(Please enjoy this delightful photo essay by Sherri Hoffman Hoye, who has been a friend of Litkicks for many years but has never felt inspired to contribute an article until she made a recent journey to a town called Red Cloud, Nebraska … — Levi)
I grew up in rural Iowa. It’s always affirming to validate your place of origin with literature, and I got my first taste of this by reading W.P Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, which later became the movie Field of Dreams. After college I moved to Omaha, Nebraska and became a high school teacher. My urge to acknowledge my space in literary terms remained. For the next 30 years I tried, and sometimes failed miserably, to illuminate the lives of my students by exposing them to a certain great writer from Nebraska. I often spend my summers discovering new ways to do this.
Each year the Willa Cather Foundation holds an international conference in her hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska. This annual event brings together scholars and enthusiasts who yearn to discuss this novelist’s personal journey within her own space: the wide-open prairies of the great plains, amidst the personalities and legacies of past personalities who sought, not the promise of the West, but its opportunities for true freedom. I have my own reason to attend this conference: I appreciate Willa Cather’s novels on a personal level, and I always hope to find new ways to make them relevant for my high school students, who are on the cusp of the custody of their own lives.
The entire region around Red Cloud, Nebraska stands as a monument to stark human striving in the face of success and failure, isolation and community, despair and hope. During the peak years of European immigration, the south side of Omaha, Nebraska was known as The Magic City. In one day an immigrant could arrive, find employment, housing for his family and education for his children. And while that satisfied many, some still sought an even greater opportunity: freedom from the opinions and judgments of others, and that was available further west in the openness of the great plains, the prairie.
The prairie lands didn’t settle themselves. The Homestead Act of 1862 made this happen by offering 160 acres of farmland to any man who could make it sustainable in five years. While that sounds easy, immigrants sometimes found prairie sod with hidden roots running 15 feet deep. The obstructions might have provided fortuitous building blocks for a soddie, or sod house, but it rendered the land formidable for plowing and planting.
This gave birth to the personalities of the plainsmen and women who came west for financial opportunities, freedom to practice religious faith, political beliefs or — as develops in the novels of Willa Cather — the autonomy of sexual orientation and the time and space to be an artist. The hard land also broke some of the new arrivals. Many of them fell back to Omaha or Lincoln, creating ethnically unique sections of these cities that maintain their flavor to this day.
The sensibility of openness — that feeling that a person can be and do what they want — was and still is present on the plains. But it comes with a caveat: be yourself, but do so within the unwritten rules of local decorum. Willa Cather was relentless in depicting this dichotomy, especially as it pertained to art.
In her novels and short stories, Cather developed plot lines and characters that revealed both the freedom of the artist to create and the social rejection of that imagination. In her classic My Antonia the patriarch of the Shimerda family is a farmer and yet he has no skills or calling for an agrarian life. He is a violinist, a refined man and dressed for a dignified life. The unforgiving conditions, which he knows will eventually provide his children with a future, smother him. At his breaking point, he takes his own life.
The community Cather introduces us to in this important novel is generally sympathetic, but yet will not allow this defeated man’s body to be buried in the sacred space of the cemetery. Instead, he is placed at the crossroads of two roads outside of town. This story, based in fact, takes its details from the true story of the family of a neighbor of Willa Cather’s family named Annie Pavelka. She was a few years older than Willa Cather, but these kinds of stories were never private and would have reached young Willa’s ears. These stories were the whispered details of the community’s shared life. This same situation plays out again in Cather’s short stories, “Paul’s Case” and “The Sculptor’s Funeral.” In her O Pioneers! (the title was taken from Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name) we find characters who are shunned because of eccentricity and what is perceived as a lack of direction in life. Both of these characters are admired and protected by the female protagonist, Alexandra Bergson, whose perspective on life resembles Cather’s.
This spot is the burial place of Mr. Shimerda in My Antonia.
