Winter 2009, Volume 25.2
The Triumph of Mind Over Nebraska
In 2005, Todd Richardson left his home state of Nebraska to study Folklore and American Literature as an English Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He holds a Master’s degree in English and a Bachelor’s degree in Religion, both from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His writings here appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle and The Nebraska Review.
Until recently, I was a lifelong Omahan, and making sense of Willa Cather is complicated when you’re from Omaha. I know I’m supposed to cherish her work because she was Nebraskan, but for me, the rest of the state is interstate to somewhere else. Even though I have family throughout Nebraska—my great-grandparents actually lived in Red Cloud about the same time as Willa Cather—I never, until recently, felt compelled to spend my time anywhere other than Omaha. But Nebraska belongs to Willa Cather, and Omaha is technically part of Nebraska, which means I must make sense of her if I’m to make sense of home.
When I first read My Ántonia in high school, Willa Cather was presented to me as the state’s greatest cultural contribution and a model Nebraskan. Consequently, it was disheartening that the novel didn’t resonate with me. John Price writes in his memoir Not Just Any Land that when he read My Ántonia in high school, "I found it long and foreign, except for Jim’s desire—like my own—to escape the ‘curious depression’ of life in his town,’" because the novel wasn’t "about my time or my place or my people"(208). Price’s sentiments were mine, only he is an Iowan, and I’m a Nebraskan. For me, even if the novel wasn’t about my time, it was, I was told, about my place and my people. Not connecting with My Ántonia made me believe something was wrong with me, as if I didn’t belong in Nebraska, the place that was supposed to be home.
In the intervening years, I’ve worked hard to make sense of Willa Cather, her work, and my relationship to them. In June of 2005, I presented a paper at the Cather Foundation’s Spring festival in Red Cloud. The paper—a rather lifeless examination of imperialism in Cather’s novels—was originally written for a seminar I took while working on a Master’s degree in English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. When I read My Ántonia for that class, it was the first time since high school, and the book had a life to it I didn’t remember. I reveled in the sparse grandeur of Cather’s prose, felt I might die happy if I could write one sentence as sturdy as "there was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made" (7). Cather became to me, now that I was a literature student, a figure worthy of worship. The resulting paper, however, captured none of this passion as I think I tried too hard to write a scholarly paper: from an apartment in Omaha, at a desk from the Nebraska Furniture Mart, I tried to disappear into the timeless, placeless universe of Cather scholarship. I failed.
Last year, I re-read My Ántonia, this time as a resident of a state not Nebraska. And just as in high school, I had trouble relating to the novel; only now, I think I better understand why. Of all the characters, I felt most like Cuzak reading papers from the old country, as if Cather’s novel was reaching out to me in exile. Yet when Cuzak reads his papers, he thinks about running away, that he might "go back there once, when the boys is big enough to farm the place" (234). Where can I run when I get homesick? I’ve been told Cather’s Nebraska is the eternal Nebraska, but I have no experience with it: the prairie has been cultivated; the Bohemians have been Americanized; the frontier is closed. Cather’s Nebraska is not the Nebraska I left.
Reading Cather away from home brought into focus ideas that have haunted me since my first encounter with her writing. As a Nebraskan, I’ve always puzzled over Cather’s relationship to my home, the way she’s been embraced as a model Nebraskan, but I’ve never run across anything that addresses this phenomenon. Many scholars have considered the relationship between Cather and Nebraska, but they only focus on how Nebraska shaped her. I’m more interested in how Cather shaped Nebraska. I want to understand how and why my home has embraced Willa Cather because I suspect it can help me make sense of what it means to be Nebraskan. By looking up through the microscope, maybe I can learn something about how art shapes place.
Nebraskans didn’t embrace Willa Cather immediately; they were, at first, cautious in their encouragement, an understandable approach considering the author’s complicated feelings for Nebraska. Cather’s apprentice work presented the state as a dismal place to live; the stories featured sequences as gruesome as any in later novels like O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, but unlike her mature works, early stories like "Peter" provided no hope: had she written My Ántonia during this phase, the novel, like the story "Peter," likely would have ended with Mr. Shimerda’s suicide. It wasn’t until "the alchemy of time," as Cather biographer James Woodress puts it, "mellowed" Cather’s memories of Nebraska that she was able to put the "bleakness of Nebraska farm life" behind her (78). Distance, physical and temporal, allowed her to produce more comforting portraits of the prairie, portraits that have since been embraced as definitively Nebraskan.
