Read an Excerpt
From Chris Kraus's Introduction to O Pioneers!
In her extraordinary book Willa Cather: The Politics of Criticism, Joan Acocella describes young Cather's childhood: "No money, no privacy, no great things around her, but just a dusty prairie town . . . a mother usually sick or pregnant, and a pack of noisy little brothers and sisters" (p. 8). By all reports, in Red Cloud she was an outrageous genius-in Acocella's words, "a show-off, an explosion, a pest" (Acocella, p. 8), selecting from among the town's adults those who would be most interesting and helpful.
As scholarly research into Cather's life and work has shown, she made up very little. Descendants of the "originals" on whom many Cather characters are based speak regularly to researchers and fans at the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation. (No one, yet, has been identified as Alexandra's model, though it might be fair to assume that parts of Alexandra's character-her industriousness, her sense of purpose-were based on Cather's own.) Likewise, Cather's Red Cloud reputation is remembered, via stories told by grandparents, by many people in the town. Her closest childhood friends were Dr. Dammeral, the town's physician (on whom Cather based Dr. Archie in The Song of the Lark), who once let the twelve-year-old Willa assist him with an amputation; Herr Scheindelmeister (the model for Professor Wunsch in Lark), the town drunk and sometime piano teacher, who told her stories about classical music and the lives of the great musicians in Europe; and William Ducker, a clerk in a dry goods store who taught her Greek and Latin (he appears in Lark as Johnny Tellamantez). Sometimes Ducker would invite young Willa to help him perform a vivisection in his homemade lab.
When she was thirteen, Willa was given her own tiny, freezing attic room, a privilege she abused by endless reading. And then she just exploded. At fourteen, she went to the town barber, got a crew cut, and started dressing like a man. She liked to call herself "William Cather" and sometimes even "William Cather, M.D." Acocella recalls a "friendship album" kept by one of Cather's schoolmates in which "William" lists "flirting" as the trait that she admires most in women. In men, of course, it is "an original mind." Perfect misery, she wrote, was doing needlework. And perfect happiness? Amputing limbs (Acocella, p. 9).
She escaped from Red Cloud thinking she'd learn exactly how to do this. Using money that her father borrowed from a friend, she took a year of prep school in Lincoln, and then signed up for the pre-med course at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. But when an English teacher got her essay on Thomas Carlyle into print with the Nebraska State Journal, she quickly changed her mind and decided to become a writer. She became coeditor of the school's literary magazine, The Hesperian, and wrote freelance articles for Lincoln newspapers. While she was still a college sophomore at age nineteen, she was invited to become a regular columnist for the State Journal. As James Woodress notes in his biography of Cather, her output during these years was astonishing. She wrote music reviews, theater reviews, feature articles, reports on the populist agrarian Chautauqua movement, and, in an article in The Nebraska Editor, was noted as "a young woman with a genius for literary expression." Short stories she worked on in her "spare" time were published in prestigious journals in New York and Boston. She fell in love with many of the actresses she wrote about, and lavished them with champagne and clothes and jewels. For Cather as for Balzac, a writer she despised, debt was a fantastic motivator: She had to keep writing in order to pay the debts she ran up hanging out all night with glamorous people, whose luminescent presences in turn excited her and inspired her to keep on writing.
By her second year in Lincoln, friends managed to persuade Cather to stop dressing like a man. Nevertheless, she found it necessary to create some distance between herself and the crippling fact of being female in the nineteenth century. Though she declared with some bravada, "The fact that I was a girl never damaged my ambitions to be a pope or emperor," she went out of her way to dismiss the work of other female writers. Acocella provides a roundup of Cather's early anti-feminist criticism: '"Sometimes I wonder why God ever trusts (literary) talent in the hands of women, they usually make such an infernal mess of it," she wrote in 1895. "I think He must do it as a sort of ghastly joke." Female poets were so gushy-"emotional in the extreme, self-centered, self-absorbed." As for female novelists, all they could write about was love: 'They have a sort of sex consciousness that is abominable." The necessity for powerful, distinguished women to separate themselves from the perceived triviality of femaleness and the politics of feminism is a tendency that has persisted until the present. The critic Laurie Stone has written incisively on the anti-feminist positions held by Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick, and it is fascinating to consider, as Stone does, how these stances have been picked up and deployed by those wanting to keep women in their place within the culture. But as Joan Acocella points out, one of Cather's greatest achievements was to write fiction in which love and marriage comprise only partial aspects of her female protagonists' destinies. Alexandra does marry Carl, but this isn't the point of the story. By the time they marry, Alexandra's character has already been formed-by her relationship to the land, and to others; she is not defined by her marriage. Surely despite her courage and enormous literary achievement, Cather deserves the right to be as complex and as contradictory as any person. Cather's sexual orientation remains ambiguous: a thing, she had obviously decided, to be left out of any discussion of her life and her work. Although all of Cather's intimate relationships were with women and she maintained raging crushes on girls, none of the women in her life ever spoke of their relationships with her in sexual terms. To seal this decision of silence, letters were constantly burned: by Cather herself and by recipients, at her request.
