“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… Between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out.” This child’s-eye view of the Great Plains, the grassy seas of Nebraska, comes from one of America’s greatest observers, Willa Cather, “speaking” here as young Jim Burden in her novel My Àntonia.
Cather, born Wilella Cather in 1873, was nine when her family moved from Virginia to Nebraska, first trying to farm and then settling in the town of Red Cloud. Her father, Charles, became a businessman, and her mother had been a schoolteacher, so Cather’s destiny as a town-dweller and intellectual seemed set. However, there was something about the Great Plains outside her door that caught her imagination. Perhaps it was in the trauma of the journey from the hill country of northern Virginia to a land uncompromisingly flat, or in the sight of earth and sky stretching out unhampered by any barriers. Whatever it was, it lodged deeply in Willa’s creative spirit.
Willa was an avid reader and, early on, displayed the broad-mindedness, doubtless fostered in her family, which would feature in her novels. She befriended a Jewish couple who had a large library, and, with the example of the local physician, she set her sights on a medical career. But she would later remember with great nostalgia how, as a child, she loved to visit in the homes of immigrant families, and her fascination with the variety of languages and cultures, including Native American, she encountered in her corner of Nebraska.
Cather attended the University of Nebraska where she was an editor of the school newspaper, and got a B.A. in English there. Then followed a successful writing career that led her from Pittsburgh to New York; from scholarly, researched articles to her first novel. In 1913, she began working on what she called her Prairie Trilogy, reviving her childhood memories of Nebraska. The three books of the trilogy were O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Àntonia.
Cather’s writing was her saving grace, for, though she had hoped to help humanity by becoming a doctor, it was her gift of words that she gave to others. She was both a journalist who dealt in facts, and a novelist, much of whose creations bordered on the semi-factual region of memoir. She was, and remained a private person, despite her literary sharing, destroying much of her personal correspondence. Independent, she never married and had several significant friendships with women, including a long-term relationship with editor Edith Lewis with whom she lived during much of her adult life. Cather was known for flaunting convention, simply by being a female writer at the time, and also in creating occasional odd, gender-bending characters such as, in an early story, a girl named Tommy. In college she cut her hair short and wore boyish garb. The only home she ever owned was a cottage on an island in New Brunswick, Canada, where she could be reclusive. The cottage had no electricity or plumbing, and perhaps reminded her of her family’s wooden house in Red Cloud.
Cather’s creative works garnered numerous awards. Her novel, One of Ours, won the treasured Pulitzer Prize. Her novel, Lucy Gayheart, was a bestseller in 1935, and, in 1944, she was awarded a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters for her fiction writing. Though some fellow writers (all men, it should be said) critiqued her writing as too romantic or nostalgic, her contemporary, and Nobel Prize winner, Sinclair Lewis praised her: “Miss Cather is Nebraska’s foremost citizen. The United States knows Nebraska because of Willa Cather’s books.” Not surprisingly, there is a Willa Cather Foundation located in Red Cloud in the old opera house, featuring collections of her writings and letters; there is also a scholarship set up in her name.
The work that has been the primary source of her much deserved fame is her Pioneer Trilogy, with My Àntonia standing out as the most read.
The remarkable fact is that the Cather family had arrived in Nebraska in 1892, not just in a new American state, but in a new, fateful phase of American history.
At the time of Willa’s transplantation to the Great Plains, that region was still part of the frontier. Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Acts had been signed just twenty years before, and the drift westward was slow. The plains were empty of American citizens when Lincoln, and others, decided that the heartland needed to be occupied, and thoroughly won over, in order to grow the nation envisioned by its founders. This would mean edging out the Native Americans already in residence there, and putting deeded ownership to every single acre of the territory from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
To accomplish this vision, the Great Plains were advertised, with wild claims like this one from the Yankton, South Dakota Press: “Free lands are still unoccupied lying in the great valley of the Missouri river, and its many tributaries in Dakota, offering to the poor and industries of every nation and clime A HOME AND ULTIMATELY A FORTUNE!… The soil is rich and deep; its climate remarkably mild and beautiful; its waters pure and wholesome; and its natural resources, as yet but very meagerly developed, of the most varied character, and inexhaustible in extent…. Already we have churches and excellent public schools in different sections of the Territory, and many fine villages and towns dot our valleys, and are rapidly growing in wealth and population…. Long before 1880 shall be born, the State of Dakota will be a living reality, with its hundreds of thousands of population; with crowded cities; immense manufactories; thousands of miles of railroad; with grand churches, colleges, universities, and with happy, prosperous homes on every hillside and strewn thickly out over all our broad and fertile valleys. Now is the time to secure a home while lands are free!”
And the Homestead Act was even touted abroad, resulting in chains of people of various ethnicities settling in clumps. In My Ántonia, Cather would describe how an immigrant family is “assisted” by a nefarious agent who, having a grasp of their lingo, takes advantage of their ignorance to charge exorbitant prices for their land and supplies. Doubtless such chicanery was common.
