Willa You Let Me Read Your Letters?
intr.v. snooped, snoop·ing, snoops
To pry into the private affairs of others, especially by prowling about.
Looking where we shouldn’t seems to becoming more and more acceptable or at least it’s becoming more prevalent. I don’t know about you, but I got in BiG trouble if I got caught snooping. Parents, siblings, friends, even strangers don’t appreciate having their hidden stuff exposed. And face it, we all have stuff we want to remain hidden.
This is why I am having such difficulty with my latest selected tome of erudition.
Right there. It says it right there. Willa Cather’s letters were hidden. She didn’t want them hanging out in the public eye. In fact, it’s taken about seventy years after her death to get these letters out. Why? Cather expressly stated in her will that she did not want her correspondence bandied about. Aren’t last wishes significant? Apparently not. If the agenda and credentials are proper enough it is deemed in everyone’s best interest to snoop and reveal.* No shame attached. In fact, no contrite apologies. Furthermore, the editors, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, justify their snooping in the book’s introduction:
Before Willa Cather died, she did what she could to prevent this book from ever existing. She made a will that clearly forbade all publication of her letters, in full or in part. And now we flagrantly defy Cather’s will in the belief that her decision, made in the last, dark years of her life and honored for more than half a century, is outweighed by the value of making these letters available to readers all over the world. [highlights are mine]
Hmm, “forbade” means to me “don’t do that.” What about “flagrantly defy”? Do I hear a little self-righteousness bragging, as in “I know it’s wrong, but I’m going to be proud out loud anyway”? Tsk.
As interested as I am in Willa Cather, I feel it’s wrong to snoop her letters. Just because they are published by a reputable and respected publisher doesn’t mean it’s ethical. Literary vultures waited until the will expired in 2011 and swooped down for the feast. Here is a paradox: if these two editors so respect Willa Cather, why aren’t they respecting her last wishes? Don’t get me started about trotting out King Tut’s burial goods for the paying public. I guess celebrities are open season dead or alive.
Granted, the letters represent only 20% of the entire collection, and none are present that might tarnish or stain Cather, (says the editors). I still feel mighty uncomfortable reading her private correspondence. There are family matters, personal matters, circumstances and situations that reveal too much of a peek behind the privacy curtain.
As much I appreciate learning about Cather’s background, which helps provide more depth to enjoying and understanding her prairie trilogy (Song of the Lark, O Pioneers, My Antonia), I have shut the book after about 200 pages, right about the third section, about when she left her editor position at McClure’s to pursue writing full time. The best is yet to come, yet sorry, I’m gonna pass. I respect Willa as an author too much to rummage around in her personal life.
Maybe, it’s me. Snooping for the cause of erudition is still snooping.
What do you think, readers? Should Willa Cather’s wishes been respected? Should her letters have been left alone, should they not have been dusted off and printed up, even if it’s in the quest harkening the light of “literary illumination”?
*This could easily segway into a Snowden blog,, couldn’t it?
- Willa Cather’s Letters Released For Publication Against Her Wishes (lawprofessors.typepad.com)
- Prairie Love (cricketmuse.wordpress.com)
- “The fact that I was a girl never damaged my ambitions to be a pope or an emperor” (vtpanther.typepad.com)