer needs, endorsed by critics who have traced the route of Cather's settling in to the room of her own on a high floor at Isabelle McClung's family home, sitting in seclusion looking out at the world, or to the tent of her own in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where she summered. But it is not the whole truth.
Cather responds to the portion of Jewett's letter that envisions the office as a lair of dangers and distractions, keeping her from her true calling. Her reply plays to that vision with dramatic panache, in a torrent of metaphors. She compares the energy she puts out during the day at McClure's to that of a trapeze performer, worried about an imminent fall; she reports that the work dilutes and weakens her and that reading manuscripts is like sitting in a tepid bath and leaves her irritated with either heat or cold. She is "dispossessed and bereft" of herself; her mind becomes a card catalog of notes with only the most limited application. The work of editing the magazine itself is like mental arithmetic, the interesting people she meets are seen from a distance, as from a train; the excitement of the work is exhausting rather than stimulating, affecting her as alcohol does men's brains, pulling energy from her like power leaking from a broken circuit. She is like a hunted hare. And although she seems competent at the office, inside she feels like a rabbit. (3) It is a remarkable letter, pouring her frustrations into Jewett's sympathetic ear. Although it is evidently heartfelt, it is also a performance of her situation for a mentor who admires both her writing and her achievements in the business world. Even as she protests against the ways the magazine office drains her talents and capacity for writing, she produces a bravura piece of writing that zings from one metaphor to the next, and returns to tie an earlier image neatly back in. (A reader might find it a good deal more vivid than Cather's early poetry.) If this letter were nothing but a straightforward, heartfelt statement of Cather's situation, it would seem reasonable that she would quit her editorial work as soon as possible, especially since she mentions that in a few months she will have saved enough money to live on for three to four years. But she stayed at McClure's another three years. What was in it for her? I will use the letters between Cather and Jewett as a starting point from which to open up our understanding of Cather's relationship to editing, examining both the historical situation of women editors and three stories Cather wrote about office life.
When we read Jewett's letters as simply cheering Cather on to give up her day job, we miss how intrigued and drawn Jewett was by Cather's editorial work, which was far from Jewett's own experience and that of most women of her generation. "I envy you your work, even with all its difficulties. I wish I could take a handful for my own hand, and to help you," she wrote Cather in August 1908, clearly suggesting her own attraction to the professional work of the magazine office. (4) In December 1908 she comments further on Cather's work life, now in its relationship to Cather's creative writing:
I want you to be surer of your backgrounds,--you have your Nebraska life,--a child's Virginia, and now an intimate knowledge of what we are pleased to call the "Bohemia" of newspaper and magazine-office life. These are uncommon equipment, but you don't see them yet quite enough from the outside,--you stand right in the middle of each of them when you write, without having the standpoint of the looker-on who takes them each in their relations to letters, to the world. (5)
In Jewett's eyes, Cather's editorial work for McClure's is important as a place, another site or world that Cather can draw on in her writing. It even has the name of a country, "Bohemia," suggestively the same name as the country of origin for some of Cather's Nebraska characters, like Antonia Shmirda of My Antonia and "The Bohemian Girl." The office is a site of knowledge, a background, a place where one can "know ... new types." Cather's office life enters, too, into Jewett's effort to outline for Cather a larger sense of whom she should be writing to or for: "your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country." (6) Jewett thus points to the connections between places, and the possibility of not strictly classifying and segmenting them.
That analogy between Virginia, Nebraska, the "old country," and the office may allow for movement between them, as Cather finally does begin drawing on her Nebraska past: Alexandra Bergson of O Pioneers! (1913) is very much a manager, and the struggle of Alexandra against her brothers is framed partly as a battle between management and labor, between visionary planning and the physical drudgery of working the land. Cather's "Chief," S. S. McClure, publisher of McClure's magazine, was the idea man, always stirring things up, though not so successful a manager as Alexandra. But he incessantly traveled to gather ideas, as Alexandra does, visiting the other farms to learn of their innovations. Cather's process of translation--which let her move a managerial orientation out of the body of the office worker who sits behind ground-glass partitions, into the partitions of the barn and the barely partitioned plains, all inhabited by themes of hardship, immigration, and waste of human potential--made her stories both innovative and familiar. Gather got out from under the too-familiar romantic office story, while bringing her office knowledge to new settings.
Jewett died six months after urging Cather to leave her "incessant, important, responsible work" on the magazine to devote herself full-time to writing. Cather's friend and biographer Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant speculates that perhaps seeing Jewett's letter "in cold print" in 1911, when Annie Fields published a selection of Jewett's correspondence, spurred Gather finally to take a leave from McClure's to go off to Cherry Valley, New York, with Isabella McClung, to revise "Alexander's Bridge, the novel she had managed to turn out while working at McClure's, and to write the works that would eventually become part of O Pioneers! (7) Did it slip her mind in 1908? Or had she told only part of the story as she vividly staged for Jewett how the tumult of office life hampered her ability to recollect in tranquility? Evidently Gather was not thoroughly invested in the rather fusty Romantic model of authorship Jewett had handed her, though she was willing to mirror it back to her revered mentor. Jewett's comment itself hints at the pull of the work: It is not nothing to have "important, responsible work," as Jewett too recognizes when she writes in the same letter, "you have been growing I feel sure in the very days when you felt most hindered."
