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Posts Tagged ‘Willa Cather’

 

The Song of the Lark. Willa Cather. originally published in 1915. For this review I used: Early Novels and Stories. Library of America. New York. 1987. pp. 291 – 706.

b7864763c8b7f89da30ba6e7bfb3beb0The Song of the Lark was the middle volume of Willa Cather’s Prairie Trilogy. In many ways, it’s surprising that it should be book-ended between O’ Pioneers and My Antonia. Where those two books were both set in Nebraska and firmly planted in the pioneer farmer tradition, Lark begins in a railroad town on the northeastern Colorado sand plains. And the central character, a prairie girl at heart, is no farmer; she’s an aspiring artist. While the telling of Alexandra Bergson’s and Antonia Swoboda’s stories are spare, straightforward and deeply rooted in the prairie, Thea Kronborg’s story develops much more slowly with many more words, characters, settings and drama. Of course, Kronborg is destined to become a world-famous opera star, so it hardly seems inappropriate to take her to Chicago, New York and Dresden.

Kronborg is also a more complex person, at times amazingly self-centered and ungrateful for the many people who help her along the way. And yet, she grapples throughout the book with questions about what makes an artist and what makes a life. When the reader sees her through this lens, it is easier to accept her seeming self-absorption, perhaps more understandable as a dedication to developing her art, rather than herself. This is a fine distinction I know, and it seemed to me in some places she oversteps. Still, it is a fascinating glimpse of how artists perceive themselves and their “calling.”

To me, this is one of Cather’s finer books, in part because she is using a different style than her trademark spare prose with little expressed emotion. And yet, while we readers may feel we know these characters more deeply than some of her others—making it feel perhaps recognizable as a more standard novelistic style—I still come away with that sense that Cather has remained firmly in control her words, adroitly telling the reader this remarkable story in exactly the way it should be told.

“Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, know how difficult it is.”

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My Antonia. Willa Cather. originally published in 1918. This review is based on the Sentry Edition published in 1954 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston. With First Edition Illustrations by W.T. Bends. 372 pp.

The third of the Prairie Trilogy, My Antonia, was published in 1918. Willa Cather has been quoted as considering this as her best book. For me, it’s so hard, too hard to choose one among her so many exceptional novels.my-antonia

This is another pioneer story. This time the focus is on a Bohemian immigrant family making their way pioneering on the Great Plains, as told to an “I” character (unnamed) by Jim Burden, mutual friend to “I” and Antonia Shimerda, the oldest girl in the large family, favorite of her sensitive musician father, and Jim’s best friend on the Nebraska prairie.

Original illustration "the Shimerdas" by W.T. Bends

Original illustration
“the Shimerdas”
by W.T. Bends

In the course of the book we meet the rest of the Shimeras, Jim’s grandparents Burden, to whom he has come to live from Virginia after his parents’ deaths, their hired hands Otto and Jake, and other neighbors who live around their homestead outside Black Hawk, the closest “big” town. As time passes, youth grow to maturity, the pioneers go from sod cave houses to two story farmsteads and the land changes from tall red grass prairies to tamed and ploughed fields of corn and wheat.

Time is measured by the seasons and the land and most of the families settle into and come to love their new homelands. But not all. There are hard times, particularly for the Bohemian Shimerdas, but also for others as they learn new ways.

Christmas by W.T. Bends

Christmas
by W.T. Bends

We follow Jim on to University in Lincoln where he loses touch with Antonia—an innocent childhood romance perhaps realized in retrospect as love?—but reconnects with other hometown immigrant friends including Lena Lingard, who twenty years later insists he re-connect with Antonia who has married and has a flock of kids. His story concludes with that visit and the anticipation of more to come, as he returns to New York where he has become a thriving lawyer.

My Antonia is mostly a quiet story and Cather introduces us subtly and gracefully to the many facets of the human character. The writing is crystalline and spare. An immediately engrossing tale pulls the reader in without any of the silly modern “grabber” gimmicks of murder, mayhem or mysterious prologues that elude to the future or the past. But Cather never needs clever devices to immediately capture readers, carrying them along on a seemingly effortless trajectory from beginning to end. Nothing is superfluous, no character unnecessary. Cather’s novel is a magical creation. She provides one of those rare aha! reading experiences that remind us what great writing really is.

