Today’s edition of #WillaOnWednesday features photos of my first edition of Obscure Destinies. The book was published on August 5, 1932 and was available in two dust jacket colors. A gray-pink fiber wove paper, which is shown here, and in a bright yellow with green and dark red print (as shown here).
Earlier this year I enjoyed a slow read of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. I did a quick skim of an advance readers copy of the book before it came out and then poked around in it when I picked up a hard copy of the finished book.
I knew I’d eventually want to sit and take my time with these letters. The Selected Letters is a thick book (715 pages), so to make it easier for bedtime reading, I purchased a digital copy and read a few letters each night before falling asleep.
Reading the letters slowly, in chronological order, made me feel like I got to know and understand Cather in a different light.
Many things struck me while reading her letters. One being that Cather considered her short story, “Two Friends,” to be the best she’d ever written.
Here’s the beginning of a letter she wrote to her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, dated September 3, 1931:
With this letter I am sending Miss Aaron two short stories for the volume of which “Neighbor Rosicky” will make a third. I hope that you and Blanche will read them both before Miss Aaron starts out to sell them. “Old Mrs. Harris” is the more interesting, perhaps; but I think “Two Friends” is the best short story I have ever done. It’s a little like a picture by [Gustave] Courbet; has that queer romantic sort of realism. It is so ‘American’ of thirty years ago that when I look it over I quite forgot who wrote it. When you do a thing that is so indigenous that the greatest foreign master couldn’t have done it, then, it seems to me, you bring home the bacon, even though it’s but a sketch–a painter’s subject done in a painter’s way.
“Mrs. Harris”, too, is very Western, and it’s much more of a story; but it’s the two “business men” I’m proud of” (454).
The letter quoted above is one that stuck in my mind, so I recently re-read “Two Friends.” It is a sketch, as Cather calls it, of two business men who are friends with different political leanings. They’re described by a young narrator who spent many enjoyable evenings with the two men until disaster strikes.
Politics didn’t impact their harmonious relationship until a bitter presidential election radicalizes one of the men and highlights their philosophical differences. Much like the 2016 election strained or destroyed relationships.
Cather cared very much about the quality of the paper used for her novels and the overall aesthetics of the book. She detested cheap editions and felt each novel warranted a different look and feel.
In the photo above, the flyleaf was neatly sliced out where someone had probably written an inscription or perhaps had a bookplate before it was resold or donated. You can clearly see the texture of the paper from this angle. It is described as, “Cream laid paper with vertical chain lines,” in Willa Cather: A Bibliography by Joan Crane.
Cather was right. Reading a beautiful book, one that is pleasant to the eye and feels good in the hand, makes the reading experience even more pleasurable.
It’s always exciting to find a bit of bookseller history in a used book. This edition was first purchased at Witkower’s Booksellers & Stationers in Hartford, CT.
This bookshop started life as Packard & Brown’s, which opened in 1835. It changed hands over the years and Israel Witkower took ownership in 1929. He ran the bookstore for over thirty decades. You can read about the bookstore in a 1992 Hartford Courant article here.
And here’s yet another Connecticut connection. The back of Obscure Destinies features a review blurb by Wilbur Cross who was, at the time, the Governor of Connecticut, a position he held from 1931-1939. Prior to that, he was a Professor of English and a Dean at Yale University in New Haven.
Is it safe to assume that in 1929 Professor Cross had something to do with Cather receiving an honorary doctorate from Yale? Her’s was the second doctorate Yale bestowed upon a woman. The first was received by Edith Wharton in 1921.