"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Music Tuesday: In Memoriam, Fats Domino

Other than his big hits, I really don’t know much about Fats Domino https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fats_Domino or his music.  It’s a bit before my time.  By all accounts he was a nice sort of man who played wholesome music, but most of the music of the 1950s was wholesome.  As you may know, he passed away last week at the age of 89. 

Here’s a little bio clip on his passing.

I really should learn more about him because I love boogie-woogie music.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boogie-woogie  Rock and roll is a direct heir to Boogie-woogie, which sports a hard-driving, rhythmic piano motif.  Here’s a sample from Fats.  Notice the piano rhythm in “Ain’t That a Shame.”

Here’s one of my favorites, “I’m Walking.”

And this wonderful wholesome classic, “My Girl, Josephine.”

I’m going to guess that Fats really was a decent man, unlike most rock and Roll musicians.  The wholesome songs really reflect his kind soul.  He was married to the same woman, Rosemary, for 60 years until she preceded him in passing, and they had eight children together.  I don’t know if he was a practicing Christian, but his life and music suggests at least some walk with faith.  Here is a charming song he wrote for his wife, ostensibly after being on the road for a while.

I love that sax introduction.  Feels like one’s been on the road for a while.

Perhaps his most artistic song might be this jazzy creole song, “Jambalaya.”

And finally his biggest hit, the one he’s most known for, “Blueberry Hill.” 

What a great tune.  Eternal rest onto you Fats, and thank you for your work here on earth.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Death of Sylvia Seltoun, From Saki’s Short Story, “The Music on the Hill.”

I’ve been reading a few Saki (pseudonym for H. H. Munro)  short stories every year. You can click the link, "Saki," below to find my other posts on his short stories.  They are short, pitch perfect, and delightful, all written with an acerbic eye and style.

“The Music on the Hill” is about an overbearing woman, Sylvia Seltoun, who successful marries an upper class gentleman, and she gets him to move to his country home, known as “Yesney,” instead of continuing his listless days in his town watering holes.  Mortimer, her husband warns her about the pagan wood deity Pan who lurks in the woods.  She scoffs at it of course, and she comes to a sudden death one day while roaming through the woods and being horned by a large stag, all the while a devilish looking boy looks on. 

The story is only six or even pages long (Saki is remarkably condensed) and you can read it entirely here.  I’m not going to analyze it but do look for all the levels of irony in it, such as Sylvia’s name meaning is “woods” or “forest.”  I’m going to quote the final paragraphs that culminate in her death. 

Sylvia noted with dissatisfaction and some self-contempt that the course of her next afternoon's ramble took her instinctively clear of the network of woods. As to the horned cattle, Mortimer's warning was scarcely needed, for she had always regarded them as of doubtful neutrality at the best: her imagination unsexed the most matronly dairy cows and turned them into bulls liable to "see red" at any moment. The ram who fed in the narrow paddock below the orchards she had adjudged, after ample and cautious probation, to be of docile temper; today, however, she decided to leave his docility untested, for the usually tranquil beast was roaming with every sign of restlessness from corner to corner of his meadow. A low, fitful piping, as of some reedy flute, was coming from the depth of a neighbouring copse, and there seemed to be some subtle connection between the animal's restless pacing and the wild music from the wood. Sylvia turned her steps in an upward direction and climbed the heather-clad slopes that stretched in rolling shoulders high above Yessney. She had left the piping notes behind her, but across the wooded combes at her feet the wind brought her another kind of music, the straining bay of hounds in full chase. Yessney was just on the outskirts of the Devon-and-Somerset country, and the hunted deer sometimes came that way. Sylvia could presently see a dark body, breasting hill after hill, and sinking again and again out of sight as he crossed the combes, while behind him steadily swelled that relentless chorus, and she grew tense with the excited sympathy that one feels for any hunted thing in whose capture one is not directly interested. And at last he broke through the outermost line of oak scrub and fern and stood panting in the open, a fat September stag carrying a well-furnished head. His obvious course was to drop down to the brown pools of Undercombe, and thence make his way towards the red deer's favoured sanctuary, the sea. To Sylvia's surprise, however, he turned his head to the upland slope and came lumbering resolutely onward over the heather. "It will be dreadful," she thought, "the hounds will pull him down under my very eyes." But the music of the pack seemed to have died away for a moment, and in its place she heard again that wild piping, which rose now on this side, now on that, as though urging the failing stag to a final effort. Sylvia stood well aside from his path, half hidden in a thick growth of whortle bushes, and watched him swing stiffly upward, his flanks dark with sweat, the coarse hair on his neck showing light by contrast. The pipe music shrilled suddenly around her, seeming to come from the bushes at her very feet, and at the same moment the great beast slewed round and bore directly down upon her. In an instant her pity for the hunted animal was changed to wild terror at her own danger; the thick heather roots mocked her scrambling efforts at flight, and she looked frantically downward for a glimpse of oncoming hounds. The huge antler spikes were within a few yards of her, and in a flash of numbing fear she remembered Mortimer's warning, to beware of horned beasts on the farm. And then with a quick throb of joy she saw that she was not alone; a human figure stood a few paces aside, knee-deep in the whortle bushes.

