Sunday 28 February 2010

Life writing

My interest in life writing continues with Hermione Lee's excellent biography of Willa Cather. Although I've read a lot of Cather's fiction I don't know a great deal about her life. Cather preferred it that way, too, instructing that her private correspondence should be destroyed after her death.

A biography of Cather inevitably throws up the names of other grandes dames of American literature. Apparently Wharton and Cather were not mutually appreciative. Edith Wharton referred to Cather as the woman with the 'blurry name.' However, I'm delighted to discover that Cather was great friends with Sara Orne Jewett (who wrote The Country of the Pointed Firs) and Dorothy Canfield Fisher. The picture on the cover of Willa Cather - A Life Saved Up was taken when she was the managing editor of a newspaper. Imagine having to go to work in that get-up every day! Elegant, though.

Saturday 20 February 2010

The Custom of the Country

Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise everyone by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met ...
Undine Spragg has a dilemma. She has read in 'Boudoir Chat' that all the fashionable women in New York are using the new pigeon-blood red notepaper with white ink. Yet, elegant Mrs Fairford's invitation to lunch is written on plain old-fashioned white notepaper. Should Undine reply on red or white paper? Perhaps white paper is truly more stylish than red? Perhaps Mrs Fairford's use of white paper indicates that her social standing is not what Undine supposed?

Such are the difficulties faced by a wealthy Midwestern girl trying to move among New York's smartest set. Undine is always one step behind the Van Degens, the Driscolls and the Chauncey Ellings. I can't put Edith Wharton's brilliant satire The Custom of the Country down and I'll post more when I've read it.

Saturday 13 February 2010

Sweet Thursday

When I took my degree as a mature student a few years ago, the American Literature module was by far my favourite part of the course. I would probably never have discovered the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the novels of Willa Cather if I hadn't taken that module. The course was also memorable for what it left out. No F Scott Fitzgerald, no Edith Wharton and no Native American texts.

John Steinbeck didn't feature on the reading list either. I suspect some aspects of his work are a little sentimental for some, but he is a very fine writer. I've been reading Travels with Charley for the Cornflower reading group and Sweet Thursday which is the follow-up to Cannery Row. Oh to visit Steinbeck's California! To hear the sea lions barking at China Point, to beachcomb the spring tides at La Jolla, to see the pelicans on the sea rocks and the orange monarch butterflies descending in clouds on Pacific Grove.

Speaking of vintage American literature - Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country arrived today!