MY WILLA CATHER
Keynote Address at the Willa Cather International Symposium
Chicago Public Library
June 25, 2009
Willa Cather onboard the S. S. Noordland on the way to Liverpool, England, her first trip abroad. June 14, 1902. Photograph courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.
NEAR THE BEGINNING of My Ántonia young Jim Burden, sent by his Virginia relatives to live with his grandparents just north of Red Cloud, Nebraska, walks outdoors on his first full day in his new home to survey his surroundings. The granaries and gullies, cornfields and sorghum patches, box-elders and willow bushes, and “the gentle swell of unbroken prairie” mesmerize him. “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea,” he tells us. “There was so much motion in it, the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” Jim is so swept away by the land stretching before him that when his grandmother comes out of the house and asks if he’d like to go to the garden with her to dig potatoes for dinner, he is shaken as if from a dream.
“I had almost forgotten that I had a grandmother,” he confesses, before slipping back into the thrall of his newfound world, imagining he could feel “motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping....”
On returning to New York from my own sojourn in Red Cloud recently, I overheard a woman in Washington Square Park emphatically tell her friend, “It was better back in the nineties.” Here was a random snippet of street conversation I might normally ignore. But because I’d just spent the better part of my day reading Willa Cather’s One of Ours on the flight from Lincoln via Chicago, and was so wrapped up in her world, in a moment of cognitive slippage I thought the woman meant the 1890's. I glanced up, looked around, and suddenly remembered when, where, and who I was.
Willa Cather has a way of transporting us so fully into her luminous world that moments of disconnect like this are probably not unknown to other readers. One of Ours’ protagonist, Claude Wheeler, born in the last decade of the nineteenth century but stamped deeply in my mind in the twenty-first, had been ruing the ways in which progress erased uniqueness and originality in people and the places where they live and work. Cather writes, “When he was a little boy and all the neighbors were poor; they and their farms had more individuality.... [But now] the people themselves had changed. [Claude] could remember when all the farmers in this community were friendly toward each other; now they were continually having lawsuits.”
There are the nineties and there are the nineties, and the point both Cather and my anonymous woman in Washington Square were making is well taken, either way. But beyond the obvious temporal and technical details, I wondered what was the difference?
This would have been a facile question except for the fact that a century after Cather drew on Red Cloud for inspiration, I myself went to the small Nebraska town to encounter not only her past but my own family’s. And those pasts intertwined. Claude, I had learned, was based on G. P. Cather, son of George Cather, Willa’s real uncle, for whose family my own great-aunt Zena and uncle Sall Anderson worked, living until their retirement in the “tall house” that Willa described so faithfully in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. This brick-and-wood house on the Divide, still occupied by a Cather, was a place that my aunt Helen and mother Lois described to me over the years as well, regaling me with stories about their many visits there.
Webster County, where Willa Cather grew up from ages nine to sixteen and found inspiration for six novels and many stories, is where my maternal grandparents farmed, and my aunts Helen and Opal, and my mother were born and grew up. Indeed, my grandparents LeRoy and Jennie Hoffman, my great-grandparents William and Lydia Hoffman, and my great-great-grandparents, Leartus and Mary Campbell are all buried in the Red Cloud cemetery near the graves of James Burden, whose name is familiar to readers of My Ántonia, and of Silas Garber, Red Cloud’s founder and Cather’s model for Captain Forrester in A Lost Lady, as well as other of Cather’s friends and family. But Red Cloud isn’t the only scape she and I have in common.
Denver, Colorado, a setting in The Song of the Lark and One of Ours, is where I was raised. New York City, where Cather moved in her early thirties to become a magazine editor, is where I have lived for the last quarter-century, having moved there in my early thirties to be the editor of a literary journal. By sheer chance, my apartment in Greenwich Village was a stone’s throw from her first flat on Washington Square, a few minutes’ walk to where she later lived on Bank Street, and a mere block from where she next resided on 10th Street.
The parallels don’t end there. Oddly, and without programmatic rhyme or reason, we—two different writers of different eras—have journeyed to, lived in, been touched by any number of other far-flung places. She wrote some of her last works in Northeast Harbor, on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, while I wrote much of my first novel in that same tiny harbor village. Santa Fe, Ácoma, Chimayó, and elsewhere in New Mexico—these are among the towns, mesas, and mission villages I often visited as a child and would write about in my novels Trinity Fields and Ariel’s Crossing. Willa Cather visited and was galvanized by them too, depicting them in what remains one of my favorite books, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Mesa Verde, in Colorado, Walnut Canyon and Canyon de Chelley in Arizona were part of my boyhood experience and among Cather’s treasured destinations portrayed in The Professor’s House and elsewhere. In later years I lived in Italy and France—both Paris and Provence—taking in many of the same locales Cather did. And though I don’t believe she ever visited Prague, the central setting for The Prague Sonata, my novel-in-progress, the Bohemian families Cather befriended as a girl, wending her way across the Divide on horseback, are decidedly related to the many Czechs in my own narrative. Because not only is my novel situated in the Prague of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and the later Czech Republic, but in the Bohemian farm community of Prague, Nebraska, an hour northwest of Lincoln. The same Lincoln where Cather attended college and my grandfather worked as a prison guard at the State Penitentiary, the very prison where Frank Shabata in O Pioneers! was sent for murdering his wife and her lover. My grandfather, after capturing an escapee and deciding that the benefits of working twelve-hour days at the pen weren’t equal to the risks, next got a job with the Burlington railroad, the same railroad Willa Cather wrote about so often because it passed through Red Cloud when she was a girl, bringing us full circle.
