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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
Within a few months of Willa’s arrival, McClure had assembled a whole new staff, many of them writers rather than editors. Will Irwin came over from the New York Sun , where his stories on the San Francisco earthquake had impressed McClure, to relieve Witter Bynner as managing editor. Bynner went back to reading manuscripts for Viola Roseboro and was also made poetry editor. Characteristically McClure assigned another writer, George Kennan—not Irwin, who was a native of San Francisco—to do a muckraking series on the politics of the Bay City. McClure held the firm conviction that a good writer could write on any topic as long as he was given sufficient time to learn about it. He was the first editor to put his writers on a kind of retainer so that they were paid—and paid well—while they were traveling and doing research for a story. A political historian might know the facts about corruption in municipal government but he would probably write a dull story. A fiction writer, on the other hand, knows how to stir readers with his prose, and it was essential that readers of McClure’s Magazine be shaken up.
The short-story writer and novelist George Kibbe Turner was put to work on “certain immediate problems of American civilization and government,” according to an advertisement of the magazine’s plans for 1907. Ellery Sedgwick and Cameron Mackenzie, McClure’s son-in-law, completed the editorial lineup, and the advertisement made it clear that despite the loss of the old guard, McClure’s would continue to run the same kind of provocative material the public had come to expect.
Thanks to Viola Roseboro and McClure’s own missionary efforts abroad, the magazine had established a reputation for publishing fiction of unusually high quality. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Ebb Tide and St. Ives had appeared in McClure’s . So had Anthony Hope’s Rupert of Hentzau and Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous . The prospectus for 1907 promised short stories by Joseph Conrad, O. Henry, and Viola Roseboro herself. It also announced the publication of “The Namesake” by Willa Cather. “Our list of stories by this writer,” read the copy, “has made a mark in proportion to its strength rather than its length.” Actually only two Gather stories had appeared in McClure’s before Willa went to work there, “The Sculptor’s Funeral” and “Paul’s Case.” As soon as Willa was on the staff, however, her stories began appearing regularly, causing not a little resentment among her colleagues, who claimed she ignored the fiction editor and put her own stories in the magazine without showing them to anyone except McClure, and not always to him.
Undoubtedly McClure’s commitment to fine fiction was one of the magazine’s chief attractions for Willa Cather. Her first assignment, however, had nothing to do with fiction, except insofar as the story she would be working on turned out to be as fascinating, as bizarre, as filled with human interest as any novel. When Phillips, Tarbell, and the others left McClure’s and started their own magazine, the American , they made sure to take with them most of their uncompleted projects. Among those they preferred to leave behind was a strange, dog-eared manuscript that had been around the office for over three years and which they were probably relieved to see the last of. It was a comprehensive life of Mary Baker Eddy and a history of the Christian Science Church she founded; McClure was to consider it one of the most important stories he had ever published. Written by a free-lance writer, Georgine Milmine, the vast, disorganized manuscript had already been worked on by several members of the staff, but it was still badly in need of editing, checking, and rewriting. This was the formidable task McClure turned over to his new associate.
In regard to Willa Gather, McClure’s judgment was astute. She was, he knew, a complicated woman whose feelings ran deep and whose emotions he might guess at from her youthful poems and stories. He had glimpsed the intensity that she controlled so firmly and he admired the loyalty to family and friends that she had exhibited during their early conversations. Now he liked what he saw of her in the office. She was cool and level-headed and she took what was assigned to her and worked hard. Viola Roseboro and others must have made her familiar with the events that led to the “revolution” at McClure’s , and she may have concluded that the publisher had temperament enough for all of them. As for herself, it was not in her nature to indulge in behavior she would have considered unprofessional.