On Willa Cather, Alfred A. Knopf, and a case of Rothschild


by Jeff Seroy

Twenty-seven years ago, when I was working on the publication of Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice at Oxford University Press, I started to wonder how I had overlooked a writer whose work, in Sharon O’Brien’s groundbreaking study, sounded so interesting and so different from what I had assumed it to be. I began at the beginning—Cather’s stories in The Troll Garden; her first, stiff attempt at extended fiction,Alexander’s Bridge; her two early and perennially popular novels, My Antonia and O Pioneers!—and I read on. There’s a lot of Cather, so if you love her work, you’re in luck, for there’s a lot to love. And it turns out there’s an extensive underground of discerning Cather lovers: her appeal isn’t limited, as the paperback covers of her books often suggest, to girls in grade school.

Just now there is cause for Cather lovers to rejoice: her current executors have authorized a marvelous volume containing 556 pieces from her correspondence, which has spent decades off limits to all but a select cut of scholars. As a publisher, I was immediately drawn to Cather’s voluble interactions with her two houses, Houghton Mifflin Company and Alfred A. Knopf, at both of which I’ve worked. The distinctive DNAs of these institutions were instantly recognizable in her letters, despite the fact that half a century had elapsed between my employment and the day Cather wrote to Houghton’s Ferris Greenslet that “unless you see it otherwise, I shall refuse to say that I have ‘left’ you . . . but that it is true that Knopf is going to publish this next book.” I had always understood that Cather left Houghton for Knopf because she wanted her books more beautifully designed, more handsomely produced—something Knopf has been notable for since its founding in 1915. (They’ve published this newest volume, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, and it’s exemplary of their expertise. It would have delighted Cather in that regard, though assuredly not in the more central fact of its existence—it was her express wish that her letters be kept from the public eye.) Yes, she grouses about Houghton’s ugly mustard-colored cases, and scrutinizes headbands more than would most writers, but Cather’s letters reveal that she left Houghton for a more serious reason: she felt undervalued and misunderstood by their publicity department. She was frustrated by Houghton’s tradition-bound, buttoned-up, high-minded Bostonianism—she nailed it—and she worried that Houghton didn’t perceive her growth as a writer and therefore acknowledge her potential to reach a broader readership.

Cather wrote Greenslet, “I know it is your theory that reviews do not sell a book. But some publishers do make them sell books. Several men here told me that they believed the review of Java Head in The New Republic sold several thousand copies of the book . . . I believe The New Republic never received a copy of my last book.” (Aside to Chris Hughes: Bring back those glory days. We know you’re trying!)Java Head is by Joseph Hergesheimer, perhaps Knopf’s first star; Virginia Woolf cited him as one of the best American writers, alongside “Mr. James” and “Mrs. Wharton.” No one’s heard of him or reads him today (with good reason, in my view), but back then he was a sensation. Cather turned to Knopf, the brash, flamboyant upstart, in the hope his enthusiasm would become aggression in the marketplace. She was right.

Knopf had been clever. He approached Cather with the idea of publishing a volume of short stories, half of which had already appeared in The Troll Garden. He lavished attention on this half-old, half-new collection, wonderfully titled Youth and the Bright Medusa, and not incidentally on its author. He even advertised. (Houghton’s aversion to advertising had been another bone of contention.) The strategy paid off: Cather decided to try Knopf with her next novel. One of Ours is widely considered one of her weakest books, but pushed relentlessly by Knopf, it won a Pulitzer Prize and earned its author enough to provide the financial freedom she craved. AndKnopf had, crucially, changed her mind about the title. “Claude is the onlytitle for this story,” she asserted one week before acceding to his suggestion. The letter in which she lays out her last defense of her choice, and the next letter, in which she enumerates—mainly to herself, one feels—the advantages of his, are guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of anyone in publishing. (And the Pulitzer goes to . . . Claude? I don’t think so.)

At the risk of inviting trouble, I will point out that Mr. Knopf spoiled Miss Cather. (That’s what they were called when I started work in 1977—he still had an office and stumped around on a cane, and she was within living memory.) Every boat trip, every journey by train, was commemorated by a letter in which Cather thanked Knopf for a beautiful basket of fruit. Each basket apparently lasted the entire journey, whether to Le Havre or Red Cloud; they must have been enormous. At some point, something or other merited a case of “Rothschild . . . A wine for princes, simply that! . . . soft as a purple butterfly wing.” At her command, the Knopfs shipped an Oliver typewriter to Paris—admittedly a reasonable expenditure if you are a publisher. And to her cottage in Grand Manan they had a New York grocer dispatch tomato paste, two heads of garlic, wild rice, and caviar, all of which, Cather had complained, “you can’t get in Protestant Canada.” Cather threw in advice about shipping: fudge the customs forms. As Bob Gottlieb once quipped about working with Lauren Bacall, whose memoirs he brought out, “Sometimes publishing is about the hot curlers.”

