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Cather Country

June 2024
14min read

In one of Willa Cather’s earliest novels, the heroine has been reflecting on the settlers who had come to Nebraska a generation earlier and on the great changes that have taken place in the intervening years. “We can remember,” she says, “the graveyard when it was wild prairie ...and now....” Her companion, however, responds not to this change but to consistency. “Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.”

A tour around Red Cloud, Nebraska, where the writer Willa Cather lived for seven years of her childhood, confirms the prairie’s continuing power to disturb and inspire

There are very few human stories, perhaps no more than one, and towns—not the individuals who inhabit them but the towns themselves—narrate their versions of that tale simply, directly, elegantly, with a poignance that we do not always welcome and that the broad and easy path of the interstates neatly passes by. But regardless of our own points of origin, our stories and those of the small towns beyond the great thoroughfares are beautifully, painfully the same. So Willa Cather understood, and so she showed us.

The town that taught Cather these truths is called Red Cloud. Cather was born in Virginia in 1873, a descendant of eighteenth-century settlers. With her parents, and following her grandparents, she came in 1883 to the newer country of south-central Nebraska. She lived there—first on a rough prairie farm and then in Red Cloud, where her father pursued work more to his liking in real estate, insurance, and farm loans—until her departure in 1890 for the state university in Lincoln. The legacy of those few years provided material for a literary lifetime, for novels and stories whose beauty and power were celebrated in the first half of this century and that today enjoy a resurgent popularity as yet another generation makes them its own. And as the books are rediscovered, so is Red Cloud, which, as one of Cather’s first scholars and Red Cloud’s most persistent conservator, the late Mildred R. Bennett, suggested, “has probably been described more often in literature than any other village its size.”

As Cather’s books are rediscovered, so is Red Cloud, which has probably been described more often in literature than any other village of its size.

Today outsiders approach Red Cloud by leaving behind the sixty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit of either Interstate 80 or 70 and swinging up from Salina or Russell, Kansas, or, on the Nebraska side, down on 281. On the map the place-names that surround the route send a variety of conflicting messages, some grand (Harvard, Aurora, Delphos, Paradise) and others practical (Guide Rock, Northbranch, Riverton, Ash Grove). There is a sprinkling of Indian borrowings (Otego, Narka, Mahaska, Ohiowa). More surprising to me was the frequency of first names—Pauline, Nora, Ada, Beverly, Edgar, Edmond—and many of the towns, especially on the Kansas side, have borrowed identities from other places, asserting, presumably, reassuring connections to Norway, Lebanon, Denmark, Cuba, Manchester, Hanover, even Minneapolis and Bennington—no matter that such declarations must be immediately qualified with the addition of “KS.” Perhaps these ties to more established folk gave solace to a people just emerging from dugouts and sod huts. Or perhaps Pauline and the other secondhand names simply indicate a different set of priorities, a busyness with more important matters. Perfectly good names had already been made up; no need to waste time here in the pursuit of novelty.

Red Cloud—named, Cather told an interviewer, “after the old Indian chief who used to come hunting in that country, and who buried his daughter on the top of one of the river bluffs south of the town—joins the flattest portions of Nebraska with the hummocky Flint Hills of Kansas. The land in Webster County continues to roll, but in easy swells, like a slow-moving stream whose waters are about to settle into the level sameness of a vast lake. The Republican River, to the south of town, together with the lesser streams of Indian and Crooked creeks, has further sculpted the terrain.

Red Cloud differs little from its neighbors. The businesses along its one commercial street occupy the first floors of buildings constructed a century ago by people gambling on growth and prosperity, wagering everything on the newly discovered generosity of prairie soil. Hardly surprising is the dark prominence of the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank. Catty-corner from the ruddier-faced State Bank, it was built in 1889 by one of Nebraska’s early governors and rises like a slightly awkward spire above the lesser two-story buildings that surround it. Now nestled somewhere between Brenda’s Shoppe and the South Bar and Grill, the old bank, red brick resting on red stone foundations and lintels, looks like a piece of the Smithsonian marooned far from the rest of monumental Washington. The building houses the Willa Cather Historical Center and was itself the first acquisition of Mildred Bennett and her small circle of allies as they began the restoration movement that has salvaged so much of Cather’s Red Cloud past. Purchased from the town for one thousand dollars, it is an impressive beginning for a tour of the area.

There are, inevitably, two—even three—Red Clouds in competition with one another. There is the contemporary town, putting up the best front it can afford in these times, when rural America struggles against forces different from those that tested pioneer settlers. This Red Cloud occupies the first floor of Webster, the main commercial street. But the white-faced Coast to Coast store with its bright yellow sign and the Best Yet Food Mart compete with a past that haunts the vacant windows and cornices one story above. The juxtaposition is everywhere apparent. Over the C&R Supply and at a jaunty angle, an aged script advertises farm loans in tarnished gilt. A building over from the Coast to Coast, the words Opera House 1885 speak of another era’s aspirations. And elsewhere stores, all of recent vintage, advertise collectibles, intermingling past and present.

