Cather: Early Novels & Stories edited and annotated by Sharon O'Brien (The Library of America: $27.50, 1,336 pages)
The Denver poet and essayist Thomas Hornsby Ferril once spoke of the West of his childhood as "a land without grandmothers," and, metaphorically, it was almost certainly true enough. The frontier was then still so recent that families had not yet had time to extend themselves.
Yet already those days have come to seem almost immeasurably distant and faded. The buffalo grass, the sod houses, the boardwalks and the unpaved streets all sound like items of historical interest, to be preserved in museums.
Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1873 but taken to rural Nebraska when she was only 4. She grew up in a society of immigrant homesteaders trying to raise crops and livestock amid the endless distances and the treasonable weather of the Great Plains.
Words Still Fresh
Her early novels and stories are an eloquent evocation of those days and those lives. The work is fresh and undated as we read it now, visual and detailed, obviously deeply felt yet told with a quite curious detachment, as if she were a witness arrived from out of time, all-seeing and sympathetic but likely to move along and record what is to be seen and felt in some other epoch.
Her early work has been assembled in another of the glorious Library of America volumes, this one beautifully edited and annotated by Sharon O'Brien. It contains "The Troll Gardens," a collection of her stories published in 1905 and including "Paul's Case," probably her best-known short work, and four of the novels: "O Pioneers!," "The Song of the Lark," "My Antonia" and "One of Ours."
The first three novels are her remarkable recapturings of the homesteading life. But the world was changing rapidly, as Cather's own life was changing, and the frontier was no longer a frontier. The pioneering life was becoming a shaping memory, an influential past that marks its characters (or its survivors) forever, but the setting is now the larger, later world. In "One of Ours," published in 1921, it is World War I, complete with cynicism born of ideals betrayed.
Not Suited to Farming
It seemed clear early on that Cather was not long for the agrarian life. From ages 15 to 19, she cut her hair short, dressed like a man and called herself William Cather MD. She read about science, did some self-taught dissections. She studied Latin and Greek with a storekeeper in Red Cloud, began to read voraciously and to write. She attended the University of Nebraska, and at 19, sold her first short story (submitted by one of her teachers) to a Boston weekly.
Nebraska quickly started to seem all too confining, and writing from Red Cloud to a friend from Red Cloud, she datelined the letter "Siberia." At 23, she went to Pittsburgh to take a job on a magazine, and while in fact she made frequent visits back to Nebraska, symbolically speaking, she had left home for good.
She worked on a newspaper and taught English in Pittsburgh, moved to New York for a job on McClure's magazine, then to Boston to solicit material for the magazine there, all the while writing her own poems and stories.
Visiting Nebraska in 1921, she told a reporter in Lincoln, "All my stories have been written with the material that was gathered--no, God save us, not gathered but absorbed--before I was 15 years old."
Cather lived to age 74, in 1947, and had continued to try to work, despite a succession of medical problems and the debilitating effect of the deaths of family and dear friends. She was, it is clear, an emotionally complex woman who was both living out a difficult personal transition from one era to another and also describing a society caught up in its own problems of transition.
Along with the material she had absorbed by age 15, Cather had obviously also acquired some pioneer traits that stayed with her--a capacity for sustained hard work, a feisty independence combined with the gift of friendship and a deep well of compassion, and, perhaps not least, the ability to see clearly and speak strongly.
Her writing, strong, sensitive, unmannered, crystal clear, is a pleasure to read, or to reread. It seems amazingly undated, and she is able to illuminate a period without, as it were, declaring her own.
Her life, the biographical materials suggest, afforded grounds enough for self-pity. Yet the early writings disclose the understanding eye rather than the agitated self. The prevailing vision, for example, is of a melancholy understanding of Paul, foiled in his dream of experiencing the whole world, out of room to run, leaping into the path of a train and dropping back "into the immense design of things" (one of the most affecting last lines in literature).
The Library of America becomes once again not simply an elegant and permanent repository for classically good American prose, but a revivifying reminder of the reading pleasures we may have been neglecting in favor of lesser pleasures. To reread Cather is to rediscover an arresting chapter in the national past.