Willa Cather is known primarily for her work in fiction, especially in the novel. However, if we see Cather only for such novels as My Antonia, The Song of the Lark, and O Pioneers!, we overlook a major developmental point in her career. Few people realize that Willa Cather's first published book was a volume of poetry entitled April Twilights (1903). Bernice Slote, a reputable Cather scholar and critic, said of Cather that "Nothing in her work is unrelated to the whole. In the poems (as in the first stories....) we find early sketches, the first motifs, the suggested design of her major work" (Snyder x). In order to fully understand the roots from which Cather's later, and more celebrated works grew, we need to take a close look at her early life and her experiences as the young writer who produced April Twilights.
Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873 at Back Creek Valley in Virginia. She moved with her family to Red Cloud, Nebraska in September of 1884. Cather is quoted as saying at a later point in her life: "I don't gather the material for my stories....All my stories have been written with material that was gathered--no, God save us! Not gathered but absorbed--before I was fifteen years old" (Wasserman 93). She once described her time in Nebraska as being the "happiness and curse of my life"(Wagenknecht 16). Consequently, Cather's ambiguous view of the landscape of her youth presents the reader with both bleak and beautiful visions in her poetry and prose.
When Cather was sixteen years old, she entered preparatory school for the University of Nebraska which she attended from 1891-1895. She began her studies at the university with hopes of becoming a medical doctor. However, she began to turn her thoughts toward writing when an instructor sent an essay she had written on Carlyle to the Nebraska State Journal without her consent. The acceptance of her writing by a fairly popular publication coaxed her into her budding career as a writer (Wagenknecht 19). Cather embarked on a course of study that is described in the university records as "Literary, English and Philosophical." Her election of courses in ancient Greek literature indicates an interest in classical studies as well . One of these courses was "Greek Lyric Poetry." The influence of the classics and the Greek poets in her own poems is unmistakable (Slote xi). Aside from her course of study, Cather was a major contributor to the campus literary magazine The Hesperian. She was the magazine's literary editor from 1892-1893 and its managing editor from 1893-1894. In the fall of 1893, Cather also managed to write drama reviews and weekly columns for the Nebraska State Journal. Directly after graduation, she became associate editor of the Lincoln Courier and continued her work with the Nebraska State Journal (Slote xi-xii). However, she longed to leave Nebraska for the "art, music and literature associated with the East" (Wagenknecht 17).
In June, 1896, a year after graduation, Cather left Nebraska to become managing editor of Pittsburgh's Home Monthly. She also took a part time position as the drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader and went full time in 1897. During the years 1901-1906, she taught at Central High School and Allegheny High School in Pittsburgh. It was during this time that she wrote and published April Twilights. The book brought her a great deal of recognition and acclaim, and the momentum of her writing career began to pick up. Her first book of short stories, The Troll Garden, was published in 1905. McClure's Magazine in New York hired her as editor in 1906 and as managing editor from 1908 until 1911. The next year, in 1912, she published her first novel, Alexander's Bridge. In the years following, until her death in1947, she produced fourteen works of prose including novels, short story collections, and a collection of essays (Wagenknecht 11-12).
April Twilights is the only volume of poetry Cather published. Incidentally, after its first publication in 1903, she virtually stopped writing poetry. She did not take herself seriously as a poet and, although the book received a fair amount of praise, Cather became unhappy with her early work, even questioning the ability of any female to be a satisfactory poet. In an 1895 article on the death of Christina Rossetti (whose poem "Goblin Market" she would later use as an epigraph for The Troll Garden) she writes: "It is a very grave question whether women have any place in poetry at all" (qtd. in Slote xv). Sappho was the only great woman poet in Cather's opinion. Some felt that Cather's poetry possessed the lyric quality achieved by Sappho. In the English magazine Academy and Literature a reviewer of Cather's book writes: "Nowhere does the verse reach a high level but it is seldom bathetic and never silly. Miss Cather, too, can get a lilt into her lines which has something of the real singing quality" (Slote xxiii). Cather felt this "singing quality" was essential in poetry and preferred poets who were like the "bards of Greece". Words should convey their meaning not only literally but by their "relation, harmony and sound" (Slote xvi). Cather eventually bought up and destroyed the remaining copies of the 1903 edition only to reissue the book in an extremely altered form. April Twilights and Other Poems was published in 1923 and included twelve new poems while excluding thirteen of the originals. In 1937, Cather published an "Autograph Edition" which was further edited from the 1923 edition.
