Willa Cather and Modern Cultures

By Melissa J. Homestead; Guy J. Reynolds | Go to book overview

4 Changing Trains
Metaphors of Transfer in Willa Cather

MARK A. R. FACKNITZ

From the beginning truths of the unconscious
belie circumstantial surfaces of things
.

—Susan Rosowski, The Voyage Perilous

It seems almost silly to write that during all of Willa Cather’s life, trains were the primary mode of transport between cities. Even towns of modest size—for example, wayside Red Cloud—might have at least one eastbound and one westbound trunk-line stop each day. Yet the fact that trains are casually omnipresent, as routine as windows, walls, and doors are to rooms, does not make them non-essential. Rather, they are key elements of what Guy Reynolds characterizes as the “shifting historical matrix” of Cather’s rural Nebraska childhood, and “it would be a patronizing mistake” to assume that the elements of this matrix are “inevitably quiet or conservative or … insignificant” (19). Indeed, Cather’s trains “narratively” move much like Melville’s Pequod, the Rouen diligence in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or Kerouac’s motorcars in On the Road. They travel the edge between the naturalist’s environmental machinery and the romantic idealist’s impulse to essentialize, however subtly, our second nature. Famously, in “The Novel Démeublé” Cather looked

-67-

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