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Willa Cather

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Another favorite writer of mine is Willa Cather, author of My Ántonia and numerous other novels and short stories. I didn't discover her until I was in my last semester of college, and I have to admit I had not even remotely heard of her before that. But I was captivated by the story she told in My Ántonia and in the direct style of her writing.

 

There is an element to her writing that is usually described as elegiac, and her inscription in My Ántonia is from Virgil, "Optima dies...prima fugit" which translates to "the best days are the first to flee." That can be depressing if you take it too literally, I think, but I have never found her writing to be sad.

Actually, there is a joy of living that comes across in most of her work, which is in many cases about young people working or studying like mad, finding their way in life. An interesting thing is that she wrote almost all of her novels, many of which take place in the American Midwest or West, while she was living in New York City.

I had the great experience in the 1980s of working for two years in South Dakota, right on the border with Nebraska, and I actually lived in Nebraska most of the time which is the same state where Cather's family moved to when she was a young girl. I wanted to get to her home town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, but never did as it was kind of far away. But her writing did make more sense to me for having lived on the prairies for two years. It took me a while to appreciate the beauty of the great American plains, but Cather's writing and my living in Nebraska helped me to see the land as more than what most people, very incorrectly in my opinion, describe as flat and desolate. The land is really a series of long rolling hills which in the spring time with a lot of rain turns a beautiful gentle green, along with the shooting up of a number of spring time flowers that are quite colorful and beautiful.  Even the  snow, which was hard to deal with sometimes, came across as a pure white blanket covering the land which you knew was providing vital moisture to sustain life in the coming spring. All kinds of animal life exists there, too, including buffalo on national park land. Seeing a newborn colt that was a day old on the open prairie still remains one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen

Books by Willa Cather at the Tottenville Library can be found by clicking here. And a good, solid biography of Cather by Phyllis C. Robinson can be found here. Also, there is a nice DVD produced by PBS, called Willa Cather: The Road is All.

(Photo from NYPL Digital Gallery)

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