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Advent series: Tales of darkness and hope

01 December 2023

Rod Garner begins our Advent series by commemorating Willa Cather, born 150 years ago


Willa Cather (7 December 1873-24 April 1947), c.1924

Willa Cather (7 December 1873-24 April 1947), c.1924

EARLIER this year, in preparation for the 150th anniversary of her birth on 7 December 1873, a sculpture of Willa Cather was unveiled and dedicated in the National Statuary Hall, Washington, DC. The base of the plinth is inscribed with a quotation from one of her acclaimed novels, O Pioneers!: “The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or woman.”

Above Cather’s name, in much larger letters, can be seen the solitary and imposing word, NEBRASKA. It was this vast territory on the Great Plains of America, and the courage and violence of frontier life, recorded and mythologised by Cather in her unique stories, that won her the Pulitzer prize in 1922. In 1931, her face appeared on the front cover of Time magazine, confirming her place as a bright star in the American literary firmament.

In the spring of 1883, when Cather was nine, she made the most significant journey of her life. Her family left the relative calm of Virginian society to escape the post-war South, and moved to Nebraska to join grandparents and partake of cleaner air. With thousands of international settlers — Germans, French, Norwegians, Czechs, and Russians — and despite the threats of droughts, blizzards, and plagues of grasshoppers, they had been lured by the prospect of new beginnings and cheap farming land.

On arrival, Cather believed that she had come to the edge of the world. For months, she cried incessantly, and worried that she might die in a cornfield, forgotten and alone. By the first autumn, however, this strange vista, ostensibly bereft of beauty, had claimed her heart and imagination. Even with the passage of time, and despite long absences, she knew that it would always be so.

GROWING up in a town called Red Cloud, and inwardly somewhat confused and insecure, Cather occasionally dressed as a boy, cut her hair short, and referred to herself as “William Cather Jr”. In the quietness of her attic room, she read Tolstoy, Stevenson, and Bunyan under the bedclothes. Energetic, and something of an ambitious free spirit, she consorted with the “Bohemians“ who were constructing the railroad, delivered mail on a pony, helped out at a local pharmacy, and entertained dreams of becoming a doctor or surgeon.

All the while, she was immersing herself in the lives of the immigrants as they battled heroically, and sometimes tragically, to adapt to the unyielding landscape and scarce resources. She marked their hopes and destinies and, years later, would make a compelling mosaic of their tales.

Before then, there was the matter of her education and career: first, five college years, in which her earlier inclination towards science gave way to classics and literature, and a firm grounding in journalism; then, a move to Pittsburgh, to be a journalist and arts reviewer, followed by a further stint as a schoolteacher, when she wrote poetry and short stories in between lessons.

In New York, now in her thirties, she became the managing editor of a successful magazine. The prestige was not enough to satisfy the writer in her. For several years, she gave herself tirelessly to the demands of this new work, but it was not her best self.

AS SHE approached 40, Cather’s Nebraskan past — the land itself, and its prairie dwellers, “none of whom had any appearance of permanence” — assumed a new significance in her life. She became a novelist: a chronicler of great journeys, stoical endurance, and a landscape of severe and sometimes surreal wonder. She started to set down the saving graces of domestic life, representing them as though seen for the first time: pots and pans, “little half-windows with white curtains, and pots of geraniums in the deep sills . . . and a pleasant smell of gingerbread baking”.

In O Pioneers!, Cather conjures a world far removed from sentimental rural nostalgia. She deals with the desires and fractures of human relationships that can never wholly satisfy, and the mortal questions touching life, birth, death, and drama, as the earth moves through its seasons. Darkness and promise permeate her vision, as she charts the rising and setting of the sun, and the brief span allotted to the rugged figures reconfiguring the frontier with their backs and hands. In time, they will return to the earth, but not before they have witnessed moments of sudden transfigurations: “blond cornfields of red gold” and “the whole prairie like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed”.

In My Antonia, young Jim Burden (the tutor of the heroine of the novel) sits in a garden where little red bugs with polished backs move around him. Nothing happens, and yet he is entirely happy under the sky, “a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge . . . dissolved into something complete and great”.

CATHER died, aged 74, on 24 April 1947, and was buried in New Hampshire. The private life that she had always desired, in which her Nebraska childhood had come to represent her best years, became more transparent with the first publication of her private letters in 2013. They reveal a warm, caring, and humorous disposition, at odds with a public demeanour that could appear aloof, judgemental, and somewhat detached. To one correspondent, she writes: “Such a ravishing world, and such a short life in which to see it”; to another, she ends with: “May all the gold I ever dreamed of be yours.”

Cather sought to live a Christian life. From childhood, church attendance remained important to her. Raised a Baptist, she was confirmed in the Protestant Episcopal Church at the age of 49, and later became attracted to Roman Catholicism. Her belief is declared resolutely in a private letter: “There is no God but one God, and Art is his revealer; that’s my creed and I’ll follow it to the end.”

At the close of her life, rendered frail through illness and grief, Cather still retained possession of “the precious, incommunicable past”, with its beauty, darkness, and promise, and ineffable moments of calm. As we kindle the flame of Advent, and look to the One of whom the prophets spoke, her life and writings seem strangely apposite.

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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