Annotations from the Archive: Early Magazine Days

Jeanette Barbour wrote a profile, “A Woman Editor,” in the Pittsburg Press (March 28, 1897), with these observations at the start of Cather's early and prolific career in magazine writing and editing:

“Miss Willa Cather, the editor of the Home Monthly, is not Pittsburger, but she is carrying on her editorial work here and is such a thoroughly up-to-date woman she certainly should be mentioned among the pioneers in woman's advancement... Miss Cather is just beginning her career, but she is doing it with the true progressive western spirit, that fears neither responsibility nor work, and it will be a career worth watching. To go off, when one is but twenty-one, into an entirely new part of the country and undertake to establish and edit a new magazine requires plenty of ‘grit’—a quality as valuable in a business woman as in a business man.”

We are fortunate to have several letters in the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Collection in the Special Collections and Archives at the National Willa Cather Center that relate specifically to Cather’s years as a magazine writer and editor. We have excerpted them here ahead of our time exploring this fascinating and influential time in Cather’s career at our 66th annual Willa Cather Spring Conference on Willa Cather and Popular Print Culture.

Cather often disparaged the magazines she wrote for, or in general, and the quality of work that was submitted or published. As one of few, but well paid, women editors in a then male-dominated profession, her editorships provided important income in the early part of her career. Cather's critical and editorial prowess and experience at Home Monthly and McClure's, and earlier writing ventures in Nebraska, would help her to forge valuable connections and the respect of her peers. These experiences also sharpened her craft as a writer, and the successes of her future brilliant fiction.

You can read more about her views on magazine writing, her years as editor, and other personal reflections in the essential Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters, collected by L. Brent Bohlke and available in our bookstore.

And don't forget to register for our 66th annual Willa Cather Spring Conference, June 3-5, 2021!

To Ellen Bladen Gere (June 29, 1896) — when just starting out as managing editor of Home Monthly: “...As to the magazine Ned, I fear it will be great rot, home and fireside stuff, about babies and mince pies. But the financial outlook is good, so I guess I'll stay by it for a while anyway. I will be virtually managing editor, Mr. Axtell and I being the only people who have anything to do with the literary part of it. During his month of absence I am to have sole charge. The proof reading goes all right, I found four mistakes he passed over this morning. I have a nice desk etc. of my own.”

To Mrs. Gere (July 13, 1896) — “...You see the entire responsibility of the first issue devolves on me. We are of course short of Manuscript on the start and I have written fully one half of the magazine. Then the foreman is not used to magazine work and I have to oversee everything that goes on in the composing room. I'll tell you my old Hesperian experience helps me out there. I was down in composing room until one oclock last night sweating over those forms and making up the pages. Then I have all the my manuscript reading and purchasing for the September number, and all the correspondence with literary people, which of course demands some care. Fortunately the stenographer is an exceptionally good one and knows how to spell. The responsibility is something awful. I dream about that magazine every night.

Now Mrs. Gere I want to ask a big favor of you, and no one but you can do it. I want to write an article on Mrs. W. J. Bryan and Mrs. McKinley before any of the other magazines do. Its a chance for a big ‘scoop’ and I want to make a grand success of it. The old maid who keeps my boarding house knew Mrs. McKinley well in her youth. I have worked her for all she is worth and got lots of valuable data. Next week I go down to Canton Ohio to get early photographs of Mrs. McKinley etc. Now I cant go to Lincoln—how I wish I could—so I want you to please send me all the facts you know and can get about Mrs. Bryan. What her literary tastes are, her club standing, her home, her legal studies, how she came to take them up etc. You know what I want, personal matter that the newspapers dont give. Of course I will keep your name out of it, and mine too for that matter. I will use a pen name, I have had to use half a dozen in the first number. Now dont fail me, Mrs. Gere, for this means lots to me. Mr. Axtell will be delighted if I can work it up thoroughly. I will write to Captain Phillips and ask him to try to get me Mrs. Bryan's photograph. I must have some if they are to be had.

The magazine is not all I could desire from a literary standpoint, its policy is rather namby-pamby, but of course that is the publishers' business, not mine. I want to show you all that I can take up a thing and stick to it even if it dont just suit me. The great key of success is to work when you are not suited, I fancy. You would'nt know the lazy girl I used to be in me now. Even the stenographer has been lectureing me about working too hard. If Mr. Axtell is suited, I'll make this thing succeed. I never felt so able to work before. My own literary work I will have to keep up outside largely, its a little too heavy for whats wanted in the monthly. Of course its a little hard for me to write gentle home and fireside stuff, but I simply will do it. Its so satisfactory to be really of some importance, to have something to do that no one else can do quite as well. It takes all the ennui out of life. At first I rebelled at some things, I had to learn that every editor is not a Mr. Gere or a Mr. Jones. But I have learned that now and have resigned myself to the fact. I mean to stick this thing out. Thats the size of it. Three tall, plain, stiff, prim, Presbyterian Miss Rushes called on me this evening, three of Lydas ten thousand cousins. I was very demure and discussed flower gardening church music…”

