Cather Country

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As one looks out through those panes across the broad lawn to the world outside, it is easier to imagine the child who once read and dreamed here and easier, too, to understand the recurrence of windows in the writings of the woman whom this room nurtured. My Ántonia follows a transplanted Virginia boy and a Bohemian girl from their first arrival in Nebraska through their move to town and eventual separation, to their reunion in middle age. In it children come in winter’s bleakness to gaze at the stained glass in the Methodist church. While those windows are filled in and stuccoed over, other windows have survived. An impressive example can be seen in the old Miner home—assigned to the Harling family in My Ántonia—where great curved and ornamented panes still lend the simple boxy building a grandeur that contrasts sharply with the plainness of their setting.

Windows appear frequently in other Cather works, visual openings through which her characters can look but not reach. Sometimes they provide visions of boundless prairie experienced from the sanctuary of a room, a way of seeing through walls without leaving their protection. More often they represent barriers that can rarely, if ever, be breached, symbolic of whatever ultimately separates us from other people’s lives or a fuller sense of belonging in our own. In One of Ours, Cather’s account of a restless Nebraska boy who is killed in World War I, Mrs. Wheeler can, from the bedroom window, watch her troubled son drilling wheat and can feel his loneliness, but much as she longs to, she cannot reach through to him. Such is the mixed blessing of windows, to keep us in the presence of that which we can never fully reach. Such, too, is the nature of memory, a force continually at work on Cather and her narrators and a powerful influence on literary tourists. Comfort and torment, it is memory that provides the beauty and anguish of Cather’s fiction.

Contemporary Red Cloud is a town of tall maples and wrap-around porches, red fire hydrants, ornamental windmills, concrete birdbaths, and plaster lawn animals. Houses come with detached garages and garden plots. In front of the Veterans Memorial Hall stands a memorial for the local war dead, an obelisk with four wings that bear a tally of Red Cloud’s losses. It contains sufficient space for two more wars. A few of the older frame houses have been remodeled, painted in dashing pinks, blues, and mustards. Other houses, including a second home of the Cathers, slump in disrepair; but visible even in these is a simple dignity, and in the redundancy of white siding there remains a subtle variation, sometimes in the steepness of a dormer, sometimes in the dimensions and placement of the windows, sometimes in the locations of trees and shrubs.

 
The ground floor seems merely a period piece, a generic late-nineteenth-century home. But the unfinished attic is another matter altogether.

There are trees everywhere in present-day Red Cloud, all planted in the years since settlement, yet some are now old enough to look wild and tangled. But Cather’s Nebraska, and that of much of her fiction, belonged to grass, not to trees. In her time the town opened onto wide prairie vistas, views that stretched from the front porch to the river, then over the river to the open countryside beyond. Today, even outside the city limits amid corn and hay, there is no place where trees are out of sight. Old timber claims—part of a government effort to encourage forestation—and hedgerows prevent the 360-degree expanse of grassland that a wheeling Ántonia could experience, the unending vision of bluestem and other native grasses that so thrilled and, I think, frightened Cather. Still, the country around Red Cloud retains a special beauty.

In O Pioneers! Carl Linstrum, whose family, unable to make a living on their Nebraska farm, gave up and moved east, returns after a sixteen-year absence. Instead of the hard, wild country his family abandoned, he finds a landscape both cultivated and fruitful. A childhood friend, one who stayed behind and witnessed the transformation, tells him: “We hadn’t any of us much to do with it, Carl. The land did it. It had its little joke. It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right; and then, all at once, it worked itself. It woke up out of its sleep and stretched itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found we were rich, just from sitting still.”

 
 
Even when writing about the countryside, Cather creates landscapes that belong more to the psychologist than to the geographer.
 

Of course, Cather and her heroine know the change came, when it came, a good deal less easily, but so miraculous was the late-nineteenth-century flourishing of Nebraska and so sudden the metamorphosis of wasteland to garden that the claim represents more than hyperbole.