Threats of correspondence: the letters of Edith Wharton, Zona Gale, and Willa Cather.
It has long been the view, in fact, that Wharton deliberately kept herself separate from other women, particularly other women writers. She did not want to be connected to them in reviews or in the public eye. She attempted to distance herself from contemporary feminist debate and from women who might be considered her literary peers: Gertrude Stein, Willa Cather, H. D., Zora Neale Hurston. Wharton's detachment is curiously similar to Cather's, who also held herself separate from other writing women. Cather's intimate women friends were not writers; her women friends who wrote were either not as successful as Cather or were not among her intimates. Both Wharton and Cather wanted to be seen as individuals in the literary landscape rather than as members of a group of women writers, a label that in their eyes collapsed aesthetic differences under the essentializing rubric of gender. They did not join the various communities of women writers forming around them, communities that ranged from the avant-garde modernist salons of Paris to the radical feminist group in New York known as Heterodoxy to the women journalists and editors in New York and Paris.(2)
Wharton and Cather's shared aloofness from the literary world around them, particularly the world of other women writers, is more complicated than a simple desire to be seen separately from their female peers, however. Even as they make distinctions between themselves and others, there is a competing desire to make connections with those women writers who might understand their dilemma: caught between the literary marketplace's rigid definition of "literary woman" on the one hand and, on the other, the desire to create an authorial self impervious to such marketplace considerations. Their ambivalence pervades the letters each wrote to Zona Gale, the writer who replaced Sara Norton in Wharton's correspondence and who wanted Cather to come live and work in her father's house. It is one of the ironies of literary history that Wharton and Cather remained unaffiliated with one another and yet chose the same woman writer with whom to initiate and maintain a long correspondence. Both Wharton and Cather sought out Gale's friendship and commentary, but they also kept her at arm's length, not fully committing themselves to what Wharton called, in her first letter to Gale, the "community of spirit" that existed between like-minded writers. Reading the correspondence between these writers allows us to understand why it was so difficult for Wharton and Cather actually to join that community of spirit; we see enacted within the pages of their letters a personal version of the larger and more public negotiations that allowed them to re-define the role of the American woman writer.
Although Gale is not well-known to readers today, in the twenties and thirties she was a well-respected, highly successful novelist and playwright who received a Pulitzer Prize in 1921 (the first awarded to a woman dramatist) for her stage adaptation of her novel Miss Lulu Bett. She was also widely known as an outspoken feminist and pacifist; gave speeches on behalf of Robert La Follette, the Progressive candidate for President; lobbied for educational reforms and for equal rights for African Americans. Given Gale's politics and her literary successes, it is surprising that either Cather or Wharton would welcome her commentary on their work and seek out her friendship. Both Wharton and Cather resisted involvement in contemporary political and social debates (with the exception, perhaps, of the work both writers did during World War I), while Gale continually involved herself in such issues.(3)
The correspondence between these writers has long gone unremarked, as have the similarities in Wharton and Cather's attitudes toward the literary world around them. It is common practice to link Wharton and Cather only on the basis of chronology: they were alive and successful at the same time; they have stayed in the canon of American literature more or less since their careers began.(4) Their similar strategies for constructing a literary identity have gone more or less unnoticed, in part because (with one exception on Cather's part, which will be discussed below), they did not acknowledge one another's presence in the literary landscape. Critics seem to have been seduced by this silence: neither writer appears in studies of the other, although as the letters discussed here make clear, their ideas about the literary world and their own positions as literary figures resemble one another to such a degree that simple coincidence is not sufficient explanation. The silence between Wharton and Cather, re-examined through the lens of their correspondences with Gale, becomes testament to the difficulty of forming a community of literary women.(5) Their letters reveal that in their eyes sisterhood is not automatically conferred because of gender; in fact, sisterhood seems not to be a particularly desirable association at all. "Sisterhood" seems to vanish in the shift from the pages of a letter to a public admission of affiliation: sisterhood is a private bond that can perhaps exist only in the pages of a letter or a novel. Thus in the world of the letter there is a private community within which the two correspondents exist, but in public both Wharton and Cather are silent about their friend and peer.
In the letters, sisterhood and literary community seem privately attainable, but Wharton and Cather's public silences negate these goals, causing instead distance and separation. Wharton and Cather's relationships to Gale, and to each other, manifest what Helena Michie has called "sororophobia," a relationship that "encompass[es] both the desire for and recoil from identification with other women." Not a static model, sororophobia is "about negotiat[ing] sameness and difference, identity and separation between women of the same generation ... [It is] a matrix against and through which women work out -- or fail to work out -- their differences."(6) Desire and recoil are the two movements of these letters; Wharton and Cather are drawn to Gale because she is, like them, a woman writer, and yet they distance themselves from her (and from one another) for the same reason. These letters are about fending off that threatening, scribbling Other, who is also, in some ways, the Self.
A correspondence is a communication by letters between people who are separated, but a correspondence is also a point of similarity, a likeness. The very word itself incorporates the dynamic of the relationships discussed here: similarity and difference, distance and an attempt to bridge that distance by establishing intimacy. in Gale, Wharton and Cather find a correspondent who is in fact a co-respondent to a literary world fairly hostile to women's attempts to wrest literary and artistic authority for themselves. Gale too must answer to the public's expectations of a woman writer; unlike Wharton and Cather, however, correspondences between herself and other women writers seem not to threaten her.
Wharton's use of the phrase "community of spirit" to describe her sense of connection to Gale suggests, at first, that Wharton had resolved her ambivalence about friendships with other women writers. She writes to Gale that "when one greatly enjoys and admires a book, one always (I find) takes for granted such a community of spirit between the writer and one's self."(7) The relationship described by this phrase, however, is far more complicated than Wharton herself realizes: participating fully in a "community of spirit," for both Wharton and Cather, becomes imbricated with their decisions about public representations of self, with their perceptions of the literary world, and with their attitudes towards their female literary peers.(8)
Communities form because people share a set of values or ideals; the boundaries of the group are created by what is shared. Within these borders, one can reasonably assume a measure of understanding, of sympathy. At the same time, though, placing oneself inside the boundaries of a community carries with it the potential difficulty that those on the outside will see only the group identity; one's individuality may appear to be erased. It is this difficulty that gives rise to xenophobic attitudes of all sort -- depending on one's position, the people either inside or outside the boundary are strange, or inferior, or dangerous, or interchangeable. Further, in a community bound together by a shared set of ideals, one risks having the community's ideals become more important than individual achievement; individual ideals are subordinate to the greater good. One could argue that this is, in miniature, the ongoing struggle in the United States: which has priority, the group or the individual? For my purposes here, however, I am interested in how the struggle between group and individual identity gets played out along gender lines, particularly given that Wharton and Cather's model of the artist, particularly in America, is coded as "male." The archetypal literary artist is a solitary figure who generally exists outside the community: the "American Adam" wandering across the country. Neither the American artist nor the American hero can fulfill his vision from the "safe" space of the hearth and home. Thus for Wharton and Cather the problem of defining themselves as artists is dual: they are assuming a role that is, implicitly, male, as well as a role that, while it may not preclude communal feeling, certainly precludes communal participation. It seems unsurprising, then, that several of the women writers of this period (including Wharton) who wanted to challenge this definition of artist did so from Europe, separating themselves from the national community that they found so limiting.(10)
Although discussing the role of the literary "artist" might seem old-fashioned at this critical moment, it is nevertheless how Wharton and Cather, and Gale, sought to define themselves -- and how they wanted to be perceived by others. I am interested, then, in this word and their definition of it insofar as it reveals how each sought to challenge, whether implicitly or explicitly, cultural expectations of women writers. To Cather and Wharton, "woman writer" automatically enrolled them in a community that was limiting, public, and belittled, while "artist" was autonomous, private, and celebrated. Artists needed to abstain from public politics, social action, and reform: to be thus involved in society was too similar to the way in which nineteenth-century women writers represented themselves, and were in turn represented. These nineteenth-century writers presented themselves as professional writers, not as artists: they spoke publicly about the fact that they wrote to support their families, or to offer moral instruction, or to speak for social change. Wharton and Cather use their definition of artist to reject this tradition, but Gale sees social action as part of the responsibility of the artist; she tries to use her art and her public image to effect positive change.
