Since Willa Cather is one of my favorite writers, it will not surprise anyone who knows me well that one of my most beloved books is Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir. The book was published 35 years ago and is still in print. Bernice Slote, Cather scholar from the University of Nebraska, wrote the text, found wonderful archival photos, and Lucia Woods contributed excellent color photos of many of the Cather places–Nebraska, Arizona, Virginia, Quebec, New Hampshire, New York.
What makes this book a memoir? Willa Cather’s signature appears on the front cover, and I believe she would approve of this appropriation of her life and work–because it is true to her, something she would have cared about fiercely. Like a documentary slide show, each page reveals biographical material and many sections include direct quotes from Cather’s poetic prose. Here the reader finds place after place, literal and metaphorical, from Cather’s life and travels.
Cather did not write a memoir as such (unlike her contemporaries Edith Wharton and Ellen Glasgow); instead, she wrote highly autobiographical fiction and some personal essays. The visitor to Red Cloud, Nebraska, today can tour the places that form the backbone of many of her tales–the Opera House, the childhood home, the train station, various churches, and numerous other homes. Since the best passages of her books come straight from her own experience of rapture, when they are placed side by side along with photographs, the reader can feel some of the bliss Cather knew as she allowed her own spirit to roam over the land, back into the geologic ages and beyond, into the future.
The effect of such a “memoir,” one which Cather wrote only as pure description, challenges all writers to select every word, every image, with love (hate might be an inspiration, too, I suppose). We need to splash our souls on the page while continuing to discipline our minds. Cather loved deeply, fiercely, protectively. She wanted, like Virgil, to be the first to bring the muse into her country. She fulfilled this longing.
As a result, those who love and understand her work are constantly forming pictures of her and of the places she described. Bernice Slote and Lucia Woods are the skillful handmaidens. Cather herself was the genius.
I have returned to this book often over the last thirty years, and every time I discover a new way to enter the words and the landscape. In my heart I hear one of Cather’s favorite words, “Splendid!”