When Willa Cather’s aunt and uncle moved from New England to the prairie in 1873, the year of her birth, they hired a wagon driver at the train station in Red Cloud, measured the circumference of the back wheel, knotted a strip of cloth around it and set off into the alien sea of grasses. Cather captured the trek in “Macon Prairie”:
Using that strip of cloth as a measuring device, Willa’s aunt counted the number of revolutions of the wheel from the town until they felt they must be in the middle of their claim. There was no other way. There were no landmarks to navigate by. When they finally made it from the town to their lot, the aunt and uncle settled down for the night—then a whipping prairie fire scorched their land. The fire may have done them in, with all their possessions, if it hadn’t been for the quick action of the driver of the wagon, who started a backfire. The next day, Nebraska’s newest settlers learned that the closest water was at their neighbors’ place, two miles away—and had been hauled there from Red Cloud, 16 miles distant.
Several years later, nine-year-old Willa Cather and her family also traveled from Red Cloud through the open prairie. They had left a comfortable life behind in languorous-sounding Willow Shade, Virginia to move to this prairie outpost with the colorful name. In the largely autobiographical My Ántonia, Cather gave an account of that journey from Red Cloud through the eyes of Jim Burden, the character based on her own experiences. Unlike Willa, Jim was an orphan. But like Willa and her family, he arrived by train and was taken to the house of his grandparents. Young Jim arrives at night, and his impressions are of the emptiness of the prairie:
Cautiously, I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made….I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction.
To confront the Divide—a swath of land from the Little Blue to the Republican River in Nebraska—was to feel such a pang of disorientation. But in a short amount of time, the country began to work on Cather. “I was little and homesick and lonely…” she later observed. “So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn the shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life.”
It helped to be young, for farming in Nebraska was backbreaking work, and subject to drought, tornadoes, even plagues of grasshoppers. It was a day’s journey by horse for many settlers to get to and from Red Cloud. Come winter, the snow drifted, collecting in the draws so deeply that you could permanently ruin a horse by riding it to town. Blizzards dropped so much snow that it was necessary to tunnel from the main house to the barn. Then the Divide was white against a gray sky as far as the eye could see.
In the best of weather, the eye could not see far enough to spot another neighbor. Settlers not only lived far from town but far from each other. And with such a flat table of land, and such high grass, one saw only prairie. Most settlers’ first houses were constructed of sod. Sod was easy to work with and, of course, plentiful. It also had a tendency to leak and to be infested with bugs. Even with plastered inner walls, sod houses must have seemed to some like a living grave.
Out on the prairie, the howling winds brought about isolation and despair. If you were one of the many immigrants who had brought their families from Europe, you met with the crushing realization that your expectations had far exceeded reality. Papa Shimerda, the Bohemian immigrant father who is featured in the first section of My Ántonia, is swindled out of most of the family’s money by a countryman who sells him a sod house that is “no better than a badger hole,” his oxen, and “two bony old horses” that are practically useless. His children sleep in a hole that has been dug out of one of the walls of the house. Suffering from deep depression due to homesickness and guilt for what he has done to his family, Papa Shimerda takes his life. He is interred at the intersection of two survey lines, in keeping with the Old Country superstition that a suicide must be buried at a crossroads. Cather wrote:
Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross.
In Cather’s youth, there was an immigrant just like Papa Shimerda, named Francis Sadilek. He told his wife he was going out rabbit hunting and, instead, went to the barn and shot himself, leaving his family in a terrible spot. The grave of Francis Sadilek can still be found on the prairie today, just as Cather described it.
A Clean, Well-Planted Little Prairie Town
A year after moving in with Willa Cather’s grandparents, the Cathers seem to have had enough of the Divide. They moved into a cramped house in Red Cloud, where Cather’s father set up a farm mortgage and insurance business. Red Cloud was a small town, much like the town of Black Hawk where Cather set much of My Ántonia:
Black Hawk, the new world in which we had come to live, was a clean, well-planted little prairie town, with white fences and good green yards about the dwellings, wide, dusty streets, and shapely little trees growing along the sidewalks. In the centre of town there were two rows of new brick “store” buildings, a brick schoolhouse, the court house and four white churches.
Red Cloud had started its life as an 80 x 100 foot stockade, with three-foot thick sod walls and a ditch with a drawbridge to protect the settlers against the Native Americans who never evinced any interest in attacking. By the time the Cathers moved there, Red Cloud had a larger population than it has at present—thanks to its relative importance as a depot for the Burlington and Missouri line that brought eight trains through per day. The Cathers were back in man’s jurisdiction.