For Gale, community is both public and practical; she assumes that any community of spirit will put itself into action for the greater good. Gale's writing -- both fiction and non-fiction -- engages with social and political causes, as did the writing of many of her female contemporaries, but this is an engagement that Wharton and Cather steadfastly resisted. Although all communities by definition must possess some likemindedness, community is also, unless specified otherwise, generally assumed to be public, to exist with the public's knowledge -- and it is precisely this public acknowledgment that Wharton and Cather want to avoid. The community of spirit to which Wharton and Cather, aspired is an exclusive and private realm, no less ideal for being private, but which would cease to be ideal if it entered the public domain. Wharton's assertion of a community of spirit between a reader and a writer takes for granted that it is a private bond, and one that needs not be physicalized any further than the pages of a book -- or a letter. A community of spirit becomes the ideal for Wharton and Cather because it depends only on states of mind; it is something to think about, feel, and imagine but not to enact in any public way.
The letters create a community of spirit and reveal the sympathetic understanding found therein -- shared experiences, ideas, and attitudes about the world and writing. It is precisely this understanding, paradoxically, that threatens Wharton and Cather's self-created identities as individual artists who wanted to be free from considerations of gender, age, nationality, or class. Their letters to Gale make it apparent that public resistance to community was difficult to maintain and yet central to Wharton and Cather's conceptions of themselves as artists: difficult because we can see their privately expressed desire for community, central because we see how they publicly separate artist from woman. Thus the contradictory dynamic of these letters also reflects the shift from private expression to public silence, and from the idealized vision of a "community of spirit" to the reality of individual achievements hard-won and jealously preserved.
Gale's friendship with Wharton started while they were both being published by Scribner's; Rutger Jewett was a friend to both writers. and forwarded to Wharton a letter that Gale had written praising Wharton's The Glimpses of the Moon (1922). In response, Wharton wrote to Jewett that
I would give all the reviews, I mean all the most favourable
ones, for such a letter as Miss Gale's, not only because I
admire her work so much and consequently value her
approval in proportion to my admiration, but also because she
has put her finger on the very central nerve of my book.
This does not happen more than once or twice, even in a
long career. (August 29, 1922)
Gale's ability to read intimately and sympathetically pleases Wharton, and a bond begins to form, even before Wharton has responded to Gale's letter. Gale's ability to touch the "central nerve" may be linked, in Wharton's mind, with her gender: the male writers of this period were not often as sympathetic to her writing.
Although Wharton distrusted her female writing contemporaries, it was she who initiated the correspondence with Gale. Writing to Gale to thank her for her laudatory note, Wharton's letter seems to ask, implicitly, for a response:
"Miss Lulu Bett" and "Main Street" seem to me the two
significant books in recent American fiction ... and I am
very proud to think that in the new generation which you
and Mr. Lewis seem to me to lead, there is so kindly and
sympathetic an understanding for what I have always been
trying to do ... I think you and I have the same end in view,
and that is to extract all possible significance and beauty
out of plain things As They Are.
I cheer you with sympathy and admiration -- and await
with impatience the "little book" over which you are now
hanging. (September 1, 1922, MHS)
This is one of the few letters between Wharton and Gale that mentions a male writer, but in her comparison of Miss Lulu Bett with Main Street Wharton is following a trend: when Gale's novel was published, critics argued about which was the more powerful text. Wharton's letter also suggests that she and Gale are equals, writers who share a realist aesthetic that enables them to wrestle beauty out of everyday material: they extract significance from "things As They Are." The community of spirit" is Wharton's idea, but even as she establishes a correspondence, she creates a separation with her assertion that Gale is a member of the "new generation." Lest the distance get too great, however, Wharton ends the letter with the implicit request for a copy of Gale's next book, a request that is sure to flatter Gale, and to ensure a response.
Wharton's sense of being a member of an older generation and of being surprised that the "new" writers understand her work seems a trifle affected in light of Wharton's literary status in the early twenties. The Age of Innocence (1920) had won a Pulitzer Prize only two years earlier, and Glimpses sold over 100,000 copies in its first six months of publication; the movie rights were purchased for $13,500 and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the screenplay. Describing herself as outdated, which she does in a subsequent letter, seems not entirely accurate; it suggests that one of the responses Wharton wanted from Gale is admiration and praise -- and for Gale to deny that Wharton is old-fashioned. The postscript to this first letter, in which Wharton says "that you should have felt the bracelet scene [in Glimpses of the Moon] -- which nobody notices -- is balm to me," reveals the roles each will play: Gale will "feel" Wharton's writing, and Wharton will encourage Gale's literary endeavors.
In Gale's first letter directly to Wharton, she characterizes Wharton as mother, queen, and idol, and invokes her writing as a powerful influence:
I shall always be in the spell of your letter -- the
surprise of it, the incredibility of it, the gift of it. I must not try
to tell you because I cannot. How since Crucial Instances,
in my first year in New York you have been to me cloud
and fire ... [Y]ou were taking us all, writers and readers,
with you to new places. Because of you we could not stay
where we were. I have known this from the first line of
yours that I read. I recall the pang of the very passage. This
emotion inevitably held a personal feeling -- I have your
photograph! -- the one of you cloaked and reading a
letter -- by way of a magazine to which your publishers had
furnished it. And now to have Her write to me in these
words is the final emblem. It is like being knighted and as
if I might now at last begin the long quest. (October 4,
Wharton's letter to Gale praises Gale for her sense of aesthetic; Gale's response, in turn, makes clear that, for her and others, Wharton pioneered the role of female literary artist. Because of Gale's strong feminism, it is possible to understand that the "us" whom Wharton leads to "new places" are women who seek to redefine the role of woman writers. Wharton is a Moses whose "cloud and fire" allows others to imagine new possibilities; Gale positions Wharton as an unquestionably original literary leader. This must have been particularly pleasing to Wharton, given that reviewers often linked her with James (and found Wharton wanting as a result).(11) Gale refers to Wharton as Her," as if Wharton were literary royalty, capable of knighting her loyal subject. Idolizing Wharton leads to an emotional reaction: Wharton's fiction affects Gale so powerfully that she imagines knowing what Wharton herself was feeling as she wrote. From that connection it is a short step to link the words with the image; Wharton's photograph is for her the very type of the woman writer, to be emulated and adored.
Wharton"s response carefully leaves room for Gale to continue her flattery, but it also illustrates Wharton's perceptions of her place in the literary world:
How could you think I hadn't felt the importance of
Lulu, supposing you'd thought at all about my possible
opinion of her? -- I'm always, watchfully and patiently, on
the look-out for what you young people are doing, and
exulting and triumphing when a Lulu or a Babbitt
emerges -- the real surprise is that any of you should care about my
work and my point of view. I thought you all regarded me
as the Mrs. -- well, fill in a respectable deceased Victorian
name -- of America, for, having all through my early career
been condemned by the reviewers of my native land for
"not knowing how to construct" a novel, I am now far more
utterly banned by their descendants for "constructing."