But to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a hot curler is just a hot curler. When Cather felt the publishing muscle at Knopf became too lax, she pulled no punches. “When you decided not to give the Archbishop any individual advertising, then I understood that it was up to the book to sell itself if it could. But how can it sell itself if it is not printed, and if the jobbers don’t carry it? . . . If all the little town dealers in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Iowa, who always order from McClurg, can’t get books, isn’t there something wrong with the method of distribution? They tell me all their orders for Antonia are filled quickly and without trouble.” It helps to have two publishers if you’re skilled at table-turning.

In an age before agents, Cather was a shrewd, impressive protector of her own interest. She lectured Greenslet on the theory behind the size of an author’s advance; she kept fastidious track of her sales numbers and her publishers’ inventories; and when Knopf allowed a French translation of Death Comes for the Archbishop by someone unfamiliar with the American southwest, who refused to retain colorful loanwords such as “hacienda” and “wampum,” and who insisted on “paraphrasing” in order to attain a “beautiful French,” Cather’s indignation rose to magnificent heights. “I have every admiration for the writer who wishes to write his own language beautifully, and I am afraid she has chosen a book which is not suited to the kind of French she wishes to write . . . Paraphrasing in this case would certainly be improvising. And how many improvisions, one would like to know?” The translator being sliced and diced happens to be Marguerite Yourcenar, whose Memoirs of Hadrian—brought out a dozen years later by the next literary upstart publishing house, FSG—is one of the most beloved and bestselling novels on our backlist to this day.

The heyday of fruit baskets has come and gone. And a case of Mouton Rothschild? Affordable perhaps for E.L. James among Knopf’s writers today. Beyond that, though, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather offers a delightful view into what hasn’t changed in publishing over the past hundred years. The essentials haven’t, certainly. Nor even some things we believe to be fresh. In November 1915, Cather’s letter to Greenslet contained an enclosure: “Here is the belated copy for the Book News.” As the editors of this fine volume explain, Houghton Mifflin produced a periodical, Book News Monthly, and had asked Cather to supply an article to tie in to the publication of The Song of the Lark. “The belated copy” was an original essay on Mesa Verde, a location in the novel. Like FSG’s “Work in Progress,” Book News Monthlyendeavored to bring readers fascinating collateral material by and about Houghton’s writers and books—so maybe we’re not as original as we’d like to think. But we believe the writers you’ll find on “Work in Progress” are, and we believe their work will delight and endure like Willa Cather’s. Some day their letters—er, make that their emails and texts—may be gathered up, too. How will we come across in them, I wonder?

Recommended further reading (and one movie):

Cather lovers split between those who think Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) her best novel and those who prefer The Professor’s House (1925). I give odds to the latter, which—I pray you observe—has masterfully paired opening and closing sentences. Two especially good short, dark novels from the same period: My Mortal Enemy (1926) and A Lost Lady (1923). And for an introduction, you can’t do better than the story “Neighbor Rosicky” (1930). I have a soft spot for The Song of the Lark (1915) for many reasons, including a silly one: at some point the heroine lives in a grand Riverside Drive residential hotel, and I’ve always imagined it to be the magnificent building with the curved façade on the north corner of 116th Street—the same one Patrick Dempsey lives in with Amy Adams in the whimsical Disney movie musical Enchanted. There’s a short, posthumous collection of Cather’s writing about writing—her own and others’—called Willa Cather on Writing, which provides an intriguing window into her imaginative process.

Sharon O’Brien’s Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice caused a stir when it was published in 1986. O’Brien argues that it took Cather until about the age of forty to find her mature voice as a writer, and that she grew slowly into acknowledging her sexual nature as well. O’Brien traces these two arcs of development against each other. Culture warriors of the right found in her (to my mind) reasonable exploration a sign of Western Civ’s collapse. O’Brien went on to edit the three Library of America volumes of Cather.

Bob Gottlieb succeeded Alfred A. Knopf as head of house in 1968. These days, he’s a writer whom FSG publishes. His collection of buoyant, delicious essays, Lives and Letters, shows him to be—if you’ll allow me—a Howard Hawks among critics.

For a fun Roman holiday, follow Yourcenar’s lyrical classic Memoirs of Hadrian with a chaser: Gore Vidal’s wicked Julian.

I’d like to think Virginia Woolf hadn’t actually read Joseph Hergesheimer when she cited him in her essay “American Fiction” (1925, in Collected Essays, Volume Two). His books cost next to nothing in digital form, so if you’re dying of curiosity . . .

Jeff Seroy is Senior Vice President, Publicity and Marketing, at FSG.