One of the poems that did not survive the changes of the 1923 edition is that which follows, "The Night Express." Originally published in the 1903 edition, it was eliminated from the 1923 edition. The poems, as they appear in the 1903 edition, are said to be divided into two groups: those that are "derived from reading" and those that are "based on experience" (Wagenknecht 54). "The Night Express" is based on an actual event that occured in Red Cloud, Nebraska. While Willa Cather was home in the summer of 1901, the dead body of a young man named Amos Cowden was brought home by train. His friends waited on the railroad platform to receive the body (Slote xxxi). Readers of Cather will note connections between this poem and the short story "The Sculptor's Funeral," in which a similar scene is depicted in lyrical prose rather than the hexameter couplets of "The Night Express" (Slote xxxiii). Here is a perfect example of the way in which Cather's poetry may have served as a breeding ground for ideas and themes developed more fully in her later work. The image of the railroad and the themes of departure and return, coming of age, and death in the Nebraska landscape all figure prominently in her later works.
Cather's reasons for cutting "The Night Express" from later editions of April Twilights remain unclear. She left no notes, early drafts, letters, journals or diaries for future biographers and readers. Scholars are unable to agree on her motives for cutting certain poems and letting others remain. Some sources claim that she cut poems that were too personal and autobiographical in an effort to achieve a more "universal" collection to which all readers could relate (Slote xxxv). Others claim that all the new poems in the later editions relate to "personal rather than literary" experience, which renders the exclusion of "The Night Express" a mystery (Stouck 42).
Whatever Cather's reasons for cutting this poem from later editions, it remains in print and is still worth reading. Ms. Slote's edition of the 1903 April Twilights publication was reprinted in 1990, a tribute to the artist's burgeoning creativity and her search for a voice. Though some have said Cather seemed to have "gotten off on the wrong foot with poetry," Mildred Bennet writes: "Miss Cather's temperament was essentially that of a poet rather than a novelist. One does not read her stories for their plots, and her characters are rather evoked than constructed; what one remembers are the feelings they awaken and the atmosphere in which she clothes them" (Wagenknecht 54). Anyone who reads Cather's later novels will recognize her poetic tendencies. Among the "mist-clad meadows" and the "red eye blazing" of "The Night Express," we can see the early lyric tendencies of this woman who longed to sing like the poets of old.
"April Twilights Availability Record List" Books In Print Plus. CD Online. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1986-1998, 14 Dec 1998.
Byrne, Kathleen D. and Snyder, Richard C. Chrysalis: Willa Cather in Pittsburgh,1896-1906. Pittsburgh: The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1980.
Cather, Willa. On Writing. 1920 Foreward by Stephen Tennant. New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1953.
Cather, Willa. The Troll Garden. Ed. James Woodress. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press for the Center of Great Plains Studies, 1983.
Hinman, Eleanor. "Willa Cather." Lincoln Sunday Star. November 6, 1921. Willa Cather: A Study of the Short Fiction. Ed. Loretta Wasserman. Boston: Twayne Publishers,1991. 92-99.
Slote, Bernice. "Willa Cather and Her First Book." April Twilights1903 By Willa Cather, Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962. pp.v-xlv.
Stouck, David. Willa Catherís Imagination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Willa Cather. New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 1994.
Wasserman, Loretta. Willa Cather: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers,1991.
Next: "The Night Express."
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