What begins to emerge is a mosaic. One that connects two American writers whose personal stories have followed improbably analogous paths and whose use of nature and landscape as elements far more dynamic than backdrop evolved out of direct immersion in those same natural scapes. I’m not suggesting that Willa Cather and I are the same or equivalent, but instead, and more interestingly, that at either end of the twentieth century we set out on journeys that are sometimes as intertwined as the braids of Mrs. Rosen’s hair in Cather’s story “Old Mrs. Harris.” By familial fate, by pure chance, and by following a common love of certain specific environments and literary occupations, we have been pilgrims who found ourselves in many of the same city streets and squares, country fields and hamlets, southwestern villages and deserts.
What I want to look at this evening are Nebraska and the southwest—the two primary coordinates where we most connect through family and fiction. Before doing so, though, I’d like to posit one further commonality between Cather and myself.
In her 1922 essay, “The Novel Démeublé,” she argues against the furniturization, if you will, of the novel. The whole Balzacian project of bringing exteriors, interiors, the teeming stuff of life to the writing table in the service of realism, Cather decried as “unworthy of an artist.” “How wonderful it would be,” she exclaimed, “if we could throw all the furniture out of the window; and along with it, all the meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations, all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre.”
Tasteless amplitude, she is saying, kills emotions great and small. It crowds life off the page, ultimately dehumanizing the novelist’s portrayal of the very world she or he hopes to conjure. Yet Cather, of course, didn’t have in mind a stripped-down Brechtian stage, any more than she meant to prophesy some Beckett wasteland beyond the proscenium. Instead, she was reacting against what she perceived as an over-dependence on the trappings of a story, the ways in which the minutiae of our stuff-littered world suffocate the living idea.
But what of William Carlos Williams, one of Cather’s modernist contemporaries, who famously wrote “No ideas but in things”?
Do these credos contradict each other? As I began to think back on my own earliest readings of Willa and Williams, I concluded, No. Not in the least. Like the poet who immortalized a red wheelbarrow standing in the rain, Cather was a consummate artist of things—of flora and fauna, stars and sacred Anasazi cliff-dwellings, as well as, yes, tables, chairs, pongee suits, Panama hats, silver platters, queensware, locomotives, the stuff of life right down to Professor St. Peter’s dress form and Lucy Gayheart’s brown squirrel jacket. Cather immortalized her own iconographic red wheelbarrow in My Ántonia, lest we forget: “On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.”
Cather’s cosmos is quite amply populated by things. But her objective, material world is forever charged with what the Romans referred to as the numinous. Numina, invisible living spirits, inhabit the sticks and stones of her universe. And the men and women who live in and about her narrative furnitures—both manmade furniture like old Mrs. Harris’s chair with its sawed-off legs, the water jars and yucca-fibre mats in Tom Outland’s Cliff City, even unto Father Latour’s cathedral, as well as the various furnitures of landscape, of wheatfields, mountains, arroyos—are revealed and reflected in every last thing that surrounds them.
In other words, to my mind a Cather scape is fundamentally mythological, one in which the everyday bite of realism is woven inextricably with an apposite spiritual or emotional gesture.When her characters interact within the framework of nature, such as making illicit, doomed love under a white mulberry tree, they bind themselves to that scape. And while Cather did not finally throw all of the furniture out the window, she did invest every last chattel with post-Balzacian signification. A bag of seed, a plough, a horse, a loamy field, a sea of wheat, a loaf of bread, a breakfast table. In each of these resides a numen, and thus the genesis of story, if not legend. When Willa Cather is writing in this mode at the summit of her powers, treating stops grounded in nature along her narrative journey as if they were stations of some secular cross, she achieves mythical moments of revelation, and her work reaches toward, and touches, the transcendent.
No ideas but in talismanic things. It’s a conviction I subscribe to. Landscape is not just a setting, a pastoral backdrop, but a character. The earth and sky and all manifestations of nature have values, needs, hopes, desires, meanings that are every bit as powerful as the people who live in its midst.
