This is Red Cloud, Nebraska, the little praire town where novelist Willa Cather grew up, and where she set many of her best stories. In those days, at the turn of the twentieth century, Red Cloud was happening. A big railroad hub for the Burlington line, eight passenger trains a day disgorged easterners going west, westerners heading east, vaudeville troupes and professors, cowboys and clowns and Shakespearean actors ready to do two nights at the opera house. The town fed and housed them as they waited to change trains. A wide-awake kid could learn a lot about life here.
Today, the railroad has gone away and Red Cloud supports three industries that I can see – a big feedlot on the edge of town which you can smell when the wind is right, a smallish grain elevator….and Willa Cather. She is the Colossus of Red Cloud, and the engine that lifted this little Nebraska town out of the ranks of hundreds and into eternity.
I wonder what those 1890s townsfolk would have thought if they had known that little kid with the short hair and the eternal questions and the dramatic flair was going to write down (and transmute) their gossip, crimes, sins and love affairs and toothaches and gardens into stories so vivid and pure that those ordinary folks would be given a sort of immortality on this earth. Scholars were going to scour the town’s attics for their letters and journals – for any clue to help them understand how Willa changed them and rearranged them to create her immortal characters.
Take Annie Pavelka, for instance. She was an unschooled Czech immigrant girl whose father killed himself out on the prairie one Christmas day. Her older brother decided they had to hire her out into town as a servant girl, and she went to work for the Miner family who lived on the next block over from the Cathers. Willa got to know Annie and they became friends when they were both teenagers. And Annie transmuted into Antonia of My Antonia. Which is, in my humble piggish opinion, the best novel you will ever read about the American pioneer experience and is probably the best novel ever written about anything. (hyperbole warning) And it’s about what happened to the kid on the next block over.
Today the Willa Cather foundation owns the tiny Catholic Church where Annie’s “illegitimate” baby was baptized. The local Catholics moved to bigger quarters generations ago and the little church became somebody’s house for more generations. In the normal American course of things it would have been torn down forty years ago. But the church of St. Juliana Falconteri is Red Cloud gold. It’s one of the reasons this little lost prairie town with the feed lot hosts scholars from all over the world as they come to research at the Willa Cather archives. And why the Cather’s Retreat bed and breakfast on Seward Street is full most nights.
Offhand, I can think of two other little nowhere towns that became somewhere towns because a novelist grew up there. First, Jack Kerouac’s Lowell, Massachusetts. Second, D.H. Lawrence’s Eastwood, Nottinghamshire.
Kerouac’s work hovers out there somewhere all by himself, not quite memoirs, but not ordinary novels either. He has more in common with Walt Whitman than with Willa Cather. But his stories of Lowell in the Twenties and Thirties just nail that town.
Lawrence’s Eastwood, though, is a pretty exact parallel. Used to be a coal mining town till the coal mines closed down. Now, I guess, it’s a suburb of Nottingham. When I was there in the Seventies it was depressed and still looked very much like Lawrence describes it in Sons and Lovers and a lot of other books. Like Cather’s, his babyhood home was owned by a foundation and set up to look like it must have looked in the 1890s. But the foundation was composed of local enthusiasts. To my knowledge, the international Lawrence scholar cartel took no interest. The folks digging in their gardens next door knew who Lawrence was but he affected their lives in no way.
Here in Red Cloud, the folks really know who Cather is. The tour guides and the receptionists and the archive workers are all Red Cloud natives. As I noted above, the bed and breakfast here is in Willa’s parent’s home and is called Cather’s Retreat. The Foundation is preparing to restore and revitalize an entire block of the business district to expand space for their archives. The Opera House where Willa gave her high school oration is back in business, restored thanks to her largesse, and is again a cultural center for the town.
Funny thing. Willa left Red Cloud to go to college and never lived here again. But she loved it and wrote about it and came back for visits up to 1930 when her parents died. Once she started making it as a writer – she sent money home. She always remained a member of Red Cloud’s Episcopal church, and when she heard through letters that folks were going through hard financial times, a mysterious check would arrive in the mail.
And now, though Willa Cather has been dead since 1947 – she is still taking care of her hometown.