There’s a wonderful web site that’s got a great deal of information, essays and photographs about Willa Cather, along with the full text of a lot of her work. (Seth and I have gotten much material from this site.) Created at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it’s called The Willa Cather Archive. Highly recommended.
An American Pioneer – Willa Cather
The Noted Novelist Has Just Completed Her New Work “Death Comes for the Archbishop”
I’ve added a few more photographs of Willa Cather, younger and older. In her biography of Cather, Sharon O’Brien writes about how Willa dressed in the late 1880’s and early 90’s:
Willa Cather’s unorthodox dress and manner brought her “considerable notoriety” and made her the subject of “much talk around town,” remembers Elmer Thomas in his history of Webster County , where he gives us our only eyewitness account. “I remember Willa Cather most for her masculine habits and dress,” he writes. “This characteristic in those days was far more noticeable because it was very seldom that women appeared dressed other than in strict feminine attire.” But she was impervious to criticism, he continues, and “even boasted that she preferred the masculine garb” as well as the “masculine sex.”
Thomas was evidently disconcerted by his cross-dressing neighbor: “To me, she was never attractive,” he explains, “and I remember her mostly for her boyish makeup and the serious stare with which she met you. It was as if she said, ‘stay your distance buddy, I have your number.’ Enough, I did.” Other young men seem to have kept a wary distance as well, for, Thomas reports, Cather did not have a “romantic love entanglement” with any of Red Cloud’s eligible bachelors. Even though Cather’s male role-playing lasted only four years [age 14-18], her overturning of feminine norms was so unsettling that the talk endured and became legend. When I [Sharon O’Brien] first visited Red Cloud in 1973, I was told that Cather had been a “hermaphrodite” who “wore men’s shoes–had ’em made special.”
(Thanks to Katheine Messina for collecting much of this material for us.)
Note: I posted a draft of this entry Friday morning in the midst of a flurry of house-renovation activity. I now realize that I made some big mistakes in my analysis and overstated a few points (surprisingly enough…). Apologies – and here’s a somewhat more reasonable discussion.
Perhaps because I’d just spent several weeks with Dickens and Trollope, the first thing I noticed when I started reading My Ántonia was the modernity of her style: her simpler diction; her use of shorter, more declarative sentences; her careful deployment of adjectives and adverbs (they often don’t appear in passages where you might expect to find them) … in general, a leanness in her voice on the page. Yes, she can evoke vivid pictures of the landscape using colorful language and large, expansive imagery – but, to my ear, these passages, too, exhibit a compactness, or a compression, that suggests as much reserve as rapture.
Here some teasers from the Willa Cather’s essay, “The Novel Démeublé,” [with its furniture taken away] (1922)
[In praise of what Hawthorne leaves out of The Scarlett Letter] . . .The material investiture of the story is presented as if unconsciously by the reserved, fastidious hand of an artist, not by the gaudy fingers of a showman or the mechanical industry of a department-store window-dresser. As I remember it, in the twilight melancholy of that book, in its consistent mood, one can scarcely ever see the actual surroundings of the people; one feels them, rather, in the dusk.
Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there — that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.
Here’s a transitional essay that links our reading of Mansfield with that of Willa Cather: an appreciation of Mansfield’s work written by Cather and published in a collection of essays, On Writing, published in 1949.
As our edition of My Ántonia leaves out the illustrations Cather commissioned from W. T. Benda for the novel, I thought I’d show them here.
Cather considered these illustrations as much a part of the novel as her written words. Through all her time at Houghton Mifflin she was adamant that they always be included in any new edition. And when Houghton Mifflin published an edition without Benda’s plates in 1930, Cather considered it unauthorized. In 1937, she convinced her editor not to publish a “deluxe” edition with color plates by Grant Wood.
W.T. Benda was a commercial artist she probably knew from her time working at McClure’s Magazine in New York.
Along with the illustrations, take a look at this article by Jean Schwind, who convinces me that Benda’s plates provide an alternate take on Jim Burden’s Ántonia: The Benda Illustrations to My Antonia (.pdf)
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