(October 22, 1922, MHS)
Wharton uses "felt" to describe her understanding of a character, linking the way she and Gale read novels -- both of them are "feeling" readers. But despite their similar reading styles, Wharton again distances herself from Gale through a generational split: Gale is a member of the "younger generation" whom Wharton has been observing from afar.
Wharton implies that Gales praise can counterbalance the critics who seem to dismiss Wharton no matter what she writes. An earlier letter of Wharton's, to her friend Robert Grant, sheds light on Wharton's real quarrel with her critics, a quarrel that has to do with Wharton's own assumptions about the links between writing and gender. Her difficulty in writing novels, she says to Grant, occurs because she "conceives my subjects like a man -- that is, rather more architectonically and dramatically than most women -- and then execute them like a woman -- I sacrifice to my desire for construction and breadth, the small incidental effects that women have always excelled in ... this is the reason I have always obscurely felt that I didn't know how to write a novel ... [which is] such a sharp contrast to the sense of authority,, with which I take hold of a short story."(12) A "constructed" novel with breadth and scope is male; the short story, with its "small incidental effects," is female. She feels authority when writing short stories but flounders, or thinks she flounders, when she attempts a novel. Thus, in Wharton's thinking, her early critics dismissed her for not knowing how to write like a man, and now, in this era of the "New Woman," critics dismiss her because she writes like a man. Wharton's sense of frustration with this predicament is similar to Cather's sense that "it was a very distinct disadvantage to be a lady author, and anyone who said otherwise was quite foolish."(13) In expressing her frustration to Gale, Wharton implies not only that Gale will understand this quandary, but also that by allowing Wharton to act as mentor, Gale will help Wharton gain a clearer sense of where she fits in the literary landscape.
At the end of the letter to Gale, Wharton includes a postscript, saying, "Please suppress the retired Prima Donna in the (appropriated) Opera Cloak! This is what I really look like -- or did one day during the wars, seeing off an American ambulance." The photograph she encloses is emblematic of Wharton's struggle to balance herself between generations, and between public and private selves. Gale found the photo to which she refers in a magazine, a public forum about which Wharton was ambivalent (wanting the money, on the one hand, and yet being disdainful of much of the fiction published alongside her own). The photo of Wharton represents her as an elegant lady, reading a letter, an emblem of private, personal communication. The photo continues the separation between "woman" and "novelist" because it implicitly affirms Jane Gallop's observation that the difference between books and letters illustrate the links between "writing and sexual difference": "women write letters -- personal, intimate, in relation; men write books -- universal, public, in general circulation."(14) There is nothing in the magazine photo to suggest that Wharton is a novelist; the public will see her as a genteel woman, a lady of leisure. Its replacement also bears no link to writing, but it presents Wharton as actively involved with the war effort. Wharton wishes the cloaked letter-reader to be "suppressed" by the active woman; the two photos thus span the movement of generations, from genteel turn-of-the-century grande dame to a New Woman helping the ambulance corps in France.(15)
Wharton tells Gale that this active figure is what she "really" looks like.. a curious statement, given that the same letter also posits her as a dead Victorian. On the one hand she is a dead Victorian, and on the other, an active participant in the defining event of the "younger generation," World War I. In either case, we see that Wharton is attempting to control the way she is perceived. she does not want her image in circulation without proper contextualization.(16) Wharton seems to want to be both a member of an older generation and a member of the generation actively involved in the war effort -- trying to be both mother and sister, as it were. The two photos represent two of Wharton's fictional modes, as well: the society woman writing the novel of manners, and the woman who asserts her literary authority by tackling that most masculine of subjects, the war novel, in The Marne (1918) and A Son at the Front (1923).
It is interesting that Wharton begins writing -- and mentoring -- Gale just after publishing The Glimpses of the Moon, a novel in which the heroine, Susy Lansing, learns to take responsibility for her own happiness. This novel is Wharton's most "Gale-like" novel, because Susy. like many of Gale's heroines, must work to support herself and in so doing finds that taking care of herself, without relying on a husband or a father, is deeply satisfying. Susy learns to "mother" herself by taking care of others: "the task she had undertaken for want of a better gave Susy no sense of a missed vocation: `mothering' on a large scale would never, she perceived, be her job. Rather it gave her, ill odd ways, the sense of being herself mothered, of taking her first steps ill the life of immaterial values which had begun to seem so much more substantial than any she had known."(17) Gale's novels are most often concerned with the dual concepts of work and "immaterial values." which suggests that in reading Glimpses she saw Wharton working within Gale's own community of spirit -- an activist speaking out about women's rights. Susy Lansing is one of the few central characters ill Wharton's fiction who becomes self-sufficient, and in an ironic twist, she is rewarded for this lesson by her husband's return (for most of the novel they are separated and contemplating divorce).
The Glimpses of the Moon marks the beginning of Wharton's increasing focus on the parent-child relationship."(18) This focus is evident in Wharton's comment to Gale that the "real subject" of Gale's novel Faint Perfume (1923) is
the wife's retrospective jealousy and the fact that she
discovers that she can twist the screw by means of the child.
That, I think, ought to have been your "front
centre" -- whereas it happens rather incidentally... and you do not
seem to me to get the ultimate extract out of it. (April 14,
Wharton's suggestions may have created a more interesting novel: the venal Richmiel and her manipulations of husband and child are the most startling and original aspects of Faint Perfume. Wharton pays no attention, however, to what Gale said she wanted to do in the novel: teach her readers a lesson about spiritual love.
Wharton's letter enacts in miniature the dynamic of their entire correspondence, moving as it does between criticism and praise. Most of the letter essentially tells Gale that she had missed tile point of her own novel -- hadn't gotten the "ultimate extract" from her ideas. But the letter begins by saying "as I look across the room at that charming photograph ... I feel I could say to it in five minutes just what I think ... the book is full of good things, of delicious touches." The "good things" and "delicious touches" seem implicitly to praise Gale for her feminine qualities, like Wharton's disparaging reference (in the letter to Grant) to her own feminine knack for "small episodic touches." Damning with faint praise, indeed: her letter to Gale diminishes the novel s overall accomplishment in order to praise its incidental moments. Then, as if to forestall Gales protests, Wharton adds to the typed letter a handwritten note apologizing for her comments: "[I] await your pardon with compunction, and your reply with the most sympathetic interest. Thank you again for your thought in sending me the book, and for making me believe that my comments on it can be of interest or use to you. That is a real pleasure to me" (February 14, 1923, MHS). This handwritten touch makes the relationship sound curiously sadomasochistic: Gale has made Wharton believe that her opinions matter, and the price of establishing that belief is that she must suffer at the hands of her mentor. Wharton cleverly structures her letter in such a way that if Gale were to disregard Wharton's comments, she would in effect dismantle the relationship between them that she helped to create.(19)
As always, Gale upholds her end of the bargain, accepting Wharton's advice with only one small protest about her intentions in the novel, which she wanted to be about "that moment when [lovers] knew that concerning love we do not divine the height or the depth thereof" (May 7, 1923). She goes on to praise Wharton"s advice, furthering the mentor-pupil relationship by calling Wharton's letter
[t]he bread and wine of criticism ... I've learned a great
deal ... from your letter. This look of yours toward me is
very dear to me, the wise word, the friendly hand, and over
all a certain brooding hope which leaves one quite
breathless ... Faithfully yours -- (May 7, 1923, MHS).