The Agricultural Depression of 1893-1896 (described at the end of "The Wild Land" section of O Pioneers!) drove Cather home to Red Cloud in 1895 when she graduated. Her father's farm mortgage and insurance business was foundering, and she agreed to mind the office while he pursued other business prospects in Lincoln. Back in Red Cloud, she dreamed mostly about traveling, so when an opportunity arose the following year to join the staff of the Pittsburgh Home Monthly, she took it.
From the Home Monthly, she moved to the more prestigious Pittsburgh Daily Leader, rewriting wire stories and continuing to publish various freelance reviews. By the time she was twenty-eight years old, she'd published nearly half a million words of journalism. Exhausted and despairing that she'd never have the time to write the fiction she was meant to, she left journalism to teach high school for four years in Pittsburgh.
During this period she wrote "Paul's Case," the short story that was to be most prescient of her later writing, and the one of which she was proudest. "Paul's Case" is an exquisitely objective psychological portrait of a young man whose amorality dazzles and bewilders everyone he crosses. (The unrepentantly amoral Paul in many ways became a model for Tom Ripley, the hero of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels.) The last line of the story is shocking in its radical acceptance of Paul's fate: When Paul throws himself under a train, he drops "back into the immense design of things." The conclusion echoes Cather's childhood epiphany of the "erasure of personality" effected by the stark Nebraska landscape. It's the first suggestion of the irrevocable sense of fate that will inform O Pioneers! and Cather's later writing.
While in Pittsburgh, she published her first two books of creative writing: a book of poems called April Twilights (1903) and a collection of seven short stories, including "Paul's Case," entitled The Troll Garden (1905). In Pittsburgh she became the friend of many sophisticated, fascinating people: artists, industrialists, and socialites. With her new friend Isabelle McClung, a prominent judge's daughter, she had an opportunity to follow in the path of other cosmopolitan Americans, visiting the most fashionable parts of Europe. This, she thought, must be the stuff of fiction, and this brilliant Red Cloud girl did her best to write stories in the vein of Henry James and Edith Wharton. It was only after finishing O Pioneers! that she would realize "life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember." But she would not have the opportunity to pursue this until years later; a visit from the New York publisher of The Troll Garden, S. S. McClure, who also owned a magazine named for him, seduced her back to journalism. She left Pittsburgh and went to New York to join the staff of McClure's Magazine. Cather's work for McClure's-in her six years there, she became the managing editor of one of the most influential political and literary magazines in America-afforded her many opportunities to travel, the most important of which was the half year she spent in Boston, fact-checking a series of articles on the Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy. Because it was there that she met Annie Adams Fields, keeper of Cambridge's most dazzling salon, whose habituées had included every important nineteenth-century writer from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Charles Dickens. Cather would later record her impressions of this house and the still-beautiful eighty-year-old woman in her essay "148 Charles Street" (collected in Not Under Forty). And it was Mrs. Fields who introduced to her to the essayist and fiction writer Sarah Orne Jewett. At age sixty, twenty-five years Cather's senior, Jewett took the younger writer absolutely seriously.
In December 1908 Jewett wrote Cather an extraordinary letter that would change her life. Responding to "On the Gull's Road," a short story Cather published in McClure's, Jewett said she loved the story but found Cather's use of a male narrator false. In another letter, written two weeks later, Jewett advised: "I cannot help saying what I think about your writing and its being hindered by such incessant, important, responsible work as you . . . have now. You must find your own quiet center of life and write from that . . . to write and work from this level we must live it."
It was the most commonsense advice-write what you know, and find the time to do it-and Cather took it. The next year she wrote her first Nebraska story, "The Enchanted Bluff." She made notes for "Alexandra," an unpublished story that would form a basis for O Pioneers! In 1911 she took a long leave from the magazine to write Alexander's Bridge, a society novel set in Boston, but as soon as she finished it she threw herself into writing another Nebraska story, "The Bohemian Girl." Then she traveled to the Southwest for seven weeks and did nothing. The immenseness of the desert settled down on her and made it seem possible to start a new life. She then went to Red Cloud, where she wrote "The White Mulberry Tree," which would become Part 5 of O Pioneers! She stopped in Pittsburgh before returning to New York, and it was here, when she put the unpublished "Alexandra" and "The White Mulberry Tree" side by side, that she realized she'd already written half a novel. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant recalls: "She said she could only describe this coming together of the two elements . . . as a sudden inner explosion and enlightenment . . . The explosion seemed to bring with it the inevitable shape that is not plotted but designs itself" (Woodress, pp. 231-232).
She'd finally discovered how she wanted to write fiction.