I will return to this idea of landscape as character. But now to Red Cloud. As I mentioned, many relatives on my mother’s side of the family lived and are laid to rest in Webster County including my great-grandfather Roelf Schaa who, though born in 1855, nearly a century before my own birth, I met once at a gathering in Bladen. A German immigrant, he lived most of his long life working with his wife Gretja on one of the very sort of farms Cather so often wrote about. The oldest living resident of Nebraska at the time of his death in Red Cloud, two weeks shy of his 107th birthday, great-grandfather Schaa was a contemporary of Willa Cather and her extended family. Like Willa’s uncle George who came west to stake his claim, and like her father who worked the Divide for a time before moving into town, my great-grandfather was a Nebraska pioneer, the son and nephew of original homesteaders. It’s hard to imagine they didn’t know each other. Just as there’s a Catherton township named after Willa’s ancestors, nearby Rosemont and Campbell are named after relatives of mine. I’d love to think they possibly met—at Garber’s bank building that resembles a whimsical castle in downtown Red Cloud where another great-grandfather, William Hoffman, took his business, or at J. L. Miner’s general store down the street, or even Dr. Cook’s where young Willa worked to pay for the floral wallpaper she hung in her snug little garret on North Cedar Street. Fun to speculate, but of course I’ll never know.
Having said that, in researching my family’s past, I discovered there are connections that have nothing to do with guesswork. These begin, as I’ve mentioned, with my great-aunt Zena and uncle Sall working for the Cather family. I’ve also learned that my aunt Helen, the oldest daughter of my grandparents Roy and Jennie, walked a mile each day to attend the one-room Batin schoolhouse where her mother and father attended before her, as did many other relatives going back to September 1878, when my great-grandmother Lydia first enrolled. Batin—of which my great-grandfather Leartus and grandfather Roy were school directors—was also where Anna “Antonia” Pavelka’s nieces and nephews were students and Willa’s venerable aunt Frances, whom she called Franc, taught, riding her horse due east six miles.
Aunt Helen was a self-taught painter and diarist. Several of her canvases of the Hoffman farm have survived, as have her journals. When reading through her recollections of life on the farm I came upon a passage I’d like to share: “At the [time] my sister Lois came into our hearts”—this would have been 1927—“I attended a dance at the old Blue Hill Opera House, and an orchestra from Omaha, ‘Smiling Billies,’ made a guest visit to the village.
“It was at this dance that I met Clement Pavelka, grandson of Willa Cather’s ‘My Antonia.’ He ‘rushed me,’ and we danced and danced the night away. I went with Clement several times, thought a lot of him....but my family moved to Riverton and the miles that separated us caused us to find new loves. During the time I went with Clement, I met Antonia and knew other members of the Pavelka family. I am positive the Antonia of Willa Cather’s book is the Antonia Pavelka I met even though the family name SHIMERDAS plays the dominant role in her famous novel.”
That my aunt would refer to Anna Pavelka as Ántonia at first struck me as a possible blemish in her story, but as it turns out, after My Ántonia gained acclaim, Anna and the Pavelka family apparently adopted the name on occasion.
My aunt was one of several important storytelling women from whom I learned as a boy about prairie life around Red Cloud. Long before I read Willa Cather, my grandmother —born in a sod house near Rosemont—spellbound me with vivid stories about farm life. Blue Hill and Red Cloud were such wonderful names for places, I thought. When Jennie Hoffman spoke of the Nebraska homesteads where she, like Cather, grew up, I pictured her farm perched on top of a blue hill beneath a red cloud, and imagined what a beautiful place it must be. Indeed, when I now read Cather I can still hear my grandmother’s voice, strong and sure, shading the periphery.
In a 1921 interview for the Lincoln Sunday Star, Cather offered a populist view of what it is to be an artist. She said, “The farmer’s wife who raises a large family and cooks for them and makes their clothes and keeps house and on the side runs a truck garden and a chicken farm and a canning establishment, and thoroughly enjoys it all, and doing it well, contributes more to art than all the culture clubs.” Although my grandmother Jennie fits this description, she would never have considered herself an artist, or even artistic, as such, with the possible exception of the quilting she enjoyed doing. But, like Cather’s own mother, she did whatever was necessary to instill a love of the arts in her children. Both my aunt and mother took piano lessons, learned to draw and paint, and were amateur thespians much like Cather. My mother even studied voice and opera in Lincoln under the guidance of the formidable if not fearsome Madame Laure De Vilmar, who sang leading operatic roles in the capitals of Europe, performed for the queen of England, and who looked like somebody Thea Kronborg might have crossed paths with in The Song of the Lark, or maybe sang a duet with Lucy Gayheart’s Clement Sebastian.
