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A Literary Visit to the Heartland

Beverly Lauderdale is a freelance writer in Martinez, Calif

Here in the southeastern corner of Nebraska lie two country towns with a common boast: Each was home to a writer who won wide acclaim and popularity for the deft way she defined her time and place here.

Willa Cather, of Red Cloud, wrote fiction, poetry and essays and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922; her “My Antonia” is on countless high school required-reading lists. Bess Streeter Aldrich, of Elmwood, also was a novelist, and was best known for her short stories--more than 100--published in national women’s magazines in the 1920s and ‘30s. There the similarity ends; the two women were as different in life as their writing styles.

Jan, my fellow Iowan friend from college days, and I often take vacation trips in search of writers’ roots. Nebraska was a natural destination for us last May.

It was a sultry day, and storm clouds shadowed the plains as we drove into Red Cloud. The leaden sky leached the red color from bricks that paved the wide, old-fashioned main street.

We parked in front of the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank, built in 1889 and once owned by Silas Garber, a Red Cloud founder and Nebraska governor. Cather thinly disguised him as Capt. Forrester in “A Lost Lady,” a novel that starts:

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“Thirty or forty years ago, in one of those gray towns along the Burlington Railroad, which are so much grayer today than they were then. . . .”

The red-stone bank is now the Willa Cather Historical Center, full of memorabilia and open to people taking the center’s tour.

Although Cather spent most of her adult life in New York, she grew up in Red Cloud. The town was, under various names, the center of her fictional world, which has been praised by critics and loved by readers as a celebration of the American pioneer heartland.

We began our pilgrimage with the $5 town tour, which involved our driving behind the guide’s car. Our first stop was 1 1/2 blocks away, at the simple house the Cather family rented on Cedar Street, a short stroll to Papa Cather’s insurance office.

The family Bible, in which the girl born as Wilella revised her birth date from 1873 to 1876, rested on a parlor stand. Her highchair was in the dining room beside the cherrywood table; jars of preserves that her mother had put up stood on a kitchen shelf.

Wooden stairs protested as we climbed to the attic, where the five Cather boys and two girls slept. Willa converted one corner into her own room, the acquisition of which “was one of the most important things that ever happened to her” (as she wrote in her semi-autobiographical 1915 novel “The Song of the Lark”).

A chimney slanted toward exposed rafters, and to the side was the quilt-covered bed where the teenage Willa would lie, “watching the sunlight shine on the roses of her wall-paper” (“from Lark”).

On our visit, wallpaper that covers the ceiling was flaking onto the bed, her shell collection and the “tall round wooden hat crate, from the clothing store,” which (again quoting “Lark”), “standing on end and draped with cretonne, made a fairly steady table for her lantern.”

Our next stop was a small brick Catholic church, the county’s first, where Antonia Shimerda (“My Antonia”) was wed. The church was only a few blocks from the Cather house, but, then, everything’s just a few blocks away in a community of 1,200. In Willa’s childhood, in the 1880s, the population neared 2,500, and the future in agriculture looked bright. Migrants from Eastern states, like the Cathers--Willa was born in Back Creek Valley, Va., in 1873--joined waves of European immigrants, like Antonia’s Bohemian family, in staking farmland claims on the Nebraska prairie. Charles Cather failed at farming but found his footing selling farm insurance in town. The stories of struggling and distressed families in the area had a profound influence on Willa’s writing.

The Cathers were members of Grace Episcopal Church, built in 1884. Willa returned for her parents’ funerals there and had stained glass windows installed in their memory. Cather herself is buried in New Hampshire.

The church is open only for special occasions, as when an English professor who is also an Episcopal priest says Mass in Cather’s memory every Dec. 7, her birth date.

Trains play a role in many of Cather’s books, as they did in Nebraska’s progress. The dark red Burlington station that she celebrated has been turned into a museum, with a stationmaster’s desk, a board announcing train schedules, a coffin ready to be shipped, a silent telegraph. Our voices echoed, small and hollow, in the otherwise empty room. With the help of vintage photos on the walls, it wasn’t hard to picture young Willa going off to college, full of vivid memories that would make the turn-of-the-century American prairie alive to generations of readers all around the world.

Our tour’s last stop was the old bank, its main room now outfitted with Cather memorabilia.

Among the exhibits, a book with blank pages intrigued me. It symbolized Cather’s last, unfinished novel, and her demand that when she died (in 1947) the manuscript be destroyed along with letters.

On our own, Jan and I took an abbreviated version of the 65-mile driving tour through Cather land. (We missed out on the Shimerda homestead, the Old Mill, Dane Church and Crooked Creek.)

South of Red Cloud we crossed the Republican River; four miles ahead was the Nature Conservancy’s 610-acre preserve of virgin native grass dedicated to Cather. In “My Antonia” she wrote:

“As I looked about me, I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea.”

The commemorative plaque bears another Cather quote:

“That shaggy grass country . . . gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and the curse of my life.”

Elmwood, 175 miles east of Red Cloud, is smaller and less prosperous looking. Bess Streeter Aldrich (1881-1954) set much of her fiction here: Unlike Cather, she chose to live in the place that inspired her writing.

The two never met, although Aldrich was one of the best-paid women’s magazine writers of the 1920s and ‘30s, when Cather was writing in New York. It’s probably just as well. One of Cather’s biographers wrote: “The Ladies’ Home Journal was Cather’s symbol of the ladies’ club mentality. [The magazine trivialized] high culture to suit the feminine mind. . . . “

Aldrich, winner of the 1928 O. Henry Award for short fiction, was modest: “I don’t write literature; I write stories.” Left a young widow with four children, she supported them through college with her writing. Half a dozen books of her work are still in print, and one, “Lantern in Her Hand,” has gone through 75 printings and many translations.

