-Local Event: National Centennial Celebration of Willa Cather’s Novel My Ántonia

Willa Cather’s Spirit Lives On!

National Centennial Celebration of Willa Cather’s
Novel My Ántonia to Be Held in NH Oct. 19-20

Willa Cather writing at  Shattuck Inn with Mt. Monadnock in background. Photo attributed to Edith Lewis.
Willa Cather writing at Shattuck Inn with Mt. Monadnock in background. Photo attributed to Edith Lewis.

“Willa Cather’s Spirit Lives On!” is the title of a two-day nation-wide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the author’s bestseller, My Ántonia, a novel about a Bohemian immigrant girl adapting to life in the plains of Nebraska. The celebration is to be held at the foot of Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, NH Friday and Saturday, Oct. 19 and 20.

Jaffrey is where Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather (1873-1947), born in Virginia, raised in Nebraska, long-time resident of New York City, wished to be buried. Her gravesite, a tourist attraction in Jaffrey, is in the cemetery behind the 1775 Jaffrey Meetinghouse.

“This is a unique, national celebration of Willa Cather. We are asking people to come celebrate this great author in words, music, theater and food in the places, autumn color and mountain air she loved,” said Lou Casagrande, retired CEO of the Boston Children’s Museum and co-chair of the Jaffrey Cather Committee of six local organizations. The national sponsors are The Willa Cather Foundation of Red Cloud, Nebraska and The MacDowell Colony of Peterborough.

Cather wrote that “the best part of all the better books” – My Ántonia, A Lost Lady and Death Comes for the Archbishop – was written in Jaffrey. Parts of My Ántonia and One of Ours (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923) were written in a tent in a field a half-mile away from her room on the top floor of the Shattuck Inn, where she retreated in summer or fall months between 1917 and 1940.

Tickets are limited to 140 people because of the size of the venues. Half the tickets have been sold as of Sept. 6. People can read about the Cather events and buy tickets by going directly to:
http://www.jaffreychamber.com/events/details/willa-cather-national-celebration-7235, or by phoning the Jaffrey Chamber of Commerce at 603-532-4549.


The celebration will begin with a Friday night reception at the Jaffrey Civic Center on Oct. 19. On Saturday, the focus moves to Jaffrey Center, a beautiful 18th and 19th century village on the National Register of Historic Places with a wonderful view of Mt. Monadnock.

Guided morning tours will visit the gravesite near Jaffrey’s 1775 Meetinghouse where Cather was buried in 1947 and Edith Lewis, her lifelong companion and assistant, was buried 25 years later; the field where she wrote in a tent; and the 1833 Melville Academy Museum, which has exhibits on Cather and Lewis.

Young actors from Jaffrey’s Project Shakespeare plan to enact passages from My Ántonia or Cather’s letters at each site. A box lunch will be provided by the Shattuck Golf Club, the site of the former Shattuck Inn.

In the afternoon, Ashley Olson, executive director of the Willa Cather Foundation, and Tracy Tucker, archivist and director of education, will make a presentation at the Meetinghouse on My Ántonia and the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Classical and ragtime pianist Virginia Eskin will then give a lecture and recital on “How Willa Cather Played Music Into Her Writing” at the First Church in Jaffrey, across from the Meetinghouse.

Dinner will be at the Shattuck Golf Club and will feature dishes from the world of Cather’s immigrants.

Capping the day will be a performance of a musical play, Kindness and Cruelty: Willa Cather in Jaffrey, written by Tom Dunn with music and lyrics by Will Ogmundson. It has been touring New Hampshire since last November.

All eight events, including the dinner, a box lunch, the piano recital and the play are included in the $75 registration fee.

While the formal program ends Saturday, options on Sunday include a church service focusing on Willa Cather at 10:30 at the First Church in Jaffrey. Melville Academy Museum will be open 2-4 pm, and you can follow in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau and hike up to the 3,165-foot peak of Mt. Monadnock, the second most-climbed mountain in the world, or simply enjoy the fall foliage.


Critic H.L. Mencken, reviewing My Ántonia, said Cather “has got such a grip upon her materials—upon the people she sets before us and the background she displays behind them—that both take on an extraordinary reality. I know of no novel that makes the remote folk of the western prairies more real than My Antonia makes them, and I know of none that makes them seem better worth knowing.”

“Willa Cather’s My Ántonia is considered one of the most significant American novels of the twentieth century,” writes Penguin Random House, the publishing house. “Set during the great migration west to settle the plains of the North American continent, the narrative follows Antonia Shimerda, a pioneer who comes to Nebraska as a child of 13 and grows with the country, inspiring a childhood friend, Jim Burden, to write her life story. The novel is important both for its literary aesthetic and as a portrayal of important aspects of American social ideals and history, particularly the centrality of migration to American culture.”

Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, One of Ours, was inspired in part by the life and heroic World War I death in France in May 1918 of her younger cousin, Lt. Grosvenor P. Cather Jr.

Willa Cather’s literary output included 12 novels, four collections of short stories, a book of poetry and one non-fiction book.

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