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Speaking Volumes: Embodying Cather’s Works

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 519-537 | 10.1353/sdn.2013.0013

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For all the warnings not to judge a book by its cover, the physical form of a book nevertheless speaks of its content, rightly or wrongly, and gives a context for it. Willa Cather’s stories were embodied in a variety of forms in their first appearances in public, the results of increasingly complex interplays between both her publishers’ choices and her own. Her publishers had to consider technical and commercial factors in their choices, as well as aesthetic ones; Cather was freer to concentrate on aesthetic considerations, although she too was interested in making her books attractive in a marketing sense as well. At first, as a new writer, she had little say in the presentati`ons of her works; she even claimed she didn’t know much about how her books were made physically (WC to Edward D. MacDonald, 21 Feb. 1923). Nonetheless, influenced in different ways by her publishers, she took an increasing role in the making of her books as physical objects, becoming involved with questions of bindings, book-jackets, and even paper and typography. This essay will describe Cather’s books in their changing material forms, suggesting how these were influenced by Cather’s wishes and by how her publishers wanted her to be seen.


Cather’s books were expressions of two different publishing houses. Her first publisher, Houghton Mifflin, was a Boston firm with deep roots in the New England tradition. The firm was a successor to Ticknor and Fields, publisher of many of the mid-nineteenth-century New England writers; they continued to publish editions, from cheap to deluxe, of Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, and others. The New England “genteel tradition” continued to influence the firm’s editorial policies into the twentieth century. Houghton Mifflin also had long-standing contacts and arrangements with established British writers to publish their work in the United States. Cather was just one of many authors inscribed on Houghton Mifflin’s rolls, although she had the interest and encouragement of her editor and friend, Ferris Greenslet (see Robert Thacker’s essay in this issue.)

With such a large backlist of authors for whom there was a continuing audience, as well as a large educational publishing division, Houghton Mifflin did not feel a need to depend on advertising. Both Horace Houghton and George Mifflin distrusted newspaper advertising in particular as being both expensive and ineffective; they preferred more dignified methods, such as direct mail and store displays (Ballou 324, 426). Nor did they feel that reviews were particularly effective, since they thought few people read them. In short, Houghton Mifflin was well-established, careful with its budgets, and conservative: Ballou notes that though the firm had popular books, by the 1920s they were not publishing the younger writers who were leading fiction and poetry in new directions (549-53).

Cather’s second publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, was very different (see Richard Harris’s essay in this issue). After working for Doubleday, one of the more progressive New York publishers, Knopf had started his own firm in 1915, at the age of twenty-three. He had been influenced by the high standards of design and craftsmanship of a slightly earlier generation of young publishers such as Mitchell Kennerly and Herbert Stone (Tebbel, II, 388, 435). As a new publisher and an outsider (he was one of the first Jewish men to become a mainstream publisher), his editorial policy would have differed from Houghton Mifflin’s even if his temperament had not. Without the money to lure established authors by prospects of large advances, Knopf committed himself to nurturing the long-term success of his authors, rather than searching for the next best seller. Of course, their success was his: he sought to build the brand of the Knopf firm as the source of intelligent, interesting, and well-designed books. As one of his billboards declared, “now you can buy books by the label” (Tebbel, III, 334)—presumably the Knopf name on the spine or the Borzoi stamp on the back cover. Unlike the European publishers of some of Knopf’s authors, who produced books with identical covers except for the titles and author names (and unlike the standardized packaging...

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