Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The magic of Cather

People sometimes ask me who my favourite woman writer is. It is not a distinction I particularly care to make, and I usually say so, but I can never pass up a chance to broadcast my enthusiasms either, and so I usually give an answer: the American novelist Willa Cather.

What's so striking about her work? Well, I'll present to you a passage from one of her books, and thereafter it's between you and Cather.

This is from one of Cather's late novels, My Antonia. Jim Burden is ten years old, has recently lost both his parents, and is being sent out by his relatives to stay with his grandparents, who live on a ranch out west in faraway Nebraska. Jim knows little about the place to which he is going, and nor does the escort who is taking him there. After several days on train coaches they reach their destination, where they are met by Otto Fuchs, an immigrant who works for Jim's grandfather. It is night; Fuchs has brought a wagon to take them to the farm; he says that the journey will be long, and that Jim should go off to sleep in the back of the carriage.

Jim dutifully lies down at the back, but cannot find sleep in the jolting wagon, and after a while he gets up and peers out at the land which will now be his home. This is his first vision of the vast, uncharted, unsettling American West, in what has been justly acclaimed as one of the great passages in world literature:

Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. […] I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

Cather's publishers in the UK are Virago, a wonderful press devoted to women's writing. Here's a fine essay on her most famous book, The Professor's House.

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