The Magazine World
How did that "important, responsible work" allow Cather to grow? What was it? What did it mean for a woman to take it on? Magazines were the United States' dominant mass medium from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. They helped create a national culture of literature, shared information and perspectives. An explosive growth of magazine readership began in the 1890s, when three magazines, Munsey's, followed by McClure's and Cosmopolitan, led in pioneering the ten-cent illustrated magazine. All three were visually similar in format to the four "quality" magazines: Harper 'S, The Century, and The Atlantic Monthly, which cost 35 cents an issue and Scribner's, which cost 25 cents. The new ten-cent magazines took advantage of the recent proliferation of nationally available brand-name goods, whose manufacturers wanted to advertise. They adopted the strategy already used by newspapers and women's magazines, of dropping their cover price in order to to make their money by selling ads--essentially selling their soon-enormous readerships to the advertiser, instead of the magazine to the reader. The ten-cent magazines were aimed at a middle-class, white-collar readership who were less interested in leisurely, multiple-installment visits to exotic places than in profiles of actresses, or short stories and features about bicycling, or short "storiettes" often focusing on office life, such as Munsey's published, or the biographies and muckraking exposes with which McClure's earned its reputation. (8)
A significant percentage of the thousands of magazines published in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were edited by women--700 in the nineteenth century, according to Patricia Okker. (9) Career women were not exactly a novelty. Certainly at McClure k which had drawn on the editorial work of women like Viola Roseboro' from early on, and where Ida Tarbell had left such a strong imprint, women held positions that were not only responsible but recognized. In the early twentieth century, women with college degrees, especially in English, saw magazines as a desirable destination. Even so, any woman working in a career was still obliged to "prove" that it was possible for a woman to do the job. In a 1910 career guide, Vocations for the Trained Woman: Opportunities Other than Teaching, published during Cather's tenure at McClure's, James Tower, editor of Good Housekeeping, was still interested in promulgating the sense of insecurity that comes of being seen as a token: "Is there a considerable and growing field for educated young women in the editing, manufacture, and circulating of magazines?" he asks. "Are there many young women already at work in this field, enough of them to demonstrate their capacity and fitness?" (10)
Tower reports on his own attempt to secure "statistics of female employment" from the 100 general interest and women's magazines he counted of importance. Of the fifteen that replied, all but four reported employing women in editorial positions. One response is tantalizing. The editor of an unnamed general interest magazine writes:
Women are employed in practically every part of our business,--editorial, advertising, circulation, and business departments. Miss--is, of course, one of our most responsible editors. The head of our subscription department, who has charge of 50 or 60 girls, is a young woman. (11)
That Miss--could well have been Cather, glimpsed behind the 2-em dash. If so, McClure's seems to have been particularly deliberate in, and even proud of, employing women.
In the days long before any laws for equal employment, when classified ads routinely stipulated "help wanted male" or "help wanted female," Tower's responses indicate that different magazines were widely split in their attitudes toward employing women in responsible positions, especially in the editorial offices. Although all the magazines had women clerical workers, "two editors gave no hope of women's holding any position above that of clerk or cashier" (256). In most, women's pay was capped at amounts that Tower reports were lower than men's and that he attributes to supply and demand--by implication, a quota: this was a field that so many women wanted to enter that they would bargain their wages down to be there.
