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Thesis (M.A.)—University of Nebraska—Lincoln, 2002. English Department.


Copyright 2002, the author. Used by permission.

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Willa Cather, one of America’s foremost novelists and short-story writers, was deeply interested in and profoundly affected by the places she lived and encountered. One small aspect of her knowledge of places was familiarity with the trees of the locale. A number of influences during her youth gave her the gift of tree awareness: a great-grandfather who was a forest conservationist, a home in the northern Virginia mixed-deciduous forest that was named for its prominent trees, perhaps the sound of her own first name, the wrenching contrast of a move to the nearly treeless mixed-grass prairie of Nebraska when she was still young, relatives and friends who loved botany, Arbor Day promotions, the visible results of a federal tree-planting act, her insatiable reading, which included some works with a strong and meaningful arboreal presence, and her college education.

With this background, Cather was attuned to a portion of an enormous, rich, living world beyond yet very near the human world. She was thereby able to use a variety of species of trees in her novels and stories to subtly develop themes, characters, and scenes.

Descriptions of a number of the trees that Cather uses, such as cottonwood, willow, bur oak, osage orange, box-elder, eastern red cedar, linden, Lombardy poplar, and locust, along with their natural and cultural histories, help illuminate both Cather’s environmental knowledge and the manner in which she uses them in particular novels and stories. This thesis introduces Cather’s arboreal education and then examines her literary use of specific trees in five of her Nebraska novels: O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, One of Ours, A Lost Lady, and Lucy Gayheart. The uses confirm the depth of detail and subtlety in her writings and illuminate an artist at work in both the natural and human world.

Advisor: Susan J. Rosowski.