Cather Country

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As a boy, before his family’s return to St. Louis, Carl knew a quite different place from the domesticated country to which he returns as a man. In that earlier time “the homesteads were few and far apart; here and there a windmill gaunt against the sky, a sod house crouching in a hollow. But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.”

The transformation from wilderness to culture provides one of the great subjects for Cather’s fiction. She is fascinated by the dynamics of community and the intricacies of everything from dating patterns to local amusements and medical care. Even when writing about the countryside, she creates landscapes that belong more to the psychologist than the geographer, her places described as they are felt by an observer rather than as they appear.

Around Red Cloud the land still radiates vitality and strength, and the old struggle still shadows the present. The “country tour,” described in a pamphlet published by the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, moves from tree-lined roads along creek bottoms west of town to a variety of sites significant to Cather. Along the route marked by Catherland signs, plaques at significant locations blend the historical with the fictive, assigning a grave simultaneously to James William Murphy and to Larry Donovan from My Ántonia. A house, owned in fact by Hugo Pavelka, is deeded, as well, to the fictional Rudolph Rosicky of “Neighbour Rosicky.”

As one drives past the mill that is no longer there, the vanished prairie-dog towns, the missing Cather homestead, there is an inevitable sense of loss, of having come into the absence rather than the presence of things sought after. But that is not the whole story. There are, as well, little epiphanies, flashes of Cather’s world briefly visible in our own. Often the vision moves in a special slant of light across the cornfields or rises with distant thunderheads. Sometimes it comes with the sudden lyric swell of lark song or the lumbering dignity of a badger descending a ditch bank. And there are landmarks that remain. Simple frame churches, like that in which the Danes once worshiped (blown down and then rebuilt) or the New Virginia Church, still look out over the graves of their dead, onto an expanse of corn rows that cast a pattern of intersecting straight lines that seem fixed in their regularity yet always, subtly, shifting, like the patterns on a diamondback.

On the rise between rivers the clay banks into which the first settlers burrowed for shelter may still be seen, the desperate nature of those efforts all the more apparent for the absence, once again, of any sign of domestication. And while the river and the creeks, like all streams, refuse to keep their remembered places even for the pleasure of literary nostalgia, the wide bend in a flood plain, lush with corn, marks in green ripples the contours of Far Island of “The Enchanted Bluff” as clearly as the water that once flowed around it. And above everything the Divide, the height of land to which Carther’s stories return again and again, the recurrent watershed of her imagination, offers a special perspective on this world. Akin to the town girl’s bedroom window, it affords a view of things to which the watcher may be bound and yet from which he is always removed. The long view that so often absorbs Jim Burden’s grandmother in My Ántonia and that, in other stories, can stop tired harvesters and hold them from their labor may still be experienced, north of Red Cloud, on the Divide. On the hill just past the George Cather farm, an elevation that catches every wind, the world seems flatter than it did below, more immense and alive than previously imagined. Even with constant cultivation, the land seems as old and unconquerable as ever. It is the human presence, not nature’s, that seems fragile.

From the Divide, against so much land and so vast a sky, the efforts of a hundred years of labor remain small, the work of people only recently removed from the badger burrows they once called home. At the site of Cather’s family homestead, a hump in the earth suggests the logic of the choice, the slight promise of shelter in a world where everything seems exposed. The buildings are gone, but it is not difficult to sense their presence. This is a place to be juxtaposed with the flowered bedroom and its dormer window back in Red Cloud, another perspective on the writer and her subject This is the world that Cather said “gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake” and that brought her, throughout a life of much traveling, back to Red Cloud again and again. This, too, is the world, with its hard flatness that so frightened the ten-year-old just removed from the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains who, in 1883, arrived on the Divide. And it is the view from this place, perhaps, that explains why, in the end, Cather was buried not in Red Cloud but in New Hampshire, near mountains.