Even so, editorial work occupied an interesting transitional role for turn-of-the-century middle-class unmarried women, who were beginning to work for wages without losing class standing and who were beginning to conceive of themselves as embarking on careers, rather than simply taking up work for money when other sources of support fell through. Because editing was widely thought of as simply an extension of reading, and perhaps because women had long been associated with fiction reading, editorial work seemed a fitting occupation in which middle-class women could establish themselves. Magazine editing had a reputation as a gentleman's profession past the 1890s. The "gentleman's" emphasis was on class and gentility, however, rather than gender per se. Cultured male editors of the higher-class magazines waited for stories and articles to drop in "over the transom," evaluated the work that was spontaneously submitted, and made up their magazines from it. Although Christopher Wilson has shown that this model changed over the nineteenth century even for the genteel magazines, James Tower in 1910 could still call the magazine "a well groomed 'parlor pet' beside its workaday brother, the newspaper" (251). By the late 1890s, however new, aggressive magazines were shifting to actively soliciting articles and stories, and then competitively publicizing their contents and authors. Work on commercial magazines like McClure's and Munsey's moved more overtly into the hustle and bustle of business. (12)
This period of transition for magazines coincided with shifts in women's expectations of careers. For middle-class women, the earlier gentlemanly aura of magazine editing evidently seemed congruent with sheltered, ladylike work. The idea that women were attracted to magazine work because it was genteel, however, put the women who actually worked on magazines on the defensive. By 1909, one guide to careers for women, written by Anna Steese Sausser Richardson, an editor herself who worked on McClure Dafter Cather left, was bent on disabusing middleclass women of their beliefs about magazine work:
Women have hazy ideas, often grave misconceptions, concerning proof reading and all work for their sex offered by publishing concerns. For some inexplicable reason, the average out-of-town woman imagines that every branch of work connected with the publication of books or magazines is extremely lady-like and elegant.... They picture women employees at home, turning out in leisurely fashion the 'work' which is finally shipped by messenger, mail or express to the few poor unfortunates who must remain at the 'shop' and keep the wheels spinning round.... Fully half the girls who have led a life of leisure, after leaving boarding school or a fashionable finishing school, and who meet with sudden financial reverses, think they would succeed best as assistant editors. (13)
It is significant in this passage that only certain work is offered "for their sex." Richardson quotes a representative sample letter from an applicant:
"I have always read the best literature and kept up in current magazines. I write a good hand, and I never grow tired of books. I understand that all editors have assistants who read things for them." ... Generally the writer adds that she "understands the editorial hours are short and editorial offices elegant and refined." (14)
Richardson here speaks tartly from her role as a magazine worker herself addressing her book's advice seekers.
Richardson's anxiety about how women editors were seen presses her to separate herself from and define herself against stereotypes of naive genteel women in the workforce that evidently weighed on her. Women editors' defense of their turf against other women was fueled by the limited number and range of jobs available to women. The aspiring editor in Richardson's letter sounds rather like one of the feminine ineffectual girls who dot Cather's early fiction, from whom Cather, like Richardson, distanced herself.
Cather's story about a magazine office and its workers, "Ardessa," published in 1918, about six years after Cather left McClure's, homes in on the mistaken notion of magazine work as a genteel career that Richardson critiques. (15) The title character is a languid feminine woman, so ladylike that she even embroiders in the office. She not only fails to pull her own weight, but deliberately foists work onto fellow workers, essentially creating for herself an assistant who reads things for her, while she lounges in her elegant and refined surroundings.
In "Ardessa," Gather fuses a critique of the old genteel magazines and their gentlemanly editors with disparagement of an indolent, feminine woman. Ardessa Devine, whose name suggests that she takes her position as a divine right, has the title of secretary, but is more an assistant editor to O'Mally, whose resemblance to Samuel McClure extends beyond the shared Irish origin of their surnames. O'Mally hired Ardessa "upon the recommendation of the editor whose ailing publication he had bought and rechristened" as The Outcry. The former editor was a "conservative, scholarly gentleman of the old school, who was retiring because he felt out of place in the world of brighter, breezier magazines that had been flowering since the new century came in." (16)
Ardessa's capital is her connection to the old ways; she is the only one at the "humming new magazine who knew anything about the editorial traditions of the eighties and nineties" (170). But no one endorses keeping those traditions. Her strong suit has been the classic ephemeral capital of media work--contacts in the industry. When O'Mally arrives, she knows whom to introduce the brash Westerner to. "She shuddered at the cold candor of the new business woman, and was insinuatingly feminine." Useful at first in the transition, she has since slowed down, marked by the "indolence" which is also part of her femininity. When O'Mally is away, her output slows down even further: "she liked to be seen at ladylike tasks and to feel herself a graceful contrast to the crude girls in the advertising and circulation departments across the hall" who rush around, working hard. She has farmed out her work to others, including the seventeen- or eighteen-year old daughter of Ardessa's Jewish immigrant tailor. Becky is hard-working, but dresses in flashy ways that Ardessa takes pleasure in correcting. Scrawny, scrappy, and, more surprisingly, ungrammatical, Becky works on manuscripts.
Once the boss is in position to make his own contacts, he no longer needs a hostess. And in the magazine world Gather creates, a hard-working, ambitious girl, even if her English is flawed, can take on the editing and proofreading that were nominally Ardessa's duties. The story focuses on O'Mally's triumph in discovering Ardessa's laziness, announcing his impatience with her ladylike way of coddling authors who are not up to the minute, and pushing her into less congenial work on the business side, under the supervision of another "Hebrew" woman. Becky takes her place.
