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. (more…)