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.

Brutal Winters in Willa Cather: Why Aren’t Women’s Clothes Warm?

a lost lady cather vintage 1972 51nRiPWgiIL._SX298_BO1,204,203,200_Winters can be brutal in the Midwest.  Think  Willa Cather. She was the first writer I read who described the bitter winters of Nebraska (and  contiguous states).  I spent winter nights my senior year in college reading her books in a chilly rented room in a run-down house.  One of the pleasures of winter is reading about winter.

In one of Cather’s most brilliant novels,  A Lost Lady, the heroine, Marion Forrester, can hardly bear winter in Nebraska. She and her husband, a railroad magnate, used to winter in Colorado Springs.  He was an officer for a bank in Denver, and when it failed, he  compensated the bank customers’ losses with his own money.

Marion Forrester is gracious and sophisticated, but she wishes he had kept some of the money.  Temperamentally she is unsuited for country life.

“Oh, but it is bleak!” she murmured. “Suppose we should have to stay here all next winter, too,… and the next! What will become of me, Niel?” There was fear, unmistakable fright in her voice. “You see there is nothing for me to do. I get no exercise. I don’t skate; we didn’t in California, and my ankles are weak. I’ve always danced in the winter, there’s plenty of dancing at Colorado Springs. You wouldn’t believe how I miss it. I shall dance till I’m eighty.… I’ll be the waltzing grandmother! It’s good for me, I need it.”

I have known desperate women in small towns, and who isn’t desperate in winter?  Gradually Marion compromises herself in her association with Ivy Peters,an exploitative lawyer she has known since boyhood who speculates dishonestly.  All of Cather’s characters are vivid, perhaps because they were her friends and acquaintances in real life.  Cather based the Forresters on a gracious couple in her hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska.  The model for Captain Forrester was Silas Garber, the fourth governor of Nebraska, and the founder of the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank in 1889.  When the bank failed in 1893,   he gave his own money to the customers. (Would anybody do that nowadays?)   Like Niel, the narrator of A Lost Lady, Willa frequently visited Mrs. Garber (the model for Mrs. Forrester), a charming woman who, in the words of my guide on a Cather tour of Red Cloud, ” brought sophistication to the town.”

Keeping warm is half the battle of liking winter.  All of my friends had trouble keeping warm.  None of us had a car. We all walked and walked.  Our rooms were within walking distance of downtown and campus.  We wore  parkas with fur-trimmed hoods, or layers and layers under wool coats from thrift stores.  The best thing about working–and everybody had part-time jobs–was that we were temporarily in a very warm building.

The thing is, it is harder and harder for women to find warm clothes.   You can’t get them at the mall.  You need to order from outdoorsy catalogues.  Here’s what I’ve noticed.  The jeans and corduroy pants from Lands End are thinner than they used to be, and no longer have pockets. When I walk out the door, my trunk is warm because of the parka, but I need long underwear under these thin girlish pants because my legs are freezing even when it’s over 30 degrees.   These clothes are made for women who walk from the house to the car, and then from the car to work.  For long distances, you need warmer clothes.

It’s like saying to women, “You aren’t supposed to be outdoors.  You’re supposed to be ornaments.”

Nobody should say that to women ever.  Not if they take walks and bike. And we do.

Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady

a lost lady cather vintage 1972 51nRiPWgiIL._SX298_BO1,204,203,200_

“Money is a very important thing.  Realize that in the beginning, face it, and don’t be ridiculous in the end, like so many of us.”–Marion Forrester in A Lost Lady

Year ago I discovered Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, attracted by the pretty cover of a Vintage paperback (see above).  I have read this classic many times.

In 2007, we traveled to Willa’s hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska, the headquarters of the Willa Cather Foundation.  On a splendid  tour of the pretty small town, we saw the house of the original models for two of the main characters in A Lost Lady, Captain Silas Garber, founder of Red Cloud and of the town’s bank, and his wife,  Lyra, a charming, pretty woman from California. In the novel, the couple are called Captain and Mrs. Forrester.

