December 7, 1873– Willa Cather:
“The end is nothing; the road is all.“
When she was just 14 years old and living in Nebraska, Willa Cather began dressing as a boy and calling herself William. This continued when she attended the University of Nebraska. Later, when she could choose to live in a fictional world, she would often write with an emphasis on her male characters. She is famous for her odes to life in the Midwest, like O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), yet she lived most of her adult life in New York City, where for four decades, she shacked-up with her partner Edith Lewis, a noted editor.
Nebraska is a jumping off point for a lot of her work, but her 12 novels cover an incredible range of subjects: Song Of The Lark (1915) is about an opera singer who travels around the world. One Of Ours, which won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize, is about a man enlisting to fight in World War I after his wife leaves to do missionary work in China. Her masterpiece, Death Comes For The Archbishop (1927), is about a bishop and a priest and their attempts to establish a church in the New Mexico Territory. Her talent was nourished and inspired by the American scene, the Midwest in particular, with a sensitive and patient understanding for what we now call the Red States. She is remembered for her exquisite economy of language and her charming manner.
Cather specialized in plot lines and characters that reveal both the freedom of the artist to create and the social rejection of imagination. In My Ántonia, the patriarch of a Bohemian immigrant family is a farmer, but he has no real skills for a life on the plains. He is a violinist, a refined man who dresses for a dignified life. The unforgiving conditions of rural life, which he knows will eventually provide his children with a future, smother him. At his breaking point, he kills himself. The locals, who are written as sympathetic up to that point, will not allow the defeated man’s body to be buried in the community cemetery. Instead, he is placed at the crossroads of two roads outside of town.
A Lost Lady (1923) is the haunting story of the Midwest in the age of the building of railroads. It is a tale of the charming wife of a retired contractor, and her hospitable household as seen through the eyes of an adoring boy. The climax of the book ends with the disintegration of the household and the slow hardening of the wife.
The same sort of situation is played out in some of Cather’s short stories like Paul’s Case (1905) and The Sculptor’s Funeral (1905), but in these stories the main characters are gay.
In Paul’s Case, Paul is a Pittsburgh high school student who is frustrated with his middle-class existence. He wants another sort of life, one where he go to concerts and the theatre. He enjoys the symphony not for the music but for the atmosphere: ‘The lights danced before his eyes and the concert hall blazed into unimaginable splendor.” Paul steals money to escape to Manhattan but after his bank account dries up, he commits suicide rather than allow his father to take him back to Pittsburgh.
In The Sculptor’s Funeral, the body of Harvey Merrick, a famed sculptor, is brought back to his parent’s house in a small Kansas town. Only his childhood friends, Jim and Henry, show any real emotion, and wonder how he ever made it out of the town. Before the funeral, the town’s leading citizens make fun of Merrick for his education and uppity lifestyle, Jim and Henry attack their hypocrisy. They lash out at the people in the town by exposing the corruption of their ideals, their gambling, shootings and adultery. Henry claims that Merrick escaped that life and that this was why the town’s leaders hate him so much. Jim is disgusted with himself for having not left the town like Merrick, and he gets too drunk to attend the funeral. The story ends with Jim dying from pneumonia shortly after the ceremony.
In one of her first stories, Tommy, The Unsentimental (1899), a Nebraskan girl with a boy’s name, and who looks like a boy, saves her father’s bank business.
In O Pioneers!, with its title taken from the gay mother of us all Walt Whitman‘s poem, the main characters are shunned because of their eccentricities, individuality, and what is perceived as a lack of focus in life.
Cather is so identified as being from the Middle of America, but she was born in Virginia. When she was 8 years old, her family moved to Nebraska and bought a farm near the small town. As a child, she did not go to school, but spent many hours reading the classics with her two grandmothers. Later, when her family moved to town, she attended high school and then the University of Nebraska.
She spent a few years in Pittsburgh teaching and doing newspaper work, but each summer she returned to Nebraska.
Cather’s first collection of stories was The Troll Garden (1905) which is not about the comments section on The Facebook. Published by McClure-Phillips, two years later she became an associate editor for McClure’s Magazine and she moved to New York City. She became the managing editor of the publication for the next four years. During this period, she wrote very little, but she traveled to Europe and the American Southwest. In 1912, she gave up editorial work to write full time.
In 1931, she was named by the great gay English writer J.B. Priestley, as this country’s greatest novelist. She received honorary degrees from the University Of Michigan, Columbia University, Yale and Princeton. Plus, in 1962 Cather was elected to the Nebraska Hall of Fame; in 1973 the USPS honored Cather by issuing a stamp with her image; in 1981, the U.S. Mint created a Willa Cather gold coin; in 1986, Cather was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. And, there’s that Pulitzer Prize.
For me, Cather’s novels can easily be read as an early commentary on American gay life. Yet, when I read her work in my university’s American Literature course, Cather’s gayness was never mentioned, of course.
In the mid-1970s, my New York City boyfriend, a native, would take me on Literary Tours of the city. He pointed out the apartment that Cather and Lewis shared at 5 Bank Street in Greenwich Village, and their final place at 570 Park Avenue. Lewis was named executor of Cather’s literary estate when Cather was taken by cerebral hemorrhage in 1947. She published a memoir of her life with Cather titled Willa Cather Living (1953).
Cather and Lewis could not be open about their relationship in their era, but they are together forever, buried next to each other in the Old Burying Ground in New Hampshire, a favorite vacation spot for the couple. I managed to visit this place once, in the company of my favorite professor, who I had a crush on. There is a prominent Cather headstone placed above both their graves, it reads:
That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.
From My Ántonia