What is it like to teach elementary school kids something about Willa Cather? In a recent fit of madness I was recently persuaded by my nine-year- old son to sign up for a session at his school. I would talk to his class (eventually, in the way these things happen, to the entire Third Grade) about Willa Cather. The novelty was twofold: the kids would get a teacher from outside the school; and not only that, they would encounter an Englishman talking about their home state.
As the day neared, I became steadily more edgy. This was going to be more difficult than teaching an undergraduate class. In fact, it was going to be more difficult than taking a graduate seminar. Indeed, it would be more difficult than preparing a paper for the International Cather seminar. On reflection, the prospect of meeting eighty Third Graders loomed even larger than my final encounter with my Ph.D. committee. Why on earth had I volunteered for this in the first place?
Happily, salvation was in sight. My wife, Cal, is an elementary school (primary school, in Britain) teacher with a good deal of experience. She rapidly talked me out of my original plans for an elaborate run-through of Cather criticism from myth analysis to feminism and psychoanalysis. The target was now a biographical account, focused on Willa's life, with occasional forays out into a general history of Nebraska and the U.S. The aim was to tell a story, to create a fairly straightforward narrative, and to appeal to the kids' imaginations by concentrating on the early years. And there would be lots of tricks along the way: maps, pictures, drawing on the blackboard (not a pretty sight, given my fundamental lack of anything approaching artistic talent). The key to getting the audience to concentrate and to follow the narrative, I was told, was to involve them in the storytelling. We made up a number of tickets with keywords on them ('Cather', 'Red Cloud', 'artist', 'Lincoln'), ready to hand out to the audience. The idea was that the kids would sit in groups, holding onto their keyword, listening intently for when it came up in my narrative. Then eager hands would shoot into the air, and I would invite one member from each group to come forward and to stand in front of the class. By the end of the session, I would be surrounded by children gripping terms from my somewhat chaotic and selective retelling of Willa Cather's early life.
It was selective, in part, because I also had to make it appeal to the third graders. Writers lives are interesting to scholars, critics and devotees; its not necessarily the case that a life immersed in books and paper, sitting at a desk, will appeal to a restless nine-year-old. I needed some spicy anecdotes. Happily, Cather's early intellectual wavering, as she hovered between science and literature, provided me with some telling material I might, however, have to tweak the tales a little, well, perhaps a good deal....
And so it was that the accounts of Cather as a tyro scientist, complete with her vivisections of frogs and experiments in William Ducker's homemade laboratory in Red Cloud—accounts that are soberly recounted by James Woodress and other biographers —became in my retelling rather lurid, 'B' movie sagas of animal abuse on the prairies. This was the moment when I got my most emphatic response, as a whole room of children uttered the immortal phrase "Awww, gross!," as they were confronted with the antics of the young Willa.
What does an exercise such as this teach us about Cather studies? In the first place, it showed me that the story of the young Cather does seem to have an immediate and powerful attraction, even to people who know little of her work. The young girl on the prairies; the remoteness of her hometown; the movement to the East Coast and the big city: at some kind of subliminal level, perhaps fed by movies and popular culture, we respond to this narrative, even if it might seem in its bare outlines to be close to cliché. I have always wondered why Cather has attracted so many biographers—to my mind, a disproportionate number if you set her alongside contemporaries such as Wharton or Fitzgerald. I had always imagined that this biographical fascination was in some way linked to the opacity of Cather's private life; the less that we know, the more tempting it is to project interpretations onto the apparent tabula rasa left in 1947. Having talked to my audience of miniature Cather scholars, I now suspect that the Cather story in many ways takes on an archetypal pattern of oppositions (provincialism/ the city, youthful energy/adult success, science/art) that can be registered by quite young readers of her life.
But, of course, in order to present that narrative we also have to simplify — and simplify quite radically — what "Willa" meant. For the sake of my audience, I kept things short; but the larger story of Cather's life would have presented discontinuities and fissures that would have been difficult to handle. To put this another way: Cather made sense to the children as a Nebraskan author, rooted in places they knew or had heard of, but the larger and more eccentric movements of her imagination (towards Quebec or nineteenth-century New Mexico) would have been difficult to encompass and schematize for a novice audience. This point returns us to a recurrent feature of Cather criticism: its broken-backed shape. Rather like the discontinuous, episodic and somewhat fractured shape of some of her novels, Cather's own career moved through disjunctive phases, creating stages and distinctive periods within the overall career. Cather biography sometimes seems to reflect this — notably in Sharon OBrien's account of the early part of the life (the next stage of the biography apparently discontinued). Its for this reason, perhaps, that we now have a series of "Cather's" in place of an overarching and monolithic "Cather."
So perhaps in a few years another generation of Cather readers will emerge in Lincoln. However, I half suspect that — at least for the present — they would be more interested in Willa's Big Book of Animal Science (Complete with Experiments to Do At Home) than My Ántonia.
Now there's an idea for the University of Nebraska Press . . .