Red Cloud rekindled my interest in A Lost Lady.  It is a complicated novel, told in the form of a frame story. The narrator, Niel Herbert, depicts Marion Forrester through the lenses of idealization and disillusion. She and Captain Forrester are the aristocrats of the town.  They live part of the year  in Sweet Water, Nebraska, but winter in Denver.  Marion brings sophistication to Sweet Water.   She and the Captain are not only charming to Niel’s uncle, Judge Pomeroy, but also entertain bank presidents and railroad magnates who are traveling from Denver to Chicago.

Marion’s delicate charm  makes me think of a watercolor painting. When she gives Niel and the other boys permission to fish in the creek, Niel is the first to spot her bringing them a plate of cookies for lunch.  He sees

…a white figure coming rapidly through the grove, under the flickering leaf shadows,–Mrs. Forrester, bare-headed, a basket on her arm, her blue-black hair shining in the sun. It was not until years afterward that she began to wear veils and sun hats, though her complexion was never one of her beauties.  Her cheeks were pale and rather thin, slightly freckled in summer.

Mrs. Forrester/Mrs.Garber meant a great deal to Willa. In Mildred R. Bennett’s fascinating biography, The World of Willa Cather (University of Nebraska Press), she quotes a 1925 interview Cather gave to The New York World.  Cather said,

A Lost Lady was a woman I loved very much in my childhood.  Now the problem was to get her not like a standardized heroine in fiction, but as she really was, and not to care about anything else in the story except that one character.  And there is nothing bu that portrait.  Everything else is subordinate.

I didn’t try to make a character study, but just a portrait like a thin miniature painted on ivory.

willa-cather-a-lost-ladyIt takes time for Niel to realize that no one can live in an ivory portrait, any more than on a pedestal. He learns Mrs. Forrester is having an affair with one of her husband’s friends.  And after Captain Forrester loses his money by reimbursing the customers of  the failed bank, he has a stroke. Marion is  stuck in Sweet Water year-round, with no money for hired help. And she frenetically entertains young men from Sweet Water who are far beneath her in class, including Ivy Peters, a corrupt lawyer.

Hermione Lee observes in Willa Cather:  Double Lives that A Lost Lady signifies a new kind of writing for Cather:

There is a crucial change, now, from the early pioneering novels. The focus has shifted from the immigrants to the American ‘aristocracy’; and from female heroism to femininity. These heroines are ‘ladies,’ socially adept, self-conscious, sophisticated, decorative. They have no children, they are separated from their family roots, they have no independent occupations, and they define themselves in terms of their relation to men. They are confined and thwarted, not expansive and self-fulfilling. Their energies are poured, not into something impersonal and bigger than themselves–the shaping of the land, the making of an art–but into personal feelings and self-expression. They are much more elusive and less reliable than the pioneering women-heroes.

I pity Marion Forrester, living in Sweet Water, a small, dying town, losing population and wealth. After the Captain dies,  she is very lonely and  poor, and switches her legal business from respectable Judge Pomeroy to the hustler Ivy Peters. Niel loses all respect for her.  But when he  learns years later that she escaped from Sweet Water, he relents.  Her words on money (see epigraph to this post) look cynical, but Marion needed to leave Nebraska.  Ivy Peters found her the money; Neil and his uncle could not.  Is it ever right to stoop to the level of Ivy Peters?

I don’t know.  But Marion had to get out–under any circumstances.

This short, perfect book would make a perfect gift, by the way.  It’s spare, taut, and lyrical, and the new Vintage Classic edition also has a lovely cover..

Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy

Willa Cather's home

Willa Cather’s home

In 2009 we drove to Willa Cather’s hometown, Red Cloud, Nebraska, population 1,020.  I am a Cather enthusiast, and if you’re living in the Midwest, why not visit Red Cloud? We decided to drive all day and spend a few hours there.

