A Literary Pilgrimage on the Northern Plains

They take their authors seriously in our neighbor states to the south. I was invited to give the keynote address at the annual Willa Cather conference in Red Cloud, Nebraska this year. Red Cloud is in extreme south central Nebraska, almost on the Kansas border. I decided to drive, for reasons that will become clear, and because I love nothing more in the world than a loopy and largely pointless auto journey over any landscape west of the Mississippi River.

Cather (1873-1947) is quite possibly the greatest Great Plains writer. If you have not read My Antonia or O Pioneers!, you owe it to yourself to seek them out right away. They are novels of the pioneer era of white settlement of the plains. Antonia Shimerda is a young Bohemian girl who comes with her immigrant family straight from Eastern Europe to the fictional town of Black Hawk, Nebraska, to take up a homestead. Her Old World parents are unable to adjust to life on the windswept, primordial prairie—what Antonia calls "your cawntry." Her lovely, dignified, inept father eventually commits suicide. But through pure sacrifice (of what our generation might call the pursuit of happiness) and decades of body-damaging labor, Antonia succeeds in building a modestly successful frontier life. That summary doesn't do justice to the novel, which is really a series of vignettes that illustrate the elemental vitality, even magnificence, of this young pioneer woman. My Antonia is one of the handful of books I reread every two or three years, and I always burst into tears at the very same moment in the text.

To prepare for my lecture, I read scads of Great Plains literature. Five Cather novels. She's Nebraska. Hamlin Garland's fabulous autobiography, A Son of the Middle Border, arguably the greatest of Great Plains autobiographies, with the possible exception of Eric Sevareid's Not So Wild a Dream. Garland was Iowa and South Dakota. O.E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth. He was South Dakota. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie and The Long Winter. South Dakota. Lois Phillips Hudson's Reapers of the Dust. North Dakota. Rachel Calof's Story. North Dakota. And Kent Haruf's Plainsong. He's Colorado, the only living author of those I read to get ready for my lecture.

All this reading was pure joy. The irony, of course, in that I got to sit with these great books in my favorite reading chair with a glass of wine by my side, in a house with windows, insulation, central heat, siding, and electric appliances (that's my "work"), while the folks I was reading about (who made it possible for me to have so frivolous a life) lived in caves, sod houses, and shacks, burning buffalo chips for fuel, literally faced starvation during the first lean, terrifying winters on the plains, and worked themselves to death (some literally) to prove up the cawntry. Hamlin Garland writes about following a one-horse plow from dawn to dusk for eight full weeks (56 successive days) when he was nine years old, and for being rebuked, with the threat of a whipping, when in sheer exhaustion or boredom he would lie down on the prairie to gaze at the clouds for half an hour. "We were all worshippers of wheat in those days," he writes in one of the finest passages in his book.

As the day of my lecture drew closer, I decided to make my auto trip to Red Cloud a literary pilgrimage. I drove from Bismarck to Jamestown, then to just north of Aberdeen, where Garland and his parents established homesteads. Virtually all traces of their lives in Brown County, SD, are now gone, but there is a gravel county road rather grandly named "Hamlin Garland Memorial Highway." He deserves better.

At each stop on my pilgrimage I read favorite passages from the books in question, puzzled over county maps, took notes and scores of photographs, and purchased whatever seemed requisite from interpretive centers or the village's Rexall Drug Store, which still tends to have a small book selection tucked away towards the back.

Then I ventured east to De Smet, SD, one of the homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder's books are no longer my favorites in this genre, but they have a very special place in my heart because I read them when I was first coming alive to the idea of literature, and they had nothing to compete with on the broad desert of my brain except the Hardy Boys. When I read The Long Winter, I remember feeling my first savage inrush of jealousy, when I realized that Almanzo Wilder was intending to marry Laura, whom I loved. The Laura Ingalls Wilder complex at De Smet is charming: historic buildings, a gift shop, and a garden with lilacs strong enough to make you stagger.

After a night in Sioux Falls, I drove to Bancroft, NE, one of the homes of my favorite Great Plains poet John Neihardt. Neihardt is best known for his Black Elk Speaks, a romanticized account of the life and vision of the Lakota holy man, Ben Black Elk, but he was also the poet laureate of Nebraska, and the author of the only Great Plains epic poem, The Cycle of the West. The interpretive center there is modest but wonderful, with excellent old-style exhibits about his life and work, the obligatory 12-minute film, and a gift shop, where I purchased one of the last cassette tapes in America. The curator asked me if I knew how to use one! And I shocked her by saying I still drove a car with a cassette player!

Red Cloud has given itself to Cather as Hannibal, MO, has given itself to Mark Twain, but with infinitely more taste and dignity. The conference took place in the old Red Cloud Opera House (now the Willa Cather Center). Each year at conference time, 100-250 people come from all over the country, from all over the world, to celebrate Cather's art and life.

The British lexicographer Samuel Johnson said, "The chief glory of every people arises from its authors." I love it that Nebraska takes Cather and other writers so seriously that it works hard to keep their work and fame alive, to wrestle with the hard questions that great writers ask about the communities and landscapes where they live, and to deepen the spirit of place of the Great Plains. We need more not less of this, particularly in North Dakota, which is in the first heroic phase of an erasive industrial and cultural revolution. Conference participants received "footprint" maps of Cather's Webster County. I went to each of 20 sites, including the spot where the real "Mr. Shimerda" was buried after his suicide, and then, with deep reverence, to the grave of Annie Sadilek Pavelka, who helped to inspire My Antonia.

On the long journey home I stopped in the Sand Hills of western Nebraska, north of the village of Ellsworth, at the lonely grave of Mari Sandoz, the author of Old Jules, Cheyenne Autumn, and Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas. Mari wanted to be buried looking over the orchard her crusty, irascible, heroic father Jules Sandoz planted, and there she lies, for eternity, a monument to what a strong and disciplined woman can do by stringing together words in the English language.