"No Sag." That was Cather, and yet her private letters show her definitely wincing, if not sagging, at some of the things her siblings said and did, to each other as well as to her. At least the mystery is over, as to why she fought so hard to keep them unpublished. It isn't what so many thought - that she was squeamish about being "outed" as a lesbian.
Not at all. The letters show her fully herself, albeit painfully coming to terms with how she would be treated by her family as well as the families of the women she loved - Louise Pound's in Lincoln and Isabelle McClung's in Pittsburgh. When similar things were said and done to Gertrude Stein when she fell in love with May Bookstaver, one of her fellow medical school students at Johns Hopkins, Stein fled Baltimore for Paris and never returned to America until she was famous.
Not Cather. She stayed put, but retreated into the closet except to her closest friends and perhaps a few trusted members of her family. Certainly, her nieces who spent parts of their summers on Grand Manan knew the importance of "Miss Lewis," Cather's partner of nearly 40 years.
So many memories flood back, seeing these letters in print, most of which I've read over the years, from that first train journey in 1979 from DC to Hastings (and on to Red Cloud by car, since the train didn't stop there anymore, by then). Not all of my favorite letters made the edit, of course, including the best of the scandalous "Pound letters" Mildred Bennett furtively showed me before she died in 1989, after a decade of learning to trust my Cather instincts and where I was going with the whole Chautauqua thing.
"I had to promise never to show these to anyone, in order to be able to write my book without getting sued, " Mildred said with a twinkle in her eye, shoving a manila envelope filled with the dangerous missives across our work table in the Red Cloud lumberyard, which she had purchased, hoping to make it into an international study center for Cather scholars. Her book was published in 1951, just four years after Cather's death, the first "unauthorized" biography.
As Willa Cather once said, "It is good that the dead sleep soundly." So far the earth has not been disturbed around the Old Meeting House Burial Ground in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire, where Miss Cather and Miss Lewis are interred. One hopes that they would be smiling, just a little, could they know that the world has come home to the parish, now, and everyone knows how much they treasured one another, for all those years.