Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1982, pp. 195-203.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


In the first of his series of lectures on biography at the University of Toronto, Leon Edel observed that "the writing of a literary life would be nothing but a kind of indecent curiosity, and an invasion of privacy, were it not that it seeks always to illuminate the mysterious and magical process of creation." Edel was generalizing about the life of Henry James when he made that statement, for he was deep in the writing of the James biography to which he devoted about twenty years of his life. For a writer such as James this view of biography is undeniably true. His writing was his life, and there is no separating the two. One cannot imagine a biography of James in which the biographer talks only of his relations with his brothers and sister, his parents, his goings and comings between England and America, his travels on the Continent, his social life in London, and his country life in Rye. And I think Edel's generalization also applies to Willa Cather, whose dedication to her art was as consuming a passion as was James's.

I don't know whether or not it would be "indecent curiosity" exactly to write a life of Cather that dealt only with her early years in Red Cloud, her college days in Lincoln, her journalistic beginnings, her school teaching, her managing editorship of McClure's Magazine, her trips back and forth between Nebraska, the Southwest, and New York, her travels in Europe, and her New York apartments, but it surely would be of limited value unless it related her life to her writing. Certainly the purpose of a biography of Cather must be to "illuminate the mysterious and magical process of creation." That is what I intended when I wrote my book about her, and I hope I succeeded.

How does the biographer manage to illuminate the mysterious and magical act of creation? First of all he must approach his subject objectively. Then he must be willing to undergo a great deal of drudgery to collect his data. Finally, he must have a reasonable amount of success in clearing the roadblocks from his path.

The biographer is a historian, and a biased historian is not much use to anyone. In our Western culture we hold the ideal of objectivity high, though it may often be much more honored in the breach than in the observance. Of course, we do not rewrite our history every time a hero falls from power as the Russians do, but we change our viewpoint from age to age. Emerson said that every age had to write its own books, and his words were prophetic. The history of literary reputations makes it clear how perspectives change as the culture changes. But given these inevitable shifts, one still hopes for objectivity in a biographer. One does not ask the biographer to be completely neutral about his subject. That would be asking too much, for who would spend months or years of his life writing the life of someone he did not have a strong interest in and liking for? Complete neutrality probably would result in something like a clinical case history, and I think that in biography, as in fiction, what Cather called the "gift of sympathy" is necessary for good work.