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Willa on Wednesday


Edith Wharton and Willa Cather were born and died almost exactly one decade apart.

Contemporaneous, they were separated geographically: Cather drew on her Western experience in her writing while the East Coast-raised Wharton mined the social culture of New England and New York. Creatively, however, they were kinfolk.

Julie Olin-Ammentorp, author of Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and the Place of Culture argues that the two women shared many literary views and articulated their stories in the same way.

“Place is often disregarded in novels,” she continued, “but both authors experienced the struggle of changing geographical places from a young age and they used this personal experience in their novels to create storylines that relied heavily on where the characters were located and how that affected them.”

It would seem appropriate then that, on the 150th anniversary of Willa Cather’s birth, a new series, Willa on Wednesday, should be staged at The Mount, the home Wharton built in Lenox. The Mount is partnering with the National Willa Cather Center in presenting the series.

On July 17th, local actors Ariel Bock and Mae Hedges Boyce will read Cather’s short story, “Paul’s Case” in the Terrace Café and on August 21st, Peter Cipkowski, vice president of the Willa Cather Foundation Board of Governors, will present an overview of Cather’s life and times in the Stable Auditorium. Cipkowski is a literary historian with interdisciplinary research interests in early 20th-century American literature, civic engagement and global education.

Cather was born in 1873 near Winchester Virginia, a town that changed hands 72 times during the Civil War, occupied alternatively by the Union and Confederate armies. The reverberations of that epic struggle still rumbled through Virginia society in her early childhood. Then, like many Easterners, her parents decided in 1888 to move West to take advantage of Nebraska’s Homestead Act which granted settlers 160 acres of land provided they filed a claim and improved the land within five years.

Cather suffered an immediate sense of displacement as she surveyed the stark, flat landscape. “We drove out from Red Cloud to my grandfather's homestead one day in April,” she wrote. “I was sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on to the side of the wagon to steady myself—the roads were most faint trails over the bunch grass in those days. The land was open range and there was almost no fencing. As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything—it was a kind of erasure of personality.”

Farming was no easier in Nebraska than it had been in Virginia however and within a year Charles Cather moved off his land to the town of Red Cloud where he dealt in real estate and insurance. There Willa Cather formed relationships with friends and neighbors who would be transformed into characters in her novels.

There, for instance, she met Annie Sadilek, a Bohemian hired girl, “was one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment,” according to Cather. She became the model for Ántonia Shimerda in My Antonia, published in 1918.

She dedicated that novel to her childhood friend, Carrie Miner who was the model for Frances Harling and to Carrie’s mother, Julia, who was transformed into Antonia’s employer. Cather’s grandparents, William and Caroline Cather, share traits with Jim Burden’s grandparents, while Blind d’Arnault was based on an occasional visitor to Red Cloud named Blind Boone.

Cather, “the genius child, originally aspired to a career in medicine and entered the University of Nebraska in Lincoln aged 16 but her life changed direction when a professor, unbeknownst to her, submitted one of her essays to the Nebraska State Journal. Her first byline inspired her to dedicate her life to writing.

She published her first book, April Twilights, a well-received collection of poems, in 1903 and a collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, in 1905. After stints as a journalist and editor in Pittsburgh, Cather moved to New York in 1906 to write for McClure’s Magazine where she was editor from 1908 to 1911. The professional connection with the magazine was pivotal to her development as a writer, gaining recognition through her pieces that appeared within its pages.

It was advice from Sarah Orne Jewett, author of The Country of the Pointed Firs, however, that moved her out of journalism and into writing novels. “You must find a quiet place…You must find your own quiet center of life and write from that,” Jewett told her. Cather published the first of her three Nebraska-based novel, O Pioneers, in 1913 and felt that her career as a writer had begun. She followed its success with The Song of the Lark in 1915.

In 1916 a trip back to Red Cloud renewed her friendship with Annie Sadilek, now married, and launched Cather into the creation of My Ántonia, published in 1918. Literary critic H.L. Mencken praised it, saying, “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia.”

Cather felt it was the best thing she had written but it was not until 1922 that she produced her first bestseller, One of Ours, based on a cousin’s death in World War I. It earned her the 1922 Pulitzer Prize and was followed in 1927 by Death Comes for the Archbishop, written after she visited New Mexico and worked with original sources for the story of 19th century priests.

Again emphasizing “place” as a key element of her storytelling, the last of her 12 novels, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, grew out of a 1938 visit to the places of her early childhood in Virginia.

Cather guarded her legacy carefully. After her death from cancer in 1947, her literary executor destroyed many of her papers. Her will forbids publication of direct quotations from her surviving letters and dramatizations of her works.

Seen as a regional writer for decades after her passing, critics have increasingly identified the girl who was educated first by her grandmother and later in a prairie school as a canonical American writer, the peer of authors like Hemingway, Faulkner and Wharton, according to the National Willa Cather Center.

Tickets for the programs are $10 for Mount members, $15 for general admission. Tickets are limited, registration is required. Please click on the link below to register. Programs begin at 5:30PM.