Skip to main content

#0105: Willa Cather to Witter Bynner, June 7, 1905

More about this letter…
Plain view:

Guide to Reading Letter Transcriptions

Some of these features are only visible when "plain text" is off.

Textual Feature Appearance
passage deleted with a strikethrough mark deleted passage
passage deleted by overwritten added letters overwritten passage
passage added above the line passage with added text above
passage added on the line passage with added text inline
passage added in the margin passage with text added in margin
handwritten addition to a typewritten letter typed passage with added handwritten text
missing or unreadable text missing text noted with "[illegible]"
uncertain transcriptions word[?]
notes written by someone other than Willa Cather Note in another's hand
printed letterhead text printed text
text printed on postcards, envelopes, etc. printed text
text of date and place stamps stamped text
My Dear Mr. Bynner1;

In regard3 to Mr. Slosson4's question as to where I got my information about Western life, you know I lived there for ten years. When I was not quite nine5 years old, my father6 moved from the Shenandoah valley to a ranch in the South-western part of Nebraska7, about ten miles north of the Kansas8 line. There was a word i n in Mrs. Deland's9 letter, you remember, about a "curious lack of a sense of beauty in the tales10" which I suspect is true enough. I had never thought of it before, but I suppose one's early experience experiences rather cling to one, and the years when I first began to note my surroundings at all were pretty much devoted to discovering ugliness11. If you've never been about in that part of the West, you simply can't imagine anything so bleak and desolate as a Nebraska ranch of eighteen or nineteen years ago. In "A Wagner Matinee"12 I used some of the features that I best remember of the one on which I lived. Up to the time of our going there I had always lived in the most beautiful part of that very beautiful valley, all woods and mountains and running water, and during the first year that we spent in the West I came about as near dying from homesickness as a healthy child well could. There was one miserable little sluggish stream13 about eighteen miles from our ranch. It was perhaps ten feet wide in the Spring, and in the late Summer it was no more than a series of black mud holes at the bottom of a ravine, with a few cottonwoods and dwarf elms growing along its banks. I remember that my little brothers14 and I would do almost anyhting to get to this creek.

The country was then almost absolutely treeless. About half way between our ranch and the town15 where we bought outr supplies, or, in the local parlance, "did our trading", there was a row of Lombard pop poplars which had been planted for a wind break, and when we children went to town the sight of theose poplars was the joy of the occasion. From the moment their tips came into view bewwe began to shout,– and a as the town was twenty miles from the ranch, we were generally pretty tired before we got to the trees.

I shall never forget the first Christmas I spent in the West. Most of our neighbors were Swedes and Norwegians, and my brothers and I were taken to a Christmas entertainment at the Norwegian church. The Christmas tree was a poor little naked boxelder-- you probably don't know that travesty of a tree-- all w wrapped in green tissue paper, cut in fringes to look like foliage.

During the four years in which I attended the sState uUniversity at Lincoln16, from 1890 to 189417, all that country was burned up by a continuous drouth. Our old neighbors, the Norsemen, began to go insane and to commit suicide in the most heartrending fashion. They were all deeply in debt and heavily mortgaged, and of course the credit of the country went all to pieces during those years. Those who lived through it are men of some means today, and it's a delight to go back there now and be shown their brussels carpets and bath tubs and shiny oak furniture, and to hear their daughters sodo runs on parlor organs. Nevertheless, those four years were a rather grim chapter of human history to have lived through. I knew one little Norwegian girl whose sister commited suicide by drinking carbolic acid. The girl herself thought that was wrong, but she was always praying to die. I don't believe you could imagine how sincerely she wished to die. She was so uniformly sunk in depression that, when they happened to have a half crop one year, her father sent her to Iowa18 to visit his cousins. She went in a day coach, but when she came back she told my little sister and Ime that she would never want to die again because she "had found out how beautiful the world was."is".

Things are a good deal better out there now, you understand, but, whenever I go back, I see the old tragedies that I knew so intimately in the background. I suppose the wild soil has to be reclaimed and subdued in that way, and always at pretty much the same cost, but it must be less grim in countries whrer where the mere external aspect of nature is something gentler.

I'm apt to be somewhat unrestrained and sentimental upon this subject; that's why I avoided it when you wrote me before. But this you have brought upon your own head.

Sincerely Willa Sibert Cather.