- Historic Sites
Mr. McClure And Willa
They could hardly have been more temperamentally incompatible, but the Midwestern writer Willa Cather and the crusading editor S. S. McClure enjoyed a splendid working relationship for six years and a lifetime of mutual respect
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
His face, according to one of the memos circulating about the office, was “streaked with cruelty.” Ida Tarbell’s language became so hysterical it seems probable that her reproaches to her boss must have hidden more than a touch of wounded personal vanity. “He’s a Mormon,” she wrote in one of her letters, “an uncivilized, unmoral, untutored natural man with enough canniness to keep himself out of jails and asylums.”
Matters had finally gone too far to be salvaged. Phillips presented an ultimatum, demanding that McClure surrender control of the magazine. When he refused—he simply couldn’t let it go, he said—Phillips, Tarbell, Steffens, and Baker resigned in a body. McClure might keep his magazine; he would not keep his staff.
This was the situation in the office when Willa came to work in the summer of 1906. The great upheaval had already taken place. Of the old group only a few loyal confederates remained—Viola Roseboro, Witter Bynner, and Burton Hendrick on the editorial side and Albert Brady, who stayed on as business manager. Bynner, who had come to McClure’s right out of Harvard in 1902, was serving a brief stint as managing editor when the “ex-schoolteacher from Pittsburgh,” as he called her, joined the staff. From the beginning a coolness existed between Bynner and Willa Cather that may have had its origin the year before when Willa spent a week in the office at McClure’s invitation. Bynner had been asked by the publisher to cut what he remembered forty years later as “hundreds of words” from “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” a Cather story that was to appear in the issue of January 1905. Bynner recommended that the cuts be spread throughout the piece to prevent having to eliminate entire paragraphs, and McClure agreed. The author had not been informed, however.
“I can still hear her explosion in his office and see her enraged expression toward me,” wrote Bynner, “when Mr. McClure pretended that the cutting had been entirely my own idea.” Willa was to learn that injured innocence was a not uncharacteristic pose of her new boss. And as a rule, she accepted criticism when it came from quarters she respected. In fact, she once said that all good writers consented to cuts because they knew there were “plenty more words where those came from. ” Nevertheless, it was not an auspicious start, and the relationship never fully recovered.
F OR VIOLA ROSEBORO , on the other hand, Willa had deep respect. A striking, dark-eyed woman, some sixteen years older than Willa, Viola Roseboro had come to New York from Tennessee, where she had worked on a local newspaper, to take a job on the Daily Graphic before joining McClure’s Syndicate as a manuscript reader. When McClure started his magazine in 1893, she began to read manuscripts for both enterprises, becoming in time the powerful literary editor who saw every short story and every poem submitted to the magazine.
In New York she lived the life of a “female bachelor,” smoking when cigarettes still scandalized, admired by men and women alike, and sending shock waves back to the community of Rock Creek, Ohio, where she had grown up and where her parents continued to live. Like Willa, she was intolerant of small-town manners and held herself aloof from the neighbors. She resented, as mere curiosity, their polite inquiries about her mother’s health, for instance, and interpreted their interest in her own career as an invasion of her privacy.
During the tempest at McClure’s Viola Roseboro had stayed unmoved to a remarkable degree. Loyalty to S. S. McClure alone would probably have kept her from joining the rebellion, but her own peculiar working arrangements also helped to insulate her from the passions that shook the office. Very simply, she spent almost no time at all in the office. Manuscripts were delivered in a suitcase to her home, and she read them either there or in the park, working on a bench, penning her handwritten notes to authors and her comments for McClure.
McClure was an unmoral, untutored natural man, Ida Tarbell wrote, just canny enough to stay out of jail.
In her role as reader for the magazine, Viola Roseboro was probably the first to see Willa Cather’s early stories, and no doubt she was the person who had rejected some of those that were subsequently published elsewhere. She said later that she had recognized Willa Cather’s genius from the start, but that it had taken time for the author’s talents to develop and that she had wasted herself in some of her first attempts. Viola Roseboro may even have encouraged McClure to bring Willa to New York; at least her friends always thought this was the case.