The Vault

What Willa Cather Read

Sometimes, it was hard for the writer to find a good book.

Willa Cather's library card from 1939
Courtesy of The New York Society Library

On April 6, 1937, Willa Cather went to the library and checked out Agnes Repplier’s In Pursuit of Laughter, a historical study of humor. How do we know this? A new exhibition at the New York Society Library, on view through Aug. 31, showcases 12 library charging cards issued to the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and her partner Edith Lewis. That year she also read J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, aka Peter Pan, and his four-act play, What Every Woman Knows, plus George Meredith’s The Amazing Marriage.

Cather had been a member of the private library since 1928 when both she and it resided downtown—Cather lived at the Hotel Grosvenor on lower Fifth Avenue, near the NYSL’s original 109 University Place location. Both author and library moved uptown in the thirties. Cather used the collection to research her novels, and for leisure reading. According to Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress, she could be an exacting (though congenial) customer. “[Cather] would go to the [Society] library, look over the stacks, and sigh,” Woodress wrote. “‘It’s easy enough to see what you don’t want to read,’ she told Marion King, the assistant librarian.”

The library retains the fading, hand-stamped cards listing in longhand the books that Cather and Lewis withdrew between 1937–1947, during the time that Cather wrote and published her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl. “I would characterize Cather’s reading as broad and varied,” said Harriet Shapiro, head of exhibitions at the NYSL. “I’m not sure themes or preferences emerge except that one is always aware of Cather’s questing, inquisitive mind and her intense interest in literature past and present. And what a mind!”

Some time ago, the Willa Cather Archive began researching Cather’s reading habits, resulting in a work-in-progress bibliography and these conclusions: “First, that she read early and well among people who respected the written word, and secondly, that she read widely all her life. Books were meaningful to her both for inspiration and for information.”

It does not appear that the books listed on the NYSL’s vintage borrowing records have yet been added to the bibliography—first, librarians will have to transcribe the handwritten titles. Some of the more easily legible include Gunnar’s Daughter, the 1909 novel by Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset; The North Pole by Robert Peary; and The Human Comedy by historian James Harvey Robinson. In some cases, the very same copies taken home by Cather remain on the NYSL shelves.

One more thing

You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.

Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

Join Slate Plus