Plains Folk

Rooted into the Soil

On June 27, 1912, Willa Cather—Willie to her family—was in Red Cloud, Nebraska, her old home town. She writes, “I am at home again with my family, and we are all having a very happy visit together. . . . Tomorrow I am going up into the Bohemian country for a week to see the wheat-harvest. That is always a splendid sight, and there is much merry-making among the people.”


Readers of Cather, author of the greatest works of fiction ever to grace the North American plains, will recognize what is going on here. By this time Cather is well established as a magazine editor back east, but is about to embark on her next career as a professional writer. Her experiences in the harvest fields will blend with her memories of girlhood to produce her breakthrough book, O Pioneers!


As a historian, I spend a lot of time reading other people’s mail. Generally this ill-mannered behavior is little cause for qualms. It is part of the job. Cather, though, dictated in her will that none of her many letters should be published. She wanted to protect her literary legacy from attention to her personal life.


That protection ended this year when two scholars, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, brought out a hefty publication, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. They argue that the reasons for withholding the letters from readers are now moot, and that Cather belongs to all of us.


The only bad things about Cather that emerge from the correspondence are understandable. She could be fussy. She considered herself an artist, and an important one, and so she got into spats with publishers and critics about how her work was presented.


And, as Cather got older, she got more cranky. She had physical ailments, such as tendonitis of her writing hand, and she got depressed about the state of the world. The rise of fascism and the carnage of the Second World War had much to do with that.


Overall, though, lovers of literature and life on the Great Plains have to be happy with the Cather of her letters. She was an expatriate, that is, she lived away from the plains to pursue her literary career. Yet she never lost her affection for the West, and specifically for the Nebraska country in which she was raised. She loved it that people back home read her books and pronounced them true to their experience.


In 1931 Cather writes from New York to a friend, “I have known a great many of those German and Bohemian families myself, in the West, three generations of them living together in little towns. I have watched the original pioneers growing old and the third generation growing up, all getting rooted into the soil and interweaving and becoming a part of the very ground.”


During the First World War Cather brags about her cousin Grosvenor who died a war hero. During the Second World War, she boasts of the Red Cloud boy who shot down five Japanese planes on Christmas Day 1942.


In 1945 Cather writes to Carrie Miner Sherwood (the woman who was the prototype for Francis Harling in the book, My Antonia), “I am not exaggerating, Carrie, when I confide to you that I would rather go home to Red Cloud than to any of the beautiful cities in Europe where I used to love to go.”


Cather was buried in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, but her letters bring her back to the plains, again and again.

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