Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1982, pp. 193-94.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The essays in this issue were presented at the seminar "Willa Cather and Nebraska" held at Hastings College and Red Cloud, Nebraska, June 14-20, 1981. The week-long program involved one hundred registered participants from twenty-five states and Canada in a series of discussions, lectures, films, and performances on the topic of Willa Cather's Nebraska fiction. Both the attendance and the reactions to the program were highly encouraging and indicate that Cather is a writer with universal appeal. Although I did not attempt to direct the lecturers except to indicate the general topics to be treated, their essays are complementary in approach and subject.

In the first essay James Woodress, a Cather biographer, establishes the purpose of studying the life of a major author like Cather and describes the difficulties for biographers that are often caused by authors themselves and their friends and families. Cather's attempt to preserve her privacy by destroying her correspondence with Isabelle McClung and restricting the publication of all her own letters is an unfortunate roadblock because in much of her fiction she wrote from her direct experience. Woo dress explores the autobiographical aspects of My Antonia, The Song of the Lark, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and especially The Professor's House, a key to the profound crisis of Cather's middle years. Whatever the exact nature of this crisis, it is what painter Leon Bakst approached in his portrait of Cather. But approach the creative secret is all we can do; if we could completely expose, Woodress concludes, "we probably would wish . . . we had not done it."

In her essay Mildred Bennett introduces the scenes of Cather's childhood-:of her infancy and early years and the persons and places she knew as a young girl in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Bennett describes Cather's relationships with Red cloud's cultured families and shows how various persons, including a transient music teacher, a local doctor, and a money lender, as well as friends and family members, served as originals for characters in her fiction. Cather's involvement in amateur theatricals, the play town she created with her friends, and her interest in dissecting animals in her own laboratory offer glimpses of her intelligence and imagination as a child.

Bernice Slote describes her explorations of Cather's early writing, particularly the articles in which the young journalist expressed ideas about art, music, and literature that are reflected in her mature work. Through twenty years of weekly columns and magazine contributions we are able to follow Cather's development in a nineteenth-century literary milieu and to trace many of her ideas from the early reviews to later absorption in the body of her fiction. Attention to neglected clues and allusions are necessary, says Slote, for a definitive appraisal of Cather's accomplishment. Her apprenticeship work reveals the worldly sophistication she brought to the landscape of Nebraska and to the local stories she told.