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The sun. (New York [N.Y.]) 1916-1920, July 14, 1918, Section 6 Books and the Book World, Image 56

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editorial I
Inelegant Vibrations.
WE printed last week an article about J. C.
Snatch's new book with a sentence in the
opening paragraph which ran :
"You naturally expect to find Mr. Snatch going
Wells one better than Kipps, and having read The
Sailor you back him to do it."
A reader, a woman in Atlantic Highlands,
clipped this and underlined it in violet ink, and
sent it to us with the marginal comment in violet
"This is not very elegant in its vibrations!"
"We are not Highlanders and wear neither intel
lectual kilts nor thoughts in the latest plaid effects,
and so we do not know what the lady means. In
our youth we read Barrett "Wendell and we know
the denotations of words and the connotations of
words; but he said nothing about vibrations that
we can recall. Our oculist says that violet ink is
bad for our eyes.
The Great Return Match.
Another reader says that he holds no brief for
Mr. Herbert Bates, Brooklyn's leading pessimist
on American literature, but he would like us to
name American equals of Galsworthy, Weils, De
Morgan and Conrad, cited by Bates.
Cheerfully. Mr. Tarkington in The Flirt and
his forthcoming novel, The Magnificent Ambersons,
matches Mr. Galsworthy's best studies of English
social life and Mr. Galsworthy's best portraits.
Mr. Poole in The Harbor equalled Mr. Gals
worthy's Strife, in fact excelled it. Mr. Herges
ueimeb matched Mr. Galsworthy in The Three
Black Pennys, although we cannot countenance
matching pennies.
Against Mr. "Wells in his frivolous moments we
are quite ready to put Harry Leon "Wilson in. his
almost serious moments. Ruggles of Red Oap is
funnier than Kipps or Mr. Folly. Mr. "Wells, the
social philosopher, never wrote Sister Carrie, but
Theodore Dreiser did. The Rise of Jennie Gush
ing, by Mary S. "Watts, is worth two or three of
Mr. "Wells's Marriage together. England has no
equivalent for Mary Johnston. Has our reader
ever looked inside the covers of The Long Roll, we
wonder? "Who is the English Ellen Glasgow? Who
is their Edith "Wharton?
De Moroan is delightful, but how about Nathan
JlurkeT How about Van ClcvcT How about The
Ruddert All by an American woman.
Conrad we can't parallel, but Conrad is a piece
of English luck. You'll remember that he hesi
tated whether to write in English or French, and
decided for English because the sea stuff that he
purposed to use could be most expressively put in
that tongue and would most readily reach an
understanding audience. All England is familiar
with the sea.
This is a mighty incomplete answer. "We havo
named only American writers now actually writ
ing, though of the English four De Morgan is
dead. The other three are veterans. It happens
that our best men are mostly younger. Twenty
years" hence it may be the other way about. "We can
readily imagine some one asking an English editor,
in 1938:
"But whom have we to compare with Gertrude
Granite, Aloysius Sosinski, Josephus Daniels
Bi.vghamton and Portland Oregon, anyway?"
And he will be stumped we mean he will be
bowled out at the wicket (if that's right and if the
national pastime remains the same).
Willa Sibert Cather.
SOME novelists are at their best in their first
novels; others do their best work after a long
apprenticeship in the public eye ; a few show steady
growth and a very few show steady and rapid
growth. Of these last is "Willa Sibert Gather.
She has written three novels. You pick up
Alexander's Bridge and read with discriminating
pleasure. It is a fine piece of work. It is excel
lent is the word, yes, excellent and artistically fine
all through. The story is sound and gives a sort of
lusthetic delight if you are susceptible to purely
esthetic delights in literature. But there is noth
ing about this very short tale of a great man who
fissured and fell to make a deep impression. How
ever, some time later you come upon another book
by the same author and start to reaa.
Then what a shock; then what reverberations in
your heart as well as your head (even an empty
head will reverberate and perhaps rather better
than a filled one). O Pioneers! is in its way an
epic of the "Western plains; it is wholly
epic in its emotional force and sweeping panorama,
though not in rich detail. The first chapter en
pages you and the second chapter enthralls you.
