- Material Memory:Willa Cather, “My First Novels (there were two),” and The Colophon: A Book Collector’s Quarterly
Willa Cather’s 1931 essay “My First Novels (there were two)”1 occupies an important—but often overlooked—position in Cather scholarship. Along with essays like “The Novel Démeublé” and the letter excerpt “On The Professor’s House,” it is routinely invoked to establish the central details about Cather’s authorial aesthetic and her sense of an emerging literary voice. In her preface for the 1922 edition of Alexander’s Bridge (1912), Cather writes, “It is difficult to comply with the request that I write a preface for this new edition of an early book. Alexander’s Bridge was my first novel, and does not deal with the kind of subject-matter in which I now find myself most at home” (v). In “My First Novels (there were two),” Cather further distances herself from her first novel by making O Pioneers! (1913) an additional “first” novel. It was O Pioneers! in which she first wrote about “a kind of country I loved.” Scholars, most often, have relied upon “My First Novels (there were two)” to classify O Pioneers! as an act of literary departure. A critical aspect of the interpretive significance of Cather’s essay, however, has to do with the occasion for which she wrote this significant, self-defining narrative, beginning with the fact that Cather wrote the essay specifically for inclusion in The Colophon: A Book Collector’s Quarterly. No scholarly work to date has explicated this aspect of Cather’s publishing history.2
In this essay, I argue that reading “My First Novels (there were two)” as a book historical artifact and a complex piece of print culture reveals an under-appreciated set of connections among fine presses, book collecting, and the history of authorial debut. In order to understand the literary or historical significance of “My First Novels (there were two),” one must first acknowledge the myriad ways it makes its meaning—as a collection of words and phrases, [End Page 500] as tactile object made of paper and ink, and as a voice among many on the pages of The Colophon. Further, I argue that the placement of this essay in The Colophon was a component of what I call “material memory,” a set of practices that imbues physical objects with the power to memorialize, as Cather does with Rosamond’s “turquoise set in silver” in The Professor’s House (106). My reading of “My First Novels (there were two)” is designed as a preamble of sorts to establish connections between Cather’s developing sense of material memory and the fine press movement of the 1920s and ’30s, and to reassert the need for further study of Cather book design aesthetics.
In laying out my argument, I want to bridge scholarship on Cather with an existing body of criticism on fine press and bibliophilia in the 1920s and ’30s by looking more closely at The Colophon than others have done. I also want to frame the related topic of literary discovery or debut as a rhetorically constructed set of norms that fit broadly into the field of authorship studies, especially its subcategory of authorial identity and celebrity. Megan Benton provides a bibliographical and historical study of the “craze” of finely made books for two decades after World War I. She charts the rise of “a seemingly insatiable market for fine books, whose desirability lay less in their content than in the beauty, extravagance, status, or scarcity of the edition” (3). By her definition, a fine press can be commercial or private but is defined by its dedication to high quality and artistic taste. Their most common attributes included fine papers, specially designed typographies, small print runs, extravagantly large sizes, wide margins, and abundant leading.3 Such books were sometimes released as limited or numbered editions, and their prices were generally higher than trade editions.
Jerome McGann’s Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism argues that modernist writers used book design to articulate “commitment to a fully materialized understanding of language” (80). With the phrase “visible language,” McGann refers to the...