The Lost Art of Correspondence.

(after reading the Selected Letters of Willa Cather)

We live in a funny little era. Translations and reprints are numerous, perhaps more so than ever which, to the casual mind, would suggest a renaissance in the world of reading and writing. However, this isn’t so. E-mails, texts, and Twitter are all formats that have done a lot to shorten our literary wind. Brevities and acronyms are supplanting our literary arts.

Scanning through the e-mails in my mailbox not only confirms this, but lets me know just how far we’ve fallen from the branch of good communication skills. I have about two dozen e-mails from this year alone (containing one to three sentences each) that are loaded with spelling errors, poor sentence structure and are very often unreadable or misleading. The reasons for this decline in our abilities are varied, but the bottom line isn’t; we’re losing the art of letter writing.

Why, though, would that be a bad thing?, you might ask. Well, it’s bad because writing letters has always honed our literary skills just as practice in anything leads to improvement. So, as we no longer write the long winding letter to home from faroff places, we also move further and further away from the ability to do so.

Reading a collection of letters from any non-literary persona prior to, let’s say, 1990, will confirm this to the minds of any who deign to do so. James K. Polk’s letters, for example, are rich in subject matter, vocabulary, and metaphoric ability. The letters of Delacroix are masterfully composed and rife with fruitful information for any artist (and his Diaries are among my favorite books to read and reread of all times). The correspondence of Civil War soldiers, too, are often well-composed pieces of literary interest.

So, what happens if we examine the letters of a literary superstar like Ezra Pound? We find a bit of heartbreaking beauty.

Willa Cather is no exception. Cather’s correspondence (or roughly 1/5th of it) have recently been published by Knopf and they are, to my mind, a reason to celebrate and to mourn. I say celebrate because they are interesting and excellently handled. I say mourn because they show us just how far from that bough we’ve fallen. Cather describes even the most banal events, days, and months with a spark and freshness that is at once enjoyable and brilliant. She talks about Santa Fe, Quebec, New York City, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Bread Loaf (yes, the writers’ conference) and the literary habitat of her times in a measured, masterful cadence. These letters are all the more illuminating when we read that Cather never expected them to be published or, in other words, she didn’t write them with the care and attention she put into her novels and poems, despite the fact that it may seem like she did.

Though those of us here in Santa Fe, New Mexico have an especial taste for Cather’s life and works, these letters are of a mass appeal. She tackles so many subjects, from gender differences to the aspects of a good novel and good writing in general. Each letter sparkles, a quality for which we can undoubtedly thank the editors of this volume for.

Collected Works is happy to announce that one of the two editors of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather will be joining us in our storefront for a lecture and book signing . Janis Stout is co-editor of the volume and will be with us at 6 PM, Thursday the 27th. Please join us for this exciting event.

To read more about the book


-Christopher J. Johnson