If my salt-of-the-earth grandfather Roy was as kind and taciturn as neighbor Rosicky or Jim Burden’s grandfather, a character based on Cather’s own grandfather William, my grandmother was cut from a different cloth. She may have been kindly, but she was anything but taciturn. Full of stories about never-ending skirmishes with bull snakes and foxes bent on stealing her henhouse eggs, she told me about beheading rattlers in her garden much like Jim Burden’s grandmother did with a corn-knife in My Ántonia. She described a local gypsy camp whose musicians remind me of Spanish Johnny and his compadres in Song of the Lark. She described small details of daily life, such as baking kolaches with prune filling or gooseberry pies whose fruit looked like tiny Christmas tree ornaments with hooks as stems, and how she preferred collecting vegetables from her garden using her apron instead of a basket. Then there was the story of how she nearly lost her life in a tornado, an event that so shaped my vision of Nebraska that the fictive Red Cloudlike town of Babylon in my first novel, Come Sunday, is struck by a rapacious twister. It is because of my grandmother’s stories that I came to Cather’s fictional world having imagined my own private Nebraska. Thus have my family’s narratives colored and complemented Cather’s, giving me an enriched depth perception I experience when reading no other author.
My farm-born mother has her own cache of Catheresque Red Cloud tales, and it was startling to see the accuracy of her memories borne out when my parents and I had our recent Nebraska reunion and did some exploring together. She, too, visited Zena and Sall in the George Cather home, where she remembers being impressed by an antique scroll-legged piano and startled one day, upon opening its lid to play, by a lizard darting across its keys. When years earlier she had described the house—which Cather used as settings in both One of Ours and “A Wagner Matineé”—as being three stories tall, I must confess I wondered if her memory wasn’t faulty, the innocent exaggeration of a sometime little girl. But going there, I saw that the house was built into the side of a hill, and featured a walk-out basement. And yes, three stories it is.
“Oh sure,” my mother said, once this was confirmed. “I remember white geese that chased me around the yard, and they had mules and plow horses that seemed as big as Clydesdales to me at the time, and there was a water trough for them at the foot of the windmill where I used to wash my dolly’s clothes and hang them to dry on a barbed wire fence. Those horses would plod over to that trough and tilt their velvety mouths down and drink half the water that was in there before shaking their heads, pluffing, and walking away.” Though she was drawing on a memory from seventy-odd years distance, the windmill was just where she remembered it. And tucked under the stairs in the basement were the charred remains of the piano—its keys, sound board, and scroll legs—which had been burned in a house fire. Rather than questioning her memory any further I thought, my mother just walked out of a Willa Cather story.
This personal phenomenon of Cather as family Ur-narrator most fully comes into play, however, when I read my aunt Helen’s diaries. There are scenes drawn from Helen’s life that nearly blur in my mind with those of Willa’s books.
I only have time to touch on a few of her rich and varied entries about life in early twentieth-century Webster County, but suffice it to say that they represent what might be seen as some of the raw materials of Cather’s fictional world as witnessed by an articulate if untutored farm girl. They teem with stories about Chatauqua parades and raucous hoedowns, about Old Crazy Horse’s “mean warriors” and Chief Red Cloud “and his marauders,” about barn raisings and Indian burial grounds and itinerant farmhands who double as armchair philosophers.
Because my aunt was quite a bit older than my mother, her diary recollections of the George Cather “mansion,” as she called it, are even more detailed. “The rolling hills rise up from the table land as if the mound builders had been in the area [making] their pyramids.
To me the house was glorious in its mysterious architectural design [and] many levels. I can recall exploring its rooms and was especially impressed by an upper bathroom that had a marble lavatory with an old fashioned medicine cabinet anchored to the wall above it.”
Here I hesitate to continue, as the entry reveals my aunt to be as nosy as the Red Cloud crones who invade poor Mrs. Forrester’s house after her husband’s death in A Lost Lady, peeking and prying in every room. Perhaps I humor myself by thinking that my aunt showed more a Catherian curiosity than the cloying voyeurism of these snoopy ladies. Either way, she continues, “Opening the door of the cabinet, I was amazed to see bottles of prescription medications besides other sundries of the Cathers....” and goes on to confess that “Whether by peeking through a keyhole or unlocked door, it appeared Mr. Cather [had] stepped out of his pants leaving them where they’d dropped to the floor and a chair was draped with Mrs. Cather’s clothes.”
For all her shameless intrusiveness, my aunt is as trustworthy in her memories as my mother. Having now retraced her steps through the house, I can vouch for an old medicine cabinet still screwed into the wall above a sink as she described, and well, youcan see through the keyholes.
Many entries from my aunt Helen’s diaries are steeped in the plains life Willa Cather portrayed, but one story recalling a 1924 event typifies a variety of intense human emotions played out on the sparse stage of the prairie, and melds tragedy and death with an almost slapstick comedy.
“One night a Bohemian by the name of Varishko [i.e. Vavricka, pronounced Va-vreesh-ka] brought some booze to the dance. With this being Prohibition Time, no one was to know, but a few of his friends including Father, mysteriously left the dance hall at different intervals, and some of them showed signs of intoxication. During one of Father’s forays to the watering trough, old Varishko told him that he should stop at a certain milepost on the way home and have another drink on him. The band struck up Goodnight Sweetheart and another merrymaking came to an end. After the dance, Father found the exact location of the bottle hidden by a section post, stopped our Model T Ford, went to the post and tipped the bottle.
