Wednesday, April 10, 2019

it was still, all day long, Nebraska - Willa Cather is too close to home

For a long time I had a regional aversion to reading Willa Cather, and now that I have read five of her books I am not sure that I have shed it.  Does anybody else suffer from this malady?  As a readerly youth, I wanted to read about There, any There, not Here, and Red Cloud, Nebraska, was very much Here.

The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.  (My Ántonia, I.i)

The narrator is seeing Nebraska from the train.  Accurately said, narrator of My Ántonia.

I grew up about an hour and a half from Red Cloud, the setting, as fictional settings go, of O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), although I did not visit it until a couple of years ago.  Besides Cather’s childhood home, the sights in Red Cloud are pretty much all centered on My Ántonia, which partly takes place in town, while O Pioneers! is entirely out in the countryside, and sod houses do not survive too long.

Red Cloud is easily worth visiting if you happen to be in the area, which you will not be, because there is nothing in the area.  It is not “in the area” of anything.  Except where I grew up.

Our guide, who was great, told me that Cather scholars have their convention in Red Cloud every other year, and all I could think was “Oh no.  Do not become a Cather scholar.  Your conference is Here.”  I mean, where do they eat?  In Lincoln, Nebraska, which has a big state university and a state capitol, there is a wine bar which is below an Indian restaurant, so you can have wine with a platter of Indian snacks, just as an example.  I have done this my own self.  Lincoln is part of what I call civilization.  Red Cloud is a couple of hours from civilization.  Farther, when Cather lived there.

Cather’s first book, The Troll Garden, is a collection of short stories largely on this exact theme.  The title character of “The Sculptor’s Funeral” only returns to his little town in Kansas when he dies.  No one there has any idea what to do with him.  The category of “artist” does not exist.  To be an artist, you go away, to There.  “A Wagner Matinee” is even more pathetic, or cruel.  An aunt visits Boston, from Nebraska, and goes to a concert.  The story ends, almost:

I spoke to my aunt.  She burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly. “I don't want to go, Clark, I don't want to go!”

The last paragraph describes where she has to go – Nebraska.

“Paul’s Case” is set in Pittsburgh and is on the same theme, a reminder that the city itself is no kind of guarantee.  For a long time, “Paul’s Case” was the only Cather I had read, but it was some Cather, and therefore I had read Cather.

But now, My Ántonia and A Lost Lady (1923) and The Professor’s House (1925), so I will write a note or two on those.


  1. Perhaps Death Comes for the Archbishop, my favorite Cather, will be more to your liking; at least you have different scenery. Some say the novel is her masterpiece; I do not argue. Enjoy the prairie. Then escape to the southwest. Best wishes from the Gulf coast ...

  2. To be a medievalist, you have to go to Kalamazoo, MI, and the airport can't support all the flights needed, nor are there any restaurants. It is bleak. Maybe not as bleak as Nebraska, though.

  3. I have not read "Death Comes for the Archbishop" in decades, but perhaps the story of Fr. Latour--civilized, French--makes a good addition to this group. After all, he brings civilization in the form of tradition to a wild place, and he seeks to build a great emblem of Western civilization in that place.

  4. I will bet that The Wine Loft in Kalamazoo gets crowded when the medievalists are in town. And there are three Indian restaurants! Are we talking about the same Kalamazoo?

    Red Cloud, NE, is a town of a thousand people. When the conference is in town, the residents throw a pot luck dinner for the professors, which I will bet is pretty nice. There is probably some kind of cheesy potato.

    Just from a pure enjoyment perspective, the Cather I enjoyed the most was the inset novella in The Professor's House, about the discovery of Mesa Verde - so about a vanished civilization. And set somewhere other than the Great Plains. So Archbishop is definitely a good idea, my "next" Cather book.

  5. About twenty years ago I arrived in Lincoln for a five-year adventure working for the federal government, driving three days a week all over eastern Nebraska. I never made it to Red Cloud, but I got to Hastings and Beatrice, close by. Beatrice looks, from the photos of Red Cloud, pretty similar but without the Cather stuff of course. Back then, the only Cather I knew was "Paul's Case," though I'd heard of My Antonia and Archbishop. I don't think I knew that Cather was from Nebraska.

    Last year (I think it was) when I read My Antonia, I was able to imagine the landscape, so that stint in Nebraska finally came in handy. Perhaps you have to be from elsewhere to see it, but there is a lot of beautiful territory in Nebraska. The water marshes along the South Dakota border, for example. But yes, driving west along I80 it's pretty much miles and miles of miles and miles. Though I regret never stopping at the Kearney Archway, a quintessential American monument.

  6. I have not been as far west as Kearney for far longer than 20 years, not since I was a little kid. I saw the Archway in About Schmidt and thought "what the heck is that?"

    Red Cloud starts to get into the hills a little, so there is some topographical relief, unlike Hastings which is a real Great Plains city.

  7. I heard about Kalamazoo from the perspective of a 20-something daughter, who gave a paper at the conference after her first year of grad school and didn't know of any restaurants except the Subway on campus that was closed in the evenings.

  8. Heh. One of the benefits of being from nowhere (aka being a Foreign Service brat) is that you don't suffer from this particular malady. Everywhere is exotic to me!

  9. Poor daughter. She needed the Google Maps. Although I will bet that Kalamazoo, like many midwestern cities, has changed a lot in the last 10 or 20 years.

    I should say that my aversion against Here was more pronounced in my callow youth. Now I Have some distance.

  10. The Nebraska line is nearly iconic, like Stein's "there is no there there." I've spent maybe 10-12 days of my life in Nebraska, and have quite liked it. All that space and sky made it "There." I've even been to that Indian restaurant in Lincoln, where a friend at UNL likes to takes potential recruits, and I also liked a cosmopolitain little bar called Mars.

    A diner in Beaver Crossing (pop. 400) about 20 miles west of Lincoln was something to behold: walls completely covered in paint-by-numbers paintings, a wine selection to put a lot of San Francisco restaurants to shame, and a mixed clientele of ex-urbanites (ex-Lincoln, to be precise) and farmers in overalls. I don't know if it's still there.

  11. Good, good, it's nice to have someone come along and conform that I am not just making this all up, not that the restaurant is not easy to find on the internet. Yes, Nebraska has nice restaurants! There is an outstanding French bistro, La Buvette, in Omaha, for example.

  12. I have this regional problem with Steinbeck and most of California, except I quite like actual history. Just not literature. I've lived in Bakersfield and it wasn't that great, why would I want to read about it?

  13. Exactly. And then imagine people read the books and say, every time, "What great descriptions of the landscape!" Maybe Bakersfield does not get that. No, I am sure it is beautiful in its own way. Has there been a good novel, or a novel at all, about the creation of the Bakersfield sound? That could be fun.

  14. I bet there has, but I have not read it!

  15. I should be clear that when I read, and very much enjoyed, My Antonia, I was living in West Virginia, not Kansas or Oklahoma.