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  • “As the result of many solicitations”:Ferris Greenslet, Houghton Mifflin, and Cather’s Career
  • Robert Thacker (bio)

When Ferris Greenslet (1875–1959) wrote his report on the first manuscript novel Cather had submitted to the Houghton Mifflin Company in November 1911, his opening comment was “Miss Cather’s story, ‘Alexander’s Bridge’ comes to us as the result of many solicitations.” Given the rhetoric Greenslet was using in his report—he was addressing his fellow directors as chief editor of the company’s trade department, they were then deciding whether or not to publish Cather’s novel—the “solicitations” he meant were doubtless his to Cather, who he felt would be a promising addition to the Houghton Mifflin list of authors. And so by his report did she become.

Yet, as recent scholarship has confirmed, Cather was also making many solicitations of her own then (see Porter; Skaggs; Thacker, “Puzzle”). Indeed, Greenslet’s report continues to read rather like a descriptive biographical blurb: “Miss Cather, who has been for six years practically editor-in-chief of McClure’s Magazine, published some eight years ago a collection of short stories entitled ‘The Troll Garden’ which was at once recognized by the critics as a very distinguished piece of work and did reasonably well for a collection of short stories—some 3,000 copies, I have been told.” He then describes Alexander’s Bridge and asserts that the “plot thus baldly summarized is the least important part of the book. It is distinguished—it has in my judgment distinction in an uncommon degree—by the excellence of the workmanship, its remarkable perceptiveness, its actuality, and the spiritual sense of life that informs it.”

This report was the first of four such reports Greenslet would write to his colleagues for their “Pow-Wows”—as these editorial meetings were called at Houghton Mifflin—on the four manuscript novels Cather submitted during the 1910s. Read today, Greenslet’s reports strike us by their critical discernments, by their acuity, and, probably inevitably given the current sense of Cather’s [End Page 369] significance, by their prescience. Only The Song of the Lark needed revising, and then only if Cather chose to undertake the revisions. By the time Greenslet had a manuscript and was ready to report to his editorial colleagues, he seems to have already made the necessary arrangements with Cather privately as a result of their mutual “many solicitations.” They were agreed on the question of publication though not, famously as regards My Ántonia but with the others as well, on the details of each book’s presentation and marketing.

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Fig 1.

Ferris Greenslet, circa 1893-94.

Courtesy of the Chapman Historical Museum, Glens Falls, New York.

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Fig 2.

Ferris Greenslet, 1921.

Although E. K. Brown had these reports when he wrote the first critical biography during the late 1940s—he probably obtained them from Greenslet directly although no copies are held in Brown’s papers—they disappeared from critical view and only emerged again in 2000 from their larger context: the Houghton Mifflin archive at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Beyond these reports, there is a sizable body of material there that reveals Houghton Mifflin’s marketing practices generally as well as the extensive Cather-Greenslet correspondence. This collection is comprised of some 295 Cather letters and another 442 letters to her—most written by Greenslet but also including others by various Houghton Mifflin employees, notably production manager Roger Scaife. Without question, this collection constitutes one of the richest holdings of primary materials in Cather studies, rich because it is focused so sharply on both the crucial challenge Cather faced—making it as a writer—and also the critical period of Cather’s incipient career: 1912–22 (or the time between leaving McClure’s and the publication of One of Ours by Alfred A. Knopf). As such, the material at Harvard needs to be probed much more deeply than it has been.1 Key to these probings are the “solicitations” Greenslet wrote of to his colleagues in 1911 and, more significantly, the matter of Greenslet himself. His presence in...


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