Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “O Pioneer”

Oh Willa–Your Pioneers!

''The Song of the Lark ''Oil on canvas, 1884

”The Song of the Lark ”Oil on canvas, 1884 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I continually research my own pioneer novel-in-progress, I return to favorites for inspiration.  Having reread most of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House of the Prairie series, I am moving on to more grown-up fare such as Willa Cather’s Midwest trilogy of My Antonia, Song of the Lark, and O Pioneers!

Cather’s writing continually surprises me with its subtle acuity. She follows the nineteenth century omniscient style of narration that is no longer in vogue, yet as I read her seamless insights into each character, I realize I am easily visiting each character’s thoughts while still in the scene. That’s art.  It adds so much more dimension to the reading  that I find myself slipping from third person limited into omni in my own writing. *Sigh* Maybe I shouldn’t be reading Willa Cather–at least until I get my manuscript’s revisions tidied back up.

In that regard, unless you have your own concerns about being overly influenced while writing your own pioneer epic, I suggest rereading or experiencing Willa Cather’s O Pioneer!

Cover of "O Pioneers!"

Cover of O Pioneers!


It’s good stuff.  Really good stuff. Setting, for instance.  Turn to page 97 of your Random House Vintage Classic version and feast:

(Part III: Winter Memories: I)

Winter has settled down over the Divide again; the season in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring. The birds have gone. The teeming life that goes on down in the long grass is exterminated. The prairie-dog keeps his hole. The rabbits run shivering from one frozen garden patch to another and are hard put to it to find frost-bitten cabbage-stalks. At night the coyotes roam the wintery waste, howling for food. The variegated fields are all one color now; the pastures, the stubble, the roads, the sky are the same leaden gray. The hedgerows and trees are scarcely perceptible against the bare earth, whose slaty hue they have taken on. The ground is frozen so hard that it bruises the foot to walk in the roads or in the ploughed fields. It is like an iron country, and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever.

Personification, alliteration, imagery galore, tone, diction–it’s a banquet of literary delight.  Cather dedicates this full exposition to set up how this coldest of seasons affects the characters.  Steinbeck did much the same in Grapes of Wrath. Remember the turtle scene?

Sometimes I think we forget the importance of slowly revealing the story in our pressing need to “let’s get on with it” plot modernity mentality. Yet, there is an absolute pleasure in immersing oneself in the cadence of well-placed and balanced words.

Oh Willa–your pioneers keep singing to me of your prairie love through your song of fields, seasonal cadence, and your indelible tribute to those who left their mark upon the land.

Willa You Let Me Read Your Letters?

intr.v. snoopedsnoop·ingsnoops

To pry into the private affairs of others, especially by prowling about.

Looking where we shouldn’t seems to becoming more and more acceptable or at least it’s becoming more prevalent. I don’t know about you, but I got in BiG trouble if I got caught snooping. Parents, siblings, friends, even strangers don’t appreciate having their hidden stuff exposed. And face it, we all have stuff we want to remain hidden.

This is why I am having such difficulty with my latest selected tome of erudition.


Right there. It says it right there. Willa Cather’s letters were hidden.  She didn’t want them hanging out in the public eye.  In fact, it’s taken about seventy years after her death to get these letters out.  Why?  Cather expressly stated in her will that she did not want her correspondence bandied about. Aren’t last wishes significant? Apparently not. If the agenda and credentials are proper enough it is deemed in everyone’s best interest to snoop and reveal.* No shame attached. In fact, no contrite apologies. Furthermore, the editors, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, justify their snooping in the book’s introduction:

Before Willa Cather died, she did what she could to prevent this book from ever existing. She made a will that clearly forbade all publication of her letters, in full or in part. And now we flagrantly defy Cather’s will in the belief that her decision, made in the last, dark years of her life and honored for more than half a century, is outweighed by the value of making these letters available to readers all over the world. [highlights are mine]

Hmm, “forbade” means to me “don’t do that.”  What about “flagrantly defy”? Do I hear a little self-righteousness bragging, as in “I know it’s wrong, but I’m going to be proud out loud anyway”? Tsk.

As interested as I am in Willa Cather, I feel it’s wrong to snoop her letters.  Just because they are published by a reputable and respected publisher doesn’t mean it’s ethical. Literary vultures waited until the will expired in 2011 and swooped down for the feast.  Here is a paradox: if these two editors so respect Willa Cather, why aren’t they respecting her last wishes? Don’t get me started about trotting out King Tut’s burial goods for the paying public.  I guess celebrities are open season dead or alive.

Granted, the letters represent only 20% of the entire collection, and none are present that might tarnish or stain Cather, (says  the editors). I still feel mighty uncomfortable reading her private correspondence. There are family matters, personal matters, circumstances and situations that  reveal too much of a peek behind the privacy curtain.

As much I appreciate learning about Cather’s background, which helps provide more depth to enjoying and understanding her prairie trilogy (Song of the Lark, O Pioneers, My Antonia), I have  shut the book after about 200 pages, right about the third section, about when she left her editor position at McClure’s to pursue writing full time. The best is yet to come, yet sorry, I’m gonna pass. I respect Willa as an author too much to rummage around in her personal life.

Maybe, it’s me. Snooping for the cause of erudition is still snooping.

What do you think, readers?  Should Willa Cather’s wishes been respected? Should her letters have been left alone, should they not have been dusted off and printed up, even if it’s in the quest  harkening the light of “literary illumination”?

Willa is not amused.

*This could easily segway into a Snowden blog,, couldn’t it?

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