"Drive it off!" she shrieked. But the figure made no answering movement.

The antlers drove straight at her breast, the acrid smell of the hunted animal was in her nostrils, but her eyes were filled with the horror of something she saw other than her oncoming death. And in her ears rang the echo of a boy's laughter, golden and equivocal.

I found the writing, especially in that long paragraph to be superb.  Finally you can also listen to the story being read. 

I found that to be the best of the several readings available.  However, the reader makes a glaring error.  She forgets to read “The antlers drove straight at her breast” in that last paragraph, a very important detail to say the least.  Still I enjoyed her voice and tone.  

Monday, October 23, 2017

Matthew Monday: First Essay

Matthew had to write his first essay for school.  It was to be on his favorite saint, and he chose his namesake, St. Matthew the Evangelist.  It’s only six short sentences so I’m going to reproduce it here.

My Favorite Saint

St. Matthew started as a tax collector and he was a sinner.  Tax collectors took a lot of money from people.  Then Jesus talked to him and he became good.  He became an apostle and Jesus’ disciple.  He wrote one of the Gospels.  His feast day is September 21.

Ha, that is so cute.  Hand written in a third grader’s handwriting it looks a lot longer.  He’s submitting it today.  I hope he gets a good grade but I don’t know.  It doesn’t look like there’s much there.  But I don’t know what they expect in third grade.  I’ll pass on how he does.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Poetry: “Dulce et Decorum est” by Wilfred Owen

Continuing the ongoing series of World War I poems from the collection titled, Some Desparate Glory: The First World Warthe Poets Knew edited by Max Egremont, I want to post what I consider the finest poem to come out of the First World War.  Before I get to the poem, let me provide links to the previous poems of the series.  Since Egremont organizes his book by year during the war, I have been posting on what I consider the most interesting poem of that year.  Here are the poems and the links.

Now I had intended to only post one poem per poet so we could get a broad diversity of voices, but, since Wilfred Owen in both 1917 and 1918 stands head and shoulders above the other poems written, I really have no choice but to repeat one of his poems.  As I mentioned before, Egremont provides a summary of biographical events for each poet during each year of the war.  In the 1917 post on Wilfred Owen I had mentioned how he had been injured and spent almost a year in hospital at Craiglockhart, where he met Siegfried Sassoon, built up a friendship, and influenced each other’s poetry.  But by the end of August in 1918, Owen was recovered and on his way back to the front.  Ergremont elaborates:

The way to the front went through Etaples, then to Amiens to join his battalion and from Amiens to Vendelles before preparations for an attack.  In France Owen completed “The Sentry”, “Exposure” and “Spring Offensive”.  Of the fighting, he told his mother, “I lost all my earthly faculties, and fought like an angel.”  Doubts about his courage vanished when, with a corporal, he captured a German machine-gun post, writing that “I only shot one man with my revolver (at about 30 yards!).  The rest I took with a smile.”  Wilfred Owen won a Military Cross.

