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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
Mysterious or not, the office had lost none of its liveliness, and although McClure may have been temporarily deflated by the treachery, as he saw it, of his brilliant staff, he had not been defeated. “His electric energy keyed the whole office to a high tension which never relaxed so long as he was in the place; and he seemed to be everywhere at once,” wrote Edith Lewis, Willa’s friend who also worked at the magazine. It was like “working in a high wind, sometimes of cyclonic magnitude,” and the storm center, was, of course, the publisher himself. Yet both Edith and Willa spoke also of his gentleness, his courtesy that extended to everyone from staff writers to office boys, and his particular kindness to the young. Years later Willa told her former “chief” that she thought the secret of his success with young people was that he often thought them a little more able than they really were, which encouraged the best of them to work all the harder to come up to his expectations. She was probably thinking of herself as she had been in those days. She was always eager to please him, she remembered, and he was eager to be pleased. It was one of the happiest associations of her life, and even during the years when they saw little of each other, Willa counted McClure among her closest friends.
In 1913, when he no longer ran the magazine and Willa, too, had gone on to other ventures, McClure asked her to help him write his autobiography. Actually Willa wrote and McClure talked. Pacing the floor in Willa’s apartment, he told her all about his boyhood and his early struggles. The story of his life was published in McClure’s in installments over a period of eight months, and Frederick A. Stokes Co. brought it out in book form in 1914. The only reference to Willa in the entire book is a cryptic note at the beginning: “I am indebted to the cooperation of Miss Willa Sibert Gather for the very existence of this book.” It was McClure’s way of acknowledging that My Autobiography by S. S. McClure was in fact the work of Willa Gather. As for Willa, although she never made any public claim to be the author, her friends were well aware of her role. She often said in explanation of her frequent use of a male character to act as narrator in her books that working with McClure had given her practice in getting inside the skin of a man. And she told one friend that in the “autobiography” she thought she had written “better and truer McClure than McClure himself.”
After Willa’s death in 1947, Edith Lewis paid a visit to McClure in the hospital, where he lay critically ill. When she spoke of a posthumous collection of Willa’s stories that had just appeared, his face lit up. “She was wonderful, a wonderful girl,” he kept repeating. And when she told him that a biography of Willa was being planned, he roused himself to say, “I will help you with it.” He died the following week, at the age of ninety-two.