It was in the Red Cloud high school that Cather met Annie Sadilek. Annie was the daughter of the farmer who had taken his life and Annie, whose early years on the prairie had only made her stronger, became her inspiration for the fictional Ántonia. It was also in Red Cloud that Cather got to know the Miners. Mr. Miner owned Miner Brothers’ Store, the first department store in Nebraska, a place where, as Mildred Bennett put it, “the whole pioneer drama of hope and despair was played out.” The store’s motto was “Live and let live” and, without the credit that the store extended to settlers and recent immigrants, many could not have survived. The store was the setting of the first scene in Cather’s novel called O Pioneers!. The Miner family— scion, matriarch, children—played a large role in My Ántonia as the Haring family. And the Miners and the Sadileks intersected when Annie moved in from the country after several years of hard country toil to become the “hired girl” at the Miners’.
For all the enjoyment she got out of associating with the Miner family, with Anna, and with the many other townspeople who also wound up as characters in her books, Cather also felt an “oppressively domestic” Main Street-ness. Cather describes in My Ántonia how one summer a dance “school” came to Black Hawk, and set up business and a dance floor on one of the vacant lots. “At last,” Jim Burden narrates with relief, “there was something to do on those long empty summer evenings when the married people sat like images on their front porches.” Anyone who could pay the price of admission was welcome to dance. And so the railroad men, the iceman, the farmhands would come and dance with the “hired girls”—Swedes and Norwegians and Bohemians.
Some of the town boys, who were taught to look down on the “hired girls,” would sneak off to the Saturday dances. They were expected to marry the proper town girls, who were “refined.” But through Jim Burden, Cather describes those town girls. “When one danced with them, their bodies never moved inside their clothing; their muscles seemed to ask but one thing—not to be disturbed.” Living in town had made these girls soft. Dancing with Ántonia, by contrast, was an “adventure” for Jim.
The hired girls occupied a special place in Cather’s heart, for they were mostly first generation immigrants who had grown up in the “bitter-hard times” and had worked so that their younger brothers and sisters could get some schooling. She described them in My Ántonia as being physically “almost a race apart,” for “out of door work had given them a vigour.” Through the character of Jim Burden, she wrote that the younger brothers and sisters never seemed “half as interesting or as well educated….The older girls, who helped break up the wild sod…had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.” Some of them, like Ántonia, never lost their old world ways. Others, like the character Lena, adopted Midwestern ways that seemed to throw them into relief. Lena absorbed the figures of speech of the town girls and town women: “Those formal phrases, the very flower of small-town proprieties, and the flat commonplaces, nearly all hypocritical in their origin that became very funny…when they were uttered in Lena’s soft voice, with her caressing intonation and arch naïveté.”
In real life, Mr. Miner happened to catch Annie Sadilek cuddling on the back porch with a young man (who happened to be the son of a woman he detested). He forbade her to see him again. The spirited Annie, who adored the dances and social life after years of isolation on the farm, refused to agree to that and moved out. In My Ántonia, Ántonia was forced out of her job as “hired girl” for a similar reason. The dances also cast a shadow over Jim, who was still living with his staid and religious grandparents. He was caught sneaking out to them and swayed by guilt into staying away. With the elimination of the dances, the shortcomings of Black Hawk became obvious.
One could hang about the drugstore; and listen to the old men who sat there every evening, talking politics and telling raw stories. One could go to the cigar factory and chat with the old German who raised canaries for sale, and look at his stuffed birds. But whatever you began with him, the talk went back to taxidermy. There was the depot of course: I often went down to see the night train come in, and afterward sat awhile with the disconsolate telegrapher who was always hoping to be transferred to Omaha or Denver, “where there was some life.”
What did Cather do in those days after the family had moved to town and people sat like statues? Unlike Jim Burden, Willa Cather had family. In total, there were seven children. It is doubtful that the active Cather spent very much time being bored.
“Optima Dies…Prima Fugit
The Best Days are the First to Flee”
My Ántonia begins with this quote
“I don’t even come west for local color,” Willa Cather maintained. “The ideas for all my novels come from things that happened around Red Cloud when I was a child. I was all over the country then, on foot, on horseback and in our farm wagons….It happened that my mind was constructed for the particular purpose of absorbing impressions and retaining them.” Cather left the prairie for good at the age of 23, when she moved to Pittsburgh to work as an editor. In 1906, she moved to New York City to write for McClure’s Magazine, where she eventually became managing editor. Two years later, she met the doyenne of local color writers, Sarah Orne Jewett. It was Jewett who encouraged Cather to stop editing and instead write about those experiences in Nebraska.
