The culminating experience of my college American literature course was a trip to Willa Cather’s hometown – Red Cloud, Nebraska. I went to school in Iowa, and despite the states’ proximity in my mind and on any Rand McNally road map, it was quite a haul. Iowa is a big place. Nebraska (as anyone who drove back and forth across I-80 a dozen times in her life should know) is one long haul – 455 miles across from end to end. I went because I loved American literature, loved my professor, loved my companions, and when I was 20 years old I was hungry for experience. Any new experience, even one that required a seven-hour drive in each direction, in a van loaded with English majors, pillows, blankets and a steady supply of sugar.
If I’ve forgotten many details of the trip, it’s either because I slept through them or because I’ve had to let go – time and intervening years have clogged my mind with other, perhaps lesser, things. But I do remember the prairie – miles and miles of it, and the way my eye felt restless, unable to settle on any fixed landmark. And there were landmarks – farmhouses, barns, silos, the odd cluster of trees and then in a blink tiny towns with a single flickering yellow light on the main drag. I also remember seeing dogs – lots and lots of dogs, wandering collar-less along leafy main streets. We were seeing Red Cloud in the spring, after all – the snow and slush had disappeared, and the hardy people and animals and vegetation had dug themselves out once more.
Three things, especially, stand out in my mind about Red Cloud. One was a docent at the Willa Cather House revealing, sotto voce, that Cather was a hermaphrodite. Well. It certainly explained her cross-dressing “Just call me Billy” phase, the fact that she never married and her long and happy stretches with female companions. But somehow, in the fifteen or so years since of reading, studying and teaching, I’ve never heard that theory from another scholar.
At the diner where we stopped for lunch, a Muppet-faced waitress (I wish I could take credit for that term; someone, another of my classmate companions, coined it first) pulled together three tables for us in the middle of the restaurant and took our order. It was your basic sandwich and soup and fries fare, with a distinct Midwestern twang. Everything was quaint – the wallpaper, the kitsch, the accent of the seed-capped man who leaned over to ask where we were from, where we were going.
-- We’re American literature students…
-- We’re here to visit the Willa Cather House.
-- We’re on a pilgrimage.
We were pretty pleased with ourselves, the privileged college students who had made such a sacrifice of our Saturday. We were fairly bursting at the seams with knowledge and conjectures.
“Ah… who?” the man asked.
-- Willa Cather!
-- My Antonia? O Pioneers!?
-- The patron saint of your town!
We laughed about this for the next seven hours. Imagine living in Red Cloud, Nebraska and not knowing who Willa Cather was. Imagine living on the prairie and being completely unexposed to “prairie lit.” How did it happen? (I can tell you now, living in the Central Valley, where my students haven’t the slightest clue to who John Steinbeck was – I can tell you how it happens.)
Maybe my best memory, though, was that our professor dropped us off in a prairie outside of town and told us, simply, to wander. It was one of life’s good moments: we wandered, picking prairie grass and twisting it into braids, feeling the chaff rub against our jeans. At one point I had gone so far from the van that when I looked back, the van was positioned against the sky, larger than life, with the sun dropping behind it like an orange rubber ball. That felt just about right – a new symbol for a new era.
* * *
I hadn’t thought about that day for a long time, and then last week, in American Literature 3430, the class I’m assisting to get some college-level teaching experience, it all came back. We were discussing My Antonia – Cather’s treatment of foreigners, gender issues, nature imagery. What we were doing, of course, was seeing what Cather’s work meant for today, for us. How could we, through the lens of 2010, interpret this work?
Somewhere in the midst of these weighty issues, my mind began to drift. It may be quite possible that I am not cut out for such serious thought. Instead, I was back in Red Cloud, running my hand over the split ends of prairie grass. I was seeing the world as Cather saw it, with her writer’s eye.
In a now-famous letter, Sarah Orne Jewett wrote to Cather, encouraging Cather to leave behind her editorial position at McClure’s in order to take up the more important work of writing. Jewett said, among other things – “to work in silence and with all one’s heart, that is the writers’ lot; (s)he is the only artist who must be a solitary, and yet needs the widest outlook upon the world.”
I’m not a die-hard Cather fan and yet – of course this must be true. How could she conjure up the prairie when her head was full of manuscripts to be edited? How could she delve into the lives of her characters when the demands of her own life were so pressing? I realize that I’m making an argument for my own under/unemployment, but right now writing seems to demand so much from me that I can’t possibly have time for anything else. There’s barely time to walk the dog and iron a shirt in the morning…
I’m at a different place in my life than I was as a college student. Now the idea of a pilgrimage for literature’s sake feels quaint. Back then, a day away from my life meant that I had to catch up on reading or laundry some other time. Now a day off feels huge, consequential. The manuscript must be dealt with now – as if either it or my impulse to write will disappear after a few hours. But if a prairie were suddenly to appear outside my front door – replacing the lawn that needs to be mowed, the vacant house across the street – I wouldn’t need much convincing to drop everything, at least for a few minutes.