Gale assures Wharton she is a faithful follower, a good daughter, who sees that Wharton's tough criticisms are good for her. Gale seems to accept gladly her role as the acolyte, or as the dutiful daughter who won't stray too far from the family hearth. This letter creates an intimacy between them that Wharton's later letters will amplify -- what, we wonder, does Gale think Wharton's "brooding hope" is directed towards? Gale characterizes Wharton in phrases that might be used to describe an ideal mother-figure: dear, wise, friendly, hopeful. Rather than threaten her, Wharton's presence in the literary landscape creates hope, the possibility for further creation.
Wharton does not immediately respond to Gales daughterly devotion, preferring instead to confine her letters to literary matters. A few years later, however, she uses the pretext of Gale's latest novel to ask for Gale's sympathy in a way that has nothing to do with reading:
I am dismayed that the admiring letter written to you months
ago in my head should (it would appear) never to have been
put on paper -- I do not believe much in "lost letters," or
else I should swear that mine had been written and sent; but
the fact is that I have had a distracted and incoherent life for
the last few months ... I have lost the two mainstays of my
household, a wonderful old Alsatian, who had been with
me, first as maid then as housekeeper for 48 years, and my
own personal maid, a much younger woman who had been
with me 20 years and died harrowingly of pernicious
anemia. (November 6, 1933, MHS)(20)
Wharton can afford to hire people to "mother" her, thus giving herself time to write; her writing, in turn, enables herself to afford this web of relationships. Wharton's earnings finance "a room of her own" in which to write, but when the caretakers are gone, the house collapses, leaving Wharton sounding rootless: "my house [is] so strange and empty to me that I have been making little trips here and there." It is paradoxical that Wharton is not the person who makes the house familiar and full, although it is her money and desire that established the household in the first place. "The house" becomes that familiar metaphor for one's place in the landscape, and we see Wharton -- again? still? -- searching for where she belongs and how she is to be defined.. even as she struggles constantly to define herself.
Wharton's sense of defamilarization and displacement, caused by the loss of her housekeepers, make her turn towards Gale, as if Gale could somehow restore stability to Wharton's world:
I yet hope that you the one immoveable figure ill a
shifting universe, may pull up anchor long enough, some
day, to sail my way. What a lot of things we should have to
say about the world of letters, which is a sacred grove toll S.
but to our successors: what?
How kind of you to remember me, and to quote me
when you talk of the writing of books [Gale used Wharton's
The Writing of Fiction as the central text in a seminar she
gave at the University of Colorado]. I wish I could be there
to listen ... do come and see me some day.
Gale is still the keeper of the flame, bringing Wharton's words to the masses in her lectures and seminars. But Wharton's sudden referral to "our" rather than "her" successors suggests that Gale has been elevated from the ranks of the "younger generations" to Wharton's own -- or that Wharton hopes to shave ten years off her career by inserting herself among those whom previously she had only observed. In an effort to still the "shifting universe," Wharton places herself alongside of whose presence in her world seems constant.
Even in this emotional letter, Wharton refuses to commit herself fully to the community of spirit. Knowing how rare]y Gale leaves Wisconsin, a fact that makes her the "immovable figure" in Wharton's shifting world, Wharton's invitation to visit seems a rather empty gesture -- the vague "some day" accepts that such a visit will always be deferred. And because Wharton will not leave France to visit Wisconsin, there is no danger that the two women will ever have to meet in the flesh. Thus both sacred grove and community of spirit stay safely epistolary; Wharton will not be presented with a flesh-and-blood literary "sister" as a houseguest who might overwhelm her authorial individuality.
Gale's attendance on Wharton and her belief in Wharton's literary importance matter to Wharton; they keep her vital and give her a place in the literary landscape. It is important to Wharton that she continue to be read, particularly because, as Amy Kaplan has suggested, Wharton constructs her "professional identity ... from learning ... to externalize [her] name on a book that can circulate in the marketplace."(21) Wharton makes Gale into a kind of literary daughter, the (hired) caretaker of her literary reputation. Gale performs her duties well, as we can see in Wharton's gratitude for being quoted when Gale "talk[s] of the writing of books." Wharton's need for a suitable literary caretaker thus outweighs the threat that Gale's aspirations to "art" might otherwise present.(22)
Although in the privacy of their letters Wharton shares ideas with Gale as if they were equals, in public Wharton is adamantly silent about her friend's work. In one of Wharton's few pieces of magazine nonfiction, "The Great American Novel" published in The Yale Review, 1927), she holds up Sinclair Lewis's Main Street as "epoch-making" and then cites three other American writers whose novels were situated in "the same thorough-fare [as Lewis's novel] ... Robert Grant ... Frank Norris ... Graham Phillips."(23) There is no mention of Gale or any of Gale's novels in the entire article, although in her first letter to Gale Wharton insists that she thought of Miss Lulu Bett and Main Street as equally important texts. Her opinion about Gale was strong enough to warrant using Gale as a sounding board for the ideas about fiction that became the basis of the Yale Review, article, and she even awarded Gale her highest accolade for writer, calling her an "acutely conscious artist."(14) Omitting Gale from the Yale Review, essay, then, seems like a deliberate oversight on Wharton's part, particularly since Gale had referred glowingly to Wharton's Ethan Frome (1911) just a year earlier, in the same journal, writing that in Ethan Frome Wharton had discovered a "new substance" and "rearrang[ed] the molecules of the novel."(25) Gale praises Wharton in print but Wharton refuses to reciprocate. Even at this relatively late point in her career, Wharton can not publicly acknowledge the community of spirit, her silence reveals that public affiliation (correspondence) with another woman writer is still not something that she can accept.(26)
Wharton's silence highlights the jealousy with which she guards her position in the literary landscape. It is easier for her to share the public terrain of writerly achievement with someone who will not be readily equated with her like Lewis, for example) than with someone like Gale, with whom she might be compared on the basis of gender alone. William Phelps' New, York Times Book Review, of The Age of Innocence, which uses feminism as a context for his review, exemplifies precisely the type of contextualization she feared: "in the present year of emancipation it is pleasant to record that in the front rank of American living novelists we find four women ... Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Zona Gale, Anne Sedgwick, [and] Edith Wharton."(27) Although Wharton makes it to the "front rank," she is in a list of other women in the year of "emancipation," something about which she cared little. Wharton can act as literary mother and mentor for Gale; she can (implicitly) ask Gale to reflect back Wharton's literary successes, but she is ultimately ambivalent about having a female literary friend. Gale, on the other hand, can imagine the woman artist in relation with other women artists; sisterhood is an unthreatening actuality for Gale, in both her life and her fiction.(28)
Gale's full-scale acceptance of an almost overwhelming foremother is different from Wharton's own, more tempered relationship with those writers who came before her. For instance, in a 1902 review of Leslie Stephen's biography of George Eliot, Wharton can praise her foremother without actually admitting that Eliot influenced her (in much the same way that Cather will write of Wharton, thirty years later). Wharton says that Eliot is a "genius" but that her novels suffer from "cumbersome construction"; "if George Eliot had been what the parish calls `respectable' her books would have been a less continuous hymn to respectability ... the novelist of manners needs a clear eye and normal range of vision to keep his picture in perspective; and the loss of perspective is the central defect of George Eliot's later books."(29) Even at this early point in her career, Wharton sees peril literary and otherwise) in stepping outside the bounds of the "respectable": only within the safe confines of convention can one write critical fictions. Keeping the self (the woman) within bounds will allow the novelist to move beyond those boundaries. If a writer becomes subject of the public eye, her own eye on the public may lose its focus.
