Longing for the Faraway Country

When I was in Willa Cather’s hometown in June, I picked up a volume of her Collected Stories at the Cather bookstore and I’ve been dipping into them from time to time. They’re all beautifully written and fun to read. It’s cool to see how the themes Willa was attracted to evolved or remained the same throughout her working life.

Throughout her career, Willa was always interested in the doings of the rich and socially connected. By 1905, the kid from Red Cloud must have been pretty thrilled to find herself in New York City in a big shot job editing a magazine and associating with women wearing expensive flowered hats, pearls and carrying parasols. And she must have figured stories about people like that were her main chance to hit the big time.

Back then, people pored over the Society section of the newspaper like they read People Magazine today. And Willa must have seen enough glimpses of that world by 1905 to write about it with some semblance of authenticity. The first story in the collection, “Flavia and Her Artists”, skewers a society grande dame’s attempts to round up every hot artist, musician and novelist in town and bring them out to her country estate on the Hudson for a summerlong house party. Bette Midler at 35 would have been perfect in the role.

But I once read into the books of that turn of the twentieth century era, Henry James and Edith Wharton and those guys up through F. Scott Fitzgerald – and the big house party at the estate on the Hudson or Long Island Sound is familiar territory. I kept getting that “I’ve been here before” feeling.

But the best of the early stories, “Paul’s Case”, tells with compassion the story of an eighteen year old kid from Pittsburgh, a nobody from the street of nobodies, who wants so badly to be part of the Good Life, the elegant life, the well-tailored life, that he steals the company payroll and boards a train for New York to check in at the Waldorf Astoria. He’s the most annoying kid in the world. He refuses to lift one tapered baby finger to help himself and we expect he’ll blow his brains out before he’ll let them take away even his silver scarf-pin. But the good news is that Willa has stopped obsessing on the glitterati. She’s using the same milieu to create a far more pungent storyline.

As Willa gets older, her stories begin to glow. She’s mastered her style to where it’s no longer there. Her writing feels inevitable; it’s perfectly transparent. You look into the story as into a clear brook. And most important, and why I keep going back to her, she’s on the same expedition I’m on. She’s seeking the perfect country. That place that is more real than poor reality. The bright place.

Here’s a bit from one of her later stories, “Two Friends”. In this scene, a little girl is sitting on the curb at 10 o’clock at night in a small Kansas town circa 1888. Her parents’ don’t mind that she’s out so late because the town’s safe. The little girl is listening to the two richest guys in town chat as they hang out on the sidewalk, outside the general store. They’re waiting for a rare “transit of Venus” to take place (and now any of you astronomically inclined readers can determine the exact date the story takes place), and just generally flashing their diamonds like they do every summer night. Here’s Willa’s description of the road they’re sitting by…

“The road, just in front of the sidewalk where I sat and played
jacks, would be ankle-deep in dust, and seemed to drink up the
moonlight like folds of velvet. It drank up sound, too; muffled
the wagon-wheels and hoof-beats; lay soft and meek like the last
residuum of material things,–the soft bottom resting-place.
Nothing in the world, not snow mountains or blue seas, is so
beautiful in moonlight as the soft, dry summer roads in a farming
country, roads where the white dust falls back from the slow wagon-wheel.”

Maybe you’re thinking “what’s that pig on about now?” That’s cool, but to me these are the words of someone who’s spent a lifetime trying to reduce all experience to words. To use them to point to the magic place, the place I’m aiming for, the place that is more real than poor stoopid reality.

I can’t quite get my own words to wrap around this idea. It’s like you’re reading a book, and the book is the wardrobe that leads to Narnia. You’re looking at some words, and suddenly you’re transported to somewhere perfect, for one instant.

One instant? OK – I’ll take it!

Photo from The Willa Cather Archive

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