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  • Literary ExperimentationVol. 2, No. 6, October 1940
  • Willa Cather

Members of the CEA will recall the discussion started by Mr. Henry Canby and carried on in these columns over the desirability of English courses exclusively devoted to contemporary literature. In the course of that argument it was pointed out that much writing of the moment is experimental, and that the author himself is testing devices and techniques which later may be abandoned.

Miss Willa Cather, who has been overburdened by letters from strangers, especially teachers and students, asking her judgment on literary matters, may have had her burden made heavier as a result of her contribution to this argument in last December's News Letter. Yet she graciously permits us to reprint the following paragraphs from a letter to a friend which will serve to illustrate her own experimental attitude in one of her books. - Ed.

Let me try to answer your question. When I wrote "The Professor's House," I wished to try two experiments in form. The first is the device often used by the early French and Spanish novelists; that of inserting the Nouvelle into the Roman. "Tom Outland's Story" has been published in French and Polish and Dutch, as a short narrative for school children studying English.

But the experiment which interested me was something a little more vague, and was very much akin to the arrangement followed in sonatas in which the academic sonata form was handled somewhat freely. Just before I began the book I had seen, in Paris, an exhibition of old and modern Dutch paintings. In many of them, the scene presented was a living room warmly furnished, or a kitchen full of food and coppers. But in most of the interiors, whether drawing-room or kitchen, there was a square window, open, through which one saw the masts of ships or a stretch of gray sea. The feeling of the sea that one got through those square windows was remarkable, and gave me a sense of the fleets of Dutch ships that ply quietly on all the waters of the globe—to Java, etc. In my book I tried to make Professor St. Peter's house rather overcrowded and stuffy with new things; American proprieties, clothes, furs, petty ambitions, quivering jealousies—until one got rather stifled. Then I wanted to open the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, and the fine disregard of trivialities which was in Tom Outland's face and in his behaviour.

The above concerned me as a writer only, but the Blue Mesa (the Mesa Verde) actually was discovered by a young cow-puncher in just this way. [End Page 125] The great explorer, Nordenkjöld, wrote a scientific book about this discovery, and I myself had the good fortune to hear the story of it from a very old man, brother to Dick Wetherell. Dick Wetherell as a young boy forded Mancos River and rode into the Mesa after lost cattle. I followed the real story very closely in Tom Outland's narrative. [End Page 126]



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