“Mother jumped out of the car, ran over to Father and whisked the bottle out of his hands. She hit it so hard it flew quite a distance, emptying the bottle of Varishko’s booze. That of course meant instant trouble, and how they fought. Mother told Father ‘You can just take me home to my folks. I won’t live with a drunkard.’
“Since my grandparents had...moved to Blue Hill, Father drove on [in that direction], passing the turnoff to our farm. Alone in the back seat of the Model T I trembled with fear and worry. My sisters Opal [and Betty Lee] had just passed away a few months before. I was still sorrowing over [their] passing, and now this. I was torn apart.
“A mile up, just past the Batin School, was a steep hill.... The unsurfaced...road was slick [and] the little Ford spun out and ground to a standstill. We got stuck and couldn’t make it to the top. After a few more threats from Mother and a lot of chewing the rag, what was there to do but for father to shift into reverse and back down the hill, quietly resigned. That was the end of father becoming a drunkard.”
Reading this, and remembering the scene in One of Ours in which Claude and Enid are driving toward home—in fact, toward the George Cather house—on a similarly slick, muddy road before spinning out and grinding to a standstill, one cannot help but wonder how many crossroad moments in early farmers’ lives were reached when the primitive tracks across the rolling prairies made getting from one place to another such an existential adventure. One can also clearly see why Cather believed it was imperative to factor in landscape as an active agent in her chronicles of life on the high plains. My grandparents, having just lost two daughters—a nine-year-old to measles and a newborn to a birth defect—were not doing well that rainy night. Had earth and sky not conspired to stop their car, the narrative of their marriage might not have survived as it did.
It was in the first of her Nebraska novels, O Pioneers!, that Cather developed this idea of nature as protagonist—a formulation that became the groundwork of the fiction that followed. “The land wanted to be let alone,” Carl Linstrum thinks at the book’s opening, “to preserve its fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty.” Years later, this same land, like the people who tilled it, seems to have matured, changed its mind. “The brown earth, with such a strong clean smell, and such a power of growth and fertility in it, yields itself eagerly to the plow; rolls away from the shear...with a soft, deep sigh of happiness.... There is something frank and joyous and young in the open face of the country.” Formerly likened to a resistant virgin, the land is now unabashedly erotic.
The land is in fact one of the book’s central characters, and the blossoming of its relationship with its fellow protagonist, Alexandra Bergson—not merely hers with it—is key to understanding O Pioneers! as well as Cather’s overarching narrative of Nebraska. Indeed, when the farm succeeds, Alexandra tells Carl it is because “The land did it. It had its little joke. It pretended to be poor... and then, all at once it worked itself.”
O Pioneers! closes with Alexandra and the land deeply rooted in each other. “There were certain days in her life...when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil.” And the novel’s last line looks toward the day when it will “receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!” Just as she feels the earth inside her, so shall the land receive and redeem her, making the earth itself an active, embodied agent, a mythic lover in a reciprocal relationship.
With this communion of landscape and humanity, Cather establishes the relationship that will exist throughout her work. It is manifest not only when she anthropomorphizes the natural but when she invests her human characters with environmental and animal qualities. In the course of just a handful of pages in My Ántonia, when introducing her cast, she mirrors characters with the natural world. Ántonia’s eyes are “full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools of water.” Her brother Marek’s fingers are “webbed to the first knuckle, like a duck’s foot.” Her sister Yulka makes a nest in the long red grass and curls “up like a baby rabbit.” The ill-fated Russian Peter’s hair and beard are “as thick and curly as carded wool.”
These are classically formulated similes, but Cather’s association of land and human soon goes beyond simple simile or personification. In her hands, landscape acts as a living analogue to the lives of characters. One doesn’t have to look far for examples. In One of Ours, Claude gazes out over the wintry landscape after his frigid wife has left him to go to China to tend to her ill sister, and thinks “how much better it would be if people could go to sleep like the fields; could be blanketed down under the snow, to wake with their hurts healed and their defeats forgotten.” Claude views his lonely plight as at one with that desolate field and, having no recourse or remedy for his crisis, wishes his fate could parallel the earth itself. This is a technique I identify with. In my novel Trinity Fields, for example, two best friends, Kip and Brice, after years of estrangement meet beneath a willow tree in Chimayó, New Mexico, that has two trunks—a tree that actually existed in the little plaza behind the mission at the time I was writing. Brice as he sits down under this tree next to his dying friend—a man who grew out of the same soil he did, then veered away into a life diametrically opposed to his own—envisions the very arc of their lives in this willow by the stream.
