Mr. McClure And Willa

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Willa Cather did not publish her first novel until she was almost forty. Then the cool, rich prose of such novels as My Antonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, One of Ours (which won a Pulitzer Prize), A Lost Lady , and Lucy Gayheart established her reputation as one of America’s foremost literary figures.

As a young woman she worked as a newspaper critic and columnist, and as a teacher. She was born in 1873 in Virginia and raised in Nebraska, where she also went to college. She was teaching in Pittsburgh and writing short stories on the side when she came to the attention of S. S. McClure, the flamboyant editor and publisher of McClure’s Magazine , who offered her a job as associate editor on his magazine.

I N 1906, WHEN Willa Cather came to New York to join the staff of McClure’s Magazine , the city was moving rapidly into the twentieth century. Traces of an older, slower, more intimate city survived in the narrow, twisting streets and small red-brick houses of Greenwich Village and in the tree-shaded, Georgian tranquillity of Washington Square. Once this had been a potter’s field and the scene of public hangings with a noose swinging from a huge elm tree; now Stanford White’s great Romanesque arch in honor of Washington dominated the Square. Standing astride the north end, the marble monument served as an imposing gateway to Fifth Avenue and the spreading city beyond. The houses on the north side were dignified and substantial, as befitted New York’s first families—Rhinelanders, De Forests, Delanos, and Hoyts—who had built them and still occupied them. This was the world of Henry James, who found in Washington Square “a kind of established repose.”

On the south side the atmosphere was completely different. Here artists, writers, and musicians had their studios in modest red-brick buildings. It was in one of these cheerful buildings at 60 Washington Square South that Willa Gather took a room. She knew the house well from visits to a Nebraska friend, Edith Lewis, who lived there, and its friendly domestic atmosphere appealed to her. The informal neighborhood of little shops and restaurants, with its mixture of the orderly and the raffish, had retained an individuality and a civility that gave it a European flavor.

Ten years earlier Willa had told a school friend that she had every intention of going to New York one day but that she would never go as a Bohemian. If she recalled these words, it must have amused her to find herself now in an environment that was the classic setting for la vie bohème . The neighbors who greeted her on the stairs or in the narrow hallways, who shared the bath at the end of the corridor and waited patiently in line in bathrobes and slippered feet, were mostly young and struggling. Painters, poets, singers, they practiced their crafts and lived hardworking, precarious lives. Willa enjoyed the stir they created around them, their optimism and exuberance. She approved their ready sympathy for one another and, above all, she admired the dedication and discipline of these young people. One day she would write a story about struggling artists in New York and faithfully describe the red-brick building on the Square. But at thirty-two she was not really one of them. It was not art for art’s sake that brought Willa to New York. She had not come to the big city to starve like Mimi in a garret. She had come as a journalist with a job for which she had been sought out and with expectations already on their way to fulfillment.

She had met S. S. McClure three years earlier when he summoned her to New York to have a look at her and agreed to buy her short stories. In 1905 his publishing company had collected seven of them in a volume called The Troll Garden . He had been watching her career and biding his time. When he was ready, he descended on Pittsburgh to offer her a post on his magazine. She had accepted, but in fact it was as unlikely a job for Willa Gather as could be imagined.

McClure’s had built its reputation as a powerful, muckraking journal, the scourge of mighty corporations, the flayer of corrupt politicians, a voice raging against the ills of an industrial society. A strange setting, indeed, for a young woman who, if not a Bohemian, was emphatically not a reformer either. A critic who disliked Zola and Tolstoy in their reforming moods, she had no use for reformers when she met them in the flesh. They offended her by always seeming to press for the destruction of something. She thought they spent so much time in the company of horrible ideas that it made them mad, like Electra. Yet here she was, working for McClure’s , still the most successful reforming magazine in America despite a series of difficulties that had almost destroyed the magazine and, with it, S. S. McClure’s career.