If you’re a Tolkien fan, odds are you’ll love Nebraska native, Willa Cather. Willa Cather (December 7, 1873 – April 24, 1947) was a well known novelist during her life. She received the Pulitzer Prize for her 1922 WWI novel, One of Ours, but later fell into obscurity with her works criticized as ‘old fashioned’ or out of touch with the post-frontier realities of life in the United States.
However, as a woman who experienced periods of isolation throughout her life–first moving to the pioneer town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, at nine years old to escape waves of tuberculosis sweeping through cities on the east coast, then experiencing heightened isolation in long prairie winters, and again in later life during the 1918 Spanish Influenza outbreak in New York City–Cather’s novels and short stories offer a uniquely human perspective on the personal search for meaning.
Her characters share a romantic, American transcendentalist mindset, and often find links to God and the greatest good of their souls through the arts and through nature. As we watch this new pandemic unfold and as we experience periods of increased isolation, now is the right time to rediscover Willa Cather.
Abigail Allen, current law student at Notre Dame and past intern at the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska, describes her lifelong love of Cather’s works, explaining:
“Cather manages to capture stories set in a particular place while still appealing to something deeper within human beings that transcends place and time. Her stories are not merely westerns or pioneer stories, they are human stories that speak a universal language. This is why people all over the world have found inspiration and hope in Cather’s beloved characters such as Ántonia (My Ántonia, 1918) and Father Latour (Death Comes for the Archbishop, 1927).”
The best illustration of Cather’s characters as Christian transcendentalists is seen in Death Comes for the Archbishop as Cather tells the story of Father Latour’s life as a traveling Bishop on the New Mexican frontier (it should be noted that this book does not, in my understanding, glorify the conquistadors or colonization, nor the events of the Mexican-American War, nor the destruction of indigenous lives and cultural practices that took place before the time period of this novel). The Father arrives in New Mexico following concerns of corruption in the local clergy, and spends his life rescuing women from abuse, hearing stories of New Mexico’s past, and building a strong community in his new home.
When Father Latour arrives in New Mexico there is no church and very little community. In fact, the Father almost doesn’t arrive at all. In the first pages of his story he finds himself lost in the desert, nearly out of water, and almost out of time. As he stops to rest and give his horse the last of the water:
“…his glance immediately fell upon one juniper which differed in shape from the others. It was not a thick-growing cone, but a naked, twisted trunk, perhaps ten feet high, and at the top it parted into two lateral, flat-laying branches, with a little crest of green in the centre, just above the cleavage. Living vegetation could not present more faithfully the form of the Cross” (Death Comes for the Archbishop, 11-12).
In his moment of isolated, lonely despair, Father Latour looks to nature, and nature directs him to God. This sentiment echoes throughout Cather’s works, as her characters find beauty in the natural world. This conscious recognition of beauty nourishes their souls and enriches their lives.
Willa Cather’s characters notice the expanse of the sky over the desert (Death Comes for the Archbishop), worry for the lonely trees of the prairie (My Ántonia), are brought to tears by opera (A Wagner Matinée), and live full, beautiful lives.
Cather teaches her readers to live their lives on purpose, to seek after their own highest good and admire that good in others. Cather acknowledges how hard it is to be separated from church, friends, and community (see the character Mr. Shimerda in My Ántonia), but she demands that we not despair, and insists that we must make the best use of what we have at hand.
So make art, make music, garden or walk in the park: use those pursuits to find the presence of the divine within what brings you joy and fulfillment, and, if you can, read a little Willa Cather.
For more information on Willa Cather and free online access to many of her novels, short stories, poems, articles, and letters please see the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Willa Cather Archive: https://cather.unl.edu/
- Novels: My Ántonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Shadows on the Rock, The Professor’s House
- Short Stories: A Wagner Matinée, Eric Hermannson’s Soul, Paul’s Case, Peter, On the Divide
All opinions expressed are those of the writer.