by Sue Repko
As I drove west toward Grand Island, Nebraska, the psychic battle for my literary allegiance kicked into high gear. Would I continue my personal race to Denver along the s-curve of federal highway 30 and the Platte River, a la Jack Kerouac? Or would I take a roundtrip detour of several hours to visit Red Cloud, hometown of Willa Cather, whose novel My Antonia had left me years ago with a yearning to see the stark beauty of the Nebraska prairie and the frontier town that inspired so many of her novels? As a mother of two back in New Jersey, I had a finite amount of time for this solo road trip. But how could I forsake paying homage to this literary trailblazer, this unmarried, childless American woman whose formative years were spent in Red Cloud before she herself hit the road? When wnould I ever again be this close to the landscape that was Cather’s muse?
The decision was made, and I headed south on Highway 281, passing through small towns separated by undulating fields of corn, soybeans, and prairie grass. The late August sun beat hot and steady, and the sky seemed to get bigger the further south I traveled. Still stuck in my Beat frame of mind, I fairly sailed down that road between Hastings and Red Cloud, eager to get there, get there now.
Coming into Red Cloud, I passed the Visitor Center, with its “open” sign in the window and stopped to stretch. Inside I learned that I had just zipped past the road to the Pavelka House, home of Annie Pavelka, real-life inspiration for Antonia, a Bohemian immigrant, and my heart sank. I did not plan to go back that way, and that loss reminded me of the importance of easing up on the accelerator. The next tour of significant buildings in Cather’s life and work was not for a couple hours, so I breathed in, breathed out and let myself slip into Red Cloud time.
Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1873, and her family migrated west, to Webster County, Nebraska when she was nine years old, leaving the comfort and lushness of their eastern farm to join other pioneering family members on the prairie. Jim Burden, the orphaned narrator of My Antonia, is ten years old at the beginning of that novel, migrating west to live with his grandparents. This story Cather’s most famous follows the lifelong relationship between Antonia and Jim and illuminates the strength and dignity of the immigrants, mostly Eastern Europeans, and the quickly changing nature of the landscape and society at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution–themes that appear again and again in Cathers work.
After two years in the country, Cather’s family moved into the town of Red Cloud, just north of the Kansas border, where her father got into the insurance business. She lived there until the age of 16, when she graduated from high school.
I drove down North Webster, the town’s main street, and found the restored Opera House, home of The Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial & Education Foundation. There I chatted with the volunteers and bought my 3-building tour ticket, which included a 15-minute video about Cather’s life. (There is also a 9-building tour, which is a combined walking-and car-tour of sites.) In need of sustenance, I went around the corner into the darkness of The Palace Lounge, where the red vinyl booths are well-worn and the ceiling fans spin lazily. In a room next door, a half-dozen men in overalls and caps nursed their beers, stretching the lunch hour amid the pool tables.
After lunch I drove over to the Burlington Depot, an 1897 restored train station. Trains figure heavily in Cather’s prose–as the means of conveyance out of a small town, an iron link to the larger world–and getting away was another major theme in her work. While in Red Cloud, Cather had the freedom to ride her pony into the countryside and got to know the immigrants. She also went on rounds with the town’s doctors and, thus, was exposed to the lives that would inform much of her fiction. She came to realize that the outside world was a man’s world, while women were relegated to home and hearth. As a teen, she rebelled against the idea of such a constricted life and began to come to grips with her sexual identity by dressing in men’s clothing and signing her name, “William Cather, Jr.” She clearly had sympathy for “the other,” and her outsider mentality may explain why so many of her stories feature a creative soul longing to escape a conformist society.
I was the only one signed up for the 1 p.m. tour and, therefore, had Barbara, a knowledgeable guide, all to myself. The 45-minutes stretched into almost an hour and a half. We started off at the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank Building, also known as the Garber bank, after its owner Silas Garber. Cather modeled the Captain and Mrs. Forrester in A Lost Lady on Garber and his wife. She also used the bank as a setting in the short story, “Two Friends” and the 1935 novel Lucy Gayheart.
A few blocks away, at the corner of 3rd Avenue and Cedar Street, was the home rented by the Cathers. Willa lived there until leaving to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The house is well-preserved, and many of the furnishings belonged to Cather herself and her family, including the family Bible. Apparently, Cather had changed her date of birth in the front of the Bible from 1873 to 1876. No one is sure when this change took place. Fighting off my own mid-life crisis blues, I understood the urge to turn back the clock.
I imagined Cather stepping onto the porch and through the front door, walking through the narrow hall, pulling off her hat as she went, and it reminded me of the habits we all get into– the way we toss the keys on the counter, flick on the lights, dance the same dance over and over again.
Ascending the stairs to the attic bedroom of the Cather girls was one more turn through her world. Even with fans blowing, the summer air was heavy up there. Willa had had a room and window of her own. The sloping eaves and walls are still covered with the wallpaper that she had picked out in exchange for her work at Dr. Cook’s Drugstore while she was a teen. Barbara said that Cather’s parents seemed to have a pretty good understanding of their children and recognized that Willa needed her own space. For that era, especially, her parents must have been remarkably loving and supportive; it is said that Cather was devastated by each of their deaths later in life.