Cather followed Jewett’s advice. While living with her friend Isabelle McClung in New York, she began writing the novel O Pioneers! about a family of Swedish immigrants who come to Nebraska, work hard, and prosper. In 1913 the novel was published, with a dedication to Jewett. Cather had indeed absorbed and retained much. Her well-rounded characters stood out against an eloquent landscape. It was in 1916, awash in love, jealousy and betrayal after McClung decided to marry, that Cather began to compose My Ántonia. The novel was a critical success, even hailed by none other than the decidedly unsentimental H.L. Mencken as the greatest piece of fiction written by a woman in America.
Jim Burden’s romantic love for the older Ántonia is never requited. As for Cather’s relationship with Isabelle McClung—or with the fellow Nebraskan woman with whom she lived for 40 years—biographers can only speculate. Willa Cather was an intensely private person. Cather’s seeming inclination towards women adds a level of meaning to My Ántonia and, for that, it deserves mention. But the novel is about far more than the love affair: it concerns itself with the material out of which countries are made, the people who plowed the plains, the beauty of the prairie and how it was changing. It is also about youth. Cather once claimed that in order to write well she had to “get up feeling 13 years old and all set for a picnic.” Cather’s style calls to mind the prairie as well as youth: sentences undulate like the grasses in “Macon Prairie.” They flow on and on, gently punctuated by commas, as if they could do so effortlessly forever.
“The best days are the first to flee” comes from a work called The Georgics, 2,000 lines of poetry on the subject of agriculture by the great Roman poet Virgil. And it sums up much of Cather’s views on the prairie where she had grown up. She was disturbed when she returned to visit by how things had changed. Every tree that was cut down or replaced pained her. There weren’t, after all, very many trees to start with. The attitude of the succeeding generations disturbed her as well. “‘I’m sure not going to work the way the old man did’ seems to be the slogan of today,” she observed critically. Always a Nebraskan, she followed the goings on in town from afar, taking delivery of the Red Cloud Commercial Advertiser at her New York City apartment. Through it, she kept an eye on the local situation and sent money to family and friends if she read that crops had been bad or some calamity had occurred.
Cather went on to publish many other novels, short stories, and poems. One of them, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1925), does for New Mexico what Cather had done for Nebraska. It tells the stories of Bishop Latour and his partner in the faith, Father Vaillant, whose diocese is based in Santa Fe but whose territory covers the entire West. Both fictional characters are based on real life figures. Using the book, even today one can visit the places Cather described—such as the 367-foot tall rock pillar of ancient Acoma Pueblo, continuously inhabited since 1100, or the miraculous staircase in a Santa Fe church. They are all preserved in the dry desert air. Cather describes how, even as he ages, and loses Father Vaillant, who died winning lost souls in the gold fields of Colorado, the Bishop always awakes in New Mexico “a young man.” The Bishop is a pioneer, just like Cather. He appreciates that a “particular quality in the air of new countries” departs after they are settled and cultivated. “Parts of Texas and Kansas that he had first known as open range,” the Bishop reminisces, “had since been made into rich farming districts, and the air had quite lost that lightness, that dry aromatic odour. The moisture of plowed land, the heaviness of labor and growth and grain-bearing, utterly destroyed it; one could breathe that only on the bright edges of the world, on the great grass plains or the sage-brush desert.”21. Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, 273.
After many years, in 1915, Cather visited Annie Sadilek Pavelka. That journey also found its way into My Ántonia. It was a bittersweet experience, tinged by regret that she had not visited more often. But in the book, the visit is predominantly joyful, as is Jim Burden’s view of the land:
The old pasture land was now being broken up into wheatfields and cornfields, the red grass was disappearing, and the whole face of the country was changing. There were wooden houses where the old sod dwellings used to be, and little orchards, and big red barns; all this meant happy children, contented women, and men who saw their lives coming to a fortunate issue. The windy springs and the blazing summers, one after another, had enriched and mellowed that flat tableland; all the human effort that had gone into it was coming back in long, sweeping lines of fertility. The changes seemed beautiful and harmonious to me; it was like watching the growth of a great man or of a great idea. I recognized every tree and sandbank and rugged draw. I found that I remembered the conformation of the land as one remembers the modeling of human faces.
After the death of her mother in 1931, Cather never returned to Nebraska. Too much had changed.
In recent years, the Cather Foundation has set aside 609 acres of prairie that it wishes to return to the condition in which Willa Cather found it. The Willa Cather Thematic District includes 26 individually significant sites and four historic districts, in and around Red Cloud and Webster County. The Foundation oversees what it says is the largest historic district devoted to an author in the United States. Though Willa Cather was buried in faraway New Hampshire, her spirit would find it comforting and familiar to alight in Red Cloud today.
“The land belongs to the future…that’s the way it seems to me…I might as well try to will the sunset over there to my brother’s children. We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it —for a little while.”
— Willa Cather, O Pioneers!, 1913