It all started with a conversation over omelets in a booth at the Breakfast House. I was in my senior year of high school, and I had an assignment I was struggling with. I told my mother, “I’m supposed to pick a book to read, for analysis.” What surprised me at that point was that I had no idea what to read. So I asked her, “What book should I read?”
“Have you ever read Willa Cather?” she asked. She explained how Cather’s books were the books of her own young adulthood and her mother’s as well. Cather was a Nebraskan, like much of my mother’s family, who wrote classic novels about the glories of the old country. So, it’s not much of a stretch to say that when I came to class and pulled out My Ántonia, my teacher was impressed.
Fast forward to 2017, where in the mist of my early college days, my mother, my auntie (her sister), and I take a trip to Nebraska to meet up with said family. Knowing I had previously read one of Cather’s works, my mother and auntie had a surprise for me. We were going to Red Cloud, Cather’s hometown, where she wrote several of her first novels. I got to be in the presence of Willa Cather’s writing desk, stand in her house, see the tiny attic she dreamed in, walk the same streets she walked. I remember one of our tour guides saying when Cather used a real person as inspiration for a character, the whole town knew exactly who it was. It was fascinating to hear how a woman of the late 1800s could stir up her community through her words. It made me feel like I could possibly do the same. I bought My Mortal Enemy in their giftshop, and my auntie and I had a mini book club, just the two of us.
Recently, I ordered A Lost Lady, thinking it would be a good study of narrative craft for my MFA program. I ended up not using it. It became a lost book to me, so to speak, until I found all three books one day this past February, sitting in bookshelves and plastic tubs above my closet. I thought it might be worthwhile to reread Cather’s novels with the new knowledge and experience I’d gained in the intervening years. It certainly was. Cather’s writing taught me much about the history of women in the West over the course of several weeks, and I think I’m the better for it.
To start, her writing is not for the faint of heart. As much as it is gorgeous linguistically, it is often grisly, harsh, vindictive, and long-winded in tone. Be prepared to put much of your emotional energy into these novels if you decide to read.
The West was both beautiful and ugly, and Cather captures this in every sense. People often praise her poetic descriptions of the wild countryside, as they should. Take for example this quote that absolutely moved my heart from My Ántonia: “Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons. It must have been the scarcity of detail in that tawny landscape that made detail so precious.” But there are entire paragraphs and pages that go on and on like this, describing rivers and grasses and cornfields, which does absolutely nothing for dramatic tension or pacing. It was just as “exciting” to me as the long car rides I had to sit through while in Nebraska myself: row upon row of corn, fields upon fields, a lonely highway, and sometimes the smell of cow dung.
When I say grisly and vindictive, I mean that there are heart-wrenching descriptions of death, murder, poverty, illness, ostracization. The most viscerally angry of the three novels was definitely My Mortal Enemy, and I remember feeling that way back when I first read it as an undergrad. Nellie Birdseye, our narrator, watches the life of Myra Henshaw come to a bitter end as the once great lady grapples with the fact that she left an entire fortune in order to marry a man she once loved. Myra speaks of her uncle, who so brutally cut her off because of her marriage. One can see this is not a feel-good book in lines as venomous as this one: “I can feel his savagery strengthen in me. We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeleton.” It’s meant to give you a thrashing, just as life had done for the characters within. These aren’t just pretty, boring classics to show off within a bookcase. They have a real rawness to them that can be a shock to those unfamiliar with Cather’s work.
Cather also has a penchant for analyzing women who fail in western society and do not live up to the expectations of the men around them. She often assumes the personage of a male protagonist in her narratives and uses that gendered perspective to observe and make judgments on the grand women in that man’s life. In two of the three books I read, this was the case. In My Ántonia, Jim Burden is our main man, and we see the world as he does. We know exactly what he thinks of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant from a neighboring farm, and we come to understand the way Cather juxtaposes the traditional standards of women in polite society: “The daughters of Black Hawk merchants had a confident, uninquiring belief that they were ‘refined,’ and that the country girls, who ‘worked out,’ were not.” Because Ántonia must work to keep her family’s farm from going under, she is seen as a lesser woman.
Later on, Ántonia is unfortunate enough to be deceived by her fiancé and to have a child out of wedlock, and Jim Burden, the ever-righteous man, passes his judgment on her: “I was bitterly disappointed in her. I could not forgive her for becoming an object of pity, while Lena Lingard, for whom people had always foretold trouble, was now the leading dressmaker of Lincoln, much respected in Black Hawk.” He blames her misfortune on her own choices, which reminded me of victim blaming women in both historical and modern cases of rape and domestic abuse. The man who put her in this position is never seen to be at fault. From Jim’s point of view, that’s just the way that man always was, and Ántonia should have been smart enough to know better. And this isn’t a phenomenon that just appeared one day; it’s been cultivated for hundreds of years, as Cather shows us.
