They knew each other, those 19th and early 20th century writing women. Harriet Beecher Stowe knew Annie Fields. Annie Fields knew Louisa May Alcott and Sarah Orne Jewett. Willa Cather knew Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields.
I have been reading the new The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout) and find that Cather not only knew Fields and Jewett; she knew Sinclair Lewis and Robert Frost and Alfred Knopf and Yehudi Menuhin and everybody else. The links of women writers Cather knew, however, all chain back to Annie Fields, the wife and then widow of James Fields, the Fields of Ticknor and Fields, the distinguished Boston publishing house.
I myself met Annie Fields years ago in the pages of her Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe. It’s a wonderful book, a little short on scholarly apparatus, but full of the flavor of Stowe’s life. Fields quotes Stowe as she remembers her mother’s death when little brother Henry was too young to attend the funeral:
They told us at one time that she had been laid in the ground, at another that she had gone to heaven; whereupon Henry, putting the two things together, resolved to dig through the ground and go to heaven to find her; for, being discovered under sister Catherine’s window one morning digging with great zeal and earnestness, she called to him to know what he was doing and, lifting his curly head with great simplicity, he answered, ‘Why, I’m going to heaven to find ma.’
After her husband’s death, Fields and Jewett lived together for many years – a “Boston marriage” – until Jewett’s death. Fields maintained a hospitable setting in Boston for writers and their friends. Cather, who admired Jewett and later edited a book of her stories, met her there. Alcott also enjoyed the Fields’ support and sometimes stayed with her, especially when money was tight. So far as I can tell, Cather never met Stowe or Alcott, but she had opinions, especially about Alcott. In 1938, she writes to Henry Seidel Canby:
Now, another thing: I want to thank you for your review of Katherine Anthony’s book on Miss Alcott [titled Louisa May Alcott]. I see the Freud fanatics on getting on your nerves, as they are on mine. It happened that my old friend Mrs. James T. Fields, born a May, was a cousin of Louisa May Alcott. Several years before she died, Mrs. Fields asked me to destroy a number of more-or-less family letters, which she did not wish to leave among her drawers-full of correspondence. There were a great many from Miss Alcott, who used often to come for long New England visits at her cousin’s house. Anything more lively and “pleasant” and matronly you could not imagine. She was often a good deal fussed about money, because, apparently, she was practically the only earning member of the family….
If the “naked bodies” of the men she nursed in her hospital experience left any “wound,” it was certainly not perceptible to her relatives, or in her litters—or in her very jolly books, as I remember them. Catherine the Great might be called fair game for Miss Anthony’s obsession, but certainly that warm-hearted and very practical New England Spinster was not. I wish now that those letters to Mrs. Fields had not been destroyed.
I can’t comment on the Anthony book, but I have seen plenty of similar ones. When a woman writes, especially if she writes successfully and even more if she makes money doing so and, worst of all, if she wants to make money doing so, then she must be proceeding out of some personal deficiency or “wound.” They say that Elizabeth Gaskell wrote because of grief over the death of son (except that she was writing stories even before she married) and George Eliot wrote because she was homely (since pretty women don’t need to achieve anything on their own) and Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote sensationally about slavery because of her religious upbringing (except that the family was also broke and she needed to sell something). Cather knew better. She was one of the writing wounded.
If Alcott’s letters had survived they would buttress our picture of an ambitious and successful author who did not set out to write a feminist tract, but to produce a salable book at the request of her publisher. I am glad that — despite her express wishes — not all of Cather’s letters were destroyed. They also show us a woman who loved to write and enjoyed being successful, artistically and financially.