Everyone gets his/her space in life and in death. Cather was one of five children, and while the sleeping space in the attic portion of her family home was communal, Willa had her own room. This room was small and sparse, decorated with wallpaper paid for from a summer job noted in The Song of the Lark (which celebrates its centennial year of publication this year). Here’s the communal bedroom:
This was Willa Cather’s room of her own (thank you, Virginia Woolf).
Those in Red Cloud, Nebraska who sought a new start, an attempt to leave behind past failures, often found themselves weighted down by memory. The narrator in My Antonia is Jim Burden and his telling of the story is entirely from the past, a memory he tries to assign importance in his life. A line in Whitman’s poem, “Song of the Open Road” pops into my head when I teach My Antonia:
Still here I carry my old delicioius burdens
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am filled with them
and I will fill then in return.
This novel also presents two Russian immigrants named Pavel and Peter, who try and eventually fail to outrun their own sins. Back in their homeland, they attend a winter wedding. At its conclusion the wedding party and guests depart in horse-drawn sleighs and find themselves pursued by wolves. One by one the sleighs are attacked by the predators until only the one containing the bride, groom and few others remains. A quick decision to reduce the weight of the sleigh so that it can go faster results in the bride and groom being thrown, literally, to the wolves. The survivors, Pavel and Peter, attempt to come to the prairie, tell no one of their past, and begin again. The story is confessed to Mr. Shimerda as Pavel is dying.
For many years, this painting by Paul Powis hung in the Garber State Bank in Red Cloud, and is thought to be the inspiration for the Pavel and Peter story. The painting was recently restored by Kenneth Be, who was a presenter at the Willa Cather Spring Conference.
The population of Red Cloud has perpetually hovered around 1,200. In a town that has never had even one stop light, there are six Christian churches. In Cather’s writings, the Catholics and Protestants are represented equally. In My Antonia, Jim Burden is Protestant, and the focus of his memory, Antonia, is Catholic. The details of her religious life, the life of Annie Pavelka, remain in Red Cloud. The St. Juliana Catholic Church where Annie/Antonia was married retains the details of its day. Moving to a new land, with new customs, immigrants often found comfort in the familiarity of religious practice. Faith fortified them when the harsh realities of prairie life did not. While no longer an active parish, this church is a part of the town tour available to visitors to Red Cloud.
In Willa Cather’s time, a hay burner was used to quickly warm the church during the cold parts of the year. Hay burns hot and fast. Catholic priests often were in charge of more than one parish and would travel on the train to conduct mass. As the train approached a town, the conductor would sound the train whistle in a certain pattern to alert Catholics that the priest was on his way. Parishioners would then drop their work in the fields and head to town, and the hayburner would be filled and lit. Upon their arrival for mass, the church was warm.
Inside the church, I found this Latin missal:
I was also drawn to this, an example of a “poor man’s stained glass” window probably made with white wash and hay used as a brush.
With all the hopes of prosperous and happy beginnings, immigrants found that life on the prairie filled itself with remnants from the past, challenges of the present and hopes for the future. Well beyond her day, Willa Cather took the opportunity to write very carefully about her own struggles through her characters. A Lost Lady and Lucy Gayheart reveal much when newly considered in this light. Both are considered “lesser” Willa Cather novels, and yet because of the contemporary view of gender identity, the novels are being re-read as an early commentary on gay life.
Among all the issues that present conflicts on the Plains, this one has endured the longest road. Until recently, Cather’s sexuality was understood, but rarely spoken about. It was handled not unlike Mr. Shimerda’s suicide: understood, but not spoken about. With the release of Cather’s letters, which I highly recommend reading, the conversation is now open and public.
Willa Cather and her longtime partner Edith Lewis could not be open about themselves in their day. But they did manage a life together for 39 years, and they are buried next to each other in the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. I also managed to visit this site — which contains a prominent Willa Cather headstone along with Willa and Edith’s actual graves — two weeks after attending the Cather conference in Red Cloud. It gave me great comfort that they are together.