Willa Cather on Denver and Chicago

Denver.jpgThere are sundry motives behind reading literature. One of them is to deepen a sense of place, which explains why Willa Cather’s romantic vision of the American West rivets me. In my current reading of The Song of the Lark (1915), the second novel in her Prairie Trilogy, Cather emplots me into the American West of the late 19th century, specifically two locales that are near and dear to my own story. Both quotations below activate the senses and prick the heart with a feeling for the places that are artfully described.


As a native of Denver, I love this passage because the narrator invites me to board a train moving toward the Queen City of the Plains:

As the short twilight came on, Giddy took a turn in the cupola, and Ray came down and sat with Thea on the rear platform of the caboose and watched the darkness come in soft waves over the plain. They were now about thirty miles from Denver, and the mountains looked very near. The great toothed wall behind which the sun had gone down now separated into four distinct ranges, one behind the other. They were a very pale blue, a color scarcely stronger than wood smoke, and the sunset had left bright streaks in the snow-filled gorges. In the clear, yellow-streaked sky the stars were coming out, flickering like newly lighted lamps, growing steadier and more golden as the sky darkened and the land beneath them fell into complete shadow. It was a cool, restful darkness that was not black or forbidding, but somehow open and free; the night of high plains where there is no moistness or mistiness in the atmosphere. (Part I, Chapter XVI)


As a former college student of Chicagoland, I love this passage because I have experienced the very same commotion and spectacle in the Windy City:

During this first winter Thea got no city consciousness. Chicago was simply a wilderness through which one had to find one’s way. She felt no interest in the general briskness and zest of the crowds. The crash and scramble of that big, rich, appetent Western city she did not take in at all, except to notice that the noise of the drays and street-cars tired her. The brilliant window displays, the splendid furs and stuffs, the gorgeous flower-shops, the gay candy-shops, she scarcely noticed. At Christmas-time she did feel some curiosity about the toy-stores, and she wished she held Thor’s little mittened fist in her hand as she stood before the windows. The jewelers’ windows, too, had a strong attraction for her—she had always liked bright stones. When she went into the city she used to brave the biting lake winds and stand gazing in at the displays of diamonds and pearls and emeralds; the tiaras and necklaces and earrings, on white velvet. These seemed very well worth while to her, things worth coveting. (Part II, Chapter V)

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