Cather Country

Even with constant cultivation, the land seems as old and unconquerable as ever. It is the human presence, not nature’s, that seems fragile.

The danger of literary pilgrimage, whether to Oxford, Mississippi, or Hannibal, Missouri, or Red Cloud, Nebraska, is a particularly perverse form of nostalgia in which travelers, eager to find characters from much-loved fiction, trivialize the real lives being lived around them. No matter how much literary tourists may wish the world to conform to the book, may yearn to have the mobile home removed and the vacant house restored, no matter how much they may regret the aluminum siding and gaudy advertisements of their own time, or wish for more of the old landscape than the small acreage of the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, it is a terrible injustice to undervalue the struggle of those who must make a living in the present. Red Cloud contains wonderful and poignant memorials in the Cather home, the restored churches, and the Pavelka farm—Ántonia’s farm, now undergoing restoration—but it is an actual community, not just the memory of one, with a worth beyond having inspired Willa Cather’s made-up people and places. It is not just the past that has its heroism, not just the town of a great writer’s youth and stories that deserves attention and respect. The present-day effort to preserve the Cather legacy, the work of individuals like Mrs. Bennett and the retired men whom she recalled laboring for $1.50 an hour and even then only reporting half their time, is as noteworthy as the past it keeps before us.

Red Cloud is an actual community, not just the memory of one, with a worth beyond having inspired Willa Cather’s made-up people and places.

During my own brief visit I was at first struck by incongruity and, predictably, was both amused and annoyed that more did not conform to expectations. A crossroads gravesite, left behind when other dead were moved to town, was nearly obliterated, not by native bluestem but by a filigree of marijuana. On Webster Street the State Bank Block, the Opera House, and the Moon Block, elaborately corniced and crowned in an upward surge of elegance, now had tacked-on siding and plywood additions. It occurred to me to wonder how nineteenth-century entrepreneurs, endowed with as much business sense as their descendants, could justify the initial extravagance. Looking more closely at their stone-colored trim, I discovered what I should have recognized all along: that it was made of tin, imported by the builders to give a grander air to the soft, common brick of Red Cloud. It was the facade of another generation making do.

I ended my journey in the Red Cloud cemetery, located on its own divide, which separates, among other things, hay fields from the town, the graveyard in which Willa Cather chose not to be buried but where so many of her family can be found. Cedars rise darkly throughout, and at the center stands a Union soldier, reminder of a war finished five years before the first homestead claims were filed in this area. The words inscribed at the soldier’s feet declare, “On fame’s eternal camping ground their silent tents are spread.” Around him, Protestants separated from Catholics, are stones inscribed Crow, Law, Beauchamp, Huld, Peterson, Kudrna, Jelinek, Pavelik, Ryan, Doyle, Pulsipher, Cather; there is even a James Burden. From these graves one can look out at the mown fields littered with huge rolls of hay, can see across the valley to the tree-lined river and beyond to where greenish gray storm clouds pile up on the horizon. It is just another Midwestern graveyard that happens to count among its occupants the family of a famous writer. Despite the declaration at the center of the cemetery, few here may be said to be camping on fame’s ground. They were ordinary people who, like their descendants eating Sunday brunch (“All You Can Eat $5.50”) downtown in the Corral Café, lived in an ordinary town, here, just twenty miles north of the “Geographic Center of the Coterminous U.S.” But it is, after all has been said and written, they, in their ordinariness, who validate Cather’s fictions and not the other way around.