“I wanted to walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light and air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would only be sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass.”― Willa Cather, My Antonia (1918)
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Willa Cather was born on this date in 1873 in Back Creek Valley, Va. Though she did write about her native state in one of her last books, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), the bulk of her fiction concerned the land to which her family moved when she was 10: Nebraska. In much the same way that the New England setting of most of Robert Frost’s work has made most people forget that the poet was born in California, so extraordinary was the descriptive power of Cather in evoking the Midwest that I doubt if many readers know she came from someplace else.
(An author with whom Cather has been more frequently compared--including sense of place--is Edith Wharton, as I discussed in this prior post.)
My Antonia (1918) concluded Cather’s trilogy of her adopted state (O Pioneers! and Song of the Lark came first). Only six years earlier, her novel Alexander’s Bridge had displayed all the marks of an apprentice fiction writer, especially in its heavy indebtedness to Henry James. Even though My Antonia is not without such influences (particularly in its nature as an “envelope story,” in which the main narrative is bracketed by an outside male character, similar to The Turn of the Screw), it also showed that Cather had developed a mature, sinewy style of her own, laying claim to subject matter largely ignored till then.
In particular, many readers have been inspired by the central character of the novel, an immigrant girl who survived a host of troubles with little to aid her but her own innate tenderness and strength. “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Antonia,” wrote the normally acerbic critic-journalist H.L. Mencken. Many readers couldn’t agree more.
For an especially interesting journey into the work of Cather, you’ll want to check out the “A Literary Odyssey” blog, which earlier this year started “The Willa Cather Project”—the blogger’s attempt to read the entire works of the novelist, then write about it.