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My Brilliant, Scolding Friend: Willa Cather and Zoë Akins’s Epistolary Feedback

An early letter from Willa Cather to Zoë Akins in 1914 consists almost entirely of blunt feedback to the aspiring writer. Some representative lines:

This story, my dear Zoe is written to be smart. . . . There’s either got to be real feeling in a story, or an intellectual interest of the highest order. . . . Now this is meant to be a scolding because I think you ought to be more in earnest . . . . You’ll never do anything worth while as long as you flutter so.

Cather softens the claim before wishing Akins a “serious” New Year and signing off.[1] Such prodding to be more serious and to develop “real feeling” in writing characterizes the lifelong, feedback-oriented correspondence from Cather to Akins, of which about 100 letters remain. Akins would go on to become a Broadway playwright known for melodramatic romances and, throughout most of the 1930s, a frequent screenwriter for Hollywood. Among her screenwriting credits are multiple pre-Code films (including four directed by Dorothy Arzner) and George Cukor’s Camille and Zaza. Her Broadway adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1935.


Portrait of Willa Cather by Carl Van Vechten, 1936. Courtesy of the Van Vechten Trust.

In many ways, Cather and Akins could not be more different from one another. Cather fostered an ethos of seriousness and anti-modern remove. Akins became known for her Hollywood parties.[2] Ernest Hemingway, in his derogatory “The Lady Poets with Foot Notes,” allegedly means Akins when he describes a “lady poet” who “made half a million dollars writing bum plays” and whose “Stomach’s gone bad from liquor. Expects do something really good soon.” Cather eventually forbade adaptation of her work for film and the stage; Akins’s career relied upon adaptation (her own adaptations of others’ work, and film adaptations by others of her plays).

The differences between Cather and Akins continue to be reflected in the status of their archives. Cather allegedly disposed of personal correspondence in her possession prior to her passing; her will prohibited publication of her letters.[3] Akins left her papers (manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, and more)—185 boxes worth—to the Huntington Library. Akins’s collected correspondence speaks to a rich network of artistic mentorship, collaboration, and appreciation including, among many others, Alice Meynell, Anita Loos, Edith Wharton, Thornton Wilder, Gloria Swanson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I offer this brief sketch of Cather and Akins’s friendship as a solicitation to begin thinking through lost histories of literary feedback among modernist-era women. Perhaps the paradigmatic instance of modernist feedback remains Pound’s comments on Eliot’s poetry—that is, the case of one high modernist poet offering feedback to another. The correspondence between Cather and Akins gives us an archive of women writing across generic boundaries as well as perceived distinctions of the serious and the popular. This archive, in turn, gives us access to the complex affective structures of feedback—affable and testy, lighthearted and serious, personal and artistic. The ad hoc, occasional nature of feedback presents both an opportunity and a challenge for us to piece together diffuse archival materials as we trace the intersubjective histories (or biographies) of modernist artistic production.

Akins and Cather’s correspondence began with letters of rejection written to Akins by Cather during her time as managing editor at McClure’s Magazine (1906-1912). Akins recalls Cather critiquing poetry submissions with encouragement and inviting further writing. Soon Akins, on a visit to New York, trekked to the McClure’s office during a blizzard to introduce herself and submit more poetry. She was greeted by S. S. McClure, who admonished her for not wearing boots in the snow before sending her to Cather’s office. Akins’s unpublished writing on Cather—including a letter drafted to Cather a few years after her death and a chapter in a book-length autobiographical manuscript—speaks to the vividness with which she continued to recall this first meeting and notes that Cather became the reader Akins most wanted to please.[4]


Portrait of Zoe Akins by Carl Van Vechten, 1935. Courtesy of the Van Vechten Trust.

I have opened with an example of how blunt or even harsh Cather could be in her correspondence. Yet her criticism was as constructive as it was tendentious. The earliest archived letter from Cather to Akins is dated January 27, 1909, although it does not appear to be the first communication between the two. Cather turns down Akins’s poems before reflecting abruptly on the range of Akins’s writerly pursuits and the possibility of focusing her efforts: “I wonder if you will ever settle down and do something with all your might and main . . . ? And whether you will ever cease to coquette with the stage.” Cather claims dissatisfaction with current dramatic work and concludes by suggesting that Akins’s “real gift” is playwriting.[5] Despite protests from Cather here and in later letters that she doesn’t know much about playwriting, her feedback to Akins over the years tends to be most specific and engaged when addressing drama. This feedback is extensive and occasionally glowing. For instance, in 1922 she writes about Akins’s The Texas Nightingale on Broadway, “The play is a splendid thing . . . . too clever and too brilliant to be disregarded,” and praises at length the performance by Jobyna Howland, a stage and film actress who would later live with Akins in Los Angeles.[6]