One of the few critics to discuss "Ardessa," Francesca Sawaya, interprets the story as Cather's allegory of the conflict between commercialism and professionalism, showing commercialism "undermin[ing] the professionalism of journalism." (17) The Jewish characters, in Sawaya's reading, become Cather's crude representations of commercialism creeping across the hallway from the advertising section of the magazine into the editorial offices and displacing the obsolescently feminine Ardessa and other staff members. Sawaya usefully reads the story in relation to the possibilities and pitfalls that developing journalistic ideals of objectivity offered Cather. The objective narrator of the story is distanced from both sides of the hallway, identifying neither with the hyperfeminine Ardessa, nor the uncouth Becky, nor the overly commercial O'Mally. But considering Cather's mode of representing Ardessa in relation to her other stories about the office world complicates this interpretation.
The ineffectual feminine woman is Cather's target elsewhere. In her early story "Tommy, the Unsentimental" (1896), written in the first flush of Cather's editing work on the Home Monthly, the delicate Eastern girl Miss Jessica is inadequate to the task of bicycling to the rescue of a bank. The robust Western girl, Tommy, leaves the weak Miss Jessica resting by the side of the road "like a rabbit." (18) Jessica's femininity is less complex than Ardessa's, but the use of the word "rabbit" as a pejorative term for a languid woman so feminine as to be debilitated is suggestive, given Cather's later self-description to Jewett as feeling like a "rabbit" at the editorial office. In that letter, however, Cather goes on to explain that she does not mean that she is panicked. This rabbit-like inner self seems almost a separate personality from the executive, capable persona she maintains at the office. (19)
Cather seems to have waited years after she left McClure's to take up Jewett's suggestion that she write about her office Bohemia, but she saw three stories she set there--"Ardessa," "The Bookkeeper's Wife," and "Her Boss"--as related. She sought to have them published together in a volume entitled "Office Wives." The three suggest the complexity of Cather's relationship to office life and the relationship of her editorial work to writing. Not simple allegories, these stories restlessly circle around and thrash out the problem of reconciling writing and office work.
The title "Office Wives" is suggestive in the context of Cather's consistent ambivalence about matrimony in her work. The "wife" invoked in "The Bookkeeper's Wife" is both the woman the bookkeeper marries and ruins himself for, and the office itself. Percy Bixby pockets $1,000 from his employer by stealing remittances, and then moves the missing money around among different clients' accounts, to have enough money to marry a breezy materialistic woman. Five years later, when Percy confesses his theft to his employer, his wife leaves him for a more sporty, free-spending rival and goes back into business with a ready-to-wear firm. (20)
Percy works for a paper company, and has an intimate relationship to his accounting books: "he loved his books, which had no handwriting in them but his own. He never thought of resenting the fact that he had written away in those books the good red years between twenty-one and twenty-seven" (155). "Book," however, is also the term of art in the magazine world for the bound magazine: ads are "in the front and back of the book," for example. Percy's theft binds him to the books more tightly: he can't take even a day off, lest someone else look at them. As much as he takes pride in their neatness, his chief care for these books he has written is to ensure that no one reads them closely enough to see what a fraud he is. The accounting transactions of the paper company are fraudulently entered into books, to obtain spurious luxuries and maintain a superficial woman, who has bought, among other goods, a hollow, coffin-shaped clock. Time is running out on these books.
The rabbit--Cather's figure both for herself as office worker, and for an incompetent woman--makes another appearance in this story. When his boss's wife spots meets Percy in a theater lobby, she asks her husband, "Is that little man afraid of you, Oliver? He looked like a scared rabbit" (160). Fraudulence, huntedness, and having charge of the book(s) seem fused together.
The third of the "Office Wives" stories, "Her Boss" (originally titled "Little Annie" (21)) rebraids the thematic issues of writing, the office, money, and fraudulence into another arrangement, and refracts Cather's autobiography into three characters. When the affluent lawyer Paul Wanning learns that he has a fatal disease, his wife, children, and social set ignore his spiritual pain and offer jollying superficialities. Wanning reacts by composing a long letter to a college friend in Wyoming, who at that distance "couldn't defend himself, couldn't slap Wanning on the back and tell him to gather up the sunbeams." (22) But Wanning does not actually write the letter. True to his business orientation, he is no longer comfortable holding a pen, but must dictate. His regular secretary is too much the "expert legal stenographer," so he turns to "little Annie Wooley," the copyist, who is moved by his situation. He shifts to the project of writing his life story, returning to an earlier interest in authorship that he had dropped to make money for his wife's and his own comfort as well as that of his grown daughters and son Harold, an aspiring playwright, whose home in Washington Square Wanning subsidizes. Composing his memoir becomes Wanning's passion, and he enjoys being in the office to explore his inner self and past. (23) Once her mother and beau approve, Annie gives up her Saturday afternoons off for Wanning's project, while everyone in the office assumes they are having an affair. She is a kind girl, but this is also an investment in her future: Wanning tells Annie's mother that he will leave her money in his will. The writing project continues until Wanning's death, when his partners and loafing son fraudulently deny Annie the promised money and fire her, assuming that she was his mistress. The fate of Wanning's manuscript remains unknown. The writing was all; the product is negligible or invisible.
