Day Three of the Cather International Seminar

Day Three: Cather International Seminar

In the morning, 55 seminar participants boarded a tour bus to make the trip north along Lake Shore Drive to Andersonville and Uptown, neighborhoods connected with Cather’s Thea Kronborg and Lucy Gayheart as well as Cather childhood friend, Irene Miner Weisz, immortalized as Nina Harling in My Antonia. Neighbor Fannie Wiener (Mrs. Rosen in “Old Mrs. Harris”) is also connected to this part of Chicago: she is buried in Rosehill Cemetery, having died in Chicago during a visit to the 1893 World’s Fair.

Our energetic and witty tour guide, scholar Tony Millspaugh, provided commentary as our able driver, Cheryl, negotiated Lake Shore Drive and neighborhood streets. She was deft within Rosehill Cemetery as well, whose lanes were clearly not designed to carry large tour buses! First we went up Michigan Avenue, past the expensive stores and hotels–Burberry, Ralph Lauren, Saks, Tiffany’s, Chanel, The Drake, and other high, high-end places–and the Gold Coast area made famous by the Rockefeller and McCormick empires. We whizzed past many landmarks from the University Center: Frank Gheary’s bridge and “The Bean” or “Cloud Gate,” the Art Institute of Chicago, The Fountain of the Great Lakes in its courtyard, the Y (where the two branches of the Chicago River merge and head to the lake), Pioneer Park with its recreation of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, a number of Louis Sullivan buildings, and the Chicago Water Works, which was supposed to end the too-frequent cholera outbreaks that plagued 19th-century Chicago. The statues of Grant, Lincoln, and Phil Sheridan greeted us along the lake, as well as the Lincoln Park Zoo animals. We passed marinas full of boats, and the Lincoln Park Boat House which shelters various sculls for rowing. Tony regaled us with many stories of Chicago’s old mayors (two of whom were assassinated), Oprah, President Obama, sin and infamy (he recommended the book Sin in the Second City), and tales of the beer wars. Chicago has more bars, Tony told us, than any other American city. Between the German beer gardens and the Irish saloons, not to mention the Fort Dearborn Massacre in 1812 brought on by the dumping of liquor, Chicago has had a lively, colorful history connected to “the drink.” At this point in the 21st century, one can definitely say that the Carrie Nations of the USA did not win the beer wars! Tony told us about the 1871 fire, which destroyed much of Chicago along what is now Lincoln Park. He also pointed out the buildings and streets that Irene Miner Weisz lived in and that Cather visited when she came through the Windy City.

We weren’t able to go to the Chicago History Museum, but Tony highly recommends it. It is near one of Irene Miner’s homes. When she visited Chicago, Cather would use Irene’s credit at Marshall Field’s to purchase things for herself. She even held a book signing at Field’s great store, now gone and replaced by “the evil red star, Macy’s,” according to Tony. As we entered into the north ethnic neighborhoods, now the Edgewater area of town, Tony pointed out his favorite statue of Abraham Lincoln, a young man reading a book. We also passed Western Avenue, Chicago’s longest avenue. A Swede, Pers Peterson, planted most of the trees in pioneer Chicago, helping to establish its “garden in a city” culture. Chicago’s wonderful green spaces owe much to Peterson’s vision. Cheryl gingerly pulled into the Rosehill Cemetery, clearly not designed for unwieldy modern tour buses! We walked to the burial sites of Irene Miner Weisz and Fannie Wiener, who died during the 1893 Chicago Fair and had to be buried within 24 hours, the Jewish custom. She now rests in an old Jewish section of the cemetery. Irene lived a long life–1881-1971. In Andersonville, one finds the Nelson Funeral Home, where Irene and her husband, who preceded her in death, were “rested”–or is it fested?– the Swedish term for a wake. Thankfully the temperature today is tolerable; the walk around the cemetery was a bit longer than people had expected, so we had to hurry to Ann Sather’s for lunch in order to return downtown for afternoon sessions. Anne Kaufman hopes to add a photo of our meal later on. I forgot my camera this trip.

My sister and I are still recovering from the luncheon meal! While some of us ordered vegetarian–an overly ample portion of salad–most of us wanted to try the restaurant’s famed “Swedish Sampler.” It was overwhelming! Duck with lingonberry sauce, white sausage, Swedish meatballs, noodles and gravy, kraut, humongous cinnamon rolls, and strawberries and chocolate squares–way too much food to process! With just a few seconds to spare, I ran into the Swedish American Museum to purchase a “Velkommen” sign for my home, a connection to my paternal grandmother’s family, the Dahlquists and Christies, who settled in Andersonville. It’s worth Googling Ann Sather to read about this wonderful restaurant. The walls are all decorated with rosemaling paintings; we ate upstairs in a charming area overlooking the street.

