Cather Country

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In one of Willa Cather’s earliest novels, the heroine has been reflecting on the settlers who had come to Nebraska a generation earlier and on the great changes that have taken place in the intervening years. “We can remember,” she says, “the graveyard when it was wild prairie ...and now....” Her companion, however, responds not to this change but to consistency. “Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.”

A tour around Red Cloud, Nebraska, where the writer Willa Cather lived for seven years of her childhood, confirms the prairie’s continuing power to disturb and inspire

There are very few human stories, perhaps no more than one, and towns—not the individuals who inhabit them but the towns themselves—narrate their versions of that tale simply, directly, elegantly, with a poignance that we do not always welcome and that the broad and easy path of the interstates neatly passes by. But regardless of our own points of origin, our stories and those of the small towns beyond the great thoroughfares are beautifully, painfully the same. So Willa Cather understood, and so she showed us.

The town that taught Cather these truths is called Red Cloud. Cather was born in Virginia in 1873, a descendant of eighteenth-century settlers. With her parents, and following her grandparents, she came in 1883 to the newer country of south-central Nebraska. She lived there—first on a rough prairie farm and then in Red Cloud, where her father pursued work more to his liking in real estate, insurance, and farm loans—until her departure in 1890 for the state university in Lincoln. The legacy of those few years provided material for a literary lifetime, for novels and stories whose beauty and power were celebrated in the first half of this century and that today enjoy a resurgent popularity as yet another generation makes them its own. And as the books are rediscovered, so is Red Cloud, which, as one of Cather’s first scholars and Red Cloud’s most persistent conservator, the late Mildred R. Bennett, suggested, “has probably been described more often in literature than any other village its size.”

As Cather’s books are rediscovered, so is Red Cloud, which has probably been described more often in literature than any other village of its size.
 

Today outsiders approach Red Cloud by leaving behind the sixty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit of either Interstate 80 or 70 and swinging up from Salina or Russell, Kansas, or, on the Nebraska side, down on 281. On the map the place-names that surround the route send a variety of conflicting messages, some grand (Harvard, Aurora, Delphos, Paradise) and others practical (Guide Rock, Northbranch, Riverton, Ash Grove). There is a sprinkling of Indian borrowings (Otego, Narka, Mahaska, Ohiowa). More surprising to me was the frequency of first names—Pauline, Nora, Ada, Beverly, Edgar, Edmond—and many of the towns, especially on the Kansas side, have borrowed identities from other places, asserting, presumably, reassuring connections to Norway, Lebanon, Denmark, Cuba, Manchester, Hanover, even Minneapolis and Bennington—no matter that such declarations must be immediately qualified with the addition of “KS.” Perhaps these ties to more established folk gave solace to a people just emerging from dugouts and sod huts. Or perhaps Pauline and the other secondhand names simply indicate a different set of priorities, a busyness with more important matters. Perfectly good names had already been made up; no need to waste time here in the pursuit of novelty.

Red Cloud—named, Cather told an interviewer, “after the old Indian chief who used to come hunting in that country, and who buried his daughter on the top of one of the river bluffs south of the town—joins the flattest portions of Nebraska with the hummocky Flint Hills of Kansas. The land in Webster County continues to roll, but in easy swells, like a slow-moving stream whose waters are about to settle into the level sameness of a vast lake. The Republican River, to the south of town, together with the lesser streams of Indian and Crooked creeks, has further sculpted the terrain.