The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Willa Cather?s Prairie and Edith Wharton?s Home

August 24, 2007
Washington, DC

When I was in graduate school at San Diego State University, I took a seminar in Edith Wharton and Willa Cather that changed my life. The course changed me because it provided the chance to concentrate on the best novels of two truly exceptional writers; to compare their controversial lives and literary themes; and to do it with an excellent teacher and enthusiastic classmates -- what could be better for a ?Literature Specialist? like me?

But there was something missing. As a child growing up in North Hollywood, California, the childhood places of Willa Cather (Virginia?s Shenandoah Valley) and Edith Wharton (New York City, Italy, and France) seemed fascinating and exotic. Cather?s family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, when she was ten, and Wharton bought land in Lenox, Massachusetts, to build her home, The Mount. Red Cloud and Lenox seemed as far away as Uganda or Switzerland to a young girl like me who traveled often in the realms of gold, but never on planes or trains. Yet because of the sensual, vivid way these writers described the plains of Nebraska, the valleys of Virginia, the bustle of New York, and the hills of Western Massachusetts in their fiction, all these unfamiliar places felt familiar through my imagination.

"This place of ours is really beautiful... the stillness, the greenness, the exuberance of my flowers, the perfume of my hemlock woods, & above all the moonlight nights on my big terrace, overlooking the lake..." --Edith Wharton in a letter to Bernard Berenson, August 6, 1911 Photo by Erika Koss

I don?t usually make New Year?s resolutions, but for 2007 it was time to make the journey to Cather?s beloved prairie and Wharton?s first real home. My work on the Big Read materials for My Ántonia and The Age of Innocence fueled this abiding desire to travel to Red Cloud and Lenox. But for reasons more personal than professional, I suddenly needed to physically inhabit these places that transformed two of my favorite writers -- if only for a couple days.

Reader, imagine my joy to travel from Washington, DC, to Red Cloud, Nebraska, in March, where Betty Kort, Executive Director of the Cather Foundation, and I took a walk through Cather?s prairie. Then imagine my delight to travel to Lenox, Massachusetts, in July with Betty, where we met Stephanie Copeland, the President and CEO of the Mount, and ate lunch on that ?big terrace? that faces Wharton?s splendidly restored gardens, under her unconventional green and white awning, which protected us from the unexpected rain. Imagine my excitement, when the wonderful Mount librarian, Molly McPhee, took Betty and me for a private tour into Wharton?s restored library, where I was allowed to hold her copy of the French translation of The Age of Innocence -- bound by Wharton in green and yellow with ?EW? inscribed on its leather cover! Imagine my pleasure when I slept for two nights in a beautiful home set in the quiet forest not far from the Mount, finally understanding why Wharton left her fashionable New York City and Newport homes to design, build, and decorate an isolated country estate of her own creation.

?If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land?I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven.? -- from Willa Cather?s 1918 novel, My Ántonia Photo by Erika Koss

I hope Big Read organizers for My Ántonia and The Age of Innocence will consider such a pilgrimage, and that high school teachers anywhere near Red Cloud or Lenox can afford to tackle the frustrating tasks of buses, chaperones, permission slips, and classroom time missed on required exams to give their students a first-hand experience with the sites that shaped these great American writers.

For although my passport now holds stamps from countries as far as Uganda and Switzerland, two places that I love best are right here in America.