Echoes of Cather's McClure's career circle around this story. Encroaching illness brings Wanning the freedom to write, after having long put his writing aside to make a success of his work at the office. Cather similarly left her magazine work in 1911 on a leave of absence to rest, recuperate from the strain of work, and write. (24) Annie writes down her boss's life story for him, as Cather did in ghostwriting Samuel McClure's autobiography from 1912 to 1913. Wanning's son Harold, who cheats Annie, has received his father's money to write instead of going to an office, but instead fraudulently acts out the writer's role without producing anything worthwhile. He lives in a garret on Washington Square, where Cather once lived, from which he sallies out to dine at the Brevoort, where Cather frequently dined.
As wanning only partly resembles the memoir-dictating McClure, however, Annie is not a clear match for Willa. Cather's warm letters to McClure show her freely offering to work on his autobiography with him, refusing pay for it, hoping to help him get through his business reverses, and expressing gratitude to him for past help. But she also warns him that he may not like the form she puts his words into. (25) Annie takes down Wanning's story out of goodness and inability to see past the present day, and receives little reward for her work. In "Her Boss" energies are misdirected and unrewarded, as aspects of authorship are split and circulated among different characters. Wanning put aside his writing for the monetary rewards of his office work; Annie puts aside her ordinary pleasures to help her boss, to do his literal writing for the promise of larger rewards later, which she is cheated out of through assumptions that women are engaged in illicit activities when they write. In this story, with its roots in the office, writing, authorship, and reward cannot come together in one place or person; they repel one another like identically charged magnets. Wanning's reward is the pleasure of writing, while Annie, in writing, loses pleasures that can never be regained, like the "first working power" that Jewett warned Cather would be irrevocably spent; meanwhile, Harold enjoys a life of ease and the status of being a playwright without either going to the office or writing.
In these three stories, years after leaving magazine work, Cather envisions offices populated by rabbits who burrow and hide things in the book(s); hyperfeminine women; executives; failed, dying writers; and marginally competent immigrant girls who get by on hard work, while kind girls who help others' writing are thrown out of a job. Offices seem to have no room for competent, attractive--and boyish--girls or women like Tommy. Rather than depicting actual women in magazine offices as different creatures from the frivolous shrinking violets and finishing school graduates angling for these jobs, Gather bequeaths her rabbithood to a character who misuses the magazine-"book" and writes herself out of a place at the magazine office.
The Editor's Work
Career advice books recommended that aspirants to magazine positions first work on a newspaper, as Gather had, and also that they not stay at newspapers long, because magazine work was superior. Ida Verdon, managing editor of Cosmopolitan during the 1920s, cheerily noted that magazine editing offered
the absorbing work of making up the magazine. Making up schedules, which is a more difficult and intricate job than you would imagine; working with type and with the fascinating illustrations; laying out the pages for the printer; making contacts with authors and cooperating with them; well, in fact, there's just one interesting job after another. Best of all, there's the delightful work of reading manuscripts, which will bring you in close touch with the fiction market. When you have learned to judge stories by the standards of the magazine, you will experience the thrill that one always gets in reading a story with the hope and certainty in mind that this is going to be the one story needed to make the issue you're getting together the best ever. (26)
As a selector of manuscripts, the editor's role was to be a representative reader. There was nevertheless some territorial concern that women could not play this role effectively, even for women's magazines, because they were "over educated" and their education had put them beyond understanding what their readers wanted. As Tower put the claim, men made better editors because "the male mind ... [is] better able to keep the whole field in view" (252).
Ray Long, who began as editor of McClure's competitor Cosmopolitan in 1918--when Cosmopolitan was still a general rather than a women's magazine--explained that he picked fiction that readers would like because
I happen to be an average American who has the opportunity to read a tremendous number of manuscripts. From these I select the stories I like, publish them within the covers of our magazine.... [A]nd there are enough other average Americans who like to read the same thing that I like to read to buy the magazine in sufficient quantities to make me worth my salary. (27)
Samuel McClure, though he had a college education, could still claim to be a usefully representative reader working without interference from a dangerously overdeveloped brain. He described his method for judging fiction, in the autobiography Willa Cather ghostwrote for him:
I had but one test for a story, and that was a wholly personal one--simply how much the story interested me. I always felt that I judged a story with my solar plexus rather than my brain; my only measure of it was the pull it exerted upon something inside me. (28)
The editor was to have the pulse of the reader, to enter the readers' skins and internal organs, and anticipate their tastes.