In A Lost Lady, something similar happens to the character Mrs. Forrester, a well-to-do lady of the town, from the eyes of Niel Herbert, our protagonist. He finds out that she is entertaining another man in her home while her husband is away, effectively cheating, and he turns swiftly against her: “It was not a moral scruple she had outraged, but an aesthetic ideal. Beautiful women, whose beauty meant more than it said …. [W]as their brilliancy always fed by something coarse and concealed? Was that their secret?” There is no sympathy from him again until Captain Forrester falls ill and the women who help Mrs. Forrester start to gossip and ruin her reputation for keeping a good house. He eventually swoops in and saves her from the embarrassment by offering his housekeeping services, but she ultimately fails his expectations again when Captain Forrester dies. Through his perspective he argues, “But without him, she was like a ship without ballast, driven hither and thither by every wind. She was flighty and perverse. She seemed to have lost her faculty of discrimination; her power of easily and graciously keeping everyone in his proper place.” Niel essentially states that Mrs. Forrester was nothing without her husband, and that all the goodness about her character was linked back to him in some way. A stark reminder that this was a reality for many women in the Old West—their worth was only connected to who they married. This idea still pervades our culture today. If a woman is single, she must be sad. We cannot be enough company for ourselves, for we are not enough. I believe Cather demonstrated how toxic and harmful this ideal is and how it broke many independent and brilliant women down into oblivion.
The ideals and values of men in power affected not only the women in these novels, but others as well. There is a pervasive racism in much of the descriptive language used, more so in A Lost Lady than the other two books I’d read in the past. I was thoroughly disturbed. I hadn’t noticed that Cather used gross stereotypes before. But I’ve grown in perspective since I first read her works, and I’m grateful to see the wrongness of some passages more clearly. For instance, her description of Captain Forrester in his dying years through the eyes of Niel is outrageous: “Since his face had grown fat and relaxed, its ruggedness had changed to an almost Asiatic smoothness. He looked like a wise old Chinese mandarin as he lay listening to the young man’s fantastic story with perfect composure, merely blinking and saying, ‘Thank you, Niel, thank you.’” In no way is this an appropriate description for a white character, nor any character, since it plays into an Asian stereotype. This is one of the more blatant descriptions, but there are still others that are no less harmful, but appear nonchalant, so subtle they are almost invisible if one does not read with a discerning eye and modern context.
I started to notice a pattern. Many of these descriptions are written through the lens of the men narrating the story or in male characters’ dialogue. That’s not to say women didn’t use this language at all, but it was used more so by men and those in position of significant power. And this is what the West was built on. Not just farms and homesteads, but the subtle language of discrimination that has kept women and BIPOC communities disenfranchised up to this day. Cather quite literally takes what she’s heard and captures it in her narratives. Whether or not she actually condoned this use of language, I am unsure, because she also shows how the West was just as tolerant in some ways as it was intolerant in others. There was much hypocrisy. My Ántonia shows a different view of immigrants, for Jim Burden says, “I thought the attitude of the town people toward these girls very stupid. If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard’s grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who could n’t [sic] speak English.” The fact that Jim is perturbed by the ignorance of those around him in the way they view immigrants is the opposite of the way Niel speaks in A Lost Lady. There are complexities across Cather’s works that make her work valuable in the sense that it shows how harmful, racist language isn’t always as obvious as one would think. There were still those who genuinely respected immigrants who came to work the land. The past holds the key to how these perceptions of both race and gender were formed, both good and bad.
A book should not be valued just for the entertainment it gives, but for what it stirs inside of you. I will be the first to say that I was downright bored at times trudging through these pages. But when I did get to something that struck a chord, whether it be a beautiful sentence, women facing consequences while men are no worse for wear, or the horrifying language that stereotyped immigrants and BIPOC citizens, it sparked something in me. I rediscovered my own values, had new conversations with my mother about our family history, and learned that rereading things later in life can help you see how you’ve grown in both mind and soul. Whether or not I like Cather as an author is not the point I’d like to make here. I want to argue that her work is valuable to us today, not just for the sake of Cather’s depiction of womanhood, but for the sake of our history as a nation. Her work is on par with that of Twain and Steinbeck, as problematic and influential as they have come to be, and it is a shame that no class I have ever taken has had her work on its syllabus. Cather’s writings illuminate an abundance of women’s issues: how field work affected reputation and the female body, the ravages of gossip and the gaze of men, marriage and infidelity, and a general history of how women have worked and fought for their place in this world. Women of all cultures and histories lived rich and powerful lives, and if we forsake their perspectives in our past, we forsake ourselves today.