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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
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
the town15 where we bought ou
tr 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 be wwe 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
box–elder-- 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.