Quick thoughts: Willa Cather Living by Edith Lewis

I avoided reading this book for the longest time because of its reputation (at least in academic circles) as a simplistic and not very revealing portrait of Willa Cather. It is probably a good thing that I waited to read it because my younger self would have been disappointed by the lack of “juicy bits” as so many before me seem to have been. I plan on working on a longer review/reflection, but for now want to say that I think this is a wonderful book. I read it slowly and took time to reflect and imagine. I learned a lot about Cather and it makes me want to learn more about Lewis, Cather’s partner of over 40 years.

The book was published in 1953, six years after Cather’s death at the age of 74. Lewis was 65 when Cather died and 71 when this book was published.

They met in Nebraska in 1903 when Cather was 30 and Lewis 21. Six years later they moved into an apartment together in New York. Lewis writes, “I believe it was in 1909, after she returned from her first London trip, that Willa Cather and I took a small and not very comfortable apartment together on Washington Place, just off Washington Square” (74).

Lewis refers to Cather as “Willa Cather,” never Willa, never Cather. Always Willa Cather. It is at times charming and at other times annoying, but one thing’s for sure: the number of times you read the name Willa Cather starts to feel like an incantation. The spell certainly ensnared me.

And there is something about the way Lewis phrased that sentence about the two of them moving in together that made my heart flutter. I think had they been “just friends” that Lewis would have offered more about why they moved in together or why they hit it off in the first place.

The thing not named, indeed.

Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record
Edith Lewis
Ohio University Press, 1989 (reprint, originally published by Knopf, 1953)
ISBN: 0-8214-0913-1
Source: bought it at Powell’s Portland, June 2012


  1. Nothing like a first-hand account of life with the author. The bios I've read leave me frustrated at the groping for truly substantive material about the person, Willa Cather. It was meant to be that way, I know, but I will take your lead and pick up this book, which I'm certain, just by osmosis, gives a “sense” of the author, as opposed to a view.
    Thank for your continued writing about Willa Cather.

  2. Thank you for your comment! The edition I read (1989) has an introduction by Marilyn Arnold. There's a newer edition available (2000) with an intro by John J. Murphy. I'm curious to see what he has to say about the Lewis's book.

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