Photo via Wikimedia Commons
When I first read O Pioneers!, Willa Cather’s 1913 novel set in a small town in Nebraska, I loved its main character, Alexandra Bergson. Often described as wearing men’s clothes, Alexandra takes on the traditional “male” job and runs the family farm when her brothers prove too incompetent. I was obsessed with her skill and power, but I also appreciated her immense love for the land, a love that fondly reminded me of my own family reunions in Nebraska. In the 1920s, Cather’s books were radical; she wrote about what it means to be “American” – particularly in the Midwest and among the Swedish and Czech immigrant communities who settled there – and today, 70 years after her death, her job continues to resonate, not least because researchers still wonder whether they should be viewed in the context of Cather’s relationships with women.
In early March, my friend Gage and I made a pilgrimage to the Willa Cather House in Red Cloud, Nebraska. I wanted to visit ever since I learned it was a 90 minute drive to the small town where my father was born, and on the trip west of Iowa City, I recognized the cornfields and the broad horizon of the introduction to Cather’s 1918 novel. My Antonia. Jim Burden, the narrator of the book, and a childhood friend take a train through Iowa, and the friend notices:
We were talking about what it’s like to spend your childhood in small towns like these, buried under wheat and corn, in stimulating extreme climates: scorching summers when the world is green and stormy under bright skies. , when you are suffocated enough in vegetation… windy winters with little snow, when the whole country is bare and gray as iron. We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a small town on the Prairies could know nothing about it.
In Cather’s novels, the landscape places us in the region of a specific people; we need to understand a place before we understand who lives there, and its detailed and tender descriptions make us feel like we are traveling. In this same passage of My ntonia, Jim and his friend talk about their childhood friend, an immigrant from Bohemia (now Czech Republic) named Ántonia Shimerda, and decide that “more than anyone else we can remember, this girl seemed to mean the [America]People belong to the place where they live, including and especially the immigrants and refugees who have come (and are coming) here, like Ántonia Shimerda and her family. “It was risky, at the beginning of [the 20th] century, of pretending to write fiction about ordinary, rude people engaged in the rigors of agriculture on dry land on the Nebraska border, ”writes Kathleen Norris in her introduction to the novel. But Cather manages to capture the ordinary. At the end of an unusually warm March afternoon, I saw that Cather had reflected the quiet beauty of this city in her lyrical, clean writing. one of his Nebraska novels.
Cather’s writing resists excess while bending grace into what is beautiful and tragic in everyday life. After graduating from college, Cather moved in Pittsburgh, worked as an editor at Home Monthly magazine, taught in high school and lived in the same room as Isabelle McClung, a woman she called “the love of her life.” After ten years, she moved to New York, where she worked as a copywriter at McClure magazine, who will publish his first serialized novel, and lives in an apartment with his partner Edith Lewis. But his most successful novels have taken place in the Midwest and diverted the field of literature from what Norris calls “exaggerated European claims” and onto ordinary people.
Cather was not from the Midwest; as Jim, the narrator of My ntonia, she was born in Virginia in 1873 and moved to Nebraska with her family at the age of nine. Particularly at the end of the 19th century, she had the unusual experience of growing up somewhere where she was not “from where”; she held a sort of outsider status which likely contributed to her competence as a an observer. “I was little, I was homesick and I felt lonely,” she said told an interviewer about his family’s move. “So the country and I quarreled together and by the end of the first fall, the shaggy grassland had seized me with a passion that I could never shake.”
