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« Art and THE SONG OF THE LARK | Main | The Two Faulkners »
Saturday
Apr212012

Willa Cather and Isabelle McClung

Isabelle McClung, about 1914It's important to note that THE SONG OF THE LARK is dedicated to Isabelle McClung, one of the great loves of Cather's life. I thought I'd take a moment to explain the complicated relationship between the two. (For a fuller chronology of Cather's life, click here.)

In July 1896, after graduating from the University of Nebraska and wandering aimlessly a bit, Cather landed an editorial job in Pittsburgh with a nationally circulated "women's" magazine, Home Monthly, part of the vanguard of home-ec publishing that would soon sweep the nation with larger titles like Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens. (Here's a hot, on-going debate: were these magazines an incipient form of proto-modern feminism, a "room of one's own" where women could develop an aesthetic and even an ethic away from the eyes of their husbands, or were they a niche for a grasping patriarchy, desperate to keep wives nailed in the coffin of domesticity in the face of increasing modernism and industrialism?)

While editing and writing various articles on domestic matters, Cather also worked as a music and theater critic for newspapers in both Pittsburgh and back home in Lincoln, Nebraska. These were high times for a woman from the prairie: Cather interviewed touring musicians, went to recitals at the new Carnegie Music Hall in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, and heard some of the best performers of the day. She also traveled to New York to hear various operas, including a complete Ring cycle. One can speculate endlessly how much this life influenced her portrayal of Thea, her musician from the plains.

Within a few years and still quite hesitant about her own attempts at creative writing, Cather resigned from the magazine full-time and accepted jobs teaching English in various Pittsburgh high schools. Her first book, a volume of poetry, "April Twilights," was published in 1903, and followed quickly by her first volume of short fiction, "The Troll Garden" (1905). One of the best-known stories from this collection, "Paul's Case," is a true-to-life portrayal of a swishy gay man from the plains, encountering the art-filled life of the big city for the first time. The story ends tragically--but it's also important to see in the title the prevailing notions of homosexuality: a "case," a problem, an illness, a condition, mostly mental.

Needless to say, Cather's relationship with her own sexuality was complicated. Until she left for Pittsburgh, Cather most often went by the name of "William," not Willa. She dressed in men's cloths--particularly doctor's clothes. Most of her friends at college called her "Dr. Will."

In Pittsburgh, Cather seemed to embrace (somewhat hesitantly) her own sexuality. She reverted to using "Willa" as her name--and was comfortable enough to make lasting friendships with prominent Pittsburgh families. By far the most important friendship was with Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a wealthy and well-connected Pittsburgh family. Isabelle's father, Judge Samuel McClung, had presided over the 1892 trial of anarchist Alexander Berkman, the would-be assassin of tycoon Henry Clay Frick. From their meeting in 1899 until Isabelle's death in Sorrento, Italy, in 1938, Cather and Isabelle were sometimes lovers, always devoted friends. Indeed, although Cather had other relationships with women throughout her life, Isabelle was perhaps her true love. Late in her life, Cather said that "all my books were written for Isabelle."

That said, it's hard--always--with Cather to fathom the true nature of her attractions. For one thing, she was intensely private, a common modus operandi of homosexuals living in oppressive cultures. To that end, she destroyed much of her private correspondence before her death. For another thing, her will expressly forbids the publication of any remaining letters or journals.

An undated picture of Willa Cather and Isabelle McClungHowever, we can say this: around 1901, Isabelle invited Cather to move in with her. Problem was, Isabelle was quite young, in her late teens, and still living at home. Nonetheless, Cather lived in the McClung home until she moved to New York in 1906. Many of the stories in "The Troll Garden," including "Paul's Case," were written while Cather lived in the McClung home.

Cather shared Isabelle's bedroom. The two women were inseparable at dinner parties. They traveled to Europe and out West together. And apparently, the old Judge was okay with the arrangements--so long as they stayed (mostly) under his own roof. When Cather moved to New York, he forbade his daughter from going along.

Cather was not one to let the grass grow under her feet. She was soon involved with other women. Yet on her frequent cross-country train trips back to Nebraska to tend to her ailing parents and the settlement of their estate, Cather often stopped off in Pittsburgh to spend time with Isabelle and the McClung family.

In 1914, Cather got a severe case of blood-poisoning from a stick by a hat pin. She was hospitalized for a long time and took almost the entire year off to recuperate--which she did, not in New York, but back in the McClung's home in Pittsburgh with Isabelle in constant attendance. It was during this year, laid up in bed and being served hand and foot by her favorite woman, that Cather wrote THE SONG OF THE LARK.

But it did not go well from here. Two years later, Isabelle decided to cash in her chips and marry violinist Jan Hambourg. Cather was devastated--and yet quickly recovered, partly with the help of Edith Lewis, the women with whom she was living in New York City (and with whom she would live for the rest of her life).

The Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey, New HampshireNonetheless, Isabelle and Cather remained close. Isabelle and Jan asked Cather and Edith Lewis to join them for a summer holiday at the Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, the next year, in 1917. It proved a healing and idyllic time. Eventually, Cather saw Jaffrey as the site of some of her happiest moments; she would use Jaffrey as the place she wrote most intensely in the years to come, often pitched in a tent in the woods, often wandering on the slopes of Mount Monadnock. There is some evidence to suggest she associated Jaffrey with Isabelle, long after the married couple stopped summering there. Indeed, Cather chose to be buried, not in Nebraska, and not near her Greenwich Village home, and not near her beloved retreat on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy, but in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, in sight of Mount Monadnock.

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