Willa Cather

Dear Reader:

I’m getting a lot of satisfaction out of taking one author and reading them for awhile.  For instance, this summer I’ve read/re-read Willa Cather’s (most of her work is available on Kindle for free as it is in the public domain, but I’ve also collected used copies of some of her books):

K Alexander’s Bridge (1912 – her first “novella”),

K O Pioneers! (1913),

K The Song of the Lark (1915 – a bit of a slog),

HC My Antonia (1918 – these last three books are considered her Nebraska trilogy, although The Song of the Lark isn’t set in Nebraska at all – it starts in Colorado, moves to Chicago, and then around the US and the world),

and K The Professor’s House (1925).

Willa Cather was one of the most important American writers of her time.

She moved around a fair amount during her life (born in Virginia, moved to Nebraska as an adolescent, moved to Pittsburgh in her early 20s, and a few years later to New York City) and was immersed in northeastern US intellectual life as an adult, writing her own work and working for national magazines.  Her writing has a great deal of autobiography in it – themes from her life, places she lived and/or loved (the Midwest, the Southwest, Chicago, NYC), and her passions (such as opera).

I suspect that Song of the Lark is the most autobiographical of her major works (at least of the books I’ve read so far).  It is the story of a young girl with world class musical talent, born in Colorado, alienated from most of her family and community, and at home only with the ethnic and artistic outcasts of her hometown.  She leaves home as a young woman and never really goes back.  She struggles to build a life based on her musical talent, finding early mentors (most of whom are troubled artists), and forsaking all – her family, friends, love – for the sake of artistic development and fame.  The book illustrates the tradeoffs associated with these choices – tradeoffs that Cather may have made in her own life.

Cather was highly progressive for her time of (born 1873, died 1947). There are strong indications that she was gay and had several longstanding love affairs with women – I think this deeply influenced her feeling of alienation from mainstream society and her attraction to women as central characters in much of her work. Her treatment of strong, independent women in her writings is one of the things I very much enjoy.  And her writing is luminescent.  It reminds me of Chekhov this way – she paints tiny brushstrokes of words that add up to a carefully constructed portrait of ordinary daily life.

For instance: “The isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner were aglow, and the air in the study was so hot that as he came in the doctor opened the door into his little operating-room, where there was no stove.  The waiting room was carpeted and stiffly furnished, something like a country parlor.  The study had worn, unpainted floors, but there was a look of winter comfort about it.” (early lines in Song of the Lark)

Or: “One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.  A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on a gray prairie, under a gray sky.  The dwelling-houses were set about haphazardly on the tough prairie sod: some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain.” (the first few lines of O Pioneers!)  Can’t you just imagine this forlorn and frozen little 19th Century US prairie village (similar to Chekhov’s descriptions of fin de siecle Russian villages)?

Perhaps, as a country (or I should say “village”) girl myself, I also appreciate the strong role nature plays in much of her work (again, like Chekhov).

One of my aspirations this year is to read the rest of Willa Cather’s work that I already own (this is most, but not all, of her work) – focusing on her novels and short stories (criticism and other essays optional).

So, this means these are the Cather novels that I own, have not read, and plan to read over the coming year:

1) K One of Ours (1922)

2) K A Lost Lady (1923)

3) HC Death Comes for the Archbishop (originally published in 1927, my copy is Knopf 1959)

4) HC Shadows on the Rock (Knopf [printing error on the frontispiece] 1931)

5) K Lucy Gayheart (1935)

6) HC Sapphira and the Slave Girl (Knopf [first edition] 1940 – her last novel)

Cather short story collections that I own but have not read:

7) K The Troll Garden (1905 – should be interesting as this would be her earliest work, predating Alexander’s Bridge (1912) which is the earliest work of hers I’ve read)

8] K Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920)

9) HC Obscure Destinies (Knopf [first edition] 1932)

I also own some some additional Willa Cather-related works.  These are all hard copies.  They are: Cather: Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (The Library of America, 1992); Cather: five stories (Vintage, 1956); Sharon O’Brien (the premier Cather biographer) Willa Cather: the emerging voice (Oxford University Press, 1987); Marilee Lindemann (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather (Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Harold Bloom (ed.) Willa Cather (Chelsea House Press, 1985, in the Modern Critical Views Series).  But I’m going to cut myself some slack on these additional works.

I’ve very much enjoyed reading Cather and learning about her life this summer.  This is the first writer where I’ve really focused on reading a lot of their work at once and learning about them and the role that their writing has played in literary development.  It has been very satisfying and inspired me to continue to do this with other writers while working further on reading Cather.

Happy reading! Ruby

K refers to Kindle copy, HC refers to hard (paper or hard back) copy.  I’m numbering books I plan to read consecutively according when they are first mentioned in this blog.

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