Akins’s influence on Cather is more difficult—but not impossible—to trace. Akins provided feedback to Cather’s writing in their correspondence, but there are no extant letters (to my knowledge). What can be located are Akins’s published reviews of Cather’s books, including One of Ours (1922), for which Cather won a Pulitzer Prize, and A Lost Lady (1923). A full-page advertisement for Cather’s novels in a 1925 issue of The Saturday Review of Literature includes a blurb from Akins’s A Lost Lady review: “Put all the books that have been produced in America this year in one heap, balance A Lost Lady against them in scales of literary value, and it will outweigh them as a bar of pure gold outweighs the feathers of a thousand geese.”[7]

We might discern the possibility of more substantive—if veiled—engagement with Cather’s ideas in an article Akins wrote for Vogue in 1953 about the value of a “big” and over-furnished house. Writing six years after Cather’s death and sixteen years after the publication of her artistic credo “The Novel Démeublé [Unfurnished],” Akins argues against domestic downsizing for aging women who live alone, in part because accumulated furnishings allow one to retain “associations and habits” and to “keep something of her own style . . . in these changing days.”[8] While Akins writes about lifestyle rather than literary form, the connection between furnishings and habits of mind recalls Cather’s vision for the modern novel: that writers “could throw all the furniture out of the window; and along with it, all the meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations, all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre.”[9] Cather published this in a collection of essays titled Not Under Forty, which she described to Akins in 1937 as the closest she had come to “explaining” and “defending” her own art (something she advises Akins not to do for New York theater critics, who had written disparagingly about Akins’s work).[10]

The relationship between Cather and Akins can serve, I hope, as one example of the kind of feedback we might productively explore as we constantly negotiate the contours of modernism and its archives. Yet this case may serve not just as an illustrative example but also as an opening onto a wider network of feedback among women writers and artists. Akins’s penchant for receiving critique might have been fostered by her friendships in St. Louis (and after) with members of the Potter’s Wheel group, eight young women who created a monthly handcrafted magazine to be read among themselves, family, and friends. There was only one copy of each monthly issue (from 1904-1907), which circulated along with a separate blank book to be filled with written responses.[11] Akins wrote admiringly of “the Potters”[12] and introduced Cather to women who had been in the group, including the poet Sara Teasdale and Celia Harris. Correspondence among Cather, Akins, Teasdale, and Harris reveals circuitous, even gossipy, routes for feedback. For instance, Harris writes to Akins in 1919 about receiving a letter from Cather that praises Akins’s ideas and aptitude for playwriting.[13] If the feedback between Cather and Akins challenges us to reconstruct an archive, that archive is itself a part of a broader constellation. By attending to feedback among friends, we can excavate dynamic stories of modernist production across genres, geographic regions, and lives.   


Notes

[1] Willa Cather to Zoë Akins, Jan. 1914, ZA 2981, Zoë Akins Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Published in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, ed. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, New York: Vintage, 2013, 186.

[2] William J. Mann, Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969 (New York: Penguin, 2002), 74-75.

[3] See the Willa Cather Archive for information about Cather’s letters: http://cather.unl.edu/completeletters.html.

[4] Akins, “To Willa Cather,” unpublished autobiographical essay, ca. 1949, ZA 557; and Akins, “Others than Myself: Some Memories,” unpublished autobiography, chapter 8, ca. 1953, ZA 385, Zoë Akins Papers.

[5] Cather to Akins, Jan. 27, 1909, ZA 2970, Zoë Akins Papers. Published in Selected Letters, 120-21.

[6] Cather to Akins, Nov. 1922, ZA 2988, Zoë Akins Papers.

[7] The Saturday Review of Literature, October 24, 1925, 252.

[8] Akins, “Keep That Big House IF,” Vogue, November 15, 1953, 146. 

[9] Cather, “The Novel Démeublé,” in Not Under Forty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936), 51.

[10] Cather to Akins, Oct. 28, 1937 [?], ZA 3037, Zoë Akins Papers. Published in Selected Letters, 536-37.

[11] One of these feedback notebooks is held in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, in the Sara Teasdale Collection.

[12] Akins, “Others than Myself: Some Memories,” chapter 3.

[13] Celia E. Harris to Akins, Aug. 26, 1919, ZA 3651, Zoë Akins Collection.

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