Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The World of Willa Cather

I’m still recovering from our trip to Red Cloud - a long, long road trip few would be crazed enough to undertake in one day - and after a scary midnight detour on a dark road between Lincoln and Omaha, I was voting for the Super 8. But we kept going and The Driver got to sleep in his own bed. Two-thirty a.m. found me wide awake and reading “Old Mrs. Harris,” so I was happy, too. The trip was worth it! The hours in Red Cloud were intense, precious, and inspirational.

I’ve read a couple of very entertaining blogs about other trips to Red Cloud: one blogger arrived when the Willa Cather Foundation was closed and had to devise a self-guided tour:

"We picked up a map of all the sites, but grossly overestimated the size of the town. We drove to Willa Cather’s childhood home, approximately 2/3 of a block away."

Another stopped at a bar in Red Cloud during BRAN (Bike Ride across Nebraska) for lunch and was impressed by the gorgeous Opera House:

"The Willa Cather Foundation is located in a downtown building that is really cool."

Still another seemed unmoved by Cather's birthplace but warmed to Cather & Co. Bookstore:

Cats meandered and slept in old typewriter cases and a few older visitors browsed through the shelves of used books. There were finds just about everywhere.

The Willa Cather Foundation itself has an excellent bookstore: I purchased a first-rate short biography of Cather's Nebraska years, The World of Willa Cather by Mildred R. Bennett, first published in 1951, and reissued by University of Nebraska Press. Bennett was one of the founders of the Willa Cather Foundation and moved from Lincoln to Red Cloud in the 1940s specifically to work on a memorial to Cather. The guide referred to her book repeatedly: much of the tour is derived from it. Bennett’s book is a primary source no one could replicate today: she interviewed and corresponded with Willa's family, friends, and residents of Red Cloud who had known her. She is a graceful writer: I'm flying through this book.

Here’s a quote from Willa (from an interview from the Lincoln Sunday Star, Nov. 6, 1921):

“The ideas for my novels have come from things that happened around Red Cloud when I was a child. I was all over the country then, on foot, on horseback, and in our farm wagons. My nose went poking into nearly everything. It happened that my mind was constructed for the particular purpose of absorbing impressions and retaining them. I always intended to write, and there were certain persons I studied. I seldom had much idea of the plot or the other characters, but I used my eyes and my ears."

I plan to reread Hermione Lee's biography, too: the American title is Willa Cather: Double Lives, though the Cather Foundation sells the Virago edition, with a different title.


Ellen said...

I read the previous blog on your trip to Red Cloud and this. As I was reading I recalled that when we read a novel by Cather on WWTTA, someone told us about Red Cloud and I read about the site.

It sounds like a beautiful place -- if probably arduous trip, very worth it.

People grow out of the places they live in and I can believe you felt you'd learned something about Cather you couldn't any other way. It sounds like a good deal of the original place is preserved.

I've yet to write about our trip to mid-Virginia and Castleton Festival; I want to wait until we have gone three times.

Summer's not over yet! I'd love to say it's barely begun, but know better. We're about half-way through.


Mad Housewife said...

Ellen, I remember Diana had a friend who wrote a wonderful blog about Willa and Red Cloud. I've tried to find this but can't.

Willa was glad to get away, but came back to Red Cloud until the early '30s when her mother died. Sarah Orne Jewett and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, whose father was the chancellor at the University of Nebraska, both encouraged Willa to write about Nebraska. But she had to get away to write about it.

Vintage Reading said...

I've really enjoyed reading your posts about your trip to Red Cloud. The next best thing to seeing it for myself. Talking of Hermione Lee, I'm looking out for her biog of Edith Wharton.

Danielle said...

Thanks for sharing your photos of Red Cloud, which I am so tardily seeing now. Someday I really do need to make the trip west to see her home, but I should read more of her work first. My boss's wife is a school teacher (with a Ph.D) and her area of specialization is Willa Cather's work. If I ever need any information on her, I know where to turn!


Taking photos is fun. Too bad I don't know how to use my camera! I dont' know how to turn off the flash. One person on the tour was taking photos of EVERYTHING indoors, but we weren't allowed. That flash!

It's great that you know a Willa Cather expert. You probably know these small towns in Nebraska, so maybe it wouldn't make as great an impression on you. But we really liked it.