As we drove down the highway through wheat fields and prairie, we saw some very rough towns.  But Red Cloud is different, tiny but groomed. Many of the buildings have been restored, among them the Opera House, now the headquarters of the Willa Cather Foundation, and the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank, which was founded and built in 1889 by Silas Garber, the fourth governor of Nebraska and the model for Captain Forrester in A Lost Lady.  We visited her childhood home, a small house with 14-ft. ceilings that made it seem spacious, which has some of the original furnishings, described in Song of the Lark and “Old Mrs. Harris.”  We saw Cather’s desk in her tiny room in the attic.

When I read Cather’s books, I always see Red Cloud now.  But somehow I never read her short stories or novellas.

Kevin Neilson at his brilliant blog, Interpolations, inspired me to read Cather’s novella, My Mortal Enemy.  Kevin writes, “Published in 1926, Willa Cather’s slim 85-page novella, My Mortal Enemy, packs some serious heat. We’re talking Rim Fire at Yosemite heat. The title alone hints at passionate depths.”

my-mortal-enemy-willa-cather-paperback-cover-artKevin beautifully captures the tone of Cather’s writing and explores the meaning of the phrase “my mortal enemy.”

I love this novella.  It is one of Cather’s masterpieces. The narrator, Nellie Birdseye, tells the story of Myra Henshawe, a cultured, charming woman who many years ago eloped from Illinois to New York with Oswald Henshawe, a Harvard graduate.  Myra’s uncle, her guardian, forbade the marriage and threatened to disinherit her.  He left his money to the Catholic church.

When Myra returns to visit her friends in Illinois, she is not what 15-year-old Nellie expected:  she is middle-aged and plump, charming but rather intimidating.

Nellie assumes Myra and Oswald are very happy.  Her Aunt Lydia tells her,

Happy?  Oh, yes!  As happy as most people.”

The answer was disheartening; the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people.

My Mortal Enemy is in this Library of America volume.

My Mortal Enemy is in this Library of America volume.

Marriage is difficult.  Marriage is unhappy.  Cather has described marriages before, and I cannot think of one happy one. When Nellie and Aunt Lydia visit New York, Myra and Oswald are charming at first: they introduce them to people in the arts and go to the theater.

But the Henshawes also have friendships with younger people.  Myra has a young man friend whom she advises not to give opals to the woman he wants to marry: opals are unlucky.  Oswald has a young woman friend who gives him beautiful topaz cuff buttons.  Different jewels.

One assumes that Myra advises the young man because he is attractive; one assumes Oswald is acting on his attraction.  Oddly, it is Oswald who wins Aunt Lydia’s sympathy when he asks her to pretend to give the cuff buttons to him on Christmas so Myra is not upset by the young woman’s gift.  Aunt Lydia is very sympathetic to Oswald, and one assumes she envies Myra.

But when Myra makes a scene, Nellie is also dismayed:  Myra has found out about the young woman’s gift of topaz buttons, and discovered a key that Oswald will not account for.

Ten years later, when Nellie meets the Henshawes again in a western town, they have lost their money and Myra is dying.  Myra is still charming and fascinating, but the rooming house is badly-built; the noisy neighbors upset her.

And she refers to Oswald as her mortal enemy.

“Oh, if youth only knew!” She closed her eyes and pressed her hands over them.  “It’s been the ruin of us both.  We’ve destroyed each other.  I should have stayed with my uncle.  It was money I needed.  We’ve thrown our lives away.”

Again, Oswald has a young woman friend, and Nellie approves:  Oswald charms women.

Cather often uses the  viewpoint of a young narrator to tell a story: think My Antonia and A Lost Lady. Nellie’s quiet account of difficult, fascinating Myra is affectionate but ambivalent.  Myra is so passionate that we (in a way) understand why Oswald is her mortal enemy.  Myra is deeply flawed, but also brave.

What a great book.

Can a Book Inspire You to Read Latin?

Fuimus Troes, fuit Ilium et ingens gloria Teucrorum .–Virgil’s Aeneid, Book II

“We were Trojans; Ilium and the great glory of the Trojans are gone.”

