Willa Cather’s Prairie & “Old Mrs. Harris”

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, an  essay by Alex Ross, “A Walk on Willa Cather’s Prairie,” sent me flying to the bookshelf for my Willa Cather books.  I reread these volumes regularly, because she is the best of Midwestern writers, and I deeply respond to her narratives about the isolation of small towns (no one charts the claustrophobia  better) and the adventures of occasional artistic escapees to Chicago, Denver, or New York.  Her most brilliant novels, especially A Lost Lady and Lucy Gayheart, are more powerful than the very few novels published today about the Midwest.  (Yes, Marilynne Robinson is brilliant, but is that really Iowa?)

Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, majored in English at Harvard but did not read Cather until 10 years ago when he began to read Cather’s stories about musicians (you are most likely to know two of the novels, Song of the Lark and Lucy Gayheart). In June, Ross took his fandom further when he visited Cather’s childhood hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska, for the opening of the National Willa Cather Center, a new seven-million-dollar complex with a museum, archives,  bookstore, art gallery, apartments for scholars, and performing arts center.   He interviewed people, listened to keynote speaker Laura Bush’s remarks, and learned that Willa Cather’s correspondence will begin to be posted online next year.

But what  really moved him about the trip?  His walk on the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie.

He writes,

In Webster County, Nebraska, the prairie rolls in waves, following the contours of a tableland gouged by rivers and creeks. At the southern edge of the county, a few hundred feet north of the Nebraska-Kansas border, is a six-hundred-acre parcel of land called the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. Cather spent much of her childhood in Red Cloud, six miles up the road, and for many people who love her writing, and perhaps for some who don’t, the Cather Prairie is one of the loveliest places on earth. You park at the top of a hill and follow a path down to a gulch, where a creek widens into a pond. At the bottom, you no longer see traces of modern civilization, though you can hear trucks on Route 281 as they clamber out of the Kansas flats….

The prairie is lovely, if you don’t see prairie, prairie, prairie everywhere, all the time, as we do, but our favorite prairie would have to be MacKnight Prairie, owned by Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota (which also has literary connotations:  Carleton College is called Blackstock College in Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin.)

What does Red Cloud mean to me?  My husband and I  visited Red Cloud in 2009, and the pretty little town seemed to be in a time warp, except for Subway.  In those days, the Willa Cather Foundation was located on the first floor of Red Cloud’s opera house, a lovely brick edifice built in 1885.  Our  guide was literary and knowledgeable, and I have never been on a better literary tour: it is much less commercial than the Dickens Museum in London or the tour of Louisa May Alcott’s house in Concord.

Upstairs in the theater of  the Opera House, we stood on the stage where Willa saw  touring plays, acted in a production of Beauty and the Beast, and gave her high school valedictory speech.  Next door, or a few doors down, is the renovated  Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank, founded and built in 1889 by Nebraska’s fourth governor, Silas Garber, the model for Captain Forrester in my second favorite Cather novel, A Lost Lady.  When it folded four years alter, Garber gallantly reimbursed the lost savings of the customers from his own money.  (This, too, happens in A Lost Lady.)

The Red Cloud Opera House

But it  was only when we entered the Cathers’ small one-and-a-half-story house that I had the feeling that I was finally in a Cather novel.  So this is what it was like, I thought. The house is immediately recognizable as the model for  Thea’s house in Song of the Lark  and in the autobiographical short story “Old Mrs. Harris,”   from Cather’s last collection of stories, Obscure Destinies.   The Cathers inhabited this small space with their seven children (Willa the oldest), a grandmother, a cousin, and a hired girl. The parents slept in a small room off the pretty parlor, Grandmother in a little room with a sewing machine and a rocking chair, Willa in an alcove in the attic, the other children in three beds in the attic, and the hired girl in a small space in the front of the attic–and no one knows where the cousin slept!

Willa Cather’s childhood home.


Inspired by Ross’s article and my own memories of Red Cloud, I recently reread “Old Mrs. Harris.”  The story  was originally called “Three Women” and serialized in The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1932.  It is based on the lives of Cather, her mother, and her Grandmother Boak, who followed her daughter and her family from  leafy, beautiful Virginia to the raw prairie town of Red Cloud.

We first see old Mrs. Harris from the point of view of a neighbor, Mrs. Rosen, a well-educated Jewish-German immigrant.  Mrs. Rosen likes quiet old Mrs. Harris, the grandmother of the Templeton brood, but believes Victoria Templeton, her pretty daughter, unfairly leaves the cooking and housework to Mrs. Harris while she gads about.

Sot when Victoria goes out for the afternoon, Mrs. Rosen sneaks in through the kitchen door with the gift of a cake for  Old Mrs. Harris, who is unenthusiastic about the visit. Normally she rests in the afternoon.   And so they sit uncomfortably in a tiny room behind he kitchen: it is  part children’s playroom, part Mrs. Harris’s bedroom.  And you will see this same room in Cather’s house in Red Cloud  (It’s a town in Colorado in the story, but it’s still Red Cloud.)

It was a queer place to be having coffee, when Mrs. Rosen liked order and comeliness so much: a hideous, cluttered room, furnished with a rocking-horse, a sewing-machine, an empty baby-buggy. A walnut table stood against a blind window, piled high with old magazines and tattered books, and children’s caps and coats. There was a wash-stand (two wash-stands, if you counted to oilcloth-covered box as one). A corner of the room was curtained off with some black-and-red-striped cotton goods, for a clothes closet. In another corner was the wooden lounge with a thin mattress and a red calico spread which was Grandma’s bed. Beside it was her wooden rocking-chair, and the little splint-bottom chair with the legs sawed short on which her darning-basket usually stood, but which Mrs. Rosen was now using for a tea-table.

Throughout the story, Mrs. Rosen underestimates Victoria and her teenage daughter Vickie, who is studying for a scholarship exam for the University of Michigan.  Mrs. Rosen thinks Victoria is inconsiderate and that Vickie is flighty and will never study enough.  But we readers begin to understand the pressures faced by Mrs. Harris and the Templetons.   In Tennessee, it was taken for granted that a mother should help her grown-up daughter with her household, but in Tennessee Mrs. Harris had an elegant house and hired help (or slaves).  In  Colorado she has only one girl, Mandy, to help.  And Mandy is so good that she rubs Mrs. Harris’s feet at the end of a day.  She seems closer to Mrs. Harris than Victoria is.

The fashionable Victoria is bewildered by the social life of the town.  At a church social, a woman snubs Victoria, saying it must be nice to have someone else make the coconut cake for the social.  (Mrs. Harris made it.)  Victoria laughs, and doesn’t know what is wrong, but knows she is being slighted, and can’t understand why it matters that her mother made the cake:  Victoria was a belle in Tennessee.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Vickie gets the scholarship to the University of Michigan, but needs $300 for other expenses.  Mrs. Harris, who is sickly, fading, and suspects she is dying, musters courage to ask for the money as a favor. She is determine Vickie will get away.  Her own daughter Victoria is trapped again–she sobs and sobs when she finds out she is pregnant.  She will never be alone.   She cannot find a place in her house that isn’t overrun with children.

Vickie will get away, thank God.  But what will happen to Victoria?  That’s what we want to know.  How will she get by without her mother or Vickie?  Will she take over the household chores?

How do we get by without our mothers?  I ask myself that all the time.

Fabulous Willa Cather!  I can’t get by without her.