Identification with nature is crucial in both scenes. The snowy field and the twin-trunked willow have become numinous living things, concomitant characters. This is a kind of writing that moves beyond mere metaphor because the figure and the ground of metaphor are no longer productively separate, indeed become barely distinguishable.
We can find examples of nature as character in nearly all of Cather’s novels and many of her stories. But there is one instance I think of as particularly salient. The first sustained image in My Ántonia is of the prairie in summer and winter. Two New Yorkers, natives of Nebraska, are traveling west across the plains on a scorching day, reminiscing about their childhoods and the “burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation [and] blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron.”
Not only is Cather’s deep embrace of landscape evident in herextended description and its prominent placement in the first paragraph of the novel, but it serves as the image that intimately binds the axiological, framing narrator, the unnamed Cather herself, with Jim Burden, our expository, central narrator and sets up a transition to the first mention of Ántonia, around whose spiritual gravity the narrative revolves, which is immediately linked to the same prairie landscape.
More than linked—totally fused. Consider this sentence, so carefully worded: “More than any other person we remembered, [Ántonia] seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.” That is a highly freighted verb. Ántonia doesn’t “remind” them of the country. She’s not “like” the country. She means the country and rural childhood itself, is a signifier even as she remains a full-fleshed person. It’s a mark of Cather’s modernist prowess that she’s able to balance these functions of abstract concept and natural portraiture as if they were inherently binary. It also speaks to her reverence for this landscape and its people that her most memorable heroine is not some Jamesian doyenne but a humble if complex farm girl.
While working on my next novel, The Prague Sonata, I found myself spending time both in Prague, in the Czech Republic, and the Nebraska hamlet of Prague, population either 270 or 362 depending on which sign you believe when entering town from either direction. I can attest to the fact that Cather’s claim, in her 1931 essay “My First Novels,” that Nebraska is the object of sarcasm in some quarters still holds true. She wrote, “As everyone knows, Nebraska is distinctly déclassé as a literary background; its very name throws the delicately attuned critic into a clammy shimmer of embarrassment.... A New York critic voiced a very general opinion when he said: ‘I simply don’t care a damn what happens in Nebraska, no matter who writes about it!.’” Some friends may find it enviable when I tell them I’m off to Prague to research a lost Beethoven manuscript, tour the Lobkowitz Palace, hear Alfred Brendel perform at the Rudolfinum. But when I mention that I’m off to Nebraska to spend time in Prague, enjoy a square fish sandwich at the Kolache Korner Café with Adolph Nemec, the unofficial town historian and retired leader of the local polka band, I draw blank, pitying stares. While the baroque spires towering above picturesque Prague may be more historically impressive than the grain elevator that towers over little Prague, I find them both captivating. I doubt Willa Cather would have disagreed.
This idea that the modest can be as inspiring as the grand certainly finds its full flowering in the missions of New Mexico and cliff dwellings of southwestern Colorado, which are as wondrous as any architectural masterpieces on earth. In my first novel set in New Mexico, I wrote that the Santuario de Chimayó just north of Santa Fe was “humble in the moonlight, an enchanted godhouse whose curved lines and organic shapes made it seem like a thing built by fairy-book creatures, so phantasmagoric were its adobe towers and rounded mud walls,” and later referred to it as being as sublime as any European cathedral built not of mud but marble. I think here again Cather would agree.
Which brings us to Death Comes for the Archbishop, that genre-defying synthesis of narrative frescoes that could as easily be shelved among speculative histories or ethnographic studies as in the novel section of the bookshop. After contemplating her narrative designs in Death Comes while writing Trinity Fields, I became a true Cather convert. I had appreciated My Ántonia and other books by her, but Death Comes for the Archbishop represented to my sensibility a work that was radical, formally subversive, and yet managed to tell a tale, to portray several intersecting cultures with simultaneous inventiveness and historical accuracy. In it, she forged pathways by which storytelling could appear ostensibly traditional while using modernist disjunction, circularity, recapitulation just beneath the surface as well as in its more macro architectures. How slyly counterintuitive it was for her to tuck the details of her two protagonists’ childhoods, for instance, not at the beginning but in the very last pages of the narrative, when death is coming for them both. What a miraculous literary organism, I thought, and still think after some dozen readings.
When I first read its Ácoma passage, I felt the same wash of wonderment pass through me as Father Latour did on his seeing this mesa and the mesa-mimicking clouds above. A feeling of déjà vu came over me because Cather bore such crystalline witness to a land I knew intimately. Through her images I experienced that truly evocative region of New Mexico anew, saw the Enchanted Mesa and Ácoma with fresh eyes.
