Sunday, April 14, 2013
Chasing Willa Cather, Part 3
It's quite a coincidence that today--the day I intended to finish my little three-part series on my Willa Cather obsession--the Cleveland Plain Dealer published my review of her newly published letters (The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, Eds. Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, Knopf, $37.50). Here's a link to the review. The letters are wonderful, though, as I said in the review, her letters with her intimate women friends are absent--long ago destroyed by the parties involved (or so scholars think).
But let's go back a little. As I wrote a week or so ago, I began reading Cather obsessively in the summer of 2005 because my students--juniors at Western Reserve Academy--were reading Cather's fine Nebraska novel My Ántonia for their "summer reading." As I wrote earlier, I spent the summer reading all of her novels and stories and nonfiction, traveling to her birthplace and early-childhood home in Gore, Va.., and to her home in Red Cloud, Neb., the geography she wrote about over and over again in her fiction. Once, I wrote, Joyce and I got lost in a cornfield--and I have to admit that at the time I was thinking of Stephen King's Children of the Corn--though I did not share that worry with Joyce!
But my summer's Cather-journeys did not end in Red Cloud.
On August 4, 2005, I was in eastern Massachusetts, visiting my brothers and my mom (she lives in Lenox). Mom was about to turn 86, but she was still pretty spry, and it was easy for me to talk her into riding with me over to Jaffrey, New Hampshire, a place where Cather had spent a number of summers (doing her writing outside--much cooler than back in NYC, where she was living at the time).
We found Cather's simple grave there--a grave that lies very near that of her long-time companion and intimate friend Edith Lewis, who outlived Cather and wrote an affectionate memoir about her, Willa Cather Living (1953--six years after Cather died). Oddly, my mother did not want to get out of the car and walk over to the grave site. (I didn't push the issue--I never "push issues" with Mom: The results are never good!) This had happened on other occasions. Once, for example, Joyce and I had driven Mom up to see the final home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay near Austerlitz, N. Y., and she had sat in the car--again--while Joyce and I roamed around outside taking pictures. I'm not sure what all that is about--maybe one day I'll have to write about it.
Anyway, the graves, as I said, were simple, lying in the corner of the small cemetery. Appropriate, for as I've written before, Cather, these days, lies at the edge of public awareness. Her works are still taught in colleges and graduate schools, I would guess--but not much in public schools. I have no evidence--just a feeling.
But one more Cather site remained. In the 1920s and 1930s she began spending her summers on Grand Manan Island, in the Bay of Fundy, off the shore of New Brunswick. She built a cottage there--a cottage that still stands--a cottage that you can rent, but you need to plan carefully. We didn't. But we did manage, in early July 2007, to rent a cottage nearby (in the same complex) and were able to get some pictures of Cather's (from the outside) when we saw the occupants drive away one day. (A creepy stalker, I.) The weather was outstanding while we were there--no clouds, bright sun, cool temperatures. We could see why Cather would want to go there to write in the summer.
And on Grand Manan we ended our Cather Odyssey. No more to read; little else to see. And now? Well, it was off on other Odysseys--chasing other writers (Poe, for example, and John O'Hara). It's endless, really.
In the diaries of Henry Wadsworth is a touching comment. He had just finished his translation of The Divine Comedy, an enterprise that had taken him several years--an enterprise that had involved, as well, his friends Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and others--they called
themselves the "Dante Club." (Matthew Pearl's eponymous novel, 2003, is fun to read.) On New Year's Day, 1867 (he would turn 60 in a month), Longfellow wrote in his diary: "Corrected the last proof-sheets of the Notes to Dante; and the long labor is done. What next?"
I love that. What next? It's a question I hope never to stop asking.