Thursday, April 11, 2013

New Yorker: What's in Cather's letters

, the author of Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism recounts the difficulty of Cather scholarship before the lifting of the ban on quoting Cather's correspondence verbatim:
I became interested in Cather in the early nineties. When I read O’Brien’s article, I was curious, and I ordered a photocopy of the letter in question from its owner, the Duke University Library. When I read it, I discovered that O’Brien’s paraphrase was exactly the opposite of what Cather had said. But, like O’Brien, I had signed that no-quoting agreement, and so when I came to write about this, I, too, had to reword Cather’s sentence. I said, in the tightest possible paraphrase, that what Cather had written to Pound was: “It is clearly unjust that female friendship should be unnatural, I concur with Miss De Pue that far.” It seemed very interesting—even fun—to me that a widespread and important assumption about Cather was based on a complete misrepresentation of her words. Still, my point couldn’t be completely convincing, because it didn’t carry the weight of Cather’s own words. Now, thanks to Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout’s book, we can read the words that Cather wrote to Pound: “It is manifestly unfair that ‘feminine friendships’ should be unnatural, I agree with Miss De Pue that far.” When I see how close this is to what I called my paraphrase, I think I should have just used Cather’s words without the quote marks. A veteran Cather scholar told me that she and many of her colleagues did that all the time, and nobody ever called them on it.

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