Perception vs Reality: Willa Cather

Willa Cather is often remembered as cantankerous and reclusive by biographers, but that’s not the necessarily the case.

Willa Cather is sometimes remembered by biographers as cantankerous and reclusive. While acknowledged to be accessible to close friends and family members, she was nevertheless regarded as somewhat isolated and eccentric.

Casual acquaintances who recorded their memories of Cather shortly after they encountered her often present a favorable picture. For example, Josephine Frisbie of Red Cloud, who met Cather during the Christmas holidays in 1927 at a tea given in Cather’s home, was unprepared for the “nicely dressed, cordial hostess who greeted us.” Frisbie described Cather as about medium height with a slight tendency toward plumpness and dark fluffy hair simply dressed. She noted Cather’s clothing–two-piece dress, black pumps with one strap, and sand-colored hose but observed, “When you talk to her you notice her vigor and herself, not her clothes.” Frisbie also emphasized the extreme alertness with which Cather spoke: “She talks as she writes, clearly and deliberately.”

The Superior Express of January 12, 1928, reported a visit Cather had recently paid to the new Brodstone Hospital in Superior, Nebraska. It illustrates the spontaneous admiring response Cather often received from contemporaries: “It is not difficult to understand, after meeting her, why Miss Cather is so popular and beloved by her friends and acquaintances. Despite her literary successes her personal charm is augmented by her democracy, and her easy gracious commonness. In her presence one realizes that the greatest source of charm in her delightful novels and sketches lies in her pleasant and versatile personality.”

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