To Will Owen Jones (January 15, 1897) — “I may not be able to get my stuff in this week. ‘This is our busy week.’ But I had an experience with the managing editor of the ‘Times’ and ‘News’ that I thought might interest you, so I'll take time to tell you. It is W. A. Magee, you know, the man who ‘owns’ Pittsburgh. I have known his sister in law but had not met him. He is also the political "boss" here, President and Chief stock-holder of the Consolidated Street Car Company that owns 8000 miles of track, an is a multimillionair and is managing editor of two papers. Of course he did'ntdont do much editing. Well, I have been thinking for a good while that it would be a good thing to be working into some solid newspaper in case the Monthly should collapse. So last Friday with merely a note of introduction from my actress friend Miss Craigen I went to his office. I expected There were more people there than I ever saw in an office; poor women who wanted work for their husbands on the car line; men who had been fired for drunkenness and wanted to ‘try again’, men who wanted to sweep the streets, and seedy looking newspaper men in last summer's tan shoes and red neckties whose appearance told plainly why they were there. Well, we wasted two hours and at last Magee came in. He was a little ugly man carelessly almost shabbily dressed with an intensely nervous manner. When all those people began at him I thought it was simply no use to try and was about to go away, for here were all these hungry looking people ‘wanting jobs.’ But I stayed just for the pleasure of seeing this millionair's manner with the poor devils. He had a kind word for every one of them and it was'nt unctious patronizing kindness, just the simple sort that a man whose heart was good might let drop to his less fortunate fellows as he hurried through the thousand gigantic plans of his busy life. He knew most of the women by names, gave them letters to the engineers, often encouraged the men, & gave them letters. and At last it was my turn. Well, I had never asked a stranger for a ‘job’ before, so I did'nt say I knew his family, I wanted to talk business only. Like a fool I had'nt thought just what I wanted to ask for or what I would say I could do. But I told him what I had done and that I had only a limited amount of time for newspaper work & that I was on the magazine. He was as nice to me as to the rest, helped me to say what I wanted an and got my whole history out of me in five minutes by the clock. Then he said he'd look up my case and asked me to come again today. I went back this afternoon not expecting anything but to see and wonder at this queer nervous little fellow again. Why there were ten experienced newspaper men in his office begging for a job. I just went because the fellow was a wonder to me. He asked me into his library—both of his offices were literally full of people—His library is a palace, though he says he seldom reads. He got to the point right away, remembered my name and said he ‘took to me.’ Told me to go ahead and do some special [illegible] articles as things struck me and he'd take them. Said there was a vacancy on the evening paper and he would see that my chance was good there. Then he said, ‘Now there is one thing I should have asked you the other day, but I was really very much exhausted then. Sometimes when people strike a new town they are laid up. I've been that way myself. If you're fixed that way I'd be glad to tide you over.’ I cant tell you how nicely he said it, Mr. Jones, it did'nt hurt my pride a bit. Of course I told him I did'nt need anything, but I added ‘You're a white man sure.’ He goes to New York tomorrow, gets back Monday, made an engagement with me for Thu Wednesday and Friday goes to New York I'd work for the fellow just to study him, this queer fellow who controlls the politics of Pennsylvania, ‘owns Pittsburgh’, edits two papers, rides in a carriage, lives in a palace, wears dirty collars and shoes run down at the heel, and talks to street car conductor's wives like they were his friends and picks up poor lone maidens he has never [illegible] seen before and does the big generous by them. How can he do it all? I should think he'd just drop from exhaustion. He left me to meet with the architects to examine plans for an immense new bank bank he is president of.

Well I did'nt mean to write you a volume, and of course nothing may come of it. But my admiration for W. A. Magee will be just the same. I thought it might interest you to hear about such a giant, we dont see much of that sort of thing in the west. Say, Mr. Jones, if you'd drop me a line about your New York adventures I'd greatly appreciate it.”

To Mariel C. Gere (April 25, 1897) — “...Business affairs are going much better than they were this winter and I am doing my work better. That is I am learning to keep still and do just what I'm told. Of course the magazine is the worst trash in the world, but it is trash they want and trash they pay me for and they shall have it.”

To Carrie Sherwood (July 4, 1932) — “I don't know if ‘Two Friends’ is out yet, but I saw proofs of it before I left New York and ever since have wanted to prepare you for the dreadful illustrations. The editor gives a western story to some nut who has never been west of Hoboken, and who thinks that all Western men are rough-necks. I hate publishing stories in magazines, anyway, and only do it because they pay me very well…”