Eliot was useful to Wharton as a foremother nevertheless, in part because she was "a cultivated reader ... [with] great intellectual curiosity" who freed her spirit "from the bonds of ethical pedantry." In other words, looking at Eliot allows Wharton to see that the female creative spirit can be freed from socially imposed constraints; Wharton's own intellectual curiosity finds expression in Eliot's freedom. In Eliot's intellectual exploits Wharton can find the "community of spirit"' she finds in her letters to Gale, but physical reality is subject to social conventions structured by gender codes. Again we see that on paper Wharton can establish a tentative bond with another woman writer, but a bond that always makes distinctions. She links herself to Eliot through intellect, not through literary accomplishments, as if to stave off any assumption that Eliot was her "role model." By rejecting or diminishing Eliot's artistic creations, Wharton implicitly rejects Eliot as an influence.
Wharton sees the artist as a necessarily solitary figure who must remain unattached, at least publicly, to anyone or anything. Yet Wharton's interest in Gale's work and ideas seems far from perfunctory: the community of spirit is attractive, a sacred grove wherein like-minded artists can talk about the writing of fiction. Despite the pull of this imagined space, however, Wharton and Gale never actually met, although their correspondence spans at least ten years.
Cather's letters to Gale demonstrate an ambivalence similar to Wharton's; thus it is not surprising that Cather wrote an essay about Wharton very similar to the one that Wharton wrote about Eliot. Both Cather and Wharton experience the presence of other women writers as an apparently unsolveable conundrum, at once discomfiting and reassuring. In a 1931 essay, "My First Novels [There Were Two]," Cather positions Wharton as an influential precursor. and then dismisses and diminishes her influence, in effect re-creating the origins of her career as a novelist. The essay rejects Cather's actual first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912), because it attempted to follow the "conventional editorial point of view" established by Edith Wharton and Henry James. It is Wharton, more than James, who presents the problem for Cather: unlike Sarah Orne Jewett, who is most often thought of as Cather's literary mentor, Wharton is still very much alive in 1931 -- she may be old enough to be a predecessor, but she is also a contemporary.
"My First Novels" explicitly addresses the origins of O Pioneers! (1931) -- the novel that Cather wants us to read as her `real' first novel and implicitly reconstructs literary history in order to make Wharton almost entirely responsible for novels in which "the drawing room [is] the only proper setting."(30) Unlike Alexander's Bridge, insists Cather. O Pioneers! is entirely her own creation -- but she insists on this point almost too strenuously: "I began to write a book entirely for myself Since I wrote this book for myself ... the book I had written for myself would ... continue to be exclusively my properly" (pp. 92, 93, emphasis added). This novel moves out of the drawing room into unmarked territory: Cather stakes her claim on "the country I loved" (p. 93). She leaves behind Alexander's Bridge and "lights out for the territories," as it were, making herself into a literary pioneer. According to this essay, her pioneering literary efforts were actually effortless: there was no arranging or `inventing;' everything was spontaneous and took its own place" (p. 93). If we are to believe this, O Pioneers! sprang organically into being, like some textual Athena from Cather's forehead -- a myth of origins that eradicates Wharton and her "drawing room novels" as an influence, and displace Alexander's Bridge as tile "first novel."
This essay makes clear that Wharton and Cather share not only a correspondence with Gale but also with one another -- in this case a correspondence created by their inability to accept sororal literary affiliations. "My First Novels" becomes another of Cather's statements about art and the artist; it might be thought of as her declaration of artistic independence."(31) The late date of this essay is intriguing: why at this point does Cather need to declare her independence from the older writer? Literally speaking, Cather was asked to write an essay for The Colophon, and this is what she produced. However, another explanation has to do with Cather struggling to define herself against sameness. Wharton as a literary mother needs to be distanced; Cather needs to set herself apart from the tradition that Wharton appears to symbolize for her. Thus Wharton represents a superficial, interior, Europeanized tradition, and Cather represents the new forms -- organic, exterior, American. Cather's literary authority, according to this essay, emerges from the landscape itself, from her own energies, not from any "literary" influences.
Curiously absent from Cather's essay is Sarah Orne Jewett, another of Cather's literary mothers. Her absence is striking because Cather dedicated O Pioneers! to Jewett, and thought of the novel as a continuing conversation with that writer. Cather may have wanted to reject the tradition represented by Wharton and James, a tradition to which she does not connect Jewett. Another possible explanation: by 1931 Cather's fame had exceeded Jewett's, which diminished Jewett as a threat and meant that Cather did not have to write herself out of Jewett's sphere of influence. Still another, and more complicated,. possibility is that while Jewett died in 1909, Wharton is still very much alive in 1931; Jewett can no longer compete with Cather, but Wharton often competed, and won: she was first to win a Pulitzer, first to receive honorary degrees, first to be installed into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, first to receive a Gold Medal from that institution, and so on. Wharton is a mother who refuses, as it were, to act her age, reaping the benefits on both sides: a venerable elder, and a post-war writing sister arguing (like Cather) against the dangers of technology and mechanization. In order to prevent being compared with Wharton, Cather needs to create separation and distance between them.
Given her ambivalence about mothers and mothering, it is not surprising that Cather's letters to Gale are not the mentorly letters Wharton wrote. These letters illustrate Cather's ambivalence about bonds with women writers in a less generational way. The first letter to Gale. about Gale's book Portage, Wisconsin and Other Essays (1928), illustrates Cather's idea of a literary geography in which there can be only one writer for each landscape -- a kind of literary quota system. Cather tells Gale that her essays make her want to move to Portage. and that the town has haunted her since she read Gale's book. Because her apartment building had been pulled down to make room for a new subway line, Cather has been leading what she calls a wretched existence in hotels, hating New York and not sure where she should go. This leads her to tell Gale that if she were not a truly honorable person, she would move to Portage and settle there, although she knows that would be about the meanest thing one writer could do to another. Cather goes on to say, jokingly, that it would infuriate her if Gale came to live in her little Nebraska town. The property lines thus drawn, Cather withdraws her joking threats and concludes her letter by telling Gale again that she thinks Portage must be lovely.(32)
Cather chose to comment on Gales book of essays perhaps because it was a genre in which Cather herself hadn't published extensively. (Individual essays had been printed in magazines, but at that point none had been collected.) Choosing to compliment Gale on her essays leaves the field open for Cather's short stories and novels; she needn't worry that Gale's success would cancel out work she herself was doing. This literary map, on which each writer has her own town, suggests a limited vision on Cather's part; it seems impossible for women writers to share literary space. One wonders if Cather really saw the literary world this way, or if this were all she could see, given the tendency of critics and reviewers to put all the "middlewest" writers together, all the women writers together, all the war novels together -- a taxonomy that makes sense on the one hand, but creates boundaries of gender and genre that are difficult to break.
