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Willa Cather

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Willa Cather was never an attraction for me – her strange name, her stories of pioneer immigrants, her “O Pioneer,” a belabored required reading in high school – but  Jennifer Schuessler piqued my interest in the author in her review of a new publication of Cather’s letters for the New York Times Book Review – O Revelations! Letters, Once Banned, Flesh Out Willa Cather. Like Jane Austen, Cather was reluctant to reveal her private life through her letters,

” Cather was believed to have destroyed most of her letters and sternly ordered that her surviving correspondence never be published or quoted from…’  {yet the editors promised that} these lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation…{and instead reveal her as} “a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being.”

9760395755145-tBefore reading her letters, I decided to read the book that promised to reveal Cather’s own story of leaving Virginia as a young girl to live in Nebraska – My Antonia. Cather tells the story as Jim Holland, now a successful East Coast lawyer with an unsuccessful personal life, as he remembers his youth on the prairie.   His reminiscences center on a beautiful immigrant girl as they both arrive in Nebraska in the late nineteenth century – he at ten years old to live with his grandparents on the farm, after the death of his parents; Antonia at fourteen to struggle through a new way of life with her immigrant family, far from Bohemia where her father played the violin.

Antonia’s experiences reflect the struggles of immigrants trying to learn the language and a new way of life, as they also try to preserve their own traditions – some in conflict with their new world.  Antonia is a strong character, and her life is the lynchpin for the many stories that Cather weaves, subtly revealing how those pioneers coped in an unforgiving and hard existence.   Following Antonia as she grows into a woman, cheering her as she defies expectations, worrying over her as she falls back into farm life from her foray into the big city,  make for a good story, especially as she satisfyingly circles back to her beginnings.

Cather sprinkles the slow narrative with romance, violence, tenderness, and tragic diversions – Jim’s killing of the rattlesnake, the suspicious death of Antonia’s father, the dancing in the town of Black Hawk.  But if you skip over Cather’s descriptions of the land, you will miss the best part of the book and the genuine insights…

“Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me.  Their backs were polished vermillion, with black spots. 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.”

Willa Cather would not have approved of my reading her fictional first person narrative  – My Antonia –  in paperback; she fought hard with her publisher to keep her book from an adaptation that would “cheapen” it.  Cather commissioned illustrations from Bohemian artist W.T. Benda for the first edition of My Ántonia, but the publisher did not include the images because of the cost; they are in my paperback version.  Having slipped Cather’s paperback into my carry-on, I had added satisfaction recently, as I was one of only a few on the plane who could continue reading as others around me powered down their electronics.

Reading this old classic was refreshing – a good story – hard to find sometimes.  Now, I look forward to reading Cather’s letters and cannot help thinking their publication is a good thing, despite her reservations.  After all, it may inspire others – as it did me – to find her fiction again.

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2 thoughts on “Willa Cather

  1. I am about halfway through the letters now, and they are wonderful: direct, warm and often funny. I do like Cather and especially her Song of the Lark. In it, a young singer experiences all the desires of a woman who wants to create beauty, not simply be beautiful.

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