He knew he had a mission now, to care for and to record what his men endured, how “every word, every figure of speech must be matter of experience”, must be conveyed so that any soldier could understand.  “I came out in order to help these boys,” he told his mother, “directly by leading them as well as any officer can; indirectly by watching their sufferings that I might speak of them as a pleader can.  I have done the first.”  What he wrote would fulfill the second.

The end came on 4 November, during an attack across the Sambre-Oise canal when three Victoria Crosses were won.  Owen was last seen trying to cross the canal on a raft under heavy enemy fire.  The engagement was his unit’s last time in action, the heroism perhaps encouraged by a sense that victory was near.  Showing the static nature of the western front, the 2nd Manchesters found themselves on Armistice Day—11 November 1918—in billets to the south of Landrecies, where they’d been on 18 August 1914, on their way to Mons.

The confirmation of Owen’s Military Cross occurred some four days after he had been killed.  One of the myths of the armistice is of the bells of Shrewsbury ringing out in celebration as the telegram boy knocked on the door of the Owen home with the news of Wilfred’s death.  It’s ironic that the last letter to his mother from a poet whose work shows should say, “It is a great life…Of this I am certain, you could not be visited by a band of friends so fine as surround me here.”

That Wilfred Owen died one week prior to the cessation of hostilities is one of the great tragedies of the war.  Of course there were countless tragedies within the 1,568 days (4 years, 3 months, 15 days) the war spanned.  As far as literature was concerned, Owen's death seems to represent the great human, and creative loss brought forth by the war.

Now to the poem. 

Dulce et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

As the Wikipedia entry states, the title and the subsequent quote that ends the poem comes from a famous poem by the Roman poet, Horace, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,”  (How sweet and glorious it is to die for one’s country.”)  The Wikipedia entry states that the poem combines two sonnets, which is not true.  A sonnet does have fourteen lines and this poem is twenty-lines long, which would be two sonnets, but neither of the two halves of fourteen lines have any type of sonnet rhyme scheme.  Wikipedia also says that the form is “similar to a French Ballade,” and claims that through the allusion to a French Ballade and through breaking form, Owen is making a modernist statement of disorder, if I may paraphrase.  I’m not familiar with the ballade form to fully understand variation to it, but Owen’s poem doesn’t incorporate a refrain, which I would think is defining to a ballade, nor does it incorporate an interlocking rhyme scheme.   The only similarity to a ballade is that it has roughly eight line stanzas with a quatrain rhyme scheme. 

The poem’s structure follows a progression of thought, and here the rhyme scheme of progressing, alternating rhymes (ABABCDCD and so on) accentuates the forward thrust toward the poem’s conclusion.  The poem is divided into four sections; I’ll call them stanzas.  The first is an eight line stanza of which could be thought of as two quatrains.  It sets the scene of a marching troop, all suffering through the hardships of soldiers on maneuver.  The second stanza is of six lines, and taken with the eight can be seen as a second half of an Italian sonnet as Wikipedia see it.  It is a volta, meaning a turn of thought from the initial motif.  Here the turn is the introduction of a new crises, the realization that the Five-Nines (mortar or artillery shells) contained poison gas, and so the soldiers need to immediately put on their gas masks. 

Both the first and second stanzas are in the past tense, and so this is set in the past.  But notice how the second stanza has a stream of gerunds: “fumbling,” “fitting,” “stumbling,” “flound’ring,” “drowning.”  Though not associated with time, gerunds have a wonderful immediacy that makes the language feel as if it’s present time.  The “I saw him drowning” main clause clearly though situates it in the past. 

The third stanza is only two lines, but it clearly pushes us into the present tense—a simple present tense of general time, “in all my dreams.”  The poor dying man “plunges at [him]” in repeated dreams, again characterized by the immediacy of gerunds: “guttering, choking, drowning.”  “Drowning” gains a tremendous power by being repeated with the repetition falling on a rhymed word slot. 
The last stanza is made up of twelve lines with a strong break between the first eight and the last four. The tense shifts again here, this time into a conditional “if-then” construction.  Suddenly there is a person being addressed, “you” and later “my friend.”  Each quatrain of the eight lines has its own “if” construction.  The first “if” puts the person being addressed into the situation watching the dying man, and the second “if” allows the addressee hear the suffering man.  The “then” is a reproach to the addressee for promoting what Owen calls the “old lie,” the quote from Horace promoting a romanticized version of war.  Shortening that last line to three feet makes the ending that much more powerful.  Everything in the poem refutes the claim that there is anything sweet and glorious about war or dying in war for one’s country.  The Wikipedia entry identifies who Owen is addressing in that last stanza, a Jesse Pope who apparently was a propagandist poet for the war.  

