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Books, Articles, TV and/or Rants, Queen Bees

Willa Cather Teaches Us about Privacy

Portrait of Willa Cather

Portrait of Willa Cather (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Mummy, what is privacy?” I was going to put ‘grandma’ originally, but thought, nope, because kids are growing up right now who do not know and will probably never know what privacy is.

But I know someone who does.   Although I should be posting about birds, bees etc (indeed these posts are a bit backed up in WordPress Blog Admin at the moment), I digress as I am occasionally wont to do with books and Queen Bees.  The Queen Bee this time is Willa Cather, and the very act of publishing her letters is a bit of an invasion of her privacy, might even be illegal as it goes against wishes expressed in her will.  You see, Willa Cather was all about the work and all about her privacy, and for her the two spheres did not intersect.  Willa Cather would hate Facebook, probably blogging as well (although it may depend upon the blog).  Ok, maybe she wouldn’t hate the technology itself, but she would certainly recoil at how people use it.

I’m not sure how much of an international reputation Cather has, so I will fill you in just a bit:  Cather, an American author born in 1873, is best known for her books on American frontier life.  She came from a farming family and spent her formative years in Nebraska, at that time very much the American frontier and still so today, if only in the imagination of most Americans (Bill Bryson creates quite an image of the state in one of his books, one of the most memorable statements being, “I was heading to Nebraska.  Now there’s a sentence you don’t want to say too often if you can possible help it.”  Bill Bryson is from Iowa). Of course, and luckily for us, Willa Cather felt differently.  Not that she presented an idealized version of life in the state at that time, but a depth of emotion linked with the land is a mainstay of such books as My Antonia and Oh Pioneers! from the Prairie Trilogy.  I remember reading My Antonia in Sister Josephine’s 4th grade class, and being totally swept up in it, not the least because of what I considered to be the exotic to my nine-year old ears pronunciation of ‘Antonia’:  stress on first the first syllable (Sr Josephine included a secondary stress on the “ni”).

What’s this got to do with privacy?  Willa Cather was known to exclaim over the Freudian or psychoanalytic tendencies of the critics, and went so far as to burn parts of her correspondence.  And, there is the the will where she insisted that the remaining correspondence should never be published or even quoted from.  I have every sympathy with this perspective, although I know scholars do not.

However, what really captured my interest was how little scholars seem to appreciate, if not privacy itself, then the reasons for privacy,  especially when it comes to authors.  In an article about the book in the NY Times,  this caught my eye:  Mr. Reynolds called Cather’s late-life obsession with privacy an “enduring mystery” but speculated that it reflected the ambivalence of a literary celebrity who was born in the age of Twain and lived almost into the age of Mailer and Pynchon.  I was a bit taken aback by the fact that she was conisdered ‘obsessed’ with privacy, that it is ‘an enduring mystery’ and the implication that it was a bit of old-fashionedness or,  as mentioned elsewhere in the article, depression.

Really?  Really?  Is it really that hard to fathom?  I know it’s something people cannot imagine now in an age where everyone wants to be on TV, in the newspapers, in photographs on FB or on cell phones etc.  Perhaps I am the one out of step, hopelessly old-fashioned.  No perhaps about it.

Will these sentiments prevent me from buying the book?  Er, I plead the Fifth, Your Honor….

And talking about Queen Bees

Deborah DeLong at Romancing the Bee has been doing an excellent tributes series to Queen Bees on her blog. (scroll down for her Girl History posts).  Her post on Octavia Hill preceded the current series a bit, but I am sure Deborah will agree that she belongs right up there in the fermament.  I’ll let you read Deb’s post for more info on Octavia.  I do, though, have a few photos from from Octavia Hill Birthplace House where I attend meetings regularly.  (I do apologize for the quality….)


Reading a crime thriller just now which refers to Katherine Whitehorn‘s  Kitchen in the corner: A complete guide to bedsitter cookery, published in 1961 and remaining in print for over thirty years.  As I don’t currently live in a bedsit (British term, even less accommodation than a studio apartment, no kitchen no bathroom, essentially a room for rent), but never mind:  the description in the book I am reading (John Lawton’s A Little White Death) has drawn me to it:

He retreated to the sitting room, still clutching the cookery book, and decided to read quietly for the while.  It purported to be a survuval handbook for life in a bedsitter…He was surprised to find the author moving readily between food and sex.  She was establishing the sexual semaphore that is food and drink.

Katherine Whitehorn is still writing.  Between her book and Willa Cather’s what better way to spend Easter?


4 thoughts on “Willa Cather Teaches Us about Privacy

  1. I do agree that Octavia Hill is one of the foremost Queen Bees! It’s a tribute that I posted about her before this current series. She certainly would be included if I had not.
    Willa Cather is one of my very favorite authors, and I’m glad she treasured her privacy. It makes me like her more.
    Her writing is so pure, almost innocent in a way. “Death Comes For The Archbishop” is my favorite!
    Loved the post!

    Posted by Deborah DeLong | March 25, 2013, 5:18 pm

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