National Geographic : 1982 Jul
N HER FIRST DAY at the University of Nebraska, Willa Cather was mis taken for a professor. She was only 16, fresh from a small prairie town. Yet when she peeked around a class room door and asked, "Is this elementary Greek?" the students were impressed. They had been expecting someone like this, with a deep, commanding voice, a sol emn face topped with short hair, and a straw hat. So they nodded politely, then burst into laughter when the stranger entered-and proved to be a young girl. Willa Cather (1873-1947) grew up to be a major American writer, but today many people still do not know her face. Critics rank her with our great modern novelists Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald-and she was certainly esteemed in her own time. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes praised My Antonia as a book that "makes the reader love his country more." Miss Cather wrote that novel and 11 others. Her books still have this effect on readers, for she had the power to elevate ordinary people and places. No one has described the American West with more passion and clarity. In every sentence, her feeling for the earth surges beneath a strong, disciplined prose. This from My Antonia: We were talking about what it is like to spend one's childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat andcorn, under stim ulating extremes of climate: burning sum mers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the colour and smell ofstrongweeds andheavy harvests;blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and grey as sheet iron. We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a littleprairietown could know anything about it. It was a kind of free masonry, we said. Willa Cather became the voice of an un sung people, the generation of immigrants who settled our western frontier. Today many writers regard that history as tragic, a paradise lost through careless greed. Cather believed that America's promise would en dure: We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and under stand it are the people who own it-for a little while. THE COUNTRY OF Willa Catcher By WILLIAM HOWARTH Photographs by FARRELL GREHAN NEBRASKASTATEHISTORICAL SOCIETY Like cottonwoods by a Nebraskafield, Willa Catherdrew nourishmentfrom the prairiesoil and grew into an artist of enduringstrength.A tomboy at 15 (above), she soon entered the University of Nebraska and embarked on a literary careerthat celebrated the pioneergenerationof western settlers.