In her chapter, “The Rock,” Cather continues her penchant for locating larger, characterizing themes in the flesh and bones of the sky and soil she depicts. “This mesa plain,” she writes, “had an appearance of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.” Less a character than pieces of a puzzle, landscape here nevertheless functions as a correlative to Father Latour’s personal mission in his New Mexican diocese. That is, the various fragments of a holistic community founded in Catholicism are there, in the guise of pueblo Indians, Hispanic settlers, and American frontiersmen, but they await a guiding spiritual intelligence, a bricoleur, Father Latour himself, to unify these disparate elements into wholeness.
Cather underscores this theme of land as religious quest in her very next paragraph, a magisterial evocation of clouds that are every bit as substantial as the mountains and mesas upon which they throw their shadows. “The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer....” Here the clouds have morphed into the censer’s smoke and as such represent the prayers of believers directed heavenward. And toward the end of the novel, Cather summarizes the enormity of the southwestern skyscape with the line, “Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky.”
She even continues to meld nature and character, describing Father Latour’s closest Navajo friend in the following terms: “Travelling with Eusabio was like travelling with the landscape made human. He accepted chance and weather as the country did, with a sort of grave enjoyment. He talked little, ate little, slept anywhere, preserved a countenance open and warm.”
I could easily have spent the whole evening registering my admiration for this novel, noting a host of ideas pencilled in the margins of my copy. Yet for all my familiarity with Death Comes for the Archbishop, I noticed something during my latest reading that I’d never seen before. In the first paragraph of Book Six, Doña Isabella, Cather writes about how Bishop Latour set out to create one lasting monument, his Santa Fe cathedral, something he might leave behind as a manifest representation of everything he believed in and worked so hard to accomplish. The passage begins with the words, “Bishop Latour had one very keen worldly ambition; to build in Santa Fe a cathedral which would be worthy of a setting naturally beautiful. As he cherished this wish and meditated upon it, he came to feel that such a building might be a continuation of himself...” and goes on from there. For all her semi-autobiographical works set in Nebraska, Cather to my mind rarely gets closer to identifying with one of her characters than she does here. One has only to make two small edits to alter these amazing lines, and reveal the artist within the cloak of the priest. Replacing Latour with Cather and the cathedral with her books, the sequence reads: “Willa Cather had one very keen worldly ambition; to write fiction which would be worthy of settings naturally beautiful. As she cherished this wish and meditated upon it, she came to feel that such books might be a continuation of herself and her purpose, a physical body full of her aspirations after she had passed from the scene.”
Try as we may, what can writers do but write themselves?
As a small tribute to Cather for the inspiration she’d given me while working on Trinity Fields, I named a briefly-met character in the book after her, saying, “Willa remains, in my memory, my dearest ally. Willa embraced the many grievances I held against this and that aspect of our society...together we would sit, try to write, try to think.”
My next novel, Giovanni’s Gift, was written less in homage to Willa than my aunt, whose marriage took her from the Red Cloud farm to an isolated Rocky Mountain ranch near Steamboat Springs. But because our roots and sources of inspiration are intertwined, it was impossible for me to address one of these two women without addressing the other. Giovanni’s Gift, otherwise set in the mountains, begins and ends in the city where Death Comes for the Archbishop began—Rome. While Cather’s works are often populated by characters based on people she knew, this has never been my practice—with the decided exception of Giovanni’s Gift. My fictional aunt Edme is firmly based on Helen, whose gift to me of a hermit ranch-hand’s cigar box containing all of his worldly effects served as one of the book’s twin inspirations. The other was Helen’s harrowing Colorado stories about middle-of-the-night harassments by prowlers bent on scaring her and my uncle into selling their land to developers—a story Cather, sensitive to the ways “progress” can become a juggernaut, would have understood. So tonight, I’d like to acknowledge that it definitely wasn’t by chance that the sibyl-like character who helps bring the crises in Giovanni’s Gift toward resolution is named—Willa.
Speaking of Helen, let me return one last time to her Nebraska diaries. Like Maidy Forrester who claims “I shall dance till I’m eighty....I’ll be the dancing grandmother!” Helen had, in her own words, “no inclination towards being a wallflower.” Indeed, she defined herself succinctly if not a bit brazenly: “I am a Bohemian by nature, being reared in a Bohemian-German settlement made me the way I am, a maverick and free spirit.”
But life on the farm wasn’t all quadrilles, square dances, and two steps. The hardships Cather so memorably depicts in O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, One of Ours, Obscure Destinies, and elsewhere anticipated the harsh latterday realities my grandparents and their children faced. Helen writes how “The Great Depression along with the black blizzards of the dustbowl days of the thirties brought an end to the dances and great times of the Bohemian Hall. The spirit of the farmer in his fight for survival was brought to its knees, his spirit was crushed. ...[T]he corn crops were sparse. The cold November wind and sometimes reluctant horses, rattling double-trees harnessed and hitched onto the iron-wheeled wagon, resounded a dark and gloomy fate that was to come. I can still hear the broken rhythmic blows of the corn hitting the faded sideboards and bang-board of the wagon as we went up and down, back and forth, through the field of dry faded stalks, row by row.”
