Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “Willa Cather”

Poet Appreciate #1: Willa Cather

English: grass at , located on west side of ju...

Nebraska-Kansas prairie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most recognize Willa Cather as a writer of prairie prose; however, before O Pioneers! came out in 1913, she had published a book of poems entitled April Twilights in 1903. The following poem from that book of poetry served as the prologue to O Pioneers!

Prairie Spring
by Willa Cather

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

Cather announces the coming of spring through abounding sensory imagery and metaphors. This poem encapsulates her mastery of description and exemplifies her love of the prairie. Where she found poetry in a land, many only found hardship and heartaches as they tried to subdue tangled, tawny grasses under their plow.

Portrait of Willa Cather

Portrait of Willa Cather (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Titular Epiphanies

Foto einer Glühbirne (an),

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes I am embarrassed how lacking in literary enlightenment I really am. Here I am writer, reviewer, teacher, Book Booster extreme and I have to hang my head in embarrassment about my novel naiveté. Honestly, dunce cap time.

This has happened before, but really hit hard recently. Not once, but twice.

What do you notice about these two books?

  • author?
  • attractive illustration?
  • title?

All of these probably grab our attention. Granted there are different covers available, but the author and title remain the same.  Why then did it take me three or so reads, spread out over a few years, to finally get that light bulb-over-the-head moment of “OMY! This is what the title REALLY means?  Does it mean I’m dense or does it mean I’m getting my bearings as a reader finally?

With Room With a View I boldly (I mean in like SHaAZaM) I realized Lucy sees people as rooms, and how some people, like some rooms, provide a view or not. Views are important if you are going to spend time in them. Ditto for people.  It wasn’t about Italy. At least, not as much as I first thought. Silly, silly me.

Then we come to My Antonia. Such a magical book, how it transports me to the prairie pioneer era. Yes, it’s about Jim’s fond recollection of his childhood friend Antonia (that My part in the title)–but then the KA-TinK of the light chain which illuminates the additional meaning–Antonia is a metaphor for all those indomitable women of the prairie.  She is the collective My that Willa Cather so adeptly presented to readers in her trilogies and short stories.

Sigh. It’s a good thing I teach literature, because I still have a lot to learn. Because they so wisely say the best way to learn something is to teach it.  Now, I’m wondering how many other literary epiphanies are waiting for me on the shelf. I hope they aren’t giggling at me.  Maybe those are just giggles of anticipation as they await to pop up and say “SurPriSE!”

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?

Prairie Love


Growing up with the ocean ever present in my life, I couldn’t  fathom living  without it. The salty tang of the air, the lullaby rhythm of the waves, the restoring sandy walks–I couldn’t imagine or even desire living apart from its presence.

And yet, for the past twenty years I have done so. I traded the ocean for trees and mountains. The ocean is still a part of me, though we are now parted. There are aspects of my adopted environment that have also become woven into my person. I call this the sense of setting.


Because of my familiarity and connection with the ocean, forests, and mountains, I find myself drawn to reading about unfamiliar landscapes, and for some reason my list of setting interests includes an abundance of stories about the prairie.

Initially, I don’t think I could bear the flatness, the unyielding run to the horizon from end to end, nor bear the extremes of seasons and the monotony of view. This is where the marksmanship and craft of writing happens. Writers, poets, authors portray the prairie in such a way I find myself surrounded by the grass, the wind, and witness vicariously the openness and beauty through another’s eyes. The sense of place.

Recently two writers have presented their sense of place, their love of the prairie so profoundly, my paradigm has shifted. I now understand the fullness of this unique setting, and respect it and perhaps even admire it, which replaces my former disdain. True writing,  the skill of a wordsmith can do this.

While I have read many prairie pioneer books in my life, Laura Ingalls Wilder being the first, my most recent read is Willa Cather. She provided readers with a portrait of the midwest through her trilogy Oh Pioneers, My Antonia, and Song of the Lark. A memorable passage from My Antonia:

Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.
Cover of "My Ántonia (Dover Thrift Editio...

Cover of My Ántonia (Dover Thrift Editions)

Cather presents both the starkness of the prairie and the greatness. The plough represents the solitary efforts of those who tried to tame the vastness of that flat, grassy expanse, and while the abandoned plough could have been viewed as sad or even tragic in its loneliness, Cather displays it as heroic.  And this is the view I now have of the prairie. It is like the ocean in its vastness, its grasses the tide upon the land. Those who worked it by tilling the land, navigating its immensity with their ploughs, horses, and tractors are much like those who navigated the ocean with their own crafts of boat, steamers, and ships. Both land and sea represent the need to explore the unknown and forge a living  from it.

Another view comes from today’s Poem-a-Day offering:

Poppies on the Wheat
by Helen Hunt Jackson
Along Ancona’s hills the shimmering heat,
A tropic tide of air with ebb and flow
Bathes all the fields of wheat until they glow
Like flashing seas of green, which toss and beat
Around the vines. The poppies lithe and fleet
Seem running, fiery torchmen, to and fro
To mark the shore.
The farmer does not know
That they are there. He walks with heavy feet,
Counting the bread and wine by autumn’s gain,
But I,–I smile to think that days remain
Perhaps to me in which, though bread be sweet
No more, and red wine warm my blood in vain,
I shall be glad remembering how the fleet,
Lithe poppies ran like torchmen with the wheat.
English: , located on west side of just north ...

English: , located on west side of just north of the Nebraska-Kansas border in southern . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I smile, too, grasping the juxtaposition of frivolity of the simple flower merged the purpose of the land.

I may never go to Kansas or Nebraska, but I can say I have traveled to their prairies.


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