Sunday, January 4, 2015

Cather: The Young Adventurer

Before Willa Cather became a famous author she was a teacher in Pittsburgh, and when she was only twenty-eight years old (in 1902), she traveled to England and France to the first time.  Having grown up in pastoral Nebraska, some of the countryside she saw resonated with her own life, whereas the cities and the level of poverty within them was something she had never experienced before.  Collected in Willa Cather in Europe:  Her Own Story of the First Journey are fourteen travel articles that Cather wrote for a newspaper in Lincoln, Nebraska.  The articles contain her first impressions of the places she visited.  Even in this early writing of hers, some of the key themes of her later writing are captured, perhaps the most compelling of which is her keen interest and curiosity of the lives of the poor and working class, as opposed to high society.  My favorite quotes:

In Liverpool:  "Hats have never at all been one of the vexing problems of my life, but, indifferent as I am, these render me speechless.  I should think a well-taught and tasteful American milliner would go mad in England, and eventually hang herself with bolts of green and scarlet ribbon - the favorite colour combination in Liverpool."

In Barbizon:  "The village at first sight looks like any other little forest town; the home of hard-working folk, desperately poor, but never so greedy or so dead of soul that they will not take time to train the peach tree against the wall until it spreads like a hardy vine, and to mass beautiful flowers of very hue in their little gardens."  

"There is something worth thinking about in these brown, merry old women, who have brought up fourteen children and can outstrip their own sons and grandsons in the harvest field, lay down their rake and write a traveler directions as to how he can reach the next town in a hand as neat as a bookkeeper's."

In Avignon:  "As we carried no bologna with us, we were naturally interested in the dining-room on the afternoon of our arrival."

In Marseilles and Hyeres:  "What more of life could one wring out of twenty-four hours, if you please  At noon the wet olives of Arles; at nightfall a chorus of gay sailors, made up to the life, and the rattle of stage thunder, much blue lightening, and a great tossing of blue water; at dawn a sunrise over feathery date palms, with the sea at one's feet and a porcelain sky above.  What more could one ask for, even in the country of Monte Cristo?"

In Lavandou:  "I am sure I do not know why a wretched little fishing village with nothing but green pines and blue sea and a sky of porcelain, should mean more than a dozen places I have wanted to see all my life."

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