Thereafter you are a thorough believer in the liter-
ary gift of "Willa Sibert Cather. But though in
tensely satisfied with 0 Pioneers! you never for a
moment expect more of her perhaps because it
does not seem as if to expect more would be in any
way reasonable.
A year or so passes. You get hold of a new
novel by her, as much thicker than 0 Pioneers! as
0 Pioneers! was thicker than Alexander's Bridge.
It is called The Song of the Lark. You eye it spec
ulatively. You start to read it confidently but
not breathlessly. And ere you are half way through
you know that she has excelled herself again.
From the wonder of these second and third
books, each so much bigger than the one before, we
turn somewhat bewilderedly to the probable won
der of the woman who could and did write then
But here no wonder lies. At least, you may read
the external record of "Willa Sibert Cather 's life
and find nothing that fully, or even adequately,
explains her growth as a novelist. If there were
only a hint! But read through this bit of- auto
biography and see if you can find any.
Her Life Story.
"Wn,LA Sibert Cather was born near "Winches
ter, Virginia, the daughter of Charles Fectigue
Gather and Virginia Sibert Beak. Though the
Siberts were originally Alsatians and the Cathers
came from County Tyrone, Ireland, both families
had lived in Virginia for several generations.
When Willa Cather was 9 years old her father
left Virginia and settled on a ranch in Nebraska,
in a very thinly populated part of the State where
the acreage of cultivated land was negligible beside
the tremendous stretch of raw prairie. There
were very few American families in that district;
all the near neighbors were Scandinavians, and ten
or twelve miles away there was an entire township
settled by Bohemians.
"For a child accustomed to the quiet and the
established order behind the Blue Ridge this change
was very stimulating. There was no school near
at hand, and Miss Cather lived out of doors, win
ter and summer. She had a pony and rode about
the Norwegian and Bohemian settlements, talking
to the old men and women and trying to under
stand them. The first two years on the ranch were
probably more important to her as a writer than
any that came afterward.
"After some preparation in the high school at
Red Cloud, Nebraska, Miss Cather entered the
State University of Nebraska, was graduated at 19,
and immediately went to Pittsburg and got a po
sition on the Pittsburg Leader. She was telegraph
editor and dramatic critic on this paper for sev
eral years and then gave it up to take the place
of the head of the English department in the Allc
, gheny High School.
"While she was teaching in the Allegheny High
School she published her first book of verse, April
Twilights, and her first book of short stories, The
Troll Garden. The latter book attracted a good
deiil of attention, and six months after it was pub
lished, in the winter of 190G, Miss Cather went to
New York to accept a position on the staff of Mc
Clurc's Magazine. From 1908 until the autumn
of 1912 Miss Cather was managing editor of Me
Clure's Magazine, and during these four years did
no writing at all. In the fall of 1912 she took a
house in Cherry Valley, New York, and wrote a
short novel, Alexander's Bridge, and a novelette,
The Bohemian Girl, both of which appeared serially
in McClure's Magazine. In the spring of 1913 Miss
Gather went for a long stay in Arizona and New
Mexico, penetrating to some of the many hardly
accessible Cliff Dweller remains and the remote
mesa cities of the Pueblo Indians.
"Miss Cather has an apartment at 5 Bank street
in New York, where she lives in winter. In the
summer she goes abroad or returns to the West.
This summer (1915) she refused a tempting offer
to write a series of articles on the war situation in
Europe, to explore the twenty-odd miles of Cliff
Dweller remains that arc hidden away in the south
west corner of Colorado, near Mancos and Du
rango." The Secret Pops Out.
Very nice, but it tells you nothing that you need
to know if you are to frame a hypothesis to account
for Miss Cather's astonishingly rapid progress as
a novelist. The material for 0 Pioneers! and The
Song of the Lark, or a good deal of it, was patently
gathered in her impressionable girlhood. The fine
chapters of The Song of the Lark which relate
Thea Kronberg's stay in the Cliff Dweller region
with Fred Ottenburo are outwardly explained by
Miss Cather's personal interest in these ruins.
