H. L. Mencken, whom no one would confuse for Nicholas Sparks, wrote that “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia.” This year we celebrate the centenary of Willa Cather’s great novel—and we give thanks for Viola Roseboro, who saved it from the rejection pile. Roseboro (1857–1945) published Cather’s first volume of short stories, The Troll Garden, in 1905 and hired Cather as an editor at McClure’s Magazine. After multiple publishers declined, Cather brought Roseboro the manuscript for My Ántonia. Her advice gave Cather the direction she needed: “[You] have told your novel through the wrong character’s eyes, from the wrong point of view,” she said. “Have you the courage to throw the [manuscript] away, and sit down and re-write it from [Jim Burden]’s point of view, you have a great book.” And Cather is just one jewel in Roseboro’s crown of American writers.
Roseboro was born in Pulaski, Tennessee. She attended the now-defunct Fairmount School, which was affiliated with The University of the South in Sewanee and was advertised as “a select Church School for Girls in the mountains of Tennessee—Over 2,000 feet above sea level.” After graduation, she came down from “The Mountain” and left the South behind to try acting and writing on the East Coast.
This year we celebrate the centenary of Willa Cather’s great novel My Ántonia—and we give thanks for Viola Roseboro, who saved it from the rejection pile.
As an unmarried working woman, she delighted in surprising men with her anti-suffragette views. Throughout her life, she preferred the intellectual company of men and remained skeptical of feminist enthusiasm. The writer Gertrude Hall later recalled to Roseboro’s biographer that when “a graduate of Bryn Mawr once said in Viola’s company: ‘Why are men proud of their strength? What is there to be proud of in strength?’ Viola replied, ‘You have read the Iliad and the Odyssey in the original, and you ask why men are proud of their strength?’ ” At her cottage on Cape Cod, she often recited the book of Job as God speaks from the whirlwind: “Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.” She urged young writers to read and re-read Willa Cather, Shakespeare, and Walter Bagehot. In her introduction to Bagehot’s booklet Shakespeare, the Man, Roseboro writes: “Bagehot had true imagination . . . because he did not live the womanish inactive life usual to artists, but was always in the thick of practical affairs.” She admired his ability to “speak to that great body of men who run the world’s affairs.”
As she watched Stanford White’s architecture being built across New York City, Roseboro sat in the shade of two great American family trees: the Gilders and the La Farges. She joined Richard Watson Gilder when he edited The Century Magazine and learned literature through his alternating “dark brilliancy” and “playful lightness.” Roseboro and her friends often watched the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens at work, and in 1884 he completed a low-relief portrait sculpture of the Gilders that now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Gilder tree continues to bear fruit with his grandsons George Gilder, the prolific author of Wealth and Poverty and other books, and Richard Gilder, the co-founder of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. In 2016, Richard Gilder donated a painting, The Fourth of July, 1916 (The Greatest Display of the American Flag Ever Seen in New York, Climax of the Preparedness Parade in May), by the American Impressionist Childe Hassam, Roseboro’s friend from the Cos Cob artist colony, to the New-York Historical Society. The N-YHS also holds the Gilder Lehrman Collection, one of the greatest archives in American history.
Richard Watson Gilder ranked Roseboro alongside his friend Robert Louis Stevenson in the art of conversation. Friends and acquaintances recalled her great wit. Describing the apartment of an actress, Roseboro said that
large open book cases fill all available space and are filled with the most seductive, well used, and assorted volumes. A library of uniformly bound, highly respectable books has always the air of a pretentious ornament, and, indeed, I think no lover of books ever possessed such a one, for with him a library is a growth, not a ready-made purchase. It would be about as indicative of sentiment for a man to purchase his family with his house.
In a line that could have come from Bertie Wooster, she once said, “There is a great deal in what you’ve got your mouth fixed up for, and if you’re opening it for a bon-bon you’ve got small thanks for the man who slips in an olive, however fond you may be of olives.” An aspiring writer remembered Roseboro’s reaction to one of her manuscripts: “wishing to convey to me that the heroes of my novels were manly, Viola said that they ‘had no hairpins in their hair.’ ” To another young client, Roseboro promised to inspire ideas in her head “as you put cloves into an apple you are going to roast.” Recalling her poor hospitality toward a departed guest, she said, “I no more offered her something to eat than if she had not had a mouth!” Caught betraying her age by correcting a colleague on the date of a long ago political event, she steadied herself to explain: “Prenatal memory prompts the reference.”
Among Roseboro’s circle of artist friends, the stained-glass artist and muralist John La Farge had an especially enduring influence. Roseboro said she learned to see art through John’s “heavy lidded spectacles,” and thereafter she declared that “I don’t go to Europe for scenery; I go to Europe to see Renaissance art.” She arranged for McClure’s to publish a series of essays on “Great Masters” written by La Farge. (I first noticed these essays in the bookcase of Isabella Stewart Gardner, the great Boston art collector. She made a preemptive purchase of a painting from his tour of Japan and the South Seas with his friend Henry Adams.) Roseboro watched him paint the great altarpiece in Manhattan’s Church of the Ascension, Willa Cather’s favorite church. When La Farge was asked to illustrate scenes from Browning, he turned the book over to Roseboro to make the best selections, trusting her “poetic and inspired mind.”
And the La Farge family has continued to make an impact on American culture: John’s son L. Bancel LaFarge and grandson Thomas Sergeant La Farge worked together on paintings for Trinity Church in Boston and mosaics in Our Lady’s Chapel at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. Another grandson, Louis Bancel LaFarge, served as the Chief of the renowned Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program during the Second World War and later founded the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Roseboro said that “if the world of letters should remember me, it will be because of my discovery of you, O. Henry.”
The La Farges had literary connections to Roseboro as well as artistic ones. In 1931, John La Farge’s grandson, Oliver, won an O. Henry Prize for short stories along with Booth Tarkington. Roseboro was the editor who first discovered Tarkington (a future two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, in rare company with William Faulkner and John Updike); she stormed into the editorial room, tearfully proclaiming, “Here is a serial sent by God Almighty for McClure’s Magazine!” Tarkington’s O. Henry Prize must have thrilled her for another reason: she also discovered William Sydney Porter and encouraged his efforts for two years before finally accepting his first short story, published under the pen name O. Henry, in 1899. When “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking” appeared in McClure’s, a major figure in the history of the American short story had found his profession, and Roseboro said that “if the world of letters should remember me, it will be because of my discovery of you, O. Henry.”
John La Farge described Albrecht Dürer’s patron, Willibald Pirckheimer, as “a type of the other class, whose edges met the artists and the intellectual men.” Joseph I. C. Clarke, the editor of The Criterion, remembered Roseboro similarly, as “a charming essayist long wasted on discovering infant geniuses for publishers.” Viola Roseboro is one of those invaluable midwives of culture as she offered wise advice as a faithful attendant upon new creations. We are indebted to her, but this obligation is easily repaid. She asks only that we enjoy O. Henry and Willa Cather.