Many years ago I read Virgil, Ovid, and Horace in translation.  I was puzzled:  why were these classics?  Somehow the poetry didn’t translate gracefully.  My friends and I gossiped:  “Men romanticize this so much.”  But I had a nagging sense that something was missing.  And so I studied Latin, learned that English and Latin have different structures, discovered I have a Latinate brain, went to graduate school, taught in private schools for a few years (like most of my fellow classicists), and have continued to read Latin poetry for decades.

Not everyone can study Latin, but books can  inspire you to read Roman authors, or to return to them.

Seven Sisters margaret drabbleIn  Margaret Drabble’s extraordinary 2002 novel, The Seven Sisters, I was fascinated by the narrator’s fascination with Virgil’s AeneidThe Aeneid is my favorite poem, and I have tried in vain to get fellow bloggers to read it.  (You know who you are.)

Candida, the ex-wife of a headmaster who jettisoned her for the mother of a student who drowned in a pond on the school grounds, has moved to an apartment in West London.  She is solitary, almost friendless, and far from her family, and the big event of her day is swimming at a Health Club, which has not always been a health club:  it was converted from a College of Further Education that in the evenings held adult classes.  Candida had taken a Virgil class there, which involved not only reading Virgil in Latin but comparing translations by Dryden, C. Day Lewis, and others.

You wouldn’t think you could go to an evening class on Virgil’s Aeneid in West London at the end of the twentieth century, would you?  And if fact you can’t anymore as it’s closed. …Why did I join it?  Because its very existence seemed so anachronistic and so improbable.  Because I thought it would keep my mind in shape.  Because I thought it might find me a friend.  Because I thought it might find me the kind of friend that I would not have known in my former life.

Candida, who is obviously depressed, is obsessed with Book VI of The Aeneid, which describes the descent of Aeneas into the underworld, and dovetails with her own obsession with death.  Eventually she is inspired to organize a Latin class reunion and a life-affirming Virgilian trip  to Italy.

Drabble’s book influenced me to consider teaching again.  We had moved to a lovely, quiet city that “had no culture,” as I was told.  It definitely had no Latin.  I had no job.  I was hanging around the house, reading all of Virgil, when I wasn’t alphabetizing the books at a very messy used bookstore.  (I was paid in books.)

Why not get out of the house and teach adult ed?  I wondered.  And so I taught a very traditional Latin class, using Wheelock’s Latin as the text. We also translated a short Latin passage from The Aeneid every week, with a great deal of help from me in the form of vocabulary lists and worksheets.

How to Read a Latin Poem William FitzgeraldI believed my idea of reading Virgil in Latin with students who knew little or no Latin was original (or perhaps I had borrowed from Drabble). But after reading Roy Gibson’s review of William Fitzgerald’s new book, How to Read a Latin Poem If You Can’t Read Latin Yet in this week’s TLS, I discovered that other classicists are doing this kind of reading.

Roy Gibson, the reviewer, is a classicist, who likes Fitzgerald’s book and is mostly positive.  He writes,

…it has a serious purpose:  to give the reader with little or no knowledge of Latin or the classical world a feel for the character of Roman poetry in the original language.  We are offered word=by-word analysis and translation of classic texts, with deft explanation of how meaning gradually emerges from a language which (unlike English) does not depend on word order to create sense. This is a necessary task.  Some ancient poets translate rather well into English (Catullus, Ovid), but readers who have encountered Virgil or Horace’s Odes only in translation can feel justified in wondering what the fuss is about.  Fitzgerald proves an inspiring guide to the richness and (rarely emphasized) strangeness of Virgil’s Latin.  He also offers stimulating asides on the stark juxtapositions of vocabulary that are inevitable in a language which dispense with definite and indefinite articles and has no need of many of the prepositions which litter English.

He says, however, that Fitzgerald glosses over the amount of work involved in reading Latin.  Professionals use commentaries and dictionaries, and some passages remain controversial or ambiguous.

Of course I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book, but it is the kind of thing I would give to friends to help them understand Latin poetry.

