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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
Even before she began the serious task of reworking Milmine’s material, the magazine was preparing its readers for revelations to come. The story, promised an editorial announcement, would take Mrs. Eddy from her birth in a New Hampshire farmhouse through her “strange, hysterical childhood and equally strange youth,” follow her through her marriage and her “wanderings,” and explore the “peculiar phenomena of mind and emotions which mark her character. ” “Wilful, ungoverned and dominant in her youth,” the ad went on, in her old age she became “all dominating,” holding over the Christian Science Church “a control more absolute than any other leader in the western world.”
Milmine’s manuscript was full of potentially libelous material, provocative but undocumented. Verification would require tracking down people who had known Mrs. Eddy in the little towns around Boston, interviewing them, and getting signed affidavits attesting to the truth of their statements. It was a laborious undertaking, and since the job might conceivably take several months, it was decided that Willa should move to Boston temporarily.
She was ill on the bitterly cold January day in 1907 when she left New York, but the magazine’s deadline would not allow a delay, so she checked in at the Parker House in the middle of the month as planned. The first installment of the Mary Baker Eddy story had already run in the January issue and was found to contain errors; it seemed especially important that the remaining articles be accurate. Within a few days of her arrival in Boston, Willa was writing to Mrs. McClure that she had come upon several persons who had not been seen before and who proved helpful. She would proceed slowly until she felt stronger but she was encouraged.
Willa remained in Boston throughout most of 1907, although she managed short trips to New York whenever the work, or Mr. McClure, required her presence there. But the project was even more demanding than she had anticipated. Not only was she checking facts and conducting interviews, but before she finished, she had taken Georgine Milmine’s hundreds of pages and thousands of words of text and completely rewritten them, shaping the material into a brilliant series of articles that ran in fifteen installments over a period of a year and a half. It was decided to retain Milmine’s name as author, but the “Life of Mary Baker Eddy” that appeared in McClure’s has long since been acknowledged to be the work of Willa Cather.
Her style is unmistakable—the brisk narrative, the clarity and the compression: “All the members of her household lived as if they were exactly as old and as much enfeebled as Mrs. Eddy,” reads the article describing the lady’s retirement to Pleasant View in Concord, New Hampshire. “They rose early, retired early; never went out of the house except upon her commissions; never dined out, received visits or went to Boston for a holiday.” Of a piece of childish verse that Mrs. Eddy had allowed to be published in a volume of autobiographical sketches, this judgment rings with familiar Gather scorn: “Many another girl certainly has written verses just as bad, but the fact that at the age of 70, Mrs. Eddy had actually published this doggerel, indicates that her taste had not greatly changed.”
B Y NOT HAVING her name on the series, however, Willa was spared the outrage of the Christian Science Church that descended on the magazine as month after month the tantalizing story unfolded. The publisher must have known very well what he was doing when he kept the Milmine by-line. Newsstand copies of McClure’s were rapidly bought up by the Church, while library copies began to vanish from the shelves or were found to have the Mary Baker Eddy articles neatly excised. An unmutilated copy of McClure’s during these months became a collector’s item.
Sam McClure himself was delighted with the series, and when Willa returned to New York in the fall of 1908, he rewarded her by making her his managing editor. He thought she had a genius for administration and he was only too pleased to leave the daily running of the magazine to her. That she was loyal to him he had no doubt. As managing editor, in addition to developing articles, buying material, and performing executive chores, Willa also acted as a buffer between the editor in chief and writers who felt themselves underpaid or who complained that the magazine’s decisions were not made promptly enough. Her business letters were patient, cordial, and encouraging, but it was often a trial to explain McClure’s bizarre behavior. Manuscripts had a way of disappearing or languishing for months on the publisher’s desk, and Willa often suggested to writers and their agents that they send stories to her personally. She would see to it that McClure read them as soon as possible, and if she could not get a quick decision from him or could not get permission to make a decision herself, she guaranteed to return the stories to the writers promptly. She admitted that theirs was a mysterious office, but she promised it was getting less so all the time.