- Possession and Publication:Willa Cather’s Struggle to Save My Ántonia
Willa Cather’s relationship to My Ántonia (1918) as expressed in letters to Houghton Mifflin, her first publisher, evince a contradictory mingling of power and powerlessness. We see her exercising literary power in choosing the Bohemian American artist W. T. Benda to produce illustrations for the book as well as in the confident, annoyed tone she adopts in writing Houghton Mifflin when the publisher balks at paying for the full set of twelve sketches Cather ideally wanted.1 But Cather’s correspondence also reveals powerlessness throughout the decades she haggles with her editor Ferris Greenslet, asking him to refrain from seeking profit by selling the film and radio rights, publishing the novel in paperback, issuing it as a school textbook, or allowing it to be printed in an anthology as an abridged version. Her letters to Greenslet show that she was willing to sacrifice either O Pioneers! or The Song of the Lark to the demands of the marketplace as long as My Ántonia was protected. Writing Greenslet in 1932, she conceded that if he could “get a very high price for the film rights of The Song of the Lark I’ll agree. But I wish you will never ask me to consider a film proposition for Antonia. I would like to feel entirely safe where that book is concerned. You can do this for me, can’t you?” (WC to Greenslet, 13 March 1932). In a 1945 letter to Greenslet she reminded him of the time when Houghton Mifflin wanted to reissue My Ántonia in paperback and “sell Antonia in Liggett’s Drug Stores at one dollar a copy, and I managed to save Antonia by substituting O Pioneers!” (WC to Greenslet, 9 May 1945). The correspondence suggests Cather’s identification with her novel: both My Ántonia and she need to be “saved” or “safe,” and can only be so if Houghton Mifflin prevents the novel from becoming available to a mass audience—while at the same time keeping it available to readers (and generating royalties) by having the hardback edition stay in print. Cather would have preferred that Houghton Mifflin keep all her novels solely available in hardback, but she was [End Page 460] willing to bargain away both O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark in order to keep My Ántonia protected.
Several questions arise from these letters to Greenslet. Why did Cather want to keep My Ántonia from a mass audience? How might the issuance of the novel as a paperback or its translation into a film make Cather “unsafe”? Why was My Ántonia the novel Cather fought for, rather than O Pioneers! or The Song of the Lark? How can considering issues of gender and class help us understand Cather’s struggle to keep Antonia “safe”?
In exploring these questions, I will be looking at the act of publication as a contradictory site for Cather. The publisher turns the private manuscript—over which the writer has control—into the marketable commodity of the book. As James L. W. West III observes, it is the job of the publisher to “transform unpublished fiction and poetry into salable merchandise” (7). On the one hand, Cather wanted Houghton Mifflin to take a vigorous role in the literary marketplace, bringing her novel to as many readers as possible by sending the novel to reviewers, promoting it effectively, and keeping bookstores stocked with copies.2 On the other hand, Cather wanted to position herself as a serious “highbrow” artist, and this meant, to her, restricting the public’s access to her work by keeping her novels from mass produced forms of representation. When Cather chose Alfred A. Knopf as her publisher, beginning with One of Ours, she found someone who held the same vision of herself and her work as she did. The difficulty was that Houghton Mifflin refused to sell the rights to her previous books to Knopf, and so Cather had to continually negotiate with her former publisher to promote sales of My Ántonia by keeping the book in print in hardback, thus assuring that author and publisher would have a...