But the restored Red Cloud, the one that is validated solely by the past, is to be found mostly away from the brick structures on Webster Street, in the houses and churches that figure prominently in Cather’s life and fiction, and at the Burlington depot, scene of so many Cather arrivals and departures. The restored structures include, in addition to the depot, St. Juliana Falconieri Catholic Church, a simple brick Bohemian church (model for the church in which the heroine of My Ántonia was married) with pleasant grounds on the southern edge of town; Grace Episcopal Church, to which Cather belonged as an adult and to which she contributed two memorial windows in honor of her parents; and, central to it all, the childhood home. All have been mapped and marked for the visitor, along with the prototypes for an array of fictive places: Wick Cutter’s house from My Ántonia, a cottonwood grove from A Lost Lady, Dr. Archie’s house from The Song of the Lark, Quality Street from Lucy Gayheart, and the courthouse setting for the trial scene in One of Ours.

Such is the mixed blessing of windows, to keep us in touch with that which we can never fully reach. Such, too, is the nature of memory.

It is, not surprisingly, the Cather home, a simple brown frame building with a full front porch and a picket fence, that is Red Cloud’s most poignant offering. There is nothing remarkable about the house that Cather describes in The Song of the Lark as “a low story-and-a-half house, with a wing built on at the right and a kitchen addition at the back, everything a little on the slant—roofs, windows, and doors,” but it is precisely the commonness of the place that makes it subtly moving. Perhaps because it is no longer a home but a memory of one, a museum in which no one any longer confronts the messiness and uncertainty of daily living, it seems enchanted, a place apart from time. The ground floor, with all the conventional Victorian flourishes, seems merely a period piece, a generic late-nineteenth-century home.

The unfinished attic is another matter altogether. The second floor, in its relative barrenness, belonged to the children and to the imagination. A wide plank floor runs the length of the house. Low pine walls, whitewashed, are topped by exposed rafters and roofing. The crossties that join the rafters provide convenient hangers, supporting, among other things, a swing. Three chimneys break through the floor, stretch into the room, and exit through the roof, one slanting whimsically as it makes its upward journey. The smell of wood, of rosin, pervades the entire space.

To the side, the dormer houses another room, Willa’s room, with finished ceiling and walls, all papered by the girl who once lived there until every surface was crowded with leaves and pink blossoms, bordered by a strip of even more flowers. And on the outside wall, virtually the whole of the wall, two floor-to-ceiling windows open.

As one looks out through those panes across the broad lawn to the world outside, it is easier to imagine the child who once read and dreamed here and easier, too, to understand the recurrence of windows in the writings of the woman whom this room nurtured. My Ántonia follows a transplanted Virginia boy and a Bohemian girl from their first arrival in Nebraska through their move to town and eventual separation, to their reunion in middle age. In it children come in winter’s bleakness to gaze at the stained glass in the Methodist church. While those windows are filled in and stuccoed over, other windows have survived. An impressive example can be seen in the old Miner home—assigned to the Harling family in My Ántonia—where great curved and ornamented panes still lend the simple boxy building a grandeur that contrasts sharply with the plainness of their setting.

Windows appear frequently in other Cather works, visual openings through which her characters can look but not reach. Sometimes they provide visions of boundless prairie experienced from the sanctuary of a room, a way of seeing through walls without leaving their protection. More often they represent barriers that can rarely, if ever, be breached, symbolic of whatever ultimately separates us from other people’s lives or a fuller sense of belonging in our own. In One of Ours, Cather’s account of a restless Nebraska boy who is killed in World War I, Mrs. Wheeler can, from the bedroom window, watch her troubled son drilling wheat and can feel his loneliness, but much as she longs to, she cannot reach through to him. Such is the mixed blessing of windows, to keep us in the presence of that which we can never fully reach. Such, too, is the nature of memory, a force continually at work on Cather and her narrators and a powerful influence on literary tourists. Comfort and torment, it is memory that provides the beauty and anguish of Cather’s fiction.

Contemporary Red Cloud is a town of tall maples and wrap-around porches, red fire hydrants, ornamental windmills, concrete birdbaths, and plaster lawn animals. Houses come with detached garages and garden plots. In front of the Veterans Memorial Hall stands a memorial for the local war dead, an obelisk with four wings that bear a tally of Red Cloud’s losses. It contains sufficient space for two more wars. A few of the older frame houses have been remodeled, painted in dashing pinks, blues, and mustards. Other houses, including a second home of the Cathers, slump in disrepair; but visible even in these is a simple dignity, and in the redundancy of white siding there remains a subtle variation, sometimes in the steepness of a dormer, sometimes in the dimensions and placement of the windows, sometimes in the locations of trees and shrubs.

The ground floor seems merely a period piece, a generic late-nineteenth-century home. But the unfinished attic is another matter altogether.

