How far is Red Cloud, Nebraska, the dusty town that formed Willa Cather — and that she made famous in her fiction — from New York City? 1,293 miles.
Red Cloud couldn’t be culturally farther from New York City, as well. But Cather moved to New York in 1906 and stayed until her death in 1947.
Cather is best know for her novels, “My Antonia,” “O Pioneers!” and her Pulitzer Prize-winning work, “One of Ours.” We assume that her portrayals of life on the sweeping expanse of the Great Plains were written while living there. That she experienced the struggles, sorrows, hardships, failures and successes and joys of the characters in her novels. So we think.
She wrote about the Plains but from the Upper East Side
We imagine her sitting at a simple desk in a simple farmhouse where she might have lived with her husband and their many children. They are working the farm on an endlessly flat and lonely Nebraska landscape dotted with fields of corn and grain. She’s feeding the animals, growing vegetables and preparing meals for her large, boisterous family — cleaning the pots, pans and dishes and scrubbing the floors of the dirt dragged in from the farm. We see her writing in the middle of the night by candlelight when everyone else is asleep, the only chance to focus on her work.
Actually, she did much of her writing in New York City, hung out at the New York Society Library and lived on Park Avenue (as well as Washington Square). It took a while to get there, though.
Cather on Park Avenue and at the New York Society Library
Cather attended the University of Nebraska in 1890. After graduation, she moved to Pittsburgh to be an editor at the magazine, The Home Monthly. In 1906, she relocated to New York City to work for McClure’s Magazine, where she ultimately became managing editor. She soon left her career as a journalist to become a full-time writer.
Cather sat at her desk in apartments on Park Avenue and in Washington Square Park where she lived with her companion, Edith Lewis. There were no children, and she lived surrounded by apartment buildings, crowded streets and chattering neighbors. She also spent much of her time researching and writing at the city’s oldest library, The New York Society Library. She and Edith were members there from 1927 to 1948.
(We are reminded of that other Upper East Sider, the great Southern writer, Harper Lee. Famed daughter of Monroeville, Alabama, and author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Lee spent much of her life in a cheap apartment on E. 82nd Street in Yorkville.)
Willa Cather exhibition at New York Society Library
The Society Library currently has an exhibition of memorabilia focusing on Willa Cather’s personal life and her work as they relate to the city and the library: The New York World of Willa Cather. While it’s common for the library to hold nearly year-long showings, it’s not common that they spotlight the writings of one of its members
The exhibit features some of Cather’s private letters, “borrowing cards” she and Edith used at the library and first editions of several of her books, including “Song of the Lark” and “My Mortal Enemy”. Cather researched and wrote the novel, “Sapphira and the Slave Girl,” using the Society Library’s resources. The original version of the novel is on display, along with some of her research sources for this work.
The exhibit offers many rich photographs. One is of Cather driving a handcar in Cheyenne, Wyoming (at the top of this post) around 1898. Another shows her standing with family members while watching a coyote being caught in Webster County, Nebraska in 1905.
The exhibit extends through August 31, 2018.
The New York Society Library
53 East 79th Street
New York, NY 10075