Red Cloud, Neb.
Willa Cather home
241 North Cedar
I’ve written on this blog about Willa Cather’s (1873-1947) adult life in Pittsburgh, but now we turn to the place most associated with her in readers’ minds: Nebraska. Cather set six of her best-loved novels (including O Pioneers! and My Antonia) and several short stories in Red Cloud, the small town in which she lived from the ages of 9 to 17. “My deepest feelings were rooted in this country,” she later wrote of the region where she grew up, “because one’s strongest emotions and one’s most vivid mental pictures are acquired before one is fifteen.” Even after she left the area to attend college and start her career as an editor and writer, Cather repeatedly returned to Red Cloud to visit. Though she lived most of her adult life in New York City, Cather’s small-town roots continued to feed her creative work.
The Cather family home is a modest frame structure built in 1879, which Cather depicted lovingly and realistically in her novel The Song of the Lark. So faithful were Cather’s descriptions of the house that guides there read from Cather’s texts as they escort visitors through the various rooms. (You can take a virtual tour of the house courtesy of the Cather Foundation.) The most interesting part of the house is Cather’s attic room, which was sealed off for years and has remained largely untouched since the late 19th century, when the writer occupied it. Cather’s siblings lived in a separate, dormitory-style room, but as the oldest child, she rated her own space. The room is still papered with the wallpaper (“small red and brown roses on a yellowish ground,” she wrote in Lark) that Cather purchased herself with her earnings from working at Cook’s Drug Store, and appointed with the shabby, secondhand furniture she sketched in such detail in Lark.
It was in this home at age 14 that the budding lesbian created a male persona for herself, William Cather Jr., which she identified with throughout her teen years, trimming her hair to a crewcut and donning boys’ clothes. For more about young William and his influence on Cather’s work, pick up Sharon O’Brien’s insightful biography of the writer, which examines her life and work with an eye to her sexuality and gender presentation.
In addition to the Cather home, Red Cloud boasts many other sites related to the writer’s life. The Willa Cather Foundation offers a walking tour, which you can now also take online.