There is more one can point out in the poem, such as the alliteration, the diction that accentuates the drudgery and the chaos, and the allusions to Dante’s hell.  Listen for it as you hear the poem being read here overlaid with some WWI video.   

So many great lines and phrases in the poem: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,” “deaf even to the hoots/Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind,” “Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!” “As under a green sea, I saw him drowning,” and finally “you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie.”  Egremont titles his book from that line, “some desperate glory.”

Not only the finest poem of the First World War, but truly one of the great poems of the ages.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Faith Filled Friday: The Vine and the Branches

One last entry on Mother Teresa’s Heart of Joy.  The thesis of this little passage has probably been said, but I wanted to highlight this because I think it's the best written passage in the entire book.  It has me wondering if she wrote it herself or if someone edited it for her.  The balanced sentence and the parallel structure is absolutely exquisite.  Great writing sparks me as much as what's being said.  This passage is a rhetorical joy!

The Vine and the Branches

Let us be like a genuine and fruitful branch of the vine, which is Christ, accepting him in our lives the way he gives himself to us: as truth, which must be spoken; as life, which must be lived; as light, which must shine out; as love, which must be loved; as a way, which must be trodden; as joy, which must be communicated; as peace, which must be radiated; as sacrifice, which must be offered to our families, to our closest neighbors, and to those who live far away.

I haven't done this yet, but I think a good spiritual exercise would be take each clause in the parallelisms and meditate over them individually.  

There was one anecdote that I thought was hilarious which seemed someout of place.  But it's worth the smile to quote it here.

Unexpected Details

Jesus has unexpected details sometimes.  

Once, in London, I received a telephone call from the police: "Mother Teresa, there is a woman in the street, reeking of alcohol, who is asking for you."  We went to pick her up.

As we were coming back she said, "Mother Teresa, Christ changes water into wine in order to give us to drink."  She was, indeed, very drunk.

That was it!  I guess it was an unexpected detail from Jesus.  I bet Mother was a very funny lady.  

Finally I might as well provide my book review I posted at Goodreads. 

Heart of Joy is a collection of Mother Teresa’s speeches, talks to her religious sisters, and one published article all taken from the mid 1970s. The fact that most of the speeches are so close together in time creates some repetition. I doubt Mother Teresa had a book in mind when she made the speeches, but nonetheless this is an engaging read, a spiritually satisfying read, and an insightful read.

One of the more interesting themes of the book is how the future saint expands the definition of poverty. As people know, Mother was famous and won the Nobel Peace Prize for her care and attention to “the poorest of the poor.” Now the poorest of the poor in 1970’s India must be way beyond my experience of poverty, where mass numbers of people are homeless, starving, and deathly ill, all abandoned to the gutters. Her efforts which are linked to her seeing the Christ in all individuals are inspiring, but her expanded notion of poverty is striking to the core because it addresses the poverty that is not linked to material possessions. The poverty she identifies is a poverty of values in well off nations. Neglect of the elderly, the decision to abort a child, the abandonment of family, the insensitivity to others, these are a poverty just as debilitating as a poverty of material.

Most of the speeches appear to be extemporaneous and reflect that Mother Teresa is more of a doer than a systematic thinker. The sections where she address her sisters seem to collect aphorisms, precepts, and axioms from the future saint, presented in random order which has the effect of a collage. While no single piece of a collage creates a portrait, the sum total of the collage draws a portrait of the future saint through her thoughts and values. We see what makes her tick: her devotion to the poor, her tireless and ceaseless work, her merging with Christ and seeing Christ in the suffering. We see how she puts her faith into action. The central point of her message, if I may draw that conclusion, is by this quote: “Do not turn your back on the poor because the poor are Christ,” and as I’ve said the poor are more than those that lack means.

