Date of this Version
Published in Studies in the Novel 45:3 (Fall 2013), pp. 408-441. DOI: 10.1353/sdn.2013.0015
In Willa Cather: A Memoir, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant makes Edith Lewis, with whom Cather shared a home for nearly four decades, a relatively minor character in Cather’s life, and yet occasionally, Lewis moves to the forefront. Describing Cather’s “personal life” in the 1920s, Sergeant notes that when she visited their Five Bank Street apartment,
Edith Lewis, who now worked at the J. Walter Thompson Company, was always at dinner. One realized how much her companionship meant to Willa. A captain, as Will White of Emporia said … must have a first officer, who does a lot the captain never knows about to steer the boat through rocks and reefs. (212)
This portrait of Lewis as domestic engineer, unobtrusively steering the ship of the Bank Street apartment, has appealed to subsequent biographers, but they never cite the following sentence, which concludes Sergeant’s brief portrait of Lewis: “ ‘It takes two to write a book’ was another line of [White’s] creed” (212). Sergeant does not explicitly apply White’s maxim to Cather and Lewis, moving on instead to afternoon visits, when she found Cather alone (because Lewis was at the office), but she nevertheless implies that Lewis collaborated in the production of Cather’s fiction.
Rather than portray Lewis as collaborator, however, scholarship has long represented Cather as an autonomous and solitary author in the Romantic tradition, creating in isolation and in opposition to the modern social world. In The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Romanticism, Susan Rosowski claims that Cather privileges the power of the individual creative imagination to “wrest personal salvation from an increasingly alien world” (xi). Placing Cather in the tradition of British Romantic forebears such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, Rosowski argues that she followed them in “their separation of self and world, private and public” (xi). Rosowski takes the title of her study from one of Cather’s early newspaper columns, in which she describes “the voyage perilous” of an “idea” “all the way from the brain to the hand [to] transfer it on paper a living thing with color, odor, sound, life all in it” (qtd. in Rosowski 6).
In this essay, I reconstruct the place of Lewis, with whom Cather shared an intimate partnership, in Cather’s creative process, taking as a case study two of Cather’s Southwestern novels, The Professor’s House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Cather and Lewis traveled to the Southwest together four times in the teens and twenties, and they shared transformative experiences in 1915 (a trip to the cliff-dweller ruins at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado) and 1925 (the “discovery” of the life stories of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Bishop Joseph Machebeuf during a trip to northern New Mexico) that inspired and became sources for the novels’ incidents and themes. Lewis’s memoir Willa Cather Living (1953)1 has long been a key scholarly source, but much material has come to light recently documenting Lewis and Cather’s relationship and their collaboration in producing Professor’s House and Archbishop. Letters, photographs, notebooks, manuscripts and typescripts, and inscribed copies of Cather’s novels create a rich, multi-layered archive of these novels as collaborative texts.