What is not made in the least clear is the secret of
her own success. Let us look into some of the
things she has said and see if we can find a clue
to it there.
"I have never found any intellectual excite
ment more intense than I used to feel when I spent
a morning with one of these pioneer women at her
baking or butter making. I used to ride home in
the most unreasonable state of excitement ; I always
felt as if they told me so much more than they said
as if I had actually got inside another person's
skin. If one begins that early it is the story of the
man eating tiger over again no other adventure
ever carries one quite so far."
Do you detect something? Do you perceive (1)
a set of impressions acquired at the most plastic
age and with a sharpness of configuration never to
be lost and (2) an extraordinary blend of intellec
tual and emotional feeling of heart and mind
which carried the girl beyond the spoken word ; and
also (3) an imaginative faculty which could go on
living a thing after merely hearing about it and
living it through to the unnarrated, possibly unex
perienced, conclusion? Do you get a hint of any
or all of these things? Of course you do!
What She Had to Learn.
Going further we learn that when Miss Gather
began to write she tried to put the Swedish and
Bohemian settlers she had known in her girlhood
into her short stories. "The results," we are in
formed, "never satisfied her. She discussed this
dissatisfaction afterward.
"It is always hard to write about things that are
near your heart," she argued. '"From a kind of
instinct of self-protection you distort and disguise
them. Those stories were so poor that they dis
couraged me. I decided that I wouldn't write any
more about the country and the people for whom I
had a personal feeling.
"Then I had the good fortune to meet Sarah
Orne Jewett, who had read all of my early stories
and had very clear and definite opinions about them
and about where my work fell short. She said:
'Write it as it is, don't try to make it like this or
that. You can't do it in anj'body else's way; you
will have to make a way of your own. If the way
happens to be new, don't let that frighten you.
Don't try to write the kind of short story that this
or that magazine wants; write the truth and let
them take it or leave it.'
"It is that kind of honesty, that earnest en
deavor to tell truly the thing that haunts the mind,
that I love in MLss Jewett's own work. I dedi
cated 0 Pioneers! to her because I had talked over
some of the characters with her, and in this book I
tried to tell the story of the people as truthfully
and simply as if I were telling it to her by word
of mouth."
Why She Had to Learn It.
This is downright enlightening. Miss Cather
does not specifically say that she had to depart
from actual persons when she came to do her good
work, but that is the inference we draw. She doea
not entirely lay bare the real reason; and for the
benefit of those who may be puzzled over it let us
supplement what she says.
There is a pitch of emotion at which the artist
cannot work ; he can only see, feel, learn, store up ;
the rendering of what he has felt and seen comes
afterward. Wordsworth said that poetry was emo
tion recollected in tranquillity. He might just as
well have extended the definition to include all
forms of art. When you or I come to sit down and
put on paper actual persons whom we knew and
loved (or hated) we cannot do it if the feeling is
still very strong, any more than we can write about
them while loving or hating them. Our hands shako
and our emotional and mental disturbance is so
great that we cannot collect our thoughts, or, if
we contrive to collect them partially, we cannot put
them down on paper. Tears blur the vision. We
have to wait, then, until a little time has passed
and we are calmer; until we can recall in a warm,
remembering glow the feeling of that time, recall
it just sufficiently for our artist's purpose. We sail
through it then, but arc not awash.
Very often this intensity of feeling about actual
persons so persists as to make it impracticable to
write honestly about them at all. And so the artist
is thrown back on his imagination for the bodying
forth of other persons and characters, typical
enough, real enough, true enough, but not the flesh
of his flesh and blood of his blood. About these
creations of his own he can write and write welL
And this, we are surmising, is the experience that
Miss Gather underwent as so many others have
undergone it before her.
In her case the difference was that she had the
imagination to come to her rescue. So few have!
Or rather, so few have an adequate imaginative
faculty, one that will bear them forward, one that
will sustain their created people, that will meet
.every demand made upon its resources, early and
late, that will not flag, that will not wcarj', that
will not die in the middle of the creative task.

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