I enjoyed this book. The sections with anecdotes and aphorisms serve as good devotional reading. I gave the rating a three because the book is kind of slim and at times repetitive. But if you want a short read on understanding what motivates Mother Teresa and an unfiltered portrait through her own words and thoughts, this is a fine book.

With that ends Heart of Joy and next up for the Catholic Thought book club is Confessions by St. Augustine of Hippo.  If you’ve ever want to read that, come and join the book club.  

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Music Tuesday: Joan of Arc by Jennifer Warnes & Leonard Cohen

As you’ve probably seen, I’ve had a series of posts on my reading of Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.  If you want to read my posts on the literary work, here is a link to the last one, and that contains links to the previous four.  

But Joan of Arc always inspires me to listen to this wonderful song written by Leonard Cohen.  The best performance of his song is when he sings it as a duet with Jennifer Warnes.  The song is roughly a dialogue between Joan and Christ at the point of her being burned at the stake.  Now I don’t think the song is exactly historically accurate and the theology doesn’t strike me as being sound.  Cohen is Jewish, albeit he seems to place a number of Catholic memes and themes in several of his songs.  Still the song is excellent and this video clip with the song’s lyrics and images from various works of art on Joan is superb. 

"Well then fire, make your body cold
I'm gonna give you mine to hold"
Saying this she climbed inside
To be his one, to be his only bride

It was deep into his fiery heart
He took the dust of a Joan of Arc
And high above all these assembled wedding guests
He hung the ashes of her very lovely wedding dress

It was deep deep into his fiery heart
That he took the dust of all precious Joan of Arc
Then she clearly clearly understood
If if he was fire, oh she must be wood

Read more: Leonard Cohen - Joan Of Arc Lyrics | MetroLyrics

I can never get enough of that song.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Literature in the News: Nobel Prize in Literature to Kazuo Ishiguro

It's unusual that I post back to back "Literature in the News" entries, but the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature was announced this week and the winner is Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese born British novelist.  I have not read anything by Ishiguro, but by all accounts he is a worthy choice unlike last year when the Svenska Akademien (Swedish Academy) gave the prize to Bob Dylan.  

I have never read anything from Ishiguro, but I found the academy’s press statement with the announcement rather baffling. 
The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2017 is awarded to the English author Kazuo Ishiguro "who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world".

So there is an “abyss” beneath an illusion?  Isn’t that a double metaphor?  Or if not a double metaphor, overly metaphysical?  The Nobel Committee for Literature has been a bit off the deep end for a while.

The Guardian has a fine article on the announcement.  Ishiguro was apparently taken by surprised and learned of it through the media.  They quote him here:

“You’d think someone would tell me first but none of us had heard anything,” said Ishiguro, who had been sitting at his kitchen table at home in Golders Green in London about to have brunch, when he got the call from his agent.

“It was completely not something I expected, otherwise I would have washed my hair this morning,” he said with a laugh. “It was absolute chaos. My agent phoned to say it sounded like they had just announced me as the Nobel winner, but there’s so much fake news about these days it’s hard to know who or what to believe so I didn’t really believe it until journalists started calling and lining up outside my door.”

While the selection of Ishiguro is not an outlandish pick like last year, it still raises questions as to whether he is the most worthy.  Ishiguro himself in his statement said as much:

“Part of me feels like an imposter and part of me feels bad that I’ve got this before other living writers,” said Ishiguro. “Haruki Murakami, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, all of them immediately came into my head and I just thought wow, this is a bit of a cheek for me to have been given this before them.

“And because I’m completely delusional, part of me feels like I’m too young to be winning something like this. But then I suddenly realised that I’m 62, so I am average age for this I suppose.”

Hmm, Atwood is seventy-seven, Murakami is sixty-eight, Rushdie is seventy, and McCarthy, who I would have given the prize to, is eighty-four.  Since I haven’t read any of Ishiguro, I would have to say he’s probably right.  As I researched his works, only The Remains of the Day seems to have been a unanimously great work.  Still one shouldn’t take that as a measure of great works.  Even the authors Ishiguro names as being more worthy have works of mixed approval in their histories. 