We passed familiar territory on the way back, but Tony pointed out some new features we had missed: the splendidly elaborate terra cotta decorations on Uptown buildings, the ferris wheel at the old Navy Pier, the Palmolive Building with its dirigible landing pad (never used–the Hindenberg disaster happened) that became home to Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club, and all of the Mies van der Rohe skyscrapers along the lake. We passed Gheary’s fanciful Bean again, and Cheryl twisted and turned around downtown before landing us back at the university center: happy, smarter than we were before we left, and ready for the afternoon sessions. I have to chair a session on “Southwestern Modernism” in half an hour, so I’ll sign out for today. Tonight I plan on resting up, reading more of Mildred Bennet’s The World of Willa Cather, and beginning to pack up for the train trip home tomorrow afternoon. Thank you Tony for a great tour of the quintessential American city!


Notes from the 12th International Cather Seminar

The International Cather Seminar Begins Today, June 25th

The first day of the seminar has opened splendidly, from the first plenary session to tonight’s keynote address, “My Willa Cather,” by novelist Bradford Morrow. Our group is international and bridges scholars, writers, and Cather’s common readers. The quality of papers I observed today was impressive, particularly on the topics of urban space, Modernism, and Chicago. Many of us took a break in the afternoon to wander over to Millenium Park, just a few blocks from our seminar site at the University Center on State Street. A group from Mexico was doing sound checks, allowing us to sit and enjoy their preview of a free concert tonight at the spectacular outdoor theater in the park. The sun is setting at this point, city lights now defining the skyline. Lake Michigan is disappearing in the darkening horizon from my eighth story room. All is good in the world.

Westlit readers might be particularly interested in news from the Cather Project at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Andy Jewell, who guides development of the Cather Digital Archive as its editor, gave an informative plenary address entitled “The Professor’s Mouse.” Westlit readers should visit the site at to enjoy the new additions outlined in this presentation. Foremost among the new features is the Geographic Chronology of Willa Cather’s Life (GeoChron), developed with the help of the Nebraska Humanities Council. One can track Cather’s travels in multiple ways. Andy demonstrated both location and date range searches. Images pulled from the 2600 photos now on the Cather Archive pop up to illustrate her sojourns. Andy noted that his team hopes to add scanned postcards that Cather sent over the years as well as samples of texts that describe Cather’s varied places and spaces. As Andy put it, “the woman was a cosmopolitan woman.” No doubt about it, thanks to GeoChron.

Another fascinating new feature on the Archive is TokenX, a text visualization program. Andy demonstrated this cool tool by creating a word cloud of “Paul’s Case,” showing us that the word “moment” is key in the story (among others). Even a large novel like Song of the Lark can be scanned for stylistic features in seconds (the word “little” is prominent). One can even do an n-gram analysis up to 5-grams, examining Cather’s cherished phrases through her oeuvre. All of her fiction has been keyed into this program, and TokenX allows one to design specific language analyses of Cather’s texts.

57 short fiction texts published before 1923 are now featured in the Archive, and the scholarly edition of Cather’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, One of Ours is now digitized. Moreover, Volume 6 of Cather Studies is available to scholars of Cather and the American West. Particularly wonderful in the short fiction archive were the original illustrations that accompany them as well as the facsimile versions of the 57 stories. Andy also showed us images of the first editions of all Cather’s novels. If you are interested in Cather’s career as an editor and journalist, you can now find her editions of The Home Monthly as well as her articles in the Nebraska State Journal. Andy added that the “vibrant world of theater in 1890s Lincoln” is recreated for all to enjoy.

Later this year, some other additions will appear in the Archive: Sharon Hoover and Melissa Ryan are preparing a bibliography of Cather’s reading. Hannah German is studying translations of Cather’s fiction, and her research will help define Cather internationally. An update of the Calendar of Letters, a collaboration with WLA member Janis Stout, is in the works (400 letters to be added). For those of you eager for the digital versions of Alexander’s Bridge and the 7th edition of Cather Studies, your wait won’t be long. They are coming this fall. Andy says that his group will also be adding features to the scholarly editions that have already been archived. As Andy said, “this project never ends, which is exhilarating and scary.” New features are added regularly, he noted, as the group chases a comprehensiveness that “is the dream and the fantasy” of every digital archivist. The inventiveness, aesthetic beauty, and scholarly integrity of the evolving Cather Archive are impressive, so please take time to look at it and provide feedback to Andy and his team.

I asked Andy if he had any words for the Westlit audience. He emphasized that digital archives can take any focus, not simply an author-centered focus. A digital archive on American regionalism, he added, “could be a great resource.” His archive provides one model for high-standard scholarly work in the digital humanities. He encourages Westlit visitors to envision new emphases and contents.

Finally, to balance Andy Jewell’s visual display in the morning, Bradford Morrow gave a luminous tribute to Cather, family, and creativity. Illustrating the parallels between Cather’s career in the early twentieth century and his own writer’s journey in the late 20th and 21st centuries, Morrow shared photos from the Cather archives and his own family’s records. Interweaving comments on geography, generational stories, and writerly techniques, Morrow offered a meditation on the nature of home and other “scapes” that inform Cather’s and his works of fiction. The verbal and visual tapestry that Morrow presented was loudly applauded and punctuated the end of the day in a deeply satisfying way. His talk will be replayed via the webcasts that the Chicago Public Library maintains. More reflections of the 12th International Cather Seminar to follow tomorrow.