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.