Perhaps what pushed Ishiguro to the forefront of authors for the committee is the moral center that seems to be at the heart of his works.  Ishiguro himself hinted at it in part of his statement:

“This is a very weird time in the world, we’ve sort of lost faith in our political system, we’ve lost faith in our leaders, we’re not quite sure of our values, and I just hope that my winning the Nobel prize contributes something that engenders good will and peace,” he said. “It reminds us of how international the world is, and we all have to contribute things from our different corners of the world.”

Interesting statement.  I don’t get the leap from the “losing faith part” to “how international the world is” but I do appreciate how western culture, if not the world has lost faith.  I don’t think, however, he is referring to a religious faith, but you cannot have values if ultimately they don’t connect with a divine source. 

Along those lines, Joan Desmond posted in a blog at the National Catholic Register, “Why Every Catholic Should Applaud Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize.”  Desmond seems enthusiastic about the choice:

No doubt, Ishiguro’s many Catholic fans, myself included, heartily applauded the news. In striking contrast to many modern novelists, his deeply moral stories go to the heart of the human condition with a spare narrative style that hints at deeper forces beneath the surface.  Though he does not deal explicitly with religoius faith, his moral vision is compatible with the Church's own insistence that the truth is knowable, and that we ignore it at great cost to our own human flourshing. 

And she goes on to say that Ishiguro’s “characters’ struggles for clarity and for hope are enormously absorbing and ring true for readers who have traveled down the same path.”  And Desmond provides a short summary of what she considers Ishiguro’s three greatest novels, The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and his most recent The Buried Giant

Well, all that has made me want to read something by Ishiguro.  I will make room to fit The Remains of the Day into the coming year’s reading schedule.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Literature in the News: Willa Cather’s Nebraska Landscape

I came across this wonderful article from The New Yorker (October 2, 2017 issue) titled “A Walk in Willa Cather’s Prairie: How Nebraska’s Landscape Inspired the Great American Novelist” by Alex Ross.  

If you admire Willa Cather’s writing—and I do—and if you have enjoyed any of her novels—and I consider her 1918 novel My Ántonia one of the top novels of American literature—then you should read the rather long essay, and though rather long I think you will come away with an appreciation of her work, the landscape and people that influenced that work, and of her as a person.  It’s really a fine essay. 

Let me give you a little sample.  From the article’s opening paragraph:

In Webster County, Nebraska, the prairie rolls in waves, following the contours of a tableland gouged by rivers and creeks. At the southern edge of the county, a few hundred feet north of the Nebraska-Kansas border, is a six-hundred-acre parcel of land called the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. Cather spent much of her childhood in Red Cloud, six miles up the road, and for many people who love her writing, and perhaps for some who don’t, the Cather Prairie is one of the loveliest places on earth. You park at the top of a hill and follow a path down to a gulch, where a creek widens into a pond. At the bottom, you no longer see traces of modern civilization, though you can hear trucks on Route 281 as they clamber out of the Kansas flats. The land here was never plowed, and with careful cultivation it preserves the prairie as Cather roamed it, in the eighteen-eighties—an immemorial zone of grass, trees, birds, water, and wind.

But Ross, the author of the piece, gives up trying to capture Cather’s prairie landscapes and decides to let Cather herself describe it:

The only person capable of doing justice to the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie is the woman who engendered it. In “My Ántonia,” the orphaned young settler Jim Burden delivers a rhapsody that many Cather fans can recite by heart:

I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass. . . . I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

The occasion for this piece is the opening of the National Willa Cather Center, “a seven-million-dollar facility with a climate-controlled archive, apartments for scholars, museum exhibits, and a bookstore. The complex is the dream project of the Willa Cather Foundation, which is based in Red Cloud.”  The Willa Cather Foundation has a lovely website where you can access The National Willa Cather Center.     

Red Cloud, Nebraska is a small town, and has always been small town, in the Great Plains in the western part of the mid-west.  In her youth, Nebraska was clearly part of the famed “west” from which Eastern pioneers rolled their covered wagons out and migrated to and claimed homesteads to farm. 