In A Lost Lady, Cather makes a moving aside about the nature and character of the early Nebraska farmers. She writes, “The Old West had been settled by dreamers, great-hearted adventurers who were unpractical to the point of magnificence; a courteous brotherhood, strong in attack but weak in defence, who could conquer but could not hold. Now all the vast territory they had won was to be at the mercy of men like Ivy Peters, who had never dared anything, never risked anything.... [T]he pioneer they would destroy and cut up into profitable bits, as the match factory splinters the primeval forest”.
My grandfather lost his farm in the Great Depression. He and his family—my mother Lois seated on my grandmother’s lap holding her goldfish bowl in her own—moved, defeated, to Lincoln. Whether there was some Wick Cutter or Ivy Peters who figured in my grandfather’s downfall, or whether Ivy Peters represented a collective of terrible drought, economic collapse, and plain bad luck, I’ll never know. But if the sadistic Ivy slitting the eyes of a wounded woodpecker remains one of Willa Cather’s most horrific images, then the image of my grandfather leaving his farm and all that he had worked for remains one of the more painful in my own family’s stock of memories.
Aunt Helen’s diaries include a poignant passage about my grandparents’ last visit to the farm on Hoffman Hill. “Dad turned...up the driveway, around the low spot that always collected water. Our farm was on a long sloping rise where we could see all over the countryside, but to our dismay, the houses and outbuildings of yesterday were gone.... Dad looked over to where the house once stood and said ‘That’s where Lois was born, and do you remember how old Jim and Beauty used to run for the water tank at the foot of the windmill after a long day’s work in the field?’
“He moved around the barnyard in demise, taking in how time had erased his past labors, a cycle completed. When it was time to leave, he said ‘Despite the drought, the dust storms and other problems that drove us from the farm, that was the best life, that was home.’”
Even in the last decade of my grandparents’ lives, when they rented a two-room apartment in Littleton, Colorado, they never lost some of their Nebraska farm habits. My grandmother preferred using her chamber pot at night, which she kept under their bed, to the bathroom toilet. And my grandfather rose at four in the morning, made his coffee in the quiet dark, and sat with his grandson at the kitchen table saying nothing, no doubt caught up in his memories of better days. It’s a miraculous function of art that one’s experience can be sharpened by the narration of somebody you never knew, never met, but whose path and yours intersect in language on a page. When Cather writes of Anton Rosicky that his “kitchen with the shining windows was dear to him; but the sleeping fields and bright stars and the noble darkness were dearer still,” I’m brought much closer to LeRoy Hoffman, and therefore to myself.
One can understand how, now when I read Cather’s novels set in Red Cloud and the outlying farmlands, I cannot help but lose myself in the feeling that I’m reading my own family chronicles written by a forebear whose genius for understanding and depicting this now largely gone world is a lifeline to a personal self-awareness. Just as Ántonia means the country to Jim Burden, my aunt, grandmother, and my mother meant Nebraska as I grew up imagining it. Having now witnessed contemporary Red Cloud and Blue Hill through the perfecting lens of Cather’s own past and fiction, her Nebraska and mine are companions in my imagination. While her fictions were born from stories of her family, friends, and neighbors, I can view, even experience, my own family’s stories living between the lines of her pages.
When in Red Cloud in late May, 2009. I stayed at the bed-and-breakfast in the Cather family’s second home in town. It sits on a corner lot, diagonally across the intersection from the courthouse that served as a setting in One of Ours, half a block south of where my great-grandmother Lydia Hoffman, widowed in 1916, moved with her children, and opposite the mansard-roofed McNeny house where my great-aunt Denith was employed as a servant. There is a family photograph of Denith standing on the streets of Red Cloud with her husband Lawrence, who looks every bit the soldier that Claude was when he shipped out to fight in World War I. My head was swimming with all things Cather that first night in her father’s house, and I couldn’t sleep. The splendidly wallpapered and appointed bedroom in which I was staying was formerly that of Willa’s parents, Charles and Virginia (called Jennie by her family), and because the adjacent room, Willa’s own when she visited Red Cloud, was empty, its connecting door was left standing open to let the air pass through. Another door that led from Willa’s room out onto the upstairs porch, where she liked to sit under an awning to read or write, also stood ajar. Wide awake, I got up, went into her room, and sat in the wicker chair by this door listening to a soft spring rain pattering on the porch floor, trying to smooth my mind. The lilacs outside were in full bloom and their scent drifted up into Willa’s room. In the morning I was going to tour the prairie she wrote about and visit the country cemeteries that held not just her family, but my own, and I could not help but feel a calm closeness wrap itself around me like the midnight mist draped in the trees along North Seward Street. I felt gratitude toward Willa Cather, who seemed like a friend even more than a mentor for that half hour, suddenly tranquil there in her world that will always remain alive in her fiction. Then I returned to her parents’ room and finally fell asleep.