Plains Folk

No New Story


On the level of our house that is devoted to office and library, I keep a great bison-leather chair angled toward the fireplace. This is my reading chair. And sometimes a napping chair, but those two often are seamless. Because really, what I’m talking about is a place of comfort.

Sometimes in the bison chair I need comfort reading, and that’s when I reach for a volume of Cather, some nice substantial work as published in deluxe edition by the University of Nebraska Press.

I read all kinds of literature, but Willa Cather—especially, of course, O Pioneers! and My Antonia—satisfies like no other, and is comfortable, too. As a historian, I can get a little prickly about matters of fact and reliability. Fiction or nonfiction, I expect an author to know the country she writes about, intimately. Cather knows the prairies.

Years ago I began cataloging all the references by Cather to bits of natural history—the plants and animals she mentions. I have found but one case in which I think she errs in a reference to nature on the prairies, and countless times where she alludes to some detail with the familiarity of an affectionate native.

People who love Cather will be interested in a little essay she published in The Nation magazine in 1923: “Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle.” It is full of those little details of history and natural history that show she loves the land. How the first telegraph message to flash across the Missouri River was, “Westward the course of empire takes its way.” How travelers and pioneers of the prairies loved the native coreopsis, Coreopsis tinctoria, and referred to it as “lagoon flower.”

A few weeks ago came word that scholars had published a new book presenting, for the first time, the private letters of Willa Cather, who had provided in her will that her private writings should never be published. I’m a little ambivalent about this. On the one hand, her wishes were clear. On the other hand, Cather belongs to all of us.

It’s a moot point, but one thing is plain from this new look into the world of Cather: in late life, she was a sad woman. And that is a sad fact, to think that the woman whose lyric prose celebrated the prairies and their people more beautifully and triumphally than any other’s herself ended up so unhappy.

So I look back at that 1923 essay, written from the standpoint of middle age, and there are the signs of things to come. Cather still exults in the “long, red, shaggy grass”—the bluestem prairies—and in the underdog accomplishments of her immigrant neighbors on the plains. At the same time, she hints that perhaps, our best days are behind us.

People these days, Cather writes in 1923, “want to buy everything ready-made: clothes, food, education, music, pleasure.” People have been spoiled by “too much prosperity, too many moving-picture shows, too much gaudy fiction.” She frets about the younger generation, asking, “Will it believe that to live easily is to live happily?” In contrast, she lionizes the pioneers whose story is finished, and says, “no new story worthy to take its place has yet begun.”

I believe that I am saved from the sort of sadness suffered by Cather because I live a life filled with beautiful young people who treat me well. I am reminded, though, how important it is to tell good stories about life on the prairies, and not get wrapped up in a golden past. The story is not over. It has barely begun.


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