Red Cloud, which has a population of about a thousand and retains a farm-oriented economy, belongs to a select company of literary towns that are permanently inscribed with a writer’s identity: places like Hannibal, Missouri (Mark Twain) and Oxford, Mississippi (William Faulkner). Cather depicted Red Cloud in six of her twelve novels. The town is called Hanover in “O Pioneers!”; Moonstone in “The Song of the Lark”; Black Hawk in “My Ántonia”; Frankfort in “One of Ours”; Sweet Water in “A Lost Lady”; and Haverford in “Lucy Gayheart.” There is always a main street running through the town center, with the wealthier residents to the west and the poorer ones to the east. The railroad always cuts across to the south. Often there is a one-and-a-half-story house off the main street, where, up in an attic room, a girl dreams of being somewhere else. One of the first achievements of the Cather Foundation, in the nineteen-sixties, was to preserve the family home, and up in the attic you can see the wallpaper that Cather installed when she was a child—a pattern of “small red and brown roses on a yellowish ground,” as she writes in “The Song of the Lark.”

It is from growing up with this experience that Cather created a panoply of characters.  “Her symphonic landscapes are inflected with myriad accents, cultures, personal narratives—all stored away in a prodigious memory.” 

Ross also gets into some of the personal controversy surrounding Cather’s life, most notably her sexuality.  There is much to suggest she may have been a lesbian, but Ross finds “little trace of sexual attraction between women in Cather’s writing, but male homosexuality surfaces more than once.”  And Ross explores many of Cather’s personal letters, especially concerning her long live-in friend Edith Lewis, and can find no smoking gun writing of a sexual relationship between the two women or proof of her being lesbian.  So why bring it up?  Well, we live in sexual times, and this is The New Yorker.  The issue does come up when I gave my short story analysis of Cather’s fine story “Paul’s Case” here a few years ago.  Ultimately it’s the Nebraska landscape that forms Cather’s characters:

In the end, however, sex does not dominate Cather’s imagination. True romance lies elsewhere: in her characters’ relationships with work, art, nature, and the land. In “O Pioneers!,” Alexandra is said to be the first person who has ever looked on her corner of Nebraska with “love and yearning”—to see it as a place to be nurtured, not as territory to be conquered.

And further down, Ross continues on this theme:

 “The great fact was the land itself,” Cather declares in “O Pioneers!” Humans merely scratch at its surface. Perhaps this enormous empathy for the natural world is, after all, a displacement of desire, though the feeling goes too deep to be psychologized away. An overwhelming attachment to place is often a sign of immovable conservatism, and Cather can get dangerously close to blood-and-soil lingo, as when Ántonia’s strapping sons are compared to “the founders of early races.” But her conviction that the land belongs to no one—“We come and go, but the land is always here,” Alexandra says—undercuts any tendency toward nationalism and tribalism.

And that leads to another of the Cather issues, her political leanings.  Ross points out Cather’s conservatism but concludes she’s more of a moderate.  Personally I think he’s somewhat wrong there.  While Cather doesn’t integrate conservative political issues into her work, I think her world view, despite her supposed non-conforming sexual leanings, was definitely conservative.  And I think Ross is right to connect that conservatism to the land.  And another issue Ross touches on is the feminist issues in Cather’s work. 

In her rendering of the Great Plains and the West, women achieve independence from restrictive roles; people of many countries coexist; and violence is futile, with guns most often fired in suicidal despair. As the scholar Susie Thomas writes, Cather “created an alternative to the male mythology of the West.” In place of Wister’s slouching cowboy, “O Pioneers!” gives us a “tall, strong girl” with a “glance of Amazonian fierceness,” wearing a man’s coat. She holds the same pose at the end, silhouetted against the landscape and gazing westward.

Cather is a complex feminist, or certainly unconventional.  She was not a supporter of the feminist movements, despite great strong female characters. 

That’s more than enough to whet your appetite to read Ross’s fine article.  I whole-heartedly endorse it and of course recommend reading as much of Cather’s fiction as time allows.