McClure praises another of his editors, Viola Roseboro', for her "singularly open mind toward the manuscript bag" or slush pile, and knack for finding writers who would become popular lurking in it (247). Cather comes in for no such praise in McClure's autobiography, or perhaps she dropped it herself from whatever McClure dictated. Cather's self-portrait in her letter to Jewett shows her rarely thrilled by the slush pile, but complaining instead of the deadening effect of reading bad writing; plenty was still dropping in over the transom, even at a magazine whose publisher was as aggressive as McClure in soliciting material. But we can understand the thorough grounding in the conventions of magazine writing that she gained from reading through the pile as teaching her what she did not want to write--as helping her understand from the inside out what could be done differently. Whatever the actual geographical diversity of McClure's readership, McClure thought of his magazine as appealing to the Midwesterners he had lived among after immigrating from Ireland. He liked The Century, therefore other Midwesterners would like such a magazine if it were cheaper, he explains in his autobiography. (29) The growth of nationally distributed, nationally branded products made it possible to run a successful advertising-supported magazine by appealing to a more diffuse readership, and, he assumed, by appealing to it with his own taste. Cather's Midwestern background presumably also made her a representative reader of manuscripts. For all her distress at the deadening effect of reading piles of bad writing, it may have reassured Cather to know that her taste was a salable commodity, and that her interests could be writ large in a magazine. Exposing readers to some of her concerns in other people's stories might even teach readers to appreciate her own work.
Cather grew in many ways from her editorial work. It is not nothing to feel competent in the world's work. It is not nothing to hold a job that allows one to save enough to live on for four years, as Cather writes in 1908 that she will soon have done. Cather's career as an editor paid her a salary that allowed her to save money for a leave from the job, to contribute to the support of family members in Nebraska, to buy the silk Liberty gown that Elizabeth Shipley Sergeant describes her taking pleasure in wearing and the hats she wears with such panache in her portraits, to go to the opera, and to combine with Edith Lewis in maintaining a comfortable apartment, employing a maid twice a week, and dining out often. (30) Her salary sustained her comfortable life as a career woman, without inherited resources or money from her family and without the draining, time-consuming scrounging that marked the careers of some of her contemporaries (think of Anzia Yezierska, by contrast).
It is not nothing for a woman from the provinces in the West to exert power in the literary circles of the East. (By contrast, in an earlier generation, Ohio native William Dean Howells was marginalized for years before he gained power at the Atlantic Monthly.) Cather figured out what she liked and wanted to develop in her own writing by considering what she didn't like in other people's writing; she learned eventually to avoid the stock characters and visible plotting of much magazine fiction (and her own early fiction), while still absorbing what did occasionally appeal to her. By the time Cather finished hunting down information on and corroboration for a series of McClure's articles on Mary Baker Eddy, research was no novelty to her. But in gathering clippings on divorce for Mrs. Humphrey Ward's 1909 serial novel for McClure's, "Marriage h la Mode," she learned that fiction too could require research, and could see what relationship those clippings had to the finished product. (31) Cather's editorial apprenticeship in research laid the ground for later research for her own novels, like Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock.
The ten-cent magazine world that Cather inhabited endorsed the idea of the writer as laborer--turning out pages, researching and providing readers with information. In this world writers, including fiction writers, were one more type of knowledge worker. The measures of their virtue or excellence were their popularity, their ability to supply recognizable types, and their firm plots and characters. Cather's project of defining a literary place for herself entailed first developing a place in the larger world and the magazine world, being capably "executive," as she frames it in her letter to Jewett. She turned out pages and got paid for it, regularly performed feats of keeping the entire issue in her head and catching the trapeze bar, and then defined herself out of the magazine world by claiming a position as an artist valued for something other than competency.
But there entered the real high-wire act: if Cather was to make a living writing what she liked--not in journalism, and not by going back to editing--she had to be paid, and substantially, for her stories and novels. One way to enhance their value was to build name recognition and a following for their author within a popular magazine like McClure k That reputation, and arguably her own position working for a magazine that participated in the world of circulating publicity about writers, could help her to a paying career. Even before she came on as editor, McClure's praised her work in the pages of the magazine as an attraction, proclaiming Cather as a "new voice," and contrasting her work with stories by other writers, presumably those in their very own manuscript bag. Unlike them, Cather's characters were not the "hosts of poor wooden puppets which are pushed about under the name of current fiction." (32)
Cather's dual position as writer and editor engaged Sarah Ome Jewett. Jewett was already connected to McClure's as one of its first contributors and having preceded Cather as one of the magazine's syndicated authors. It wasn't only Cather's Mary Baker Eddy research trip to Boston, shortly after she joined McClure's, that brought Jewett and Gather together. Jewett's early letters to Gather show her interest and respect for Cather's editorial work. Indeed, she responds to Cather as to an editor soliciting her work. She finds a poem to submit to McClure's ("The Gloucester Mother"); she is grateful for Gather's soliciting her for a story, and appreciates the encouragement: "No story yet, but I do not despair; I begin to dare to think that if I could get a quiet week or two, I could really get something done for you, and it should be for you who gave me a 'Hand up' in the spring!" (33) Cather's "Hand up" to Jewett seems to have been encouragement and praise of her writing; though Jewett was a well-established writer, she had produced little or nothing since her 1902 carriage accident. Clearly, Cather's praise carried special authority for Jewett as coming from an editor rather than just an admiring young author. Cather's editorial role gives Jewett a definite objective to aim for: an editor has read her work with praise and understanding and wants to publish more of it. Jewett ends her letter of August 17, 1908, specifically asking Cather to write on "office paper to say that you are getting on well. I envy you your work, even with all its difficulties." Does Jewett's request for a letter on office stationery suggest that their relationship spans both work and personal life? Or is it intended to acknowledge Cather's engagement in that busy world, to show that Jewett does not expect leisured correspondence as she might from someone who did not have to make her living?