Alexandria peter stothardIn Peter Stothard’s Alexandria:  The Last Days and Nights of Cleopatra, a  brilliant memoir of his fascination with Cleopatra, he writes a few pages about reading Latin poetry with those who don’t know Latin.  Stothard, a classicist and the editor of the TLS,  chaired a panel on how to read a Latin poem, saying it is “the kind of appointment that come to an Editor of the TLS with interests in the ancient world.”  The panel read and discussed an ode by Horace addressed to Plancus, a shrewd man of middle rank  who was devoted to Marc Antony until the tides of politics changed. Stothard had extensively researched Plancus for his book about Cleopatra.

Stothard  writes:

The choice of poem was not mine.  Plancus followed me by purest chance.  ‘Laudabunt alii‘ we all began at 10.00 a.m.  A light-pointer identified each word:  ‘will praise’ was followed by ‘other men.’  Laudabunt alii claram Rhodon aut Mytilenen aut Ephesum bimarisve Corinthi moenia:  Others will praise bright Rhodes, or Mytilene, or Ephesus or the walls of Corinth on its two seas. The audience had come to read it in Latin–and it was my task to help them do just that.

Then there is classicist Mary Beard’s blog, A Don’s Life. She recently wrote a very interesting post about participating in a debate on The Future of Latin.

What came over most clearly — and clearer than I had ever seen it before — was the way we have projected onto Latin so many of our anxieties about privilege in education, teaching quality and the personality of the traditional teacher, ideas of utility, the control of the curriculum etc. Latin in other words is so much of a symbol that it is hard to discuss it without getting involved in series of much bigger debates, only symbolically connected with Latin.

Cicero EverittAntony Everitt’s Cicero:  The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician is a fascinating biography of Cicero, and a very clear, accessible history of the politics of the first century B.C.

Everitt writes in the preface:

With the disappearance of Latin from the schoolroom, the greatest statesman of Rome, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is now a dimly remembered figure….

…nearly two thousand years after his time, he became an unknowing architect of constitutions that still govern our lives.   For the founding fathers of the United States and their political counterparts in Great Britain, the writings of Tully (as his name was anglicized) were the foundation of their education.  John Adams’ first book and proudest possession was his Cicero.

Professor's House catherLet me also mention Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, which is not about Rome but nonetheless describes the life of Tom Outland, a student Latinist.   Professor St. Peter, a disenchanted historian of early Spanish explorers, camps out one summer in the old empty house, too depressed to follow his very conventional family to the new house they have built. And he often remembers his student Tom Outland, who died young; we learn in the middle part of the novel that during a summer in the Southwest Tom read all of The Aeneid in Latin.  St. Peter’s conversation with a greedy colleague who is about to benefit from Outland’s research causes him to connect Tom with Shakespeare’s Mark Antony.

 The university, his new house, his old house, everything around him seemed insupportable, as the boat on which he is imprisoned seems to a sea-sick man.  Yes, it was possible that the little world, on its voyage among all the stars, might become like that:  a boat on which one could travel no longer, from which one could no longer look up and confront those bright rings of revolution.

He brought himself back with a jerk.  Ah, yes, Crane; that was the trouble.  If Outland were here tonight, he might say with Mark Antony, My fortunes have corrupted honest men.

I recommend the Fagles translation.

Finally, let me recommend Virgil’s Aeneid in translation. This stunning epic poem about the founding of Rome is translated beautifully into English by Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald, and this cannot be said about very much poetry in any foreign language.  This classic poem describes the fatigue of the depressed hero, Aeneas, forced by last-man-standing fate to lead the refugees from Troy, the allure of a foreign queen, Dido, who is really Cleopatra and Medea combined, and the gods that force him to continue his trip to Italy, which leads to yet another war.

With and Without Narrative: Margaret Wilson, Willa Cather, & Bess Streeter Aldrich

A Midwestern masterpiece.

I often say there is no narrative in the Midwest.

Farm wife:  “Town is nicer.”

Worker: “Ate vanilla at Blue Bunny (an ice cream factory) every day for 40 years.”

It was very difficult to get hold of a story when I was growing up.

