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Photographed on January 22, 1936
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Willa Cather and Carl Van Vechten had little in common aside from their editor, Blanche Knopf, and a shared love of the opera. Though they were never close friends, they met from time to time at the Knopfs’ table where they enjoyed discussing their favorite opera singers and recent performances. They talked at length about Olive Fremstad, a singer they both admired and on whose life Cather based her novel The Song of the Lark.

Willa Cather is one of American’s finest novelists and perhaps the most influential to emerge from the central Plains states. She grew up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and many of her most celebrated novels take place in the farming communities of the Nebraska prairie, portraying the difficult lives of pioneering families in this unforgiving landscape. The most famous of these books, O Pioneers! (1913), My Antonia (1918), and the Pulitizer Prize winning One of Ours (1926), demonstrate Cather’s forceful and unadorned prose style. Though she has been criticized for her sometimes-nostalgic vision of the American prairie, her work is also praised for its unflinching depiction of the region. One contemporary critic wrote of Cather:

  Her gift is a vivid expositional narrative form that reveals the soul through remarkable characterization. Her psychology never goes deeper than it does when her characters are working arduously on their farms or battling their way through the terrible Nebraskan blizzards. Then a rich magic creeps into her pages . . . . There is no American author living who can better exploit her own region than Miss Cather.1

During her childhood, Cather was a classic tomboy, even referring to herself as William. In spite of her mother’s opposition, she flouted convention by wearing trousers and cutting her hair short. As a young woman, she studied at the University of Nebraska before moving east to Pennsylvania to work as an editor. She wrote in her spare time for more than ten years before, at the urging of her mentor, writer Sarah Orne Jewett, she decided to devote herself to her literary ambitions full time.

Van Vechten tried for some time to persuade Cather to allow him to photograph her; he even enlisted the aid of their mutual friend, Blanche Knopf. “I have just been talking to Miss Cather,” Knopf wrote in a letter to Van Vechten, “and I suggest to you that if you could have her come over in the daytime she would come to have her picture taken. I think the idea of her coming for dinner and then having her picture taken rather worried her.”2 After nearly a year, Cather finally consented to Van Vechten’s request. In the end, she hated the photos that resulted from the sitting. In a letter, she voiced her displeasure and asked Van Vechten to destroy the prints and the negatives. Whether the subject thought the photographer would comply with her wishes is unclear. “At any rate,” Van Vechten wrote, “I saw little of her after the photographs were made.”3


1 Herbert S. Gorman “Willa Cather, Novelist of the Middlewestern Farm” New York Times 24 June 1923
2 Blanche Knopf to Van Vechten 14 Mar. 1935 Van Vechten Papers Beinecke Library Yale University
3 Van Vechten “Some Literary Ladies I Have Known” Yale University Library Gazette 26:3 (1952) p. 106

 

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