Cather did have other women writer friends, but none were given quite the public accclaim given to Gale, and none were particularly Midwestern. Whether coincidentally or not, they stayed out of Cather's territory. Dorothy Canfield set her novels in Vermont, and lived there herself, maintaining her long friendship with Cather through infrequent visits and many letters. Cather's old friend (and biographer) Elizabeth Sergeant was a successful journalist. although, as Sharon O'Brien says, Sergeant's transition from timid apprentice to accomplished journalist strained the friendship."(33) Zoe Akins, a California screenwriter and playwright (who coincidentally won a Pulitzer for her dramatization of Wharton's "The Old Maid") was another "lifelong friend" who received "tough responses" when she sent Cather her books, although it was Cather who suggested that Akins try her hand at drama.(34) There were definite boundaries, physically and generically, between these women and Cather; the women with whom Cather was more intimate -- Isabelle McClung, Mariel Gere, Edith Lewis -- did not make their living as writers."(35)
Certain areas are Cather's literary property, and for Gale and Cather to remain in contact as friends, they need -- in Cather's eyes -- to remain separated. Despite the separation, however, Gale's town haunts Cather. Both Cather and Wharton seem moved to write Gale through some almost uncanny ability on Gale's part to touch them: she hits the "central nerve" of Wharton's book, she haunts Cather. Though they are moved towards her, they are afraid of being utterly pulled in; they want their boundaries to remain inviolate. The community of spirit, the correspondences they share within their letters, are written but not enacted.
Gale attempts to enact her community of spirit with Wharton and Cather, although their ambivalence ultimately defeats her. In October, 1929 Gale invites Cather to come and live in Portage, in Gale's dead parents house -- to create an actual community, not just a community of spirit. Gale had lived in the house all her adult life, leaving it (but not the town of Portage) only when she married, in 1928 at the age of fifty-four. It is this doubly vacated house she offers to Cather. If we risk overextending two metaphors -- the house and the family -- we can read Gale's invitation as a radical act. She attempts to create an utterly female literary family in which Wharton is the mother and Cather is the sister; no father seems necessary. Gale opens the "house" of American literature to women and sees her literary heritage in terms of what they offer her. Her attempts to create a community of women, to assume that an artist does not need to be alone in order to be indepedent, suggests a dramatic revision of artistic identity.
It should not surprise us that Cather refused Gales offer -- although she says it is tempting -- when we realize that Cather spends much of her literary career trying to escape or redefine tradition, an idea strongly symbolized by the image of the father's house. In her letter of response, however, Cather is uncustomarily effusive, gushing that nothing has pleased her as much as the overwhelming proof that Gale would like to have her as a neighbor. She says that she wishes she could take the next train to Portage, and although the word "wish" is underlined, the letter makes no mention of arranging travel plans."(36) Gale's invitation is tangible proof of her desire to erase boundaries, a thought that pleases Cather without leading her to act on her pleasure.
Neither Cather nor Wharton can quite relinquish their ideal of the artist as a solitary figure; neither wants to run the risk of losing her hard-won individuality. Cather, as we have seen, is particularly invested in her myth of self-creation, an artist with no American female precursors. Being neighbors with Gale and living in the house formerly occupied by her parents would erase the boundaries of Cather's hard-won literary territory; she would become another Wisconsin writer and lose her individual public reputation. Although region and landscape are central concerns for many of Cather's novels, she herself wants to be free to define and redefine both herself and the genres in which she works; staying in one place would limit her ability to do that.(37)
Both Cather and Wharton are attracted to Gale's rooted attachment to Portage, perhaps because both writers struggle with being themselves uprooted, Wharton by the deaths of her cook and maid, Cather by her mother's illness. It is her mother's illness that prevents Cather from accepting Gale's invitation to Portage. Despite the wretched existence in New York hotels that she described in an earlier letter to Gale, Cather says that she cannot come to Wisconsin at any point soon. She explains that whenever her mother wants her and begins to fret at her absence, Cather feels she must go to her, the trans-continental train ride notwithstanding. She has left her mother's bedside in California only once in the recent months, she says, in order to come East and receive an honorary degree from Yale.(38) This letter reflects the pull between dutiful daughter and famous writer, a version of the ongoing struggle between "woman" and "novelist."
After explaining why she cannot come see Gale, Cather launches into an odd homage to Gale's father's house, odd because her apostrophizing seems so rhapsodic that it sounds almost like a mockery. She describes the house as superior, high-minded, and really American, a curious phrase to use as praise, given that Cather had a great deal of disdain for much of what was "American." Again in this letter, though, Cather stresses her delight at Gales desire to have her as a neighbor, in a house so dear to Gale's heart. She says that she is sure that sometime she will get to Portage for a few months, and when she does, she will try to live up to the singular high-mindedness of Gale's parents' house.(39)
One wonders how a house looks high-minded, and what Cather really had in mind with that phrase. Is she referring to Gale's own ideals, or is she making fun of Gale's adulation for her father? And yet, given that adulation, how could Cather be anything but flattered that Gale wants her to spend time there? Gale's attitude towards her parents is significantly different from both Wharton's and Cather's attitudes towards their families, so much so that Gale's ability to consider herself as an artist and yet to remain by all appearances utterly content to live most of her life as dutiful daughter and housekeeper must have seemed antithetical to Wharton and Cather. It is possible that another reason Gale haunts Cather is because in Gale, Cather can see her mirror opposite. Where Cather is solitary, Gale is connected; where Gale is publicly, politically radical, Cather is conservative, her relationship with Edith Lewis notwithstanding. Gale's fiction attempts social transformation; Cather says that "economics and art are strangers."(40)
Cather's ambivalence towards Gale, like Wharton's, works to uphold an imagined unity with Gale, but does not allow for a fully realized relationship. In the letter that refuses Gale's invitation to Portage, Cather seems rapturous at the idea of a small town, and then immediately pulls away. She only thinks about the future, of what would happen if she could get to Portage, like Wharton's imagined "some day" as the time when Gale will actually visit her. In both cases, meetings occur only in some unrealized future, or occasionally as is the case with Cather, when the two women are in New York, a city to which neither had laid particular literary claim. Both Cather and Wharton are intrigued and attracted, however, by the idea of Portage and what Wharton calls Gale's "immovability." Behind their attraction to Gales rootedness seems to lurk curiosity -- and perhaps envy -- about the way in which Gale seemed able to unify woman and writer, without burying the former or keeping the latter separate.
When she writes Gale to refuse, once and for all, the invitation to Portage, Cather neatly summarizes the dilemma that she and Wharton share: the catch-22 of wanting and fearing a community of spirit. Like many of Cather's letters to Gale, this one is also written while Cather is traveling from one place to another, as if while she is in transit, her thoughts turn to her rooted friend. Cather writes to compliment Gale on her new novel, Borgia (1929), which tells the story of Marfa Manchester, a woman who believes she destroys everything and everyone she touches. She read the novel with rather grim amusement, Cather says, and with the realization that everyone has the capacity to become a Borgia. She tells Gale of her own Borgia-like experience, in which she almost ruined her younger brother's life by bringing him off the farm in order to give him the advantages she thought lie should have. The problem of human interaction, as Cather sees it, is that one cannot live in a test tube, but that most contacts are pernicious.(41) This then, is the dilemma faced by Cather and Wharton: one cannot live in a test tube all one's life, but most contact is pernicious -- and the contact of literary influence perhaps the most pernicious of all. Cather's response, it seems, is always to remain at arm's length from those who might overwhelm her individuality, and to create an image of herself that floated aloof from contemporary politics and contemporary writers. A further response to the threat of pernicious contact is the effort on the part of both Wharton and Cather to contain the community of spirit to the confines of a letter, a sort of epistolary quarantine.