Even with physical and temporal distance, however, Cather’s novels still express ambivalence about Nebraska. In "A Cautious Response to Nebraska’s Book," John J. Murphy argues a number of factors—chiefly Sarah Orne Jewett’s advice that Cather write about Nebraska "from the outside"—"contributed to the process by which Cather learned to write positively about Nebraska," a process that was never complete. "When we read My Ántonia," Murphy contends, "we must acknowledge those scathing indictments against Black Hawk society in ‘The Hired Girls,’ which reduce small town Nebraska life to an emotionally ‘guarded…existence of jealousy and envy and unhappiness, and of racial intolerance, gossip, social climbing, materialism, and flimsy architecture’" (34). Cather may have found, from a distance, things in her Nebraska adolescence that she could love, but they were always filtered through a residual and fundamental dissatisfaction with life on the Divide.
Cather sent mixed messages outside her novels, too, identifying her passion for the prairie as "the happiness and curse of [her] life" (Bohlke 32). In an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star in 1921, three years after the publication of My Ántonia, Cather was asked to comment on Nebraska as a literary inspiration: "everywhere is a storehouse of literary material," the responded. "If a true artist was born in a pigpen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for his work" (Bohlke 46). In other contexts, however, Cather expressed her love for Nebraska adamantly. One week before she offered the pigpen analogy, Cather insisted in an interview for the Omaha Bee that she would always be Nebraskan because she spent her formative years in the state, that no matter how far she moved—she was, at the time, living in Paris—homesickness would always bring her back to Nebraska (Bohlke 32).
But there is equal ambivalence on the other end of the Omaha Bee profile. Even though Cather had published five books by the time the piece was published in 1921, the article misidentifies its subject as "Miss Cathers" throughout, a mistake representative of the local indifference to Cather and her work: the locals, it seems, didn’t even know her name. Outside Webster county and Lincoln, places where opinions of Willa Cather were as likely to have been influenced by personal experience as they were by her writing, Cather was virtually unknown to Nebraskans in 1921.
Cather’s works—which, by this time, include her two beloved Nebraska novels, O Pioneers! and My Ántonia—had been reviewed in local publications and the reviews were mostly favorable, but she wasn’t yet portrayed as an essentially Nebraskan writer. Celia Harris, in a representative review of O Pioneers! from the Lincoln Sunday State Journal, never mentions Cather’s local roots, preferring, instead, to identify her as "deeply, unaffectedly American in style and inspiration" (O’Conner 51). At one point in the review, Harris actually questions the Nebraskan-ness of Cather’s portrait, contending that Cather’s version is misleading because it overlooks "native" Nebraskans, the settlers from the East and discharged Union soldiers who preceded "the foreign immigrants" and make up the bulk of the state’s population (O’Conner 53). Harris expresses jealously that the "native" population, of which she is presumably a part, isn’t represented in the novel.
Two "national" developments would profoundly affect Nebraskans’ estimation of Willa Cather and transform her into a source of local pride. In 1923, Cather received the Pulitzer Prize for her book One of Ours. Only the fourth Pulitzer Prize ever awarded a novelist, a group in Omaha immediately responded by commissioning a portrait of Willa Cather, to be painted by an artist of the author’s choosing—she selected Russian painter Leon Bakst—to hang in the Omaha Public Library. Winning the Pulitzer Prize raised Cather’s profile so much, her every movement became a newsworthy event, papers throughout the state consistently updating their readers on the life of "Pulitzer Prize winning Nebraska author Willa Cather."
Equally important was Sinclair Lewis’ visit to Nebraska two years earlier. At the time of his 1921 visit, Lewis’ novel Main Street, a satiric portrait of cultural life in small-town America, was experiencing unexpected commercial success, selling more than a quarter-million copies. In a speech to the Omaha Society of Fine Arts, Lewis declared not only was Cather "a greater author than he dared hope to ever be," but she was also "Nebraska’s foremost citizen because through her stories she has made the outside world know Nebraska as no one else has done" (Bohlke 24-25). As if thanking Sinclair Lewis for his statement, an article in the Omaha World-Herald reported, were it not for Lewis’ "militant proclamation," Cather’s own father wouldn’t have known "how brilliant a daughter he had given the world" (Bohlke 36). Emboldened by Lewis’ endorsement of Cather, local publications adopted the theme that has always characterized national and international reception of her novels: Willa Cather is a valuable, midwestern commodity. Nebraska papers started emphasizing the national importance of Cather’s work and the residual glory it bestowed on the state: "Nebraska may legitimately claim [Cather] as its own." An article in the Omaha World-Herald read, "So a new novel from her pen is an event of importance to Nebraska as well as to the literary world" (O’Conner 459).
