January 1, 2010

Reading Willa Cather

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.

This is the first sentence of O, Pioneers!, Willa Cather's first important novel. At a meeting of our local book club this fall, we were deciding what novel to read from a few on hand; I asked to hear the first sentence of each and was struck by the direct descriptive prose, which included a touch of humor. Cather goes on to describe the town
A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard 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.
Reading this, we have a clear picture of the small town, a town that could at any moment be abandoned, heightened perhaps by our memory of dust bowl photos from the thirties. The prose is clear, strong and simple, without an unnecessary word, yet gives a vivid picture of place and time, with character and a welcome lack of sentimentality. While reading O, Pioneers!, I had a sharp realisation that Cather's prose was a model for mine in my blogging. I am very conscious of the craft of writing as I work on blog posts, though it's not something I've mentioned before. For me, the writing of each post, no matter the length, is a careful process in which I try to provide information with prose that is totally transparent yet has some poetry in it.

A beautiful passage from My Antonia by Cather describes the end of day, at a time when sun and moon were both low in the sky, and the
....two luminaries confronted each other across the level land, resting on opposite edges of the world.

In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed, the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall.
Cather's deep love of the stark prairie landscape is always present in her writing; she is intent on observing all aspects of it and the people who live on it. Reading some passages in her novels makes my heart swell with the comprehension of beauty. It is a grand goal for me, to touch a reader the way Cather touches me.

Here is one last paragraph from My Antonia that is a remarkable evocation of a season and a time of day; the metaphor of the hero is surprising and shouldn't work, yet it does.
All those fall afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero's death––heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day.


  1. Hopeful new year to you, Altoon! Another lovely post and I do enjoy your writing so. Thank you for reminding me of Willa Cather. I meant to make a comment on this yesterday, but I went on to read some of your other posts and I lost my way.

  2. thanks, Maggie. I was happy to rediscover Cather; the next novel of hers I'll reread is Song of the Lark.

  3. I'd forgotten how wonderful and evocative her writing is. Vintage Reads — a UK blogger — loves American novels and has written about a number of Cather's books. There will be a conference looking at food and drink in her novels in Red Cloud, Neb. in June 2010, sponsored by the WC foundation which is headquartered there, in Cather's hometown. The web site is willacather.org and is really lovely.

  4. thanks for the tip on the Willa Cather Foundation website, Ms Wis. It's a wonderful resource. I just ordered the Cather critical biography by Brown and Edel and look forward to knowing more about her and her work.