Jewett did not enclose the poem her letter refers to but instead sent it separately, to McClure's itself rather than directly to Cather. She observed her version of professional decorum, as if acknowledging that the magazine was run on a business basis and certifying that she was not seeking personal favors. McClure's published Jewett's poem, "The Gloucester Mother" (with a frame and full-page illustration by W. T. Benda, who later illustrated Cather's books) in October 1908. Cather soon followed up with editorial appreciation, telling Jewett that the poem had been appreciated and reprinted in the New York Times. Even better, Cather reported seeing an actual reader enjoy the poem on a train--a dear old lady cutting out the verses with a hairpin. Moreover, Cather told Jewett, McClure's sold 10,000 more copies that October than in the previous month. (34) Cather performs her role as businesswoman, shepherding product in a period when McClure's had lost readers after a price rise, but she also lets Jewett know that her poem is doing well and may even have brought McClure's these additional readers.
The Magazine's Mark on Fiction
What marks did years of daily work in the magazine industry leave on Cather? She knew more about placing her work in magazines, and her editorial background gave her the expertise to weigh in knowledgeably on the design of her books. But we should also look further into her fiction for these traces. Consider Cather's use of stories within stories, or stories that she figures as the opening of a window in a story into another story. Cather analogizes such stories within stories to Dutch genre painting interiors opening to the exterior, as in her own comment on The Professor's Housewhere, she explains, she opens "the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa" into the midwestern town. (35)
Critics have accepted Cather's high-art painterly analogy for the way one story sits within another and obliquely comments on it. But we might equally look to the two-dimensional space that was part of her daily work life to re-imagine this structure not as architecture, a window opening, but rather as page layout in a magazine. Magazine stories are next to each other with a link, whether through the season when they are published or through following up on some presumably shared interest of the readers developed through the ongoing magazine. The seemingly unrelated items next to each other in a magazine--a serialized story of a glum professor and his family, ads for furniture and dressmaking equipment, a factual article about exploration in the Southwest and a quest for artifacts-are actually related to one another. The form of the magazine is as credible a source as Dutch genre painting for Cather's use of juxtaposition and small stories within stories as exempla or metaphors. Such juxtaposition is essential both to her fiction and to magazines.
McClure's did not chop up its articles and run them through the magazine in pieces in order to vary the layout or integrate them with the ads. Other magazines of the period did, however, relying on the willingness of readers to follow stories that were increasingly cut up spatially as well as by more familiar time-based interruptions like serialization. Readers, as editors discovered, could take in an ad for a comfortable chair or a nice bookcase and return to the story. Cather's famous call for the "novel demeuble," the unfurnished novel--the novel concerned with characters and not outer trappings--would seem to be a call to separate decisively those ads from fiction, to sharpen the borders and strengthen the partitions between the magazine's columns. (36) But perhaps it is the existence of the ads full of furniture next door that allows the novel to go unfurnished: we already know what the furniture looks like.
In sum, Willa Cather's editorial career did far more than just get her to Pittsburgh and New York. She became an able and "executive" worker and manager in an enterprise where her Midwestern background was an asset, where her writing and editing skills were rewarded and provided contacts as well as connections with an office full of competent career women. Her office Bohemia also provided her with generative ambivalence enough for at least three stories, and left traces in many other works.
Nor was she unusual in her desire to grow beyond that world. Mabel Rollins, editor of House Beautiful, remarks in her 1920 Careers for Women that an editor may content herself with an editorial desk job temporarily, "hoping for the day when she shall be free to do the writing." She may thus "pass ... on to such an Elysian field as the independent life of a freelance writer." (37) And so Cather did--and carried with her all that she had learned and acquired as an editor.
Thanks to Melissa Homestead for initially prompting work on this article through organizing the University of Nebraska's symposium on Willa Cather, Journalism, and the Periodical in 2006. I am grateful for the comments of the audience there and at the American Literature Association meeting in 2007. Thanks also to Hilary Englert and Chris Cunningham for helpful reading and comments. This article was completed with the help of the Research Triangle Foundation's Josephus Daniels Fellowship at the National Humanities Center.
