O Pioneer! Willa Cather’s Kitchens

These coppers, big and little, these brooms…and brushes,
were tools; and with them one made not shoes or cabinet work,
but life itself.  One made a climate within a climate; 
one made the days--the complexion, the special flavor, the special
happiness of each day as it passed; one made life.

                                               -- Willa Cather ( Shadows on the Rock, 1931)

Many writers have been in exile when they wrote of a certain time, a certain place. Nothing soothes the broken heart holding the pen more than ritual, reverence and remembrance. Edith Wharton archly channeled the frantic yearnings of a poor girl dying to be rich on the fringes of New York society while Wharton was in residence on the French Riviera in 1905. James Joyce captured the dank, dreary despair of turn of the century Dublin from Paris in 1914.  Ernest Hemingway portrayed the tempestuous bravado of the Spanish Civil War and bull-fighting matadors in a Mojito fueled decade writing five novels, a play and two collections of short stories while in Key West, Florida between 1929 and 1938.  

But, arguably, few writers have ever come as close so brilliantly in conjuring up the soul’s sacred sense of place as Willa Cather, writing about America’s amber waved prairies from the last place you’d ever expect to find her:  New York’s Greenwich Village. Twenty years before Gertrude Stein was lamenting “the Lost Generation” meaning the self-exiled expatiates on the left bank of Paris, Willa Cather went where no woman and no writer had gone before, becoming a pioneer of American fiction writing about holy hunger—food and love, home and away, the sacred in the ordinary, the secret altars where women pray in their kitchens.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather

Here is what is so astonishing to me:  Reading between the lines of Cather’s prairie fiction, the in-between is so deftly disguised; cleverly concealed, flour finger stains still on the apron.  

Now imagine with me. In the very early morning Willa goes marketing; she loved to treat herself to fresh raspberries, brioche, French Camembert cheese and chickens sold by a particular Italian vendor.  Then after returning home to a second floor apartment at 5 Bank Street, Greenwich Village, with the superb groceries for her cook, she’d seize her solitude and in the space of two to three hours every day, while also working as the managing editor at the muckraking tabloid McClure’s Magazine (think National Enquirer), she wrote three novels in five years—O Pioneer! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918) which captured forever the true grit and gumption of the Nebraska Territory frontier immigrants—largely Scandinavian, Czech and Polish homesteaders.  The harsh and acerbic critic H.L. Mencken declared, “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Antonia.”

And while Cather’s pioneer novels could teach how prairie dogs build their underground society or how to kill rattlesnakes in the back garden with a club, what touched readers was Cather’s uncanny ability to blend the siren song of wanderlust and courage in the face of unimaginable hardships with the salvation of food, home and family, with such grace and in prose as sparse as the treeless desert of dust, sky and sun she left behind.  Willa Cather believed that homemaking and homesteading “are activities which build a space where souls can thrive and dream—secure, protected, related, nourished and whole” and she made believers out of even the most jaded sophisticate.

Willa Cather as a young girl

Willa Cather as a young girl

Born into a prosperous Virginia family on December 7, 1873 and the oldest of seven children, when she was just nine Willa was plucked from a genteel upbringing by her father’s decision to join his father and brother in Red Cloud, Nebraska.  It was as if she’d been dropped into an ocean of rough, shaggy red grass from a space capsule, and quite frankly, she never got over the shock of it.  As far as her eyes could see, there wasn’t a tree, bough, leaf or a blade of green grass.  She would later describe her prairie surroundings as an event that erased her personality, while it forged her character, as she came to see the relinquishment of Old West country ways by the second generation of immigrants as spiritually threatening.  “The generation now in the driver’s seat hates to make anything, wants to live and die in an automobile, scudding past those acres where the old men used to follow the long cornrows up and down,” she wrote in 1923.  “They want to buy everything ready-made: clothes, food, education, music, pleasure.”  

What makes this tart opinion so fascinating, bewildering really, is that Willa Cather had been in Greenwich Village since 1906 and she would live in New York City until her death in 1947.  Her prairie years were few, between the ages of 9 and 15, including a stint as a mail pony girl, delivering the post to her few and far between neighbors.  But these years informed her art all her life, particularly because she found spiritual refuge—her sense of belonging—by spending her mornings with neighbor immigrant women baking or butter-making.  “My mind and my stomach are one,” she told an audience in 1925:  “I think and work whatever it is that digests.  I think the preparation of foods the most important thing in life.  And America is too young a nation to realize it.  It makes musical discords in the cooking.”

Is it any wonder that Antonia in My Antonia doesn’t want “to die and stop cooking.”

This is a lovely thought for those of us who will be doing a lot of cooking in the next couple of weeks.  “I have never had any intellectual excitement more intense than spending a morning with a pioneer woman at butter-making and hearing her talk,” Willa Cather confessed, unless perhaps it was when she was pouring over a recipe, for while she wrote of food, she was more often writing than she was cooking.  Although she would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for her novel One of Ours set during the first World War, many believed it was because she did not win one for My Antonia.  

As you create the rich autumn hues of gracious plenty on your Thanksgiving table this year, may you know much contentment and a sense of peace.  “The farmer’s wife who raises a large family and cooks for them” expresses “the real creative joy…which marks the great artist.”  Always remember, never forget sweetheart, women are Artists of the Everyday.  You are an Artist of the Everyday.

I always loved Willa Cather’s wisdom in pointing out that “One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world’s end somewhere, and holds fast to the days, as to fortune or fame."

Hold fast to that moment, Babe, hold fast to the benediction, bend your knees and acknowledge that blessed are you among women to know that moment and give thanks.  Cherish it.  “Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again,” Willa Cather confessed to console. For the writing that breaks the heart holding the pen only soothes the soul of she who turns the page, when writers find the strength to write not about what they love, but what they have lost.

Sending dearest love that you and yours may know peace and plenty and always, blessings on our courage.