Willa Cather's Ecological Imagination

By Susan J. Rosowski | Go to book overview

Admiring and Remembering
The Problem of Virginia

ANN ROMINES

“Life began for me, ” Willa Cather famously said, “when I ceased to admire and began to remember” (Sergeant 107). Literally, of course, life had begun for her in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, in the Reconstruction days of 1873. In the more than nine childhood years Willa Cather lived there, in Back Creek Valley, she found much to admire. According to Edith Lewis, Cather's “Virginia life was one of great richness, tranquil and ordered and serene, ” free “from all tension and nervous strain” (12). But Cather discovered early that admiration, a largely passive state of acceptance and celebration, was not a mode in which she could grow as a writer. Another of Cather's often-cited Virginia anecdotes, recounted by Lewis, is the story of the “old judge who came to call at Willowshade [sic], and who began stroking her curls and talking to her in the playful platitudes one addressed to little girls.” The child “horrified her mother by breaking out suddenly: 'I'se a dang'ous nigger, I is!' ” (13). Among its many other implications, this is a story about the dangers of admiration—and of becoming its passive female subject. And it indicates that, even as a small girl, Willa Cather knew another story about Virginia, one that encompassed violence and racial (and perhaps gender and class) tensions.

When the young Willa Cather began to write fiction at the University of Nebraska, Virginia memories were among the first resources she turned to. “The Elopement of Allen Poole, ” published in a university literary magazine when she was nineteen, is a melodramatic tale that awkwardly tries to represent Virginia

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