“Lantern,” a tribute to pioneer women, is taught in many Nebraska schools. Like most of her books, it celebrates strong women overcoming hardship, set in a historic background.

When we drove into Elmwood, the day was sunny, reflecting Aldrich’s style. In the park across the street from her home, a banner announced “A Day in the Park With Bess Streeter Aldrich.” Teenagers were raising money for a mural honoring Aldrich and invited us to bid on art displayed on picnic tables. (The mural has since been completed on a wall at the town’s main intersection.) The big draw was in a nearby church, where a quilt show featured several quilts illustrating episodes and characters from Aldrich’s novels.

When we left the church’s cool half-light, the blindingly bright day was the sort that would have inspired Aldrich. From “Miss Bishop”:

“All of the keen senses of the girl were alive in the loveliness of the day and the joy of living. To her sight came the wide spaces of the prairie whose billowy expanse was broken only by clumps of trees and by the far horizon where the sky met the prairie like a blue-china bowl turned over a jade-colored plate.”

Aldrich called her handsome wood and brick home “The Elms.” We toured it with three schoolgirls who had been there before with their class and were back for a visit with their mothers.

In the living room we sat on metal folding chairs while a docent recounted facts about Mrs. Aldrich (always “Mrs.”): Iowa born, writing contest winner, schoolteacher, wife. A photo of Charles Aldrich, called “Cap,” hung opposite his wife’s portrait.

The second-floor bedrooms are named for four Aldrich books. The decor in “Mrs. Mason,” the collection of short stories that launched her career in 1924, didn’t interest the girls in our group. It was a typical upper-middle-class bedroom of the time: vividly flowered wallpaper, classic dark furniture, a kerosene lamp, a magazine (“Women’s Missionary Friend, 1928"), a game called Som R Set laid out on a small table.

The girls were eager to see the perennial favorite room, “Lantern in Her Hand,” with its cornhusk dolls, checkers game and Christmas tree “trimmed with popcorn and tallow candles. And a marvelous flock of butterflies had settled upon it. Their bodies were of dried apples dipped in sugar and their antennae were pink and feathery, looking surprisingly as though they had once adorned Regina Deal’s bonnet” (from “Lantern”).

The “Rim of the Prairie” room bears the title of the lone book published with a dedication, to Cap, who died in 1925. The room is furnished as a nursery, with a highchair and toys of that era.

The girls liked the fourth room, “Spring Came on Forever,” since it belonged to an Aldrich daughter when she was a teenager.

Sunlight dappled the sheer curtains and stippled the simple desk in the study, where Aldrich retired every afternoon to work.

Aldrich once wrote that her part of the country “is beautiful only in the eyes of those who live here and in the memories of the Nebraska-born.”

Perhaps not, I thought. Perhaps it’s beautiful to the visitor as well, for as the screen door closed behind us, we were met by golden sunlight. It encouraged us to take a last long ride through back roads, through the vast landscape of rippling grass and budding trees, before rejoining the interstate and the short ride back to reality.

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GUIDEBOOK

A Pilgrimage to the Prairie Towns That Inspired Writers

Getting there: From LAX, Southwest has direct flights (one stop, no change of planes) to Omaha; there’s connecting service (change of plane) on American, Frontier, United and Northwest. Restricted round-trip fares start at $252.

Getting around: Red Cloud is about 200 miles southwest of Omaha, about 3 1/2 hours’ drive west on I-80 to Grand Island/Hastings (exit 312) and south on U.S. 281.

Willa Cather State Historic Site, 326 N. Webster St., Red Cloud, NE 68970, telephone (402) 746-2653, Internet https://www.willacather.org, has brochures for driving and self-guided walking tours. Open daily.

Elmwood is about 45 miles southwest of Omaha; take I-80 west to Nebraska 63 (exit 420), turn east on U.S. 34 for two miles, then north on Nebraska 1.

For Aldrich information: Bess Streeter Aldrich House and Museum, 204 E. F St., Elmwood, NE 68439; tel. (402) 994-3855, Internet https://www.lincolnne.com/nonprofit/bsaf. Open 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

Where to stay: Red Cloud and Elmwood have little in the way of lodging. I’d advise staying in Hastings or in Lincoln, about 20 miles west of Elmwood. There are chain hotels in both locales. But for atmosphere, try the Cornhusker in downtown Lincoln, an elegantly appointed hotel where rooms run $95 to $160; the menu for the Renaissance dining room averages $25 for entrees. Tel. (800) 793-7474, fax (402) 474-1847, Internet https://www.thecornhusker.com.

Or sample the life of an 1894 banker in Atwood House, a mansion at 740 S. 17th St., Lincoln, with suites from $115 to $179 per night. Tel. (402) 438-4567, fax (402) 477-8314, Internet https://www.atwoodhouse.com.

For other lodgings, visit https://www.travelnow.com/hotels or contact Lincoln Convention & Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 83737, Lincoln, NE 68501; tel. (800) 423-8212 or (402) 434-5335, Internet https://www.lincoln.org.

For more information: Nebraska State Office of Tourism, P.O. Box 98907, 7005 16th St., Lincoln, NE 68509; tel. (800) 228-4307, Internet https://www.visitnebraska.org.


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