It’s one thing for an Eastern critic to say Willa Cather "represents the triumph of mind over Nebraska," but coming from a Nebraskan, the notion that Cather had to triumph over the cultural void of the American Midwest takes on a more sinister meaning (O’Conner 99). For the world outside Nebraska, Cather was an aberration, many reviewers portraying her as a regionally crippled genius: "Among [Cather’s] many difficulties, much the most serious has been that in her youth her imagination was undernourished," T.K. Whipple wrote in a 1923 piece for the New York Evening Post. "A desiccated and sterilized life affords little sustenance to poet, dramatist, or novelist. The marvel is that she has been able to achieve so much, to discover so much humanity in that flat and vacant land, with its rich soil and human poverty" (O’Conner 209). When Nebraska reviewers borrowed their rhetoric from national and international criticism, they inadvertently promoted a disturbing form of regional self-hatred. To be a successful Nebraskan, the reviews implied, means overcoming the disability that is Nebraska.
At first, Nebraskan reviewers incorporated the idea of the Midwest as a cultural vacuum defiantly: "Some time, somehow, […] a prairie culture will be born, taste for the fine arts will be both stimulated and satisfied. Then not even literary masters such as Miss Cather will feel the necessity for leaving Nebraska for New York and Paris," the Omaha World-Herald declared in 1922 (O’Conner 131). One year later in the same paper, the idea remains but its expression is less defiant, more conciliatory: "If sometimes with her firm and searching probe [Cather] causes us who are habitants to squirm uncomfortably, the writhing is doubtless good for us. The fact that we do writhe, when the soul is exposed and the pitiless mirror of the spirit is held before us, is indicative that there is hope, with a little prodding, of our rising to better estates" (O’Conner 186). By 1931, the idea of Nebraska as a cultural wasteland was so entrenched, reviewers ceased to question it: "A new book by Willa Cather is an event of importance in the literary and cultural world" the Omaha World-Herald stated in 1931, adding it "is also an event of importance to Nebraska and the middle west," a tacit acceptance that Nebraska is not part of the cultural world (O’Conner 364). The reviewers no longer anticipate a more cultured Nebraska; they resign themselves to wistful acclaim for what’s been lost:
It is true that [Cather] left us; that she sought elsewhere for both inspiration and glory, yet she cannot take away from us a glow of pride, that this, our daughter of small-town Nebraska, our graduate of our own state university, has challenged the world and won its applause. (O’Conner 364)
In less than ten years, pride in Willa Cather had transformed into regional self-loathing, a process that moved from the outside in.
It’s been sixty years since Willa Cather died, and it appears that Nebraska has finally taken control of the author’s work and its interpretation. Although the state’s enthusiasm for Cather briefly waned following her death in 1947—her reputation nationally and internationally waned at the same time—Nebraska’s embrace of Cather has grown steadily stronger since. Today, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is the unquestioned center of Cather scholarship and research, and all three universities in the Nebraska system have at least one full-time Cather scholar working in its English department. Red Cloud has become a literary treasure, and every spring scholars from around the world make the difficult journey to Webster county for a conference celebrating Cather and her work. Nebraska, it seems, has officially cornered the Cather market, her reputation inextricably woven into the Nebraskan cultural landscape.
At the center of the scholarly monopoly is the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial (WCPM) headquartered in Red Cloud. Founded in 1955 by Mildred Bennett, herself a transplant to Red Cloud, the WCPM works to preserve the world of Willa Cather. The organization began as a threadbare operation out of Bennett’s kitchen, but now boasts a million-dollar partnership with the Nebraska State Historical Society. Through their combined efforts, Webster County Nebraska now includes "the largest group of historic buildings and sites devoted to an American writer" (Romines 31). Among the WCPM’s guiding principles is the idea that "if one [undertakes] writing about Willa Cather and her works, then one must of necessity visit Red Cloud" (Connors 52). In other words, everything said about Willa Cather must, at some point, come through Nebraska.