Gale's attachment to Portage, to her parents, and to her fellow literary women connects her to her nineteenth-century foremothers, on the one hand, and on the other presents a model of literary artist that stands in dramatic contrast to Cather and Wharton's fear of pernicious contact. Gale's later novels, from Faint Perfume on, focus on bringing a spiritual message to America, similar in intention to the nineteenth-century novels written by women. Even as Gale works with this spiritual message which she saw as having political implications), however, she deliberately experiments with dialogue, structure, and characterization. Further, she imagines that it is possible that a woman artist would not have to emulate the model of the solitary genius, but could instead exist in a community of women writers, family relationships, and political colleagues. In a letter to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Gale says "the Mother principle [is] at the root of all things" (February 22, 1927), an idea she embeds in her novels and in her thinking about the literary world. Literature, for Gale, becomes a tool for political transformation; the "Mother principle" shifts women's roles from subordinate to central, and allows them to become the passers-on of literary knowledge and high art, sharers in a quest for aesthetic perfection.
Elizabeth Ammons suggests that the women literary artists of this period, including Wharton and Cather, who refused to partake of feminist rhetoric "play a dangerous game in their own survival," but it is Gale who has disappeared from literary history, who seems nto to have survived. Her disappearance suggests that to be affiliated with women writers, to attempt to make the "community of spirit" an actual place (perhaps with a Portage address?) is the more perilous course. Thus it seems that in fact Cather and Wharton were wise not to commit themselves fully to the "community of spirit": their refusal means that their contributions and individual artistic identities are still acknowledged. They worked within existing models an survived. Gale attempted to create a new model and has been lost.
The shared ambivalence felt by Wharton and Cather towards Gale helps us also to understand why Wharton and Cather stayed away from one another. They could not share the same "house"; they could not negotiate a relationship. Cather looms too large in the literary landscape for Wharton to mentor or act as "mother"; Wharton is too present to be ignored and too overwhelming for Cather to do anything but ignore her. In their individual correspondences with Gale, each writer's particular vision becomes clear: Wharton cloaks her desire to have a lasting impact on the literary world with maternal advice and old-fashioned manners; Cather's refusal to orient herself with the lesbian avant-garde, or with the local color tradition of Sarah Orne Jewett, reveals her profound commitment to self-definition, a commitment Wharton shared but did not write about as openly. The ways that they negotiated their relationships with Gale tell us that for both Wharton and Cather, the literary world could not become a "community of spirit," no matter how fervently they might wish it to be so. The danger of public identification with women is the risk of being seen only as a woman, or, worse, as a feminist. In either case, it becomes impossible to be seen as an individual and an artist. It is this risk that prevents Cather and Wharton from publicly claiming Gale, and one another, as literary "sisters" and enacting Gale's radical fantasy of keeping house together. Wharton and Cather's shared strategy of aloofness and ambivalence ironically unites them in a community of spirit that can be found only in private correspondence.
For their comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this essay, I am grateful to Bridget Brown., Ann Brunjes, and Christopher Packard. I am particularly, indebted to Cyrus R. K. Patell.
(1) According to Susan Goodman, in Edith Wharton's Women Friends and Rivals (Hanover: Univ. Press of New England, 1990). "Wharton's ... efforts to separate herself from other women writers [make her] acknowledgment of the value and power of Norton's lines seems all the more remarkable" (p. 43). Goodman's latest book. Edith Wharton's Inner Circle (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1994) describes Wharton's relationships with Henry James, Gaillard Lapsley, Percy Lubbock. and others in detail. She suggests that these men met "Wharton's needs for adoration and domination," while also providing her with an elegant and cultured group that saw itself as "the last haven for the civilized" (pp. 29. 9). Of course. one of the bonds this group shared was a sense of their own superiority -- and because on that point they never disagreed, they were rarely disabused of this notion.
(2) R. W. B. Lewis notes with wonder that Stein and Wharton lived in Paris at the same time but avoided one another completely; their two salons "astonishingly failed to overlap to any real extent." Edith Wharton: A Biography (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 440. The two writer's avoidance of one another suggests a deep and abiding, albeit unspoken, rivalry between them: to acknowledge the other's presence would be to admit her existence.
(3) In Edith Wharton's Brave New World (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1994), Dale Bauer suggests that Wharton was not as entirely uninterested in contemporary social issues as has been thought. Bauer focuses primarily on Wharton's later novels -- those that, perhaps not uncoincidentally, are thought to be less successful than her earlier novels -- and traces Wharton's interest in such social issues as eugenics. the power of mass culture, and even the dangers of fascism.
(4) One of the few exceptions is Judith Fryer's Felicitous Spaces: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1986), which analyzes each writer's use of interior and exterior spaces. In After the Fall: The Demeter-Persephone Myth in Wharton, Cather, and Glasgow (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1989), Josephine Donovan uses the Demeter-Persephone myth as a frame for her discussion of Wharton, Cather. and Ellen Glasgow. Generally speaking, though, if Wharton and Cather are included in books about women writers, they are usually only two of many authors under examination: see, for example, Blanche Gelfant's Women Writing in America: Voices in Collage (Hanover: Univ. Press of New England, 1984), Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940 (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1986). or Elizabeth Ammons' Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford Univ. Press. 1991).
(5) The correspondence between these women goes unremarked in biographies of both Cather and Wharton, a separation maintained by Gale herself. who never spoke of Cather to Wharton or vice versa. Gale's correspondence with Wharton. and her dinner engagements with Cather, are mentioned only in passing in the biographics by August Derleth, Still Small Voice: The Biography, of Zona Gale (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1941), and Harold Simonson, Zona Gale (New York: Macmillan, 1962).
(6) Helena Michie, Sororophobia: Differences Among Woman in Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press. 1992), p. 9.
(7) Letter from Edith Wharton to Zona Gale, October 22, 1922. Unless otherwise specified, all the letters referred to in this article are from the Zona Gale Collection at the State Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. The letters will be referred to by date, if available, and the abbreviation MHS. The Edith Wharton letters are reprinted by permission of the Estate of Edith Wharton and the Watkins/Loomis Agency.
(8) The "community of spirit" Wharton mentions echoes the phrase "republic of spirit" that Laurence Selden discusses with Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, some twenty years earlier. In Selden's republic men and women can be friends, and a poor man might marry a beautiful woman just for love. This republic, like Wharton's "community," is difficult to attain if one is female. Selden can flout social conventions because they are not as binding for men, something that Lily herself points out to him. Selden's republic and Wharton's community ultimately present different dangers to women: a woman joining Selden's republic risks drawing society's ire because she makes herself different, a woman enacting Wharton's community of spirit risks becoming indistinguishable from its other members in the eyes of the larger society.
(9) Ammons suggests that Wharton and Cather were both drawing on the "model of the artist... which by definition implied solitary struggle" (p. 192).
(10) Among these women, Gertrude Stein is perhaps the most well-known example, and she seems to have perceived the same difficulty with the community of women writers as did Wharton and Cather. Shari Benstock says that Stein "would be furious at being grouped with... women writers... Thoroughly aware of the risks of womanhood -- its powerlessness and enforced isolation -- Stein took on the powers of manhood by doing what no other female Modernist dared to do: she claimed the center for herself." "Beyond the Reaches of Feminist Criticism: A Letter from Paris," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 3, no. 1/2 (1984), 9.
(11) For instance, in her review of The Glimpses of the Moon, Rebecca West says that "an artist can be anything he likes except an echo... [but Mrs. Wharton] would be content to write books that are exactly like the books of Henry James. She wants to be able to achieve just exactly the beauty he did: she wants to express just exactly the wisdom he did; and she succeeds astonishingly. Thus she feels she is in touch with a rich and worth tradition. But then, also she withholds the treasures of discovery which should have been made by such an unusual talent," James W. Tuttleton. ed., Edith Wharton. The Contemporary Reviews (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992), p. 314.
(12) R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis, eds., The Letters of Edith Wharton (New York: Collier Books. 1988), p. 124.
