Promises Are Hard To Keep

The much anticipated (for book geeks like me) publication of the first volume of Samuel Clemens’ autobiography has been given as a “powerful argument for writers’ burning their papers” according to Garrison Keillor’s scathing review in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.  Keillor, much like Clemens’ himself, notes a score of missteps in this autobiography – forcing the reader of his review to suffer the tedium of his reading of the damned book.  The review is, in fact, so tedious with tedious quotes, that, rather than eliciting even a morbid curiosity about the “fraud” that is The Autobiography of Mark Twain, I now have absolutely no desire to read it.  In fact, I have a strange and sudden urge to instigate a book burning.

It just so happens that writers get caught in their own papers all the time.  It’s the problem with print.  It tends to stick around, and what might be interesting or of note or even good one day, may in fact be pure crap 100 years from now.  Many writers, those with foresight perhaps, do, in fact, burn their papers.  Willa Cather did it.  And then she went a step further by putting a provision in her will that forbids her letters from being published.  Ever.  This fine print has made researching her, if not difficult, at the very least inconvenient for scholars.  But after reading Keillor’s review of Twain’s papers, I have to give the lady props.

Of course, Mr. Clemens has only himself to blame.  Had he allowed the book to be published in his lifetime (or even shortly after his death), he might have been forgiven.  But to put so much pressure on a piece of writing – to require it not be published for 100 years and to subtitle the thing “The Complete Authentic Unexpurgated Edition, Nothing Has Been Omitted, Not Even Scandalous Passages Likely to Cause Grown Men to Gasp and Women to Collapse in Tears — No Children Under 7 Allowed to Read This Book Under Any Circumstance”…well…

It would seem he was asking for it.

Even so, I can’t help but feel a little bad for the man. I mean, 100-year-old promises are hard to keep. Especially when one promises a blockbuster of a book that won’t be read for a century. Still, even with Keillor’s review, the book is doing well and no doubt stuffing the coffers of Mr. Clemens’ benefactors. And let’s face it – who among us doesn’t want something we’ve written to be on the New York Times’ Best Seller List for seven weeks straight (and counting) a century after we’re gone? Of course, if we aim for that, we’ll no doubt find ourselves in the same embarrassing predicament as Mr. Clemens.

Cooking with Cather

I love cookbooks.

Four years ago, I was researching and writing my dissertation on Willa Cather.  At least, that’s what I was supposed to be doing.  After three intense years of coursework, nine months of study and preparation for the oral and written exams, and a whirlwind tour of archives to read Cather’s letters, by the time I was ready to start writing, all I wanted to do was bake.

And bake I did.  For three months I made bread.  Sourdough bread. Rye bread. Wheat bread. White bread. Cheese bread. You name it.  If I could find a recipe for it, I was making it.  After several months of this, my freezer was stuffed with frozen loaves of homemade bread.  There was simply no other place to put more bread.  And so the canning began.  I canned jellies and pickles, tomato sauce and roasted red peppers.  My kitchen was a laboratory.  The house smelled divine.

That summer, I had a paper to present at the International Cather Seminar in France.  There, I came face to face with my dissertation director who had no qualms in asking me, point blank, where my dissertation was.  I stammered.  I hemmed and hawed.  And finally, I admitted that I had discovered the perfect sourdough starter.

Looking back on it, it makes perfect sense that I would turn to cooking at that point in my study.  I had just finished reading numerous Cather biographies in addition to her letters to friends and family.  Food was everywhere.  Willa Cather was, shall we say, a bit of a gastronome.  She had a french cook specially prepare her meals.  She wrote, most often disparagingly, of the food she ate.  Every biographer who has written about Cather has been forced to, at the very least, mention her obsession with food.  Were she alive today, I have no doubt that Willa Cather would have one of the most discriminating and well-followed food blogs ever to be written.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Willa Cather Foundation has recently published a cookbook: At Willa Cather’s Tables.

This little gem has recipes from no less than sixteen of Cather’s literary works in addition to Cather family recipes and a host of recipes from places Cather loved.  It is also filled with excerpts from Cather’s novels and short stories and memories from friends and family members.  If you’re like me, and you love both literature and cooking, it’s the perfect kind of cookbook.  You can get it here:

My dissertation director was not impressed with my experiments in gastronomy.  Back then, his exact words to me were, “Gabriel.  Just write the damned thing.”  And that is exactly what I did.  And yes, even my dissertation dealt, in part, with Cather’s obsession with food.  But that was years ago.  And though I’m still actively involved in all things Cather, I don’t currently have a deadline looming.  The only real pressing matter is deciding what I should attempt first:  Antonia’s Favorite Banana Cream Pie or Carrie Miner Sherwood’s Christmas Plum Pudding.