Cather Country

The rolling prairies of Nebraska fired the imagination of a famous American writer.

By Dennis Drabelle

The house at Cedar and Third, where the Cathers lived, is described in The Song of the Lark.

Credit: Nebraska State Historical Society

In 1883, Willa Cather, then only nine years old, left Virginia with her family for the raw prairie of south-central Nebraska. Her paternal grandparents had already relocated there, and her parents, Charles and Jennie Cather, decided to do the same after a barn on their Virginia farm burned down?an "accident" that may have had something to do with the family's pro-Union sympathies. In her celebrated novel My ãßtonia, Cather recalls her first impressions of Nebraska's blank frontier, through the mouthpiece of narrator Jim Burden: "There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made."

Cather took the material of this flat, stark terrain and created an enduring fictional country. A phrase William Faulkner used to describe his own work applies equally to Cather: She found herself as an artist after realizing that her "little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about." The town of Red Cloud, where the Cathers eventually settled, appears in much of the writer's fiction. In My ãßtonia (1918), she calls the town Black Hawk. In O Pioneers! (1913), it's Hanover. In The Song of the Lark (1915), it's Moonstone?and so on, through half a dozen novels and several short stories. Along with the setting, Cather appropriated virtually the entire census roll, from her own self-effacing grandmother (the title character in the story "Old Mrs. Harris") to the local grandee and his restless wife (the Forresters in the 1923 novel A Lost Lady) to, above all others, the vibrant Bohemian immigrant who was the model for ãßtonia.

Red Cloud today bears a strong resemblance to the place that Cather knew so well. Its citizens have preserved a portion of the rolling grassland that lured their homesteading forebears to the region. They've saved their late-19th-century downtown. They continue to live in houses built by their great-grandparents. And, with unusual zeal, they have held onto countless items owned by, used by, seen by, sat upon, or otherwise associated with the local girl who grew up to be one of America's best-known writers. In 1965, the Nebraska state legislature designated the western half of Webster County, including the sites associated with the writer, "Catherland." Recently I visited this not-so-little postage stamp of native soil to see how Cather's legacy is being preserved and rejuvenated.

For the remainder of this article, e-mail us to purchase a back issue. Or read more excerpts from this issue.