Refurnished Thoughts

Discover Vintage America - FEBRUARY 2019

Considering Willa Cather

by Leigh Elmore

After taking a couple of road trips through Nebraska in recent years, I will confess that the landscape seduced me. Far from expanses of nothingness that I was expecting, the vastness of the views seemed to represent, well, everything. Consequently, I was drawn to the novels of Willa Cather, an author I had somehow avoided reading as a youth.

(photo courtesy Willa Cather Prairie)

Cather, like the Jim Burden, the narrator of her novel My Antonia, was a native of Virginia, but brought to the plains of Nebraska to live while a child in the 1880s. She grew up in Red Cloud, NE just north of the Kansas state line and incorporated her environment into her books, O Pioneers, The Song of the Lark and her most acclaimed work, My Antonia.

In My Antonia the prairie itself is a main character, acting as the canvas upon which immigrants from all over the world would create new lives for themselves and a new country in which to live them. Cather described the prairie lands with unbounded passion yet in simple direct prose:
"As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running." – My Antonia

Cather experienced the settling of the western lands firsthand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was familiar with the settlers, be they from Virginia, Bohemia, Russia, Italy, Sweden or Norway and she brings their stories alive. H.L. Mencken wrote, rather glowingly, that Cather transmuted the tale of "poor peasants" into the "eternal tragedy of man".

The character of Antonia, a child plucked from her native Bohemia and transplanted in the plains of Nebraska, comes to symbolize the procreative urge of life itself, with her enthusiasm for the meager gifts that life offered her early in the story and ultimately for the sheer abundance of her children later on in the book.

In more recent criticism, Bradford Morrow writes, "Cather is our quietest Modernist. That is to say, she was innovative in her approach to her work, but novels such as My Antonia were written in such a deceptively plain prose style that their robust, formal originality, their delicious complexities can easily be missed."

So many people are introduced to My Antonia as required reading in high school, that it has developed a reputation as a novel for young people, especially girls. It is not. I avoided it for years while operating under this misconception. So when I finally experienced Cather's evocation of the American prairie and its newly arrived residents, she was a revelation.

Morrow again, "My Antonia reflects not just a particular period of time in America›s adolescence, but if you happened to relish it when you were young, experiencing it again, from a more seasoned perspective, might also shed light on your own journey and bring into focus the Antonias and Jim Burdens who have influenced you along the way."

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at
Leigh Elmore's Refurbished Thoughts Archive — past columns