Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Willa Cather's Bad Memory

In a recent post I wrote about My Ántonia, an early century—last one—novel by Willa Cather about life on the Nebraska plains—before they became the Nebraska wheatfields and then the Nebraska cornfields.

A major theme of this blog is memoir or to be specific memoir-ish. My Ántonia pulled heavily from Cather’s own memories of growing up in Nebraska. Like Jim Burden she immigrated from Virginia to Nebraska and grew up on her grandparent’s farm before moving into town, Red Cloud (Black Hawk in the book). There are many parallels between Cather’s own life that in fact the novel reads like a reminiscence. A sort of sentimentality settles on the characters as if rendered through the telescope of memory.  

Since getting a Kindle last fall I’ve been experimenting with getting eBooks from the library. Amazon doesn’t make it easy but after a list of steps determined to take me back to Amazon and leave a digital footprint I’ve successfully downloaded a number of books. One recent download has been The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell, Janis Stout. Cather was a prodigious letter writer and asked before she died that her estate destroy certain correspondence. Also as part of her will the letters that remained out there were not allowed to be published until 2016. Ahead of that date the estate gave permission for a small number to come out in 2013. This edition, 752 pages, is only 20% of the total correspondence archived.

Here is an excerpt of an early letter—insight into the mind of a writer. In a letter to Irene Miner Weisz (b. 1881) the youngest daughter of James and Julia Miner of Red Cloud. She was a lifelong friend of Cather's and prototype for Nina Harling in My Ántonia. Dated January 6, 1945, 72 years, 2 years before Cather’s death, in this missive she  relates already feeling fragile health-wise. “I think I can honestly say that I wrote for pleasure, and not from vanity. When I wrote about the people I loved and the places I loved, they came back to me so vividly, that it was like having them all over again.—No matter how hard I worked at my job all through the week, I always wrote for my own pleasure on Saturday and Sunday.”

Goes on: “I have managed to recapture a good many of the pleasures of the past, in one book or another, but I have had to pay for my pleasures as I went along. After My Ántonia was published, Father pointed out to me half a dozen incidents—things I had done or seen with him (the two crazy Russians, etc.) and I honestly believed that I had invented them. They simply came into my mind, the way things do come when one is interested.

So that terrible story Ántonia relates about the Russian wedding party and the wolves chasing down and consuming the bride and groom comes from something she heard as a child. The story has always left an impression on me and obviously on a young Willa.

Excerpt from Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

When Pavel and Peter were young men, living at home in Russia, they were asked to be groomsmen for a friend who was to marry the belle of another village. It was in the dead of winter and the groom's party went over to the wedding in sledges. Peter and Pavel drove in the groom's sledge, and six sledges followed with all his relatives and friends.

After the ceremony at the church, the party went to a dinner given by the parents of the bride. The dinner lasted all afternoon; then it became a supper and continued far into the night. There was much dancing and drinking. At midnight the parents of the bride said good-bye to her and blessed her. The groom took her up in his arms and carried her out to his sledge and tucked her under the blankets. He sprang in beside her, and Pavel and Peter (our Pavel and Peter!) took the front seat. Pavel drove. The party set out with singing and the jingle of sleigh-bells, the groom's sledge going first. All the drivers were more or less the worse for merry-making, and the groom was absorbed in his bride.

The wolves were bad that winter, and everyone knew it, yet when they heard the first wolf-cry, the drivers were not much alarmed. They had too much good food and drink inside them. The first howls were taken up and echoed and with quickening repetitions. The wolves were coming together. There was no moon, but the starlight was clear on the snow. A black drove came up over the hill behind the wedding party. The wolves ran like streaks of shadow; they looked no bigger than dogs, but there were hundreds of them.

Something happened to the hindmost sledge: the driver lost control-- he was probably very drunk--the horses left the road, the sledge was caught in a clump of trees, and overturned. The occupants rolled out over the snow, and the fleetest of the wolves sprang upon them. The shrieks that followed made everybody sober. The drivers stood up and lashed their horses. The groom had the best team and his sledge was lightest-- all the others carried from six to a dozen people.

Another driver lost control. The screams of the horses were more terrible to hear than the cries of the men and women. Nothing seemed to check the wolves. It was hard to tell what was happening in the rear; the people who were falling behind shrieked as piteously as those who were already lost. The little bride hid her face on the groom's shoulder and sobbed. Pavel sat still and watched his horses. The road was clear and white, and the groom's three blacks went like the wind. It was only necessary to be calm and to guide them carefully.

At length, as they breasted a long hill, Peter rose cautiously and looked back. `There are only three sledges left,' he whispered.

Pavel reached the brow of the hill, but only two sledges followed him down the other side. In that moment on the hilltop, they saw behind them a whirling black group on the snow. Presently the groom screamed. He saw his father's sledge overturned, with his mother and sisters. He sprang up as if he meant to jump, but the girl shrieked and held him back. It was even then too late. The black ground-shadows were already crowding over the heap in the road, and one horse ran out across the fields, his harness hanging to him, wolves at his heels. But the groom's movement had given Pavel an idea.

They were within a few miles of their village now. The only sledge left out of six was not very far behind them, and Pavel's middle horse was failing. Beside a frozen pond something happened to the other sledge; Peter saw it plainly. Three big wolves got abreast of the horses, and the horses went crazy. They tried to jump over each other, got tangled up in the harness, and overturned the sledge.

When the shrieking behind them died away, Pavel realized that he was alone upon the familiar road. `They still come?' he asked Peter.

Now his middle horse was being almost dragged by the other two. Pavel gave Peter the reins and stepped carefully into the back of the sledge. He called to the groom that they must lighten-- and pointed to the bride. The young man cursed him and held her tighter. Pavel tried to drag her away. In the struggle, the groom rose. Pavel knocked him over the side of the sledge and threw the girl after him. He said he never remembered exactly how he did it, or what happened afterward. Peter, crouching in the front seat, saw nothing. The first thing either of them noticed was a new sound that broke into the clear air, louder than they had ever heard it before--the bell of the monastery of their own village, ringing for early prayers.

Pavel and Peter drove into the village alone, and they had been alone ever since.

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