Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 19, 2009

Visiting Nebraska With Willa Cather

Willa Cather

Willa Cather

As much as I like actually “being there” (in the physical sense), I am also a fan of vicarious travel. Some would call it armchair travel.

I enjoy discovering new destinations through literature of all kinds; especially through the descriptive and conceptual art of writers who have come to be identifed strongly with a certain place. I find sometimes that novels, autobiographies, or other genres of literature can give me a true sense of the place. And although I may not be able, for one reason or another, to get there at the moment, I find that travel through literature is (as they say) the next best thing to being there. In some ways, it is a trip in itself.

In the last few months I have had the good fortune to visit a number of fascinating destinations in the United States; destinations I would describe as quintessentially “American.” By this I mean, that these destinations are up-close-and-personal glimpses of the often fabled “American way of life.” (A very good example of this is a recent trip to the Chatthoochee Trace in Georgia and Alabama. A multimedia narrative on this visit will soon be forthcoming.)

And recently, in my mind’s eye, I explored the heartland of Nebraska through the fictional magic of Willa Cather and her novel My Antonia.

The novel is quite autobiographical in that way that very clever writers have of integrating their own life experiences with fictional accounts and fictional characters. In My Antonia Cather assumes the persona of Jimmy, a young boy whose parents have died and who is sent from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. She then has us follow Jimmy throughout his life as he grows with and is shaped by the distinct culture and landscape of Nebraska. The novel therefore is in many ways a voyage of discovery.

I won’t go into the plot to any great extent at this point except to say that Jimmy becomes the observer in his very perceptive and quiet way (like Willa Cather) and thus gives the reader an inside view of the social and political history of Nebraska.

It is her ability to communicate a sense of the landcsape that I admire most in this particular novel, especially in passages like the following:

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour [sic] of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running….

I can remember exactly how the country looked to me as I walked beside my grandmother along the faint wagon-tracks on that early September morning. Perhaps the glide of long railway travel was still with me, for more than anything else I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…”

And now, all that is left for me is to get myself to Nebraska (especially the town of Red Cloud) and experience Nebraska again.

As I often heard people say in the American “Deep South,” I hope one day to be able to say. “I may not be from here, but I got here as soon as I could.”

For more information on My Antonia and Willa Cather, click here..

You may also wish to visit

To pay a virtual visit to Nebraska, click here.


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