Willa Cather addresses a group of college friends, describing her Nebraskan town’s provincial New Years celebrations in amusing detail. Shortly after writing this letter, Cather left Red Cloud in order to work as a journalist in Pittsburgh.
To Mariel, Ellen, and Frances Gere; Althea “Allie” Roberts; and Mary “Masie Ames
January 2, 1896
Siberia [Red Cloud]
Mariel, Ellen, Frances, Allie, and Maysie;
My Dear Push,
I address you thus in a bunch because I dare not address Mariel singly as I do not feel equal to discussing Love and Live and Death and Alvary and German opera with her by mail. My spirit is willing but my pen is weak. When I see her I will consent to talk it however [sic]. I wonder if it would diminish Mariel’s adoration to know that Alvary’s real name is Max Achenbach and that he has nine charming little Achenbachs and a Frau who weighs three hundred.
I had a fine time in Beatrice, the fascinating Katharine is just as fascinating as ever and Bertie’s charms grow apace. He and I used to sit around and quote Ella Wheeler Wilcox until we well neigh drove Katharine crazy. He was very nice and I dont [sic] blame Katharine for liking him, I do and he is not my brother either.
Well, girls, I must tell you about a New Year’s dance Douglas and I went to last night. Douglas made me go, for about sixteen girls wanted and expected him to ask them and he thought it would be nice to make them all furious. He sent to Lincoln for a lot of flowers for me and so on and I really had to go with them. And of all rough-house affairs, of all cake walks! The hall was big and the floor might have been good, but they had the floor heaped with shavings and chunks of wax, chunks which you had to leap and mount and clamber over with an alpenstock. For seats they had big rough planks resting on chairs. The boys and girls had the same dressing room. The refreshments consisted of ice water in a wooden pail, coffee and ham sandwiches which they passed in a bushel basket, a potato basket. But this is only the setting, the environment, the dance was the thing! The men caught your arm just as high as your sleeve would permit, fortunately they could not get up any further than my elbow, and they hugged you like ten thousand Ourys. I had a terrible feeling that they were likely to lay hands upon my bare neck at any moment and wished for a high neck. The men fell down every now and then and you had to help them up. Yet this was a dance of the elite and bon ton of Red Cloud…One thing was a comfort, Douglas did splendidly and he certainly was the most civilized looking object in the crowd.
Say girls, you remember our handsome preacher Putnam whose bible Marie returned two years ago, well he is a pastor of the First Christian Church of Denver now. He was in town yesterday and he is better looking than ever.
Say Mariel, I am going to ask a favor of you and if you hate to do it, why just dont [sic]. Sarah Harris has a little book of mine, “Sapho”, by Alphonse Daudet, which I am very fond of as it is illustrated by Rossi and every picture is a whole French novel. Now considering the existing relations it would be snippy of me to write and demand it from Sarah, and alas I know too well her habit of forgetting to return things. Would you please tell her sometime that you want to read it and I told you to ask her for it? I really want the thing awfully and I dont want to ask Mrs. Imhoff to get it for me as I am afraid the book might corrupt her morals or dispel her illusions or something, but you see I have confidence in Mariel.
I dont [sic] know when I will appear in Lincoln next, nor do I much care. One of the charms of the Province is that one gets indifferent toward everything, even suicide. “Then think of me as one already dead, and laid within the bottom of a tomb.” Please let me know the university and “social” news from time to time, you know I really am interested in all those complicated matters. When you next see “all my friends” give them my love, unqualified and unmodified.
Farewell, O Maids,
“And when like her, O Saki! you shall pass,
Among the guests star scattered on the grass,
And reach the spot where I myself made one,
Forget me and turn down an empty glass.”
Notes: Max Alvary was the German opera star, most famous for his renditions of Wagner.
The “empty tomb” is misquoted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. See Act 3, Scene 5, 54-57.
From The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. New York: Random House (2013).
Alvary’s obituary, with reference to his effect on young women.
Snippets from Wilcox, possibly shared in Cather’s banter with “Bertie.”
Hermione Lee on Cather’s divided legacy.