Nebraska’s Catherphilia isn’t limited to Red Cloud and Lincoln. The portrait of Willa Cather commissioned by Omahans in 1923 now hangs in the Willa Cather Branch of the Omaha Public Library. In 1962, Cather became the second person elected to the Nebraska Hall of Fame (George Norris was the first), and in 1998, she was nominated to be Nebraska’s image on the reverse side of its state quarter (Rosowski 1). Most recently, Nebraskans statewide paid tribute to Cather by reading My Ántonia for the 2005 One Book/One Nebraska program, the program’s press release calling My Ántonia "a Nebraska book by a Nebraska author" that "all Nebraskans should read."
My Ántonia was selected despite the fact that anyone who attended high school in Nebraska likely read—or was supposed to have read—My Ántonia when they were sixteen. Although Nebraska doesn’t have state-mandated curriculum—the individual school districts often don’t mandate curriculum either—Cather is almost always included in high school English classes. Alan Bone, an English teacher at Omaha Westside high school, has taught at both urban and rural schools throughout the state: "I always feel a sense of duty to share her work with classes," he told me. "To be a Nebraskan—particularly a Nebraskan attending a far-flung college or university—who has never read anything by Cather seems unseemly for some reason." All the secondary school teachers I’ve spoken with express a similar sense of duty, an obligation to someone or something that they teach Willa Cather.
Alan Bone envisions his as an obligation to a remote intellectual: "I imagine my former students trekking off to college and encountering some English professor who, upon hearing that said student is a Nebraskan, says ‘Ah, Nebraska, Willa Cather’s old stomping grounds. I suppose you’re pretty familiar with her.’" His answer reminds me of something Susan Rosowski wrote: "A characteristic American college or university literature teacher is more familiar with the social and economic conditions of Chaucer’s England than with those of Cather’s Nebraska," only I would add that the characteristic American college or university literature teacher is more familiar with Cather’s Nebraska than the real Nebraska (Teaching xi). Consequently, when the Nebraskan student, far from home, faces this imaginary English professor, it is the student’s responsibility to play the role thrust on her, the only role, she’s been taught, that gives her home meaning. I doubt this responsibility is ever placed on people from London, Chaucer’s old stomping grounds.
I feel this situation typifies the self-destructive consequences in Nebraska’s embrace of Willa Cather: it places the power to define Nebraska with outside forces. Even as Cather worship becomes centralized in Nebraska, it is not and never has been an organic phenomenon. Fundamentally, the state embraces Cather not because she expressed its hopes and dreams particularly well. Nebraskans embrace Cather because she has a national and international reputation, and her association with the state makes Nebraskans feel important. Unfortunately, this requires Nebraskans accept that their home isn’t important on its own terms.
Willa Cather may have written about Nebraska, but she didn’t write for Nebraska; her deep association with place was intended to move in an outward direction. In "The Place of Literature and the Cultural Phenomenon of Willa Cather," Rosowski wrote that "confronting a reality of loss and a risk of annihilation that comes with an environment of change, Cather responded by locating place and by making connections between that place and elsewhere" (17). Rosowski’s uses this argument to promote Willa Cather as a global writer, a theme that consistently appears in Cather scholarship. Discussing My Ántonia, John J. Murphy says Cather’s "Nebraska book" is "a world book" (35). Charles A. Peek praises Cather’s work "for the way in which its local interests mirror universal themes," calling her "a natural for the world stage" (63). In The Midwestern Pastoral, William Barillas adopts the theme, but in a more cynical manner. "The life of Jim Burden, the novel’s narrator, serves as a synecdoche for Midwestern society in its transition between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: his childhood is spent in the country, his adolescence in a small town, and his adulthood in cities. Along the way, Jim has lost something, as has his developing civilization" (Barillas 70). According to Barillas, My Ántonia is ultimately not a Nebraskan story. It is the story of the entire Midwest, and, by association, the whole of Western civilization.
I’m not arguing that the celebration of Cather in Nebraska is wrong. I’m not arguing the idea of celebrating Cather in Nebraska is wrong. I just want to better understand the source and substance of these celebrations so that I can better understand what I celebrate when I celebrate Cather. When I, as a Nebraskan, praise Cather, it too often entails a negative appraisal of my home culture. But when I, as a student of literature, praise Cather, I’m celebrating a great artist with a global community. Since the value of Cather’s writing has been largely defined by sources outside Nebraska, when I embrace Cather as definitively Nebraskan, I’m letting outside sources tell me who I am. William Barillas contends this is an attribute common to Midwesterners, going so far as to identify the Midwest’s relationship with the East and West Coasts as a colonial dynamic (19). While I’m not ready to identify the Nebraskan in me as a colonized subject—I think it belittles the very real colonization that still occurs in my home; if I’m going to talk about great and real Nebraskans, I should be talking about Crazy Horse—I still think Barillas is on to something, that Midwesterners give up too much when we define ourselves from the outside in.