“There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but material out of which countries are made….Between that earth and that sky I felt erased. blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: Here, I felt, what would be would be.”

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Early Cover

Early Cover

O Pioneers! Willa Cather. originally published in 1913. For this review I used the Vintage Classic Edition. 1992. Random House. New York. 159 pp.

This is my third reading of O Pioneers! The first was in my hazy teenage years, probably for an English class. I have no particular remembrance of it.

My second reading was in the early 1980s when I enjoyed a re-acquaintance with Willa Cather as I read through all of her books (oddly except for One of Ours, the one for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. It remains unread.) The final tragedy is what I took away from that reading, complete with tears. What I forgot entirely was the redemptive quality of the final sequence.

In this, the third reading, I came away with perhaps my deepest connection to the plot of O Pioneers! as well as an underlining of what makes Willa Cather’s writing so powerful and unique—her acute sensitivity to the land. Her specific connection to it, her ability to carefully select language which describes the land with heart-aching resonance, and its singular importance in the pioneer history of the US.

Some might make the observation that her humans seem somewhat less fully formed that that character which is space in Nebraska she calls the Divide. I don’t agree.

It’s hard to know exactly how American pioneers really acted. The stereotypic stoic hearty plainsmen and women, like those painted in O Pioneers may actually be accurate. Whether or not, the main characters, Alexandra Bergson, Emil Bergson, Marie Swoboda and Carl Lundstom, are sufficiently nuanced to carry the story forward comfortably. The story’s flash of passion, which is more “real” than most love affairs in fiction, makes it that much more moving.

The copy I used was a discard from the local library. The reader, judging by the simplistic notes made in the margins, made me think back to my first reading which was probably as shallow as this teenager’s. Still, she/he did notice the prominence of the land as an essential separate character.

And it was delightful to read where her feminist hackles were raised. “Sexist!!” was often penciled into the margins, especially when Alexandra—actually the brains in the Bergson family—was domineered by her rather mentally plodding brothers. It was a valuable reminder to me that I generally gloss over overt male dominance of women which appears so often in books. I’m certain it wasn’t a topic discussed in my mid-60s’ suburban English classroom. Still, while I now usually think of it as representative of another time, it does make me think about how the acceptability of gender inequality remains deeply imbedded. Like so many other uncomfortable truths our society is being forced to face these days, the dismissal inherent in the term “political correctness” used to describe what is actually gross insensitivity quickly shading into covert inequality allows even our national politicians to duck behind this facade of “mere semantics” to refuse to face and begin to remedy their own prejudices and biases.

Of course the beauty of O Pioneers isn’t overshadowed by the ham-handed Bergson boys or their twenty-first century counterparts. In the end, it is the land and Alexandra and Carl’s embracing of it that gives O Pioneers! its lovely glow.

As Alexandra remarks to Carl in the final scene: “We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while.”

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A combination of health and heat has greatly limited travel opportunities this year. So I’ve chosen to leave the highway to pursue another route—armchair travel, aka traveling at home.

Whenever I let my reading wander I find myself in places I didn’t know existed. A recent trip to the library got me started along the Oregon Trail. First with Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, his twenty-first century re-creation of an 1800s odyssey along the Trail using old style mules pulling a covered wagon. (See 8/30/15 post). Following that, was a review of the original book titled The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman written in 1849. (See 9/6/15 post.)

220px-Willa_Cather_ca._1912_wearing_necklace_from_Sarah_Orne_JewettThese books helped me throw my net a little wider by expanding “the west” that I wander to include the pioneer states of the 1800s, especially Nebraska and Kansas, in their early days as “western” as definitions went. Heck, I may even throw in Missouri, my state of birth, and original jumping off place for those heading out to “see the elephant”, the then unknown American West.

The stories of the prairie, homesteading, success, and failure on the western Great Plains are full of humanity, understatement, and hardship. Who better to take off to “see the elephant” with than one of its earliest champions and one of the very finest of American authors, Willa Cather.

Her gravestone reads:
WILLA CATHER
December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947
THE TRUTH AND CHARITY OF HER GREAT
SPIRIT WILL LIVE ON IN THE WORK
WHICH IS HER ENDURING GIFT TO HER
COUNTRY AND ALL ITS PEOPLE.
“. . . that is happiness; to be dissolved
into something complete and great.”
From My Antonia

Coming next, reviews of her prairie trilogy: O’ Pioneers, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia.

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