For most adult writers the physical space in which we work becomes the house of our beating heart. Our souls are bound to certain walls, windows, desks, chairs, pens, and keyboards. We close our eyes and dream and take up the story again. It awed me to see the space that embraced the adolescent who was to become a great writer–the place where shed read and slept and perhaps taken her first chances at putting pen to paper.
Of course, we come to know the writer primarily through the stories she has left behind. Fortunately for us, the foundation that bears Cather’s name continues to expand its programming and preserve the places that nurtured her, and Cather herself left us stories in abundance. Ironically, we literary travelers seek inspiration from the very places that some of Cather’s most memorable characters are bent on leaving.
In the novel Lucy Gayheart, the protagonist is a college-age pianist who leaves her small Nebraska town to study and teach piano in Chicago. Lucy gets a part-time position filling in as the accompanist for a famous singer, who is a good deal older. Seduced by the pulse of the city and the creative energy in his penthouse apartment during their morning practice sessions, she falls in love with him. Then, while he is touring in Europe, Harry, a close friend of Lucy’s from an influential Haverford family, visits for a week to treat her to the opera, dinner, and museums. She is now uncomfortable in his presence. Falling in love and really feeling the emotional power of music have changed her too much; these experiences are now inextricably linked with the city and the larger world. Harry has notions of marriage, which Lucy rebuffs as hopelessly incompatible with her new life.
Toward the end of the novel, when Lucy does, in fact, find herself living back in Haverford, she is re-awakened to the possibilities of life, happiness, and artistic freedom when a traveling opera company and its washed-up soprano perform The Bohemian Girlat the local opera house:
Lucy wanted to be up there on the stage with her, helping her do it. A wild kind of excitement flared up in her. She felt she must run away tonight, by any train, back to a world that strove after excellence the world out of which this woman must have fallen.
Whenever I go to a play or a concert or read a good book, I am filled with a sense of wonder at what another artist has done, and it inspires my own writing. Art gives us a glimpse into another world, and a literal change of scenery can have the same effect. The road trips I have taken in the past few years spring from the need to escape the sameness of everyday life, to do as Lucy felt, to “run away tonight.” Lucy Gayheartprovides insights into the mind of someone–like Cather herself–who realizes that her destiny lies outside the confines of the small town. Home can be a place of comforting rituals, but it can also be a place that binds or imprisons. Red Cloud is the home that Cather returned to many times in her fiction and for visits–she loved the open plains–but the isolation was always too much for her.
In her freshman year of college, an essay of Cather’s appeared in the Nebraska State Journal. Seeing her work in print led her to change course, drop medicine and become a writer. Following college, she taught high school English and Latin in western Pennsylvania, along with writing for a couple of periodicals. She began to grow her hair long, and became a popular member of society for the first time in her life. All this coincided with her meeting Isabelle McClung, daughter of a prominent Pittsburgh judge. She lived with the family, sharing a room with Isabelle, from 1901 until she moved to New York City in 1906, where she became the managing editor of McClure’s Magazine, before finally giving it up to focus on her fiction. She and her companion, Edith Lewis, herself an editor who became Cather’s reader and copyeditor, lived together in the city from 1908 until Cathers death in 1947. It is noteworthy that Lewis was a fellow Nebraskan whom Cather had met back in their home state in 1903.
It is also worth noting that Cather and McClung traveled abroad together and remained close until 1915, when Isabelle’s father died and she announced her engagement to the violinist Jan Hambourg. The news of the marriage affected Cather deeply. She went back to Red Cloud for a visit, re-connected with Annie Pavelka and began to work on My Antonia. In the ensuing years, however, she would travel and live with the Hambourgs for brief periods, including six months in Paris. The Hambourgs eventually settled in Italy. When Isabelle was suffering from kidney disease in the mid-1930s, she came to the States to see some doctors and Willa was there for her, nursing her until she returned to Italy, where she died in 1938. The depth and complexity of Cather’s relationship to McClure is difficult to ascertain since Cather destroyed their letters. Lewis also helped protect Cather’s privacy by destroying other personal documents after Cather’s death.
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At the end of my tour we went back at the Opera House, built in 1885, and there I saw the stage where Willa gave her high school graduation speech in 1890, along with her two male classmates, both of whom were expected to do great things. As it turned out, Cather won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours and received numerous awards and a handful of honorary doctorates, including the first for a woman from Princeton University in 1931. After an extensive renovation, the Red Cloud Opera House re-opened in 2003. It has a full schedule of musical and theatrical productions, and the Willa Cather Museum Bookstore has an extensive collection of books by and about Cather.
On my way out of town, going west on Highway 136, I stopped to snap some pictures. This time the landscape had my attention. Back at the wheel, I ended up behind a battered pickup truck moving below the speed limit, but I made no attempt to pass him, nor did I turn on the radio. I had the feeling I was in a sacred place, and the breeze rustling through the fields was the only worthy sound.
Traveling to Red Cloud:
Red Cloud, NE is at the intersection of Highway 281 and Highway 136 in south-central Nebraska, just north of the Kansas border.
The Cather Foundation is located in the Red Cloud Opera House just one half block north of the intersection at 413 N. Webster on Red Cloud’s main street.
An online Visitors Guide provides detailed information on guided building tours, hours, gallery exhibits and special events.
The Foundation is open year round except on major holidays. Summer hours (April through September) are Monday-Saturday 8 am – 5 pm, and Sundays 1 pm – 5 pm. Contact the Foundation at 402-746-2653 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.