Willa, as a creative child at an impressionable age, had had the chance to see, firsthand, how the homesteading movement would play out in her new home. Nebraska has a storied pioneering history that could be a template for the general settlement of the Plains. One crucial element of this saga is something the homestead hawkers forgot to mention, or out-and-out lied about: water… or lack thereof. Farmers like Willa’s dad were convinced by the ads that the Plains were an agricultural paradise. But agriculture requires water. In the 1870s Nebraska was corn-obsessed; by the 1890s, even its hardiest farmers were stepping back and rethinking, after trying, unsuccessfully, to get water out of the stony unyielding dirt. The Cathers arrived at the tail-end of the homestead hullaballoo, forcing them to regroup, reconsider the plans to farm for sustenance, and stick close to the town with its more promising prospects.
Jim Burden is Cather’s voice in My Àntonia. An orphan from Virginia who joins his grandparents in Nebraska, Jim befriends Antonia Shimerda, daughter of Bohemian immigrants, and together they share adventures that bring them together. Later, life separates them when Jim (like Willa) moves to the city, where he will pursue a career as a lawyer. The novel is told through Jim’s childhood recollections. It contains many important vignettes of the pioneer life of the late 19th century. Its perennial popularity is based on the emotional qualities it conveys—the strange, distant, but tender relationship between two children of different cultures learning one another’s ways amid a flux of major changes in American life projected in the doings of the adults around them. And played out in that strange new place “where the world was left behind.”
In this novel, Cather significantly offers a rare literary first-person description of a Nebraska sod house. Sod houses were a necessity in a vast land with almost no trees. Though living in dirt sounds depressing, many such dwellings were said to be quite pleasant when whitewashed and decently furnished. The thick sod-walls kept out the heat and the cold, and if you didn’t mind a fire of dried dung, such homes were about as nice as their wooden counterparts back East. The house, Willa recalled, probably the home of one of her immigrant friends, had a half-cellar arrangement with small windows along the top section of the cozy basement story that was used for sleeping quarters, and the upper story heated by the central cook-stove.
Anna Sadilek, Cather’s model for Antonia, had come to Red Cloud with her family around the time that Willa did, her parents drawn, like so many Europeans who saw in America and the Homestead Acts a chance for real ownership in a country not oppressed by dictators or torn by constant war with its neighbors. Sadly, like the novel’s Mr. Shimerda, Antonia’s father, Anna’s real father also committed suicide. Francis Sadilek had been a weaver and musician by trade and was unable to cope with the harsh realities of farming on the Great Plains. Willa kept touch with Anna/Antonia and sent her and other immigrant families back in Nebraska money and gifts once she was a well-established writer, especially during the Great Depression.
Cather’s My Antonia makes many observations through the eyes of Jim Burden about the differences between the separate ethnic groups that settled the Great Plains. This trend actually has a name: the operant concept, to use a new-fangled word, was ethnogenesis. Ethnogenesis is the process of homogenization whereby ethnic groups are reborn as citizens of a new society by leaving the isolated womb of cultural warmth and splashing out into the great roiling melting pot. Language, one of the obvious markers for ethnogenesis, was often a gender-bound phenomenon. Men were out in the world, trading in the towns, while their homesteading wives were likely to communicate with one another in their home-country language. Children would learn both tongues, with the old language being dominant, thus requiring two to three generations for unaccented, American speech to emerge. One can only imagine what talk in the towns sounded like in the 1800s to a child like the young Willa Cather, with a mélange of languages, dialects, and accents clattering through the bars, blacksmith shops, and hardware stores. Only in churches might there be the peace of a single, shared language, though, often enough, interspersed with ancient Latin.
In the Great Plains settlements between 1863 and the early 1900s, about a quarter of the population was foreign born.
Red Cloud, and towns like it, gradually growing up along the new railroad-lines in the Great Plains would have contained not only those who came from foreign countries (Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Bohemians, Italians, even Laplanders) but also those from the eastern states of America, who tended to hold themselves up as superior to the alien immigrants—though it is clear that Easterner Willa was raised, or was innately inclined, to embrace difference, not mock it.
The suicide of Mr. Shimerda in My Àntonia touches upon some negative aspects of ethnogenesis, when the family is unable to find a cemetery for the old man. The Catholics won’t have him because he committed suicide, and the Norwegians, who have the closest burial ground, refuse him by reason, it is implied, of nationality. This causes Jim Burden’s grandmother, who has moved to Nebraska from Virginia, to declare, “If these foreigners are so clannish, Mr. Bushy, we’ll have to have an American graveyard that will be more liberal-minded.” This statement would seem to be yet another expression of Cather’s more tolerant upbringing.
Mr. Shimerda is finally buried on his own land in an impromptu ecumenical service typical of the pioneer setting, and Jim Burden records that, “years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had 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.”
As to Cather’s own passing, she died in Manhattan in 1947 and was buried next to Edith Lewis. A quotation from My Àntonia graces her tombstone:
“… that is happiness; to be dissolved
into something complete and great.”
[Note: some of the information for this article comes from the author’s recently published book, Generous Fruits – A Survey of American Homesteading.]