There are trees everywhere in present-day Red Cloud, all planted in the years since settlement, yet some are now old enough to look wild and tangled. But Cather’s Nebraska, and that of much of her fiction, belonged to grass, not to trees. In her time the town opened onto wide prairie vistas, views that stretched from the front porch to the river, then over the river to the open countryside beyond. Today, even outside the city limits amid corn and hay, there is no place where trees are out of sight. Old timber claims—part of a government effort to encourage forestation—and hedgerows prevent the 360-degree expanse of grassland that a wheeling Ántonia could experience, the unending vision of bluestem and other native grasses that so thrilled and, I think, frightened Cather. Still, the country around Red Cloud retains a special beauty.

In O Pioneers! Carl Linstrum, whose family, unable to make a living on their Nebraska farm, gave up and moved east, returns after a sixteen-year absence. Instead of the hard, wild country his family abandoned, he finds a landscape both cultivated and fruitful. A childhood friend, one who stayed behind and witnessed the transformation, tells him: “We hadn’t any of us much to do with it, Carl. The land did it. It had its little joke. It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right; and then, all at once, it worked itself. It woke up out of its sleep and stretched itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found we were rich, just from sitting still.”

Even when writing about the countryside, Cather creates landscapes that belong more to the psychologist than to the geographer.

Of course, Cather and her heroine know the change came, when it came, a good deal less easily, but so miraculous was the late-nineteenth-century flourishing of Nebraska and so sudden the metamorphosis of wasteland to garden that the claim represents more than hyperbole.

As a boy, before his family’s return to St. Louis, Carl knew a quite different place from the domesticated country to which he returns as a man. In that earlier time “the homesteads were few and far apart; here and there a windmill gaunt against the sky, a sod house crouching in a hollow. But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its somber wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness.”

The transformation from wilderness to culture provides one of the great subjects for Cather’s fiction. She is fascinated by the dynamics of community and the intricacies of everything from dating patterns to local amusements and medical care. Even when writing about the countryside, she creates landscapes that belong more to the psychologist than the geographer, her places described as they are felt by an observer rather than as they appear.

Around Red Cloud the land still radiates vitality and strength, and the old struggle still shadows the present. The “country tour,” described in a pamphlet published by the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, moves from tree-lined roads along creek bottoms west of town to a variety of sites significant to Cather. Along the route marked by Catherland signs, plaques at significant locations blend the historical with the fictive, assigning a grave simultaneously to James William Murphy and to Larry Donovan from My Ántonia. A house, owned in fact by Hugo Pavelka, is deeded, as well, to the fictional Rudolph Rosicky of “Neighbour Rosicky.”

As one drives past the mill that is no longer there, the vanished prairie-dog towns, the missing Cather homestead, there is an inevitable sense of loss, of having come into the absence rather than the presence of things sought after. But that is not the whole story. There are, as well, little epiphanies, flashes of Cather’s world briefly visible in our own. Often the vision moves in a special slant of light across the cornfields or rises with distant thunderheads. Sometimes it comes with the sudden lyric swell of lark song or the lumbering dignity of a badger descending a ditch bank. And there are landmarks that remain. Simple frame churches, like that in which the Danes once worshiped (blown down and then rebuilt) or the New Virginia Church, still look out over the graves of their dead, onto an expanse of corn rows that cast a pattern of intersecting straight lines that seem fixed in their regularity yet always, subtly, shifting, like the patterns on a diamondback.

On the rise between rivers the clay banks into which the first settlers burrowed for shelter may still be seen, the desperate nature of those efforts all the more apparent for the absence, once again, of any sign of domestication. And while the river and the creeks, like all streams, refuse to keep their remembered places even for the pleasure of literary nostalgia, the wide bend in a flood plain, lush with corn, marks in green ripples the contours of Far Island of “The Enchanted Bluff” as clearly as the water that once flowed around it. And above everything the Divide, the height of land to which Carther’s stories return again and again, the recurrent watershed of her imagination, offers a special perspective on this world. Akin to the town girl’s bedroom window, it affords a view of things to which the watcher may be bound and yet from which he is always removed. The long view that so often absorbs Jim Burden’s grandmother in My Ántonia and that, in other stories, can stop tired harvesters and hold them from their labor may still be experienced, north of Red Cloud, on the Divide. On the hill just past the George Cather farm, an elevation that catches every wind, the world seems flatter than it did below, more immense and alive than previously imagined. Even with constant cultivation, the land seems as old and unconquerable as ever. It is the human presence, not nature’s, that seems fragile.

From the Divide, against so much land and so vast a sky, the efforts of a hundred years of labor remain small, the work of people only recently removed from the badger burrows they once called home. At the site of Cather’s family homestead, a hump in the earth suggests the logic of the choice, the slight promise of shelter in a world where everything seems exposed. The buildings are gone, but it is not difficult to sense their presence. This is a place to be juxtaposed with the flowered bedroom and its dormer window back in Red Cloud, another perspective on the writer and her subject This is the world that Cather said “gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake” and that brought her, throughout a life of much traveling, back to Red Cloud again and again. This, too, is the world, with its hard flatness that so frightened the ten-year-old just removed from the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains who, in 1883, arrived on the Divide. And it is the view from this place, perhaps, that explains why, in the end, Cather was buried not in Red Cloud but in New Hampshire, near mountains.

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.



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