When I visited Cather’s house, the volunteer docent told me that the people of Red Cloud recognized who Cather wrote about in a given job – and they weren’t happy with it. The cashier at the local general store, Casey’s, told us her great-grandmother was Anna Pavelka, the inspiration for My ntonia titular character. Cather’s legacy occupies a precarious place in the small town, which today has 1,050 inhabitants. There is a lot of pride in the hometown – every local business had a poster supporting the high school women’s basketball team, which qualified for the state championships despite its small size (six people). One Saturday night, Gage and I were the only two strangers at the only bar in town, South 40, and everyone suspected we were there “for Willa Cather”. A few people have told us that they don’t like his books very much. A man, who beat us pretty badly at billiards, told us he preferred Death comes for the archbishop, which is set in New Mexico, about her novels set in Nebraska. He didn’t care about the descriptions of the rolling prairies and the beauty of the Midwest – he saw it every day working on his farm and found the written landscapes boring. But he liked Cather’s descriptions of New Mexico – reading a book like that, he said he was able to travel to an unknown place in his own country.
Gage and I arrived at Red Cloud the weekend before the Catherine Foundation‘Soft opening’ of his new museum and educational center in the converted opera house on Main Street, one of Cather’s favorite spots in town. Today you can still tell how bright and beautiful it must have looked to the young girl. When she was 14, she and her friends put on a show of The beauty and the Beast at the Opera. They charged 25 cents per show and made $ 40, which they gave to immigrant families in the city who were having financial difficulties. You can see the hall in which it was performed, renovated but designed to look like the original stage. Willa played a merchant; the museum has a photo of her wearing a drag wearing a fabulous wax mustache and hat with her friends, who are all in dresses.
Cather, now sometimes considered a queer author after a debate on his correspondence regarding “female friendships” – often played with gender. A portrait of her at the age of 14 in one of the Foundation buildings, a dark old bank owned by the husband of the woman Cather wrote about A lost lady—shows Cather with short hair, a hairstyle she got after her family refused to take her seriously when she signed all of her letters “William Cather, MD” -Lincoln and a professor sent one of her essays to a local newspaper. Once Cather saw her name printed, she got hooked.)
Cather’s resistance to mainstream femininity – her short hair, her drag performances, her choice not to marry a man – also features in some female characters in her novels. O Pioneers!‘s Alexandra Bergson was a woman who took on a “man’s job” – running the family farm – and did it better than her brothers and male neighbors. Alexandra ends up marrying Carl Linstrum, but as “just friends”. Like Joan Acocella Put the in the New Yorker, Cather’s fiction “seldom depicts a heterosexual relationship that has a romantic or sexual glow.” It’s full of what I like to call queer reluctance: what it doesn’t say – and the little details it chooses to point out – subtly steers savvy readers to a delicate, understated conclusion. In the same way one could read the poem of Elizabeth Bishop “Crusoe in England“as an elegy for her former partner Lota De Macedo Soares, with gender subversion intended to obscure her true romantic gesture – read Bishop as the lonely Crusoe and Soares as Friday (” If only he had been a woman! “) – on could read the relationship between Father Latour and Father Vaillant in Cather’s 1927 novel Death comes for the archbishop like masked homosexual love. In the penultimate chapter, Father Latour, at the end of his life, and lying in his bed “reflects on his life… he was almost certainly thinking of Joseph: of their life together here, in this room”. He remembers them as young men in France, deciding to become missionaries even though “the two young priests knew their families would strongly oppose their plan, so they resolved not to reveal it to anyone: to say no goodbyes. , but slip away. “In the stealth and fervor of the two men’s relationship, I suspect a coded nod to the passion that could exist between two people of the same sex, to a love that dares not pronounce its name The queerness is coded and almost entirely hidden, but it is there.
Nevertheless, the beauty of Cather’s novels still charms readers today. Although it is not immune to faults, especially in Death comes for the archbishop, a novel that celebrates the colonial expansion of the United States, Cather’s characters lean heavily on flattening stereotypes while discussing the indigenous peoples of New Mexico – his straightforward, lyrical prose tells the stories of everyday life with nuance and subtlety, making way for those who are considered “other”. At a time when gay life is under attack and travel bans make immigrants feel insecure, his sleek novels manage to make room for difference while elevating the ordinary. They remind us that American stories are American stories.