- Willa Cather, Edith Lewis, and Collaboration:The Southwestern Novels of the 1920s and Beyond
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 [End Page 408] 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).
At an important stage in her creative process, Cather sat down with pen (or pencil) in hand or at a typewriter, transferring ideas to paper. However, as Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron argue in Significant Others: Creativity & Intimate Partnership, “the agonizing loneliness of artistic and literary production.…the wrenching pain of sitting alone in front of a blank page or a blank canvas” is only one part of the story of artistic creation, which “doesn’t end—or for that matter doesn’t begin—there” (12-13). Moreover, as Marjorie Stone and Judith Thompson observe in Literary Couplings: Writing Couples, Collaborators, and the Construction of Authorship, scholars must “distinguish between ideology and practice,” between the “powerful metaphors of lyric solitude, egotistical sublimity, and heroic individualism” and the “surprising variety of creative practices” incorporating collaboration that British Romantic poets employed (16). Crucial collective and social experiences occur before, concurrently with, and after the isolated, individual moment of “the voyage perilous.” As Holly Laird argues in Women Coauthors, “It would be difficult to find an author who has not written with someone else,” whether “under other writers’ influence, with the aid of editors’ revisions, in response to generative conversation, or literally together with someone else” (3). As she also argues, attentive readers will find “collaboration…itself reproduced and thematized in writing” (4).
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...