Greyness of the Color Wheel - Cather Essay

Submitted By kemswiler
Words: 3198
Pages: 13

The greyness of the color wheel - A Midterm Paper on Cather

This thesis addresses the relation between the bland, muted “Divide” and the nuanced and complex emotional treatment of the characters who live within it. The color wheel used by Willa Cather to describe both people and place is subtle, sophisticated, and belies a deep acceptance and love of human character. Nearly a century after these novels were written, indeed “[y]ears afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie.....Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross....Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper". My Ántonia, Book 1, Chapter 16.I suspect this gravesite still sits at a nearly forgotten intersection in our pale, flyover countryside. Yet underneath its near invisibility, Cather asks us to consider the depth of the stranger’s life. She so easily conjures up a nearly imperceptible feeling that we did know, or should have known the struggle and triumph of the sleeper within the tomb. And so, the notion I uncovered upon reading her two novels, O Pioneers and My Ántonia, is that a depth of character is formed and revealed from an unrelentingly bleak place. It’s the juxtaposition of the plain, sometimes ugly landscape with the complex and often beautiful human character that strikes me most. In this arid hellscape that was 19th century Nebraska, Cather reveals her piercing psychological insights into each character described. As a Nebraskan
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(and knowing she lived here in her youth), I identify with the quiet repose and insightfulness she must have possessed to see beauty and power from a place most consider empty and bland. But first, a note about her aesthetic. Cather’s writing is stunning; an unfolding masterpiece in each chapter. H.L. Mencken advanced this thought long ago, stating that “no romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia.” I could labor with the written word for the balance of my lifetime and not write a single sentence “one-half so beautiful” as any of hers. And so I give a not-so-subtle nod to her writing artistry; it is not paralleled in American literature. If My Ántonia is her masterpiece in tastefully exposing the inner wounds and joys of the characters’ psyches, O Pioneers is a just a hint of her coming artistry. The novel first forces the reader to consider the harshness of 1890’s Nebraska. The “Divide” (also addressed in of one of her short stories), is her first introduction to the Plains, and it is not complementary. Although the town of Hanover is seen as the settlers’ attempt to tame the Plains, it is the endless prairie surrounding the town that seems more important to the author. And it is against this background that Cather introduces her first, and typically female character. Alexandra. She is smart, resolute, and observant. The first hint that she (and Cather) is able to see more than the surface of a person or place is evidenced by the encounters with “Crazy Ivar.” To the male characters, Carl and her brothers, Ivar is merely strange. But to Alexandra, he is more. And in a novel that is tied to the harshly romanticized natural elements, Ivar’s eccentricity is that he understands nature. He celebrates the community of the birds who visit the pond and values their temporary visit to the harsh environment. [I found this remarkable given the present infatuation that Nebraskans have
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with the migratory Sandhills Cranes and wonder if this passage presaged our bird-watching along the river basins.] Nonetheless, where the less nuanced boys see only crazy in Ivar, Alexandra sees odd. To me, this is the greatness of Alexandra and Cather. That out of the potentially ugly, crazy, or slightly profane, she sees value and beauty in both…