People need narrative.  At the University of Toronto, psychologist Maja Djikic and two colleagues did a study of 100 students indicating that those who have just read a short story are more comfortable with ambiguity than those who have just read an essay.

Midwesterners, too, are starved for narrative, even those who claim they don’t read fiction.  A Prairie Home Companion is popular on NPR.   Fans follow Garrison Keillor from Minnesota to Ames, Omaha, and Madison, wanting to hear his radio show live.  I once absent-mindedly said A Prairie Home Companion was sentimental, and had to renege when several people bristled and claimed our city was like Lake Wobegone.  (It is not.)

I turned to books long ago.

Some of the best Midwestern writers come from Nebraska.  Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather, raised in Red Cloud, Nebraska (a fascinating place to visit), had to leave Nebraska to write her masterpieces, The Professor’s House, the story of a disenchanted middle-aged professor, and A Lost Lady, a novel about a charming, if desperate, woman stuck in a small town after her husband’s bank fails.  These two novels are well-plotted but more ambiguous than Our Antonia, a book often chosen as a school text.

lantern_in_her_hand bess streeter aldrichBess Streeter Aldrich, who lived for many years in Elmwood, Nebraska, was a very popular writer of the 1920s and ’30s. The first few chapters of her best book, A Lantern in Her Hand, ramble a bit, but this excellent novel, a historical record of pioneer women’s lives, picks up momentum as it goes on.

Margaret Wilson, who was born in Traer, Iowa, won the Pulitzer in 1924 for her forgotten novel, The Able McLaughlins, a story of a rape and its consequences.  Wilson has a uniquely philosophical point of view:  she graduated from the University of Chicago, worked as a missionary in India, and returned to Chicago and attended Divinity School before she began to write short stories and novels in the 1920s.

If Virago had an American imprint, Wilson’s books might well be revived.  Wilson’s  language, though unassuming and plain, is layered skillfully into the deft storytelling of her moving, radical novels as she reflects on social justice. Her 1937 novel, The Law and the McLaughlins, a sequel to The Able McLaughlins, is a fascinating moral consideration of capital punishment.  It is a Greek tragedy, set in Iowa.

In 1868 Willy McLaughlin, a farmer, is following wolf tracks when he finds two dead men hanging from a tree.   The woods are so far from any road that he thinks he is hallucinating. But he goes closer, and the bodies are real.

The Squire (his uncle),  the sheriff, the coroner, and his father (a Justice of the Peace) gather to  identify the corpses.  They want “justice”–to track down the killers, try them in a court, and hang them.

But no one can identify the dead.  Finally they learn the men had been horse thieves, and the three killers were the horse owners.

Law and th eMclaughlinsThe women are from the beginning appalled.  They think of the wives of the men lynched, and the wives of the criminals. Mrs. McNair, who with her husband had unwittingly fed and sheltered the killers during a rainstorm, refuses to identify them.  Like the women in a Greek tragedy, they lament, grieve, and repeat that killing more men will not bring back the dead.

The sheriff plans to catch the perpetrators at the funeral of the dying wife of  one of the men.  The men have been hidden by their community 50 miles away.

Jean, Willy’s sister, is particularly disturbed when she hears this plan.  When her brother says it’s a war between the law and evildoers,  Jean says,

Well, when we get the vote we’ll change all that!  We’ll arrange to let women die in peace, if their men do break the law….  If I thought they would do such an evil thing, I would write to the woman and warn her! ‘Plan to go away some place and die where the sheriff can’t see you,’ I’d write her.  I have a mind to do it!”

Throughout the book, women deplore the unfairness of capital punishment.  Jean takes a stand, hopes to help the men break out of jail, and learns the real story of the murder.  A  Congregationalist minister speaks out against capital punishment, pointing out that the Iowa pioneers, who came from Scotland, New England, and other places, have known civilization and justice, but the minds of the next generation will be poisoned if the law is not observed.

Graham Greene wrote in a review:   “She has an admirable gift for very simple direct narrative, and her theme has always been passionately realized in terms of human beings…. we are always aware of a writer of fine moral discrimination and a passionate awareness of individual suffering.”