(1) Sarah Orne Jewett to Willa Cather, December 13, 1908. In Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett, ed. Annie Fields (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), 247.
(2) Jewett to Cather, December 13, 1908, in Letters, 247.
(3) Cather to Jewett, December 19, 1908, in Sarah Orne Jewett, Additional correspondence, MS Am 1743.1, Series h 15, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Copyright restrictions bar direct quotations from Cather's unpublished letters.
(4) Jewett to Cather, August 17, 1908, in Letters, 345.
(5) Jewett to Cather, December 13, 1908, in Letters, 248.
(6) Jewett to Cather, December 13, 1908, in Letters, 249.
(7) Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir(Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1953), 72.
(8) For more on the changing readership of the ten-cent magazines, see Richard Ohmann, Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century (New York: Verso Books, 1996).
(9) Patricia Okker, Our Sister Editors: Sarah f. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1995).
(10) James Eaton Tower, "Educated Women in Magazine Work," in Vocations for the Trained Woman: Opportunities Other Than Teaching, ed. Agnes F. Perkins (Boston: Women's Educational and Industrial Union, 1910), 250.
(11) Tower, "Educated Women," 255.
(12) See Christopher P. Wilson, The Labor of Words: Literary Professionalism in the Progressive Era (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985).
(13) Anna Steese Sausser Richardson, "Proof-Reading and Work in Publishing Houses," in The Girl Who Earns Her Own Living(New York: B.W. Dodge, 1909), 183, 195-96. Richardson was later the women's editor of McClure's (1915-20) and the associate editor of Women's Home Companion.
(14) Richardson, "Proofreading and Work in Publishing Houses," 196.
(15) Willa Cather, "Ardessa," in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992), 167-87; originally published in The Century(May 1918).
(16) Cather, "Ardessa," 170.
(17) Francesca Sawaya, Modern Women, Modern Work: Domesticity, Professional ism, and American Writing, 1890-1950(Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 91.
(18) Willa Cather, "Tommy, the Unsentimental" (1896), in Women on Women: An Anthology of American Lesbian Short Fiction, ed. Joan Nestle and Naomi Holoch (New York: New American Library, 1990); originally in Home Monthly 6 (August 1896).
(19) Cather to Jewett, December 19, 1908, in Sarah Orne Jewett, Additional correspondence, MS Am 1743.1, Series 1: 15, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
(20) Willa Cather, "The Bookkeeper's Wife," in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (New York: Library of America, 1992), 154-66; originally published in The Century (May 1916). There is much to say about this story's emphasis on people reduced to commodities and marriage as a matter of worth and cost. Percy, unlike his fellow thief Paul, who annoys his high school teachers in "Paul's Case," is so set in his regular ways that he is "like a model pupil," and he gets little pleasure or satisfaction from the goods he obtains.
(21) James Woodress, Willa Cather:A Literary Life (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1987), 286.
(22) Willa Cather, "Her Boss," in Stories, Poems, and Other Writings, 185-208; originally published in Smart Set (Oct. 1919).
(23) His situation prefigures Professor St. Peter's, in The Professor's House, who also stays behind while his family travels in the summer, exploring his own inner landscape.
(24) Woodress, Willa Cather, 11.
(25) Willa Cather to Samuel S. McClure, June 12, 1912, Red Cloud, "McClure Mss.," Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. I am grateful to Melissa Homestead for sharing this information with me.
(26) Ida Verdon, "Editing," in An Outline of Careers for Woman, ed. Doris E. Fleischman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1928).
(27) Frank Luther Mort, A History of American Magazines, v. 4, (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968), 498.
(28) S. S. McClure, My Autobiography (New York: Frederick Stokes, 1914) 204.
(29) McClure, My Autobiography, 207-8.
(30) Sergeant, Willa Cather, 51.
(31) Cather to Jewett, October 24, 1908, in Sarah Orne Jewett, Additional correspondence, MS Am 1743.1, Series 1: 15. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
(32) "McClure's for 1907," McClure's (October, 1906), Advertising section.
(33) Jewett to Cather, August 17, 1908, in Letters, 234.
(34) Cather to Jewett, October 24, 1908, Houghton Library.
(35) Willa Cather, "The Novel Demeuble," Not Under Forty (New York: Knopf, 1922), 43-51.
(36) Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing As an Art, foreword by Stephen Tennant (New York: Knopf, 1949), 31-32.
(37) Mabel Rollins, "The Editor," Careers for Women, ed. Catherine Filene (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920), 324-25.
Ellen Gruber Garvey
New Jersey City University
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|Author:||Garvey, Ellen Gruber|
|Publication:||Studies in American Fiction|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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