This is, I believe, what’s happened with Cather in Nebraska: we think she belongs to us when she really belongs to the world. Although Cather insisted she was a Nebraskan writer because she spent her formative years in the state—eleven years in total—she spent the majority of her life living elsewhere, her values and personality shaped as much by the South where she was born, and the East where she lived. This isn’t in and of itself bad; I have lots of Southern and Eastern friends. What is troubling is that Cather was writing for the needs of all these regions—she was fundamentally an American writer—and to celebrate her as a local artist confuses the Nebraskan identity. If we define ourselves through Cather, we end up becoming what other people need us to be.
I hope this isn’t another lifeless, scholarly essay, but the truth is Cather doesn’t enthrall Nebraskans as much as I make it sound. Few of my friends read Cather when she was assigned in high school, and none of them read My Ántonia as part of the One Book/One Nebraska program. If you ask Nebraskans whom they are most proud of, for every person who answers Willa Cather, a thousand will tell you Warren Buffett, the "Oracle of Omaha" and the richest man on the planet. A part of me is repulsed with the notion of a financier being a people’s hero, but an equal part of me loves it. Like its literary center, the financial center of America is on the East coast, and unlike Willa Cather, Warren Buffett remained in Nebraska—he lives in a middle class Omaha neighborhood, two blocks from my schoolteacher father. And there are artists, too, who are now willing to stay in Nebraska: musician Conor Oberst, filmmaker Alexander Payne, United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser—they all create art about Nebraska from Nebraska. Nebraska, it would appear, is doing fine without me.
Nonetheless, I believe what I’m writing matters more to my neighbors and friends than to Cather scholars. Even if a growing population is committed to remaining in the state, many talented Nebraskans still feel compelled to leave. Ted Sorensen, head speechwriter for John F. Kennedy and a native Nebraskan, once said that Nebraska evaluates itself by a self-destructive standard: success means getting out. While the state’s allegiance to Cather isn’t the cause of this, it is a powerful example of the self-destructive standard’s persistence. By unpacking Cather’s idea of Nebraska and its reception in the state, I want to locate a space in which Nebraskans can remain Nebraskan, a space in which we define ourselves on our own terms. I hope I’ve at least made room for myself because I am, for the time being, just another person writing about Nebraska from somewhere else.
Albertini, Virgil, Susan Maher, and Ann Romines, eds. The First Fifty Years: A Celebration of the Cather Foundation’s Promotion and Preservation of The World of Willa Cather. Hastings: Cornhusker, 2006.
Barillas, William. The Midwestern Pastoral: Place and Landscape in Literature of the American Heartland. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2006.
Bohlke, L. Brent. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, Letters. Lincoln: U Nebraska P, 1986.
Bone, Alan. Personal interview. 1 Dec. 2006.
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. 1918. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Connors, Don E. "Remembering Mildred Bennett and the First Fifty Years." Albertini, Maher and Romines 51-53.
Manning, Richard. Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie. New York: Penguin, 1995.
Murphy, John J. "A Cautious Response to Nebraska’s Book." Albertini, Maher and Romines 34-35.
O’Conner, Margaret Anne. Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.
Peek, Charles A. "The Next Fifty Years with the Cather Foundation." Albertini, Maher and Romines 63-64.
Price, John. Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2004.
Romines, Ann. "Why Do We Read—and Re-read—My Ántonia?" Albertini, Maher and Romines 21-31.
Rosowski, Susan J. The Place of Literature and the Cultural Phenomenon of Willa Cather. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1998.
—. "Preface." Approaches to Teaching Cather’s My Ántonia. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. New York: MLA, 1989. xi-xii.
Thacker, Robert. The Great Prairie—Fact and Literary Imagination. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1989.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln, U Nebraska P, 1987.
—. "Writing Cather’s Biography." Cather Studies, Volume 1 (1990). 19 Nov. 2006 < https://cather.unl.edu/scholarship/cs/vol1/writingbio.html>.