Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, May 23, 2016

What I think about Willa Cather

Don't get me wrong--I love Willa Cather. But anyone who can't make out at least some gender issues in My Antonia is wearing pretty thick rose-colored glasses. The voice of the story belongs to Jim Burden, who Ms. Cather appears to want us to believe is male, a man remembering his boyhood, specifically an old girl friend (two words there) named Antonia, someone he calls "my" Antonia. 

Maybe it's just me, but I don't think so. Jim, whose voice guides us through, just doesn't "feel" male. His perceptions and memories "feel" far more female. If Jim Borden, the fictional character and narrator of one of America's greatest novels, ever walked the streets of Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather's home town, he must have cut something of a unique path.  

The truth of the matter is, his creator, Willa Cather, did. For a time s/he cut her hair off and wanted to pass herself off as "William Cather." That kind of behavior is something s/he exhibited in his/her teenage years already, and if you think I'm pulling your leg, here's the famous picture of her affecting a gender switch that must have been more than passing strange in the late 19th century. 

For decades already, gay scholars--and not so gay scholars--have tried to bring Willa Cather into their already substantial list of LBGT writers and artists. There is no real proof; her sexuality is not something she openly discussed. She never came out of the closet, if, in fact, she was ever in one. What's clear is those who would argue for her being a lesbian have some grounds.

For several years, I took classes out to Red Cloud, Nebraska, always a delightful experience, in part because My Antonia or O Pioneers were almost magical books in class, almost always blessedly received. Getting off-campus for a long day (it took the best part of five hours just to get there) was a ball, of course, and the landscape of that old railroad town is unique and truly "Great Plains." 

The Willa Cather Foundation would set up tours of the region for us when we arrived--Willa Cather lived with her grandparents, who homesteaded ten miles or so out of town (I pulled a break from the prairie grass of the homestead--see above). Some local woman (I don't remember ever having a male guide) would jump into our van and talk about the Cathers and their era in Red Cloud. Always a perfect delight.

Inevitably, the gender question would arise: was Willa Cather a lesbian? Annually, it was asked and answered, always a bit different, depending on the guide. 

One year, the guide answered with an anecdote. She was real native Red Cloud-er, her family having lived in town for generations. She told her grandfather used to say that when he was a boy--at about the time Willa Cather lived in town (eventually her own family lived just a block off Main Street), his father had told him in no uncertain terms that Willa had a little of both male and female in her, a mix that made her just a bit "different," a catch-all adjective frequently chosen for a variety of eccentric behaviors in small-town America. 

But there was more. She said her grandfather had told her his father had made it very clear that Willa wasn't exactly like everyone else, but that she wasn't to be mocked or made fun of. There was two answers to the question the guide's grandfather had asked of his father back then on the dusty streets of a frontier town: one of them was, yes, she's different; but the second was, you respect her anyway.

I loved that answer. In subsequent years when subsequent town guides would answer the question about sexuality in different ways, I'd often bring that answer up on the long ride back to northwest Iowa. I'd be sure to tell the students in the van what a woman said a couple of years back about difference and respect.

I don't know that the story has anything to do with the Obama Administration's charge to respect gender differences, especially transexuals, by allowing them the rest room of their choice. I'm not particularly taken by the federal government creating a mandate that could cost every school district in the country major bucks because of the possibility of disrespect the rest of us pay to individuals who, according to Time magazine, make up significantly less than one percent of the population. 

I'll let others argue pro and con, but I think there's good sense in what some Red Cloud, Nebraska gentlewoman told my students more than a decade ago when we stood right there in Willa Cather's home, just off Main Street. People are different. Just remember, respect 'em.

2006 Red Cloud Excursion

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