(13) James Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1978), p. 423.
(14) Jane Gallop, "Annie Leclerc Writing a Letter, With Vermeer." in The Poetics of poetic of Gender, ed. Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia Univ. Press. 1986). p. 139.
(15) Wharton's picture, and assertion that this is who she really is, corresponds to the writing she was doing at the time: fiction and non-fiction about the war, the closest she would get to "political" or "activist" writing.
(16) Wharton struggles similarly to define herself in her dealings with publishers. In an early letter to her publishers, about the same time she begins writing to Gale, Wharton wrote: "Will you please tell your advertising agent once and for all that my name in private life is Mrs. Wharton, and in literature `Edith Wharton.' The coupling of the Mrs and my Christian name is very disagreeable to me" (September 13, 1922. Fales library Collection, New York). Interestingly, Gale's letters to Wharton are addressed to Mrs. Wharton, and Wharton signs her letters to Gale as Edith Wharton, often running the two words together as one. Gale writes to the private woman, but Wharton responds as a writer, as her literary self.
(17) Edith Wharton, Glimpses of the Moon (1922; repr. New York: Macmillan, 1994), 243-44.
(18) The Reef although about a mother and son, is centered on Anna Leath's exploration of the power of her sexuality.
(19) In one of her first letters to Gale (September 1922), Wharton similarly criticizes Gale only to pull back and apologize. Talking about Miss Lulu Bett, she says that "the very felicity of your choice of words ... the way they unerringly fit your case, makes me somehow feel, that perhaps, in this instance, your style does not. [And the novel is] too much of a turning-point in our fiction for anything... to be negligible -- least of all the language in which they are written." Gale's novel is a brilliant success, she says, if only we can manage to overlook the very, style and language with which it is written. Wharton is, at best, an uneasy mentor. Goodman characterizes Wharton's relationship with Sara Norton in a similar fashion, saying that "the letters show [Wharton's] desire for close communication tempered by her need for distance" (Edith Wharton's Women, p. 30). Wharton imposes distance through her tough critiques of Gale's work, but she adds as a last line: "Forgive all this, please! and take it as the expression of an elder's warm admiration and interest."
(20) Wharton's reliance on hired women recalls Gallop's assertion that "we must know the women of another class whose labor we rely on so that we can write: the women who clean our houses, care for our children, type our manuscripts, cleaning women and secretaries" (p. 146).
(21) Amy Kaplan, The Social Construction of American Realism (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 67.
(22) Interestingly, Wharton and Gale were linked together in a review published in the New York World in 1930 (the only time this seems to have happened). The reviewer wrote that Wharton's stories are "not unlike the work of a virtuoso who appears on the platform, bows correctly, and promptly sets to playing a varied program of difficult, almost acrobatic numbers, each rendered with meticulous precision... [Gale's collection]... might represent a virtuoso when... he generously plays those tender encores so much more universal in their appeal." Gale's public radicalism notwithstanding, in this review she is praised for being a "feminine" writer, whose work is generous and tender, Wharton, on the other hand, receives cold praise: she is mechanical, an automaton, her virtuosity is not appreciated.
(23) Edith Wharton, "The Great American Novel," The Yale Reviews, n.s. 16 (1927), 648.
(24) In November 1926, Wharton writes that Gale's novel Preface to a Life, "is the saddest book you have written, I think -- and the greatest unconscious denunciation of the standardized and the immediate as against the haphazard and the gradual and the hidden spring underground....
I say `unconscious. in the sense of simply painting a picture, and not seeking to enforce a moral -- because the artist is always so acutely conscious that to state is enough; and this is particularly true of you.
I am trying to say some of this more lucidly and explicitly in the Yale Review, some time next year, and meanwhile will only tell you again how much I admired your manner, and your fresh eye and so reverent use of your language (occurs so little nowadays!), and that deep undertone of emotion which the hollow and tinny fictions of today so signally fails to give forth."
(25) Zona Gale, "Allotropes," The Yale Review n.s. 15 (1926), 283.
(26) Wharton protested being reviewed with other women writers, particularly when the review found fault with her work. She wrote to John Hugh Smith about a review of The Mother's Recompense, saying "it is of course what an English reviewer (I forget in what paper) reviewing it jointly with Mrs. Woolf's latest, calls it: an old-fashioned novel. I was not trying to follow the new methods as May Sinclair so pantingly and anxiously does, and my heroine belongs to the day when scruples existed" (Letters, p. 480). The Woolf novel in question is Mrs. Dallomay. Wharton tries to distance herself from the panting, anxious women -- anxious, one wonders, about what? Wharton avoids slamming Woolf directly, but instead uses May Sinclair as her whipping woman, so she can in fact slam both writers at once: Woolf's "new methods" cause Sinclair to pant and be anxious. while, it is implied, Woolf's characters have no scruples, and her use of "new methods" is simply for effect. Wharton gives the appearance of sailing serenely on her way, apparently unaffected by mere literary trendsetting.
(27) Quoted in Mark Madigan, Keeping Fires Night and Day: Selected Letters of Dorothy Canfield Fisher (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1993), p. 5.
(28) In Faint Perfume, a female painter befriends Leda Perrin when Leda's relatives turn against her; the two sisters in "The Cobweb" come to respect one another's individual talents; Miss Lulu Bett's mother defends Lulu against her son-in-law. In a variety of different ways, sisterhood is a strong and viable possibility, in all of Gale's fiction.
(29) Edith Wharton, "George Eliot," Bookman 15 (May 1902). 247-51.
(30) Willa Cather. "My First Novels [There Were Two]." in Willa Cather on Writing (1949; repr. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1988), p. 93.
(31) Cather's other essays on art focus on Cather's ideas about technique and style; the essay discussed here is one of the few in which she asserts her independence from the dominant tradition of American letters, particularly the tradition of women writers.
(32) The letters from Cather to Gale are paraphrased here rather than quoted directly due to a stipulation in Cather's will that prohibits direct use of material not published in Cather's lifetime. The letter referred to above is dated October 23, 1928.
(33) Sharon O'Brien, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (New York: Oxford Univ.) Press, 1987). p. 359.
(34) Hermione Lee, Willa Cather: Double Lives (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989), pp. 69, 189.
(35) O'Brien and Ammons both make the point that Cather was disdainful of many female writers who preceded her, or, as with George Eliot. she praises them while removing gender considerations: "there are so few [women writers] who really did anything worthwhile, there were the great Georges, George Eliot and George Sand, and they were anything but women" (quoted in O'Brien, p. 185). Wharton dismisses Eliot by saying that she tried too hard to be respectable, and Cather dismisses her as a possible female precursor by saying she isn't really female.
(36) Letter to Gale, October 16, 1929.
(37) Cather's refusal to consider the boundaries of genre can be seen in many of the the comments she made about her own work, perhaps most famously about Death Comes for the Archbishop: "I am amused that so many of the reviews of this book begin with the statement: `This book is hard to classify.' Then why bother? Many more assert that it is not a novel. Myself, I prefer to call it a narrative" (Villa Cather on Writing, p. 12).
(38) Cather to Gale, October 16, 1929. Cather was the second woman so honored by Yale -- the first was Wharton.
(39) Cather to Gale, October 16, 1929.
(40) Willa Cather on Writing, p. 27
(41) Cather to Gale, November 25, 1929. In this letter, Cather also refers to a meeting with Gale the previous fall, and asks if Gale will be coming to New York after Christmas so that they might get together again.
(42) Ammons, p. viii.
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|Publication:||Studies in American Fiction|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
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