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Why We Read Willa Cather

March 24, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“Where there is great love, there are always miracles.”

“Human love was a wonderful thing and it was most wonderful where it had least to gain.”

 

After working her way to the top of McClure's Magazine and becoming Editor, Willa Cather became very disinterested with the pressure and time constraints of a full time job. Moreover, she was frustrated at her own inability to write. So, instead of writing fiction, Cather continued to write volumes of letters. Responding to one of Cather's laments about writing, Sarah Orne Jewett advised her to find “her own quiet center and write from there.” Cather then went back west and began to take note of things about her home that had previously felt static or uninteresting.

Cather's family moved from Virginia to Nebraska before she turned 10. At first, the Nebraskan plains seemed uninteresting to Cather. It also proved to be a very difficult life, filled with hardships. The family then moved into the city of Red Cloud, where Cather continued not to fit into classic molds. Though Cather's family was one of the original white settlers in the area, she did not originally embrace the west. She loved being outside and working “like a man”, but only much later did she come to appreciate the treeless vista. It was only in leaving, moving to New York among the bustle and the noise, that she became more enamored with the west. Cather said of her second novel O Pioneers!, “This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. The other [Alexander's Bridge] was like riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time." In other words, in writing this second novel, Cather realized that the west and pioneer lifestyle was to be one of her main topics.

Cather's novel My Ántonia gives voice to a nearly silenced population: the rural poor. She envisions, describes and finely details lives of poverty, but also of its riches. Like many of her novels, Cather defied norms and was not afraid to be true to herself. We do not remember her, or continue to read her novels because of issues of conformity, but rather because of her intimate details and lush experience-driven narratives. In refusing to conform to the writing style of the early 1900s, she was also a writing pioneer. The characters she depicts are drawn from hardship and poverty, not wealth and gentility. More than that, however, some of these characters rise in nobility, despite the lack of material wealth.

While My Ántonia was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, it was actually her novel One of Ours that received the Prize instead. This novel describes a Nebraska youth gone off to fight in World War I, where he dies. It was a personal narrative which was based upon the life of Cather's cousin. They were close as children, often working in the fields together on their neighboring farms. Cather's voice and experience can be found in all of her novels. Hidden among the direct language and descriptive images is her absolute inability to conform. Instead, Cather wrote about life as she saw it and in doing so, offered a new way of validating and enjoying our world. She also became an image of a strong female having become a teacher, journalist and then editor. She said, “The fact that I was a girl never damaged my ambitions to be a pope or an emperor.” Women of her day rarely voiced such ambition. Yet, Cather masterfully created herself and her voice through observation and a direct voice. We still read her works today because they give a sense of rural history, of women's history and the craft of writing itself. A few of her quotes follow to give a sense of Cather's style and grace.

For more information on Cather, visit The Willa Cather Foundation. Also, if you are interested in writing a paper on her works, visit their upcoming Seminar and call for papers: https://www.willacather.org/save-date-16th-international-cather-seminar-june-11-17-2017.  PBS has a compiled a concise video narrative of some of Cather's letters, available at: http://www.pbs.org/video/2365563628/ . More resources for teachers are available here and here

“One hour from now, out of your window, I shall see a sight unparalleled — Jupiter and Venus both shining in the golden-rosy sky and both in the West; she not very far above the horizon, and he about mid-way between the zenith and the silvery lady planet. From 5:30 to 6:30 they are of a superb splendor — deepening in color every second, in a still-daylight-sky guiltless of other stars, the moon not up and the sun gone down behind Gap-mountain; those two alone in the whole vault of heaven. It lasts so about an hour (did last night). Then the Lady, so silvery still, slips down into the clear rose colored glow to be near the departed sun, and imperial Jupiter hangs there alone. He goes down about 8:30. Surely it reminds one of Dante’s “eternal wheels”. I can’t but believe that all that majesty and all that beauty, those fated and unfailing appearances and exits, are something more than mathematics and horrible temperatures. If they are not, then we are the only wonderful things — because we can wonder.” - From a letter to Edith Lewis, October 5, 1936

“Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? I’m so glad we had each other when we were little.'” - My Ántonia

 

“It was over the flat lands like this, stretching out to drink the sun, that the larks sang – and one's heart sang there too.” - The Song of the Lark

 

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