The Last Word : Visiting Red Cloud
Having just logged 5,600 plus miles on our little Saturn on our trip out West and back, I can attest to the fact that most of the United States grows corn. Vast oceans of corn, alternated by that other product we all consume without knowing it, soybeans. Which in Nebraska they refer to simply as "beans." That's how our young guide at the Willa Cather Foundation referred to the crops that surround today's Red Cloud, Nebraska. Red Cloud was on the itinerary (never travel with an English teacher) and after a night in the Hastings Best Western, we journeyed the 60 miles down the state highway to visit this small Nebraska town, once home to one of America's most beloved authors, Willa Cather.
We entered onto a broad main street flanked by hometown businesses that haven't updated their storefronts since the 1950s. It was mid-morning and yet the only people on the street were two farmers standing beside a truck filled with old furniture and a woman sitting on the curb, smoking, and slowly painting the curbside yellow with a paintbrush. Herein lies the danger posed to an author when she is liberal with reality. It gets co-opted by the Chamber of Commerce. They actually call it Catherland and Cather's name is liberally utilized by the local storekeeps. Willa Cather is an industry in a town that has, frankly, little else going for it.
Finding the town's visitor center closed, it was more by chance than by design that we happened on the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Education Foundation, housed in a recently renovated "Opera House." For $10 each, we signed up for the guided tour, which consisted of us in our car with our guide, an 18-year old girl, riding in back and giving directions around the perfectly square street grid. Not exactly something you'd experience in New England.
The guided tour takes the visitor to six buildings, which are variously described in relation to the fictional characters and settings in Cather's work, or as places Cather herself lived in or knew. We saw the church where she purchased memorial stained glass windows for her parents; the house where she grew up; the house where the fictional Antonia worked. The church where Antonia had the equally fictional illegitimate baby baptized. The depot with an exhibit set up representing a scene in one of her short stories; the building where Cather's real father worked; an old bank that served as a setting and now holds photographs and artifacts from Cather's life.
It is indisputable that Cather's stories were inspired by people she knew, and her descriptions taken from the countryside and town. Okay, so a little town in the back of beyond sprouts a certified Pulitzer prize-winning author. What's the first thing you do? Exploit it. However, might exploitation actually be the same as preservation? Far from recognizing Cather's importance, the town seems to have forgotten all about its most famous high school graduate until one woman single-handedly saved Willa Cather's connection to the town. One of Cather's most zealous fans, Mrs. Mildred Bennett, made it her mission to raise awareness and funds to acquire some of the pertinent buildings (now owned by the Nebraska State Historical Society). She built the culture of Cather in the town that Cather herself had spent her teenage years waiting to leave. Without Mrs. Mildred Bennett and her group of volunteers in 1955, Red Cloud would have forgotten that one of its citizens had achieved so much beyond the shores of corn and soybeans that make it as island-like as any surrounded by sea.
It doesn't seem to make a bit of difference to the young woman conducting our tour that Willa Cather, brought to Red Cloud by her parents from the south, detested the place. Once she'd left, she came back only rarely to visit her parents. She so disliked the town that she and her brother vowed not to be buried there, and when her dead brother's body was on a train, en route to Red Cloud, she actually had the train stopped and the body removed. Oddly, this seems to be a source of pride in the young docent, a recent high school graduate about to go off to Cather's alma mater, the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. This girl, as much as Cather, is a product of the prairie, sturdy, blonde and ready to go off to seek her future in the city. When she broke off her tour script to wave to her grandpa, driving a massive truck filled with corn to the nearby grain elevator, I warmed to her. Cather would have liked this girl.
We ended at the Opera House where teenaged Willa and her brother Douglas played in Beauty and the Beast. This last, beautifully restored, also serves as a children's theatre as well as the gift shop for all things Cather. This town had more going for it than appearances suggested.
One wonders what happened to Cather that a town so worthy as a setting for some of the most elegant and compelling prose was yet the place Cather left behind. A casual reading of the local paper offers a clue. The editorial in a back issue was titled: "Obama: The New McGovern or the AntiChrist?" The piece leaned toward the latter. Cather was a world traveler, a writer, editor, and adventurer. The conservative Red Cloud was just too small to hold her.