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Who Cares about What Happens in Nebraska? We Do.

Kansas Memory, Kansas Historical Society

To write about life on the plains might not seem like much of a risk today, but, at the turn of the last century, Willa Cather knew what she was up against when she made immigrant farmers – people she knew as a child growing up in Nebraska—her central characters.

In 1931, Cather remembered that as younger writer, she wasn’t sure readers would be interested in a novel “concerned entirely with heavy farming people, with cornfields and pasture lands…--set in Nebraska…. [which] is distinctly déclassé as a literary background….” Cather was sure that critics wouldn’t be interested, recalling one New York fellow in particular who said, “’I simply don’t give a damn what happens in Nebraska….’” Cather also wanted to write about Swedes, who at the time, appeared in print only in “broadly humorous sketches”—humor which depended upon the physical strength of the Swede and his “inability to pronounce the letter ‘j.’”  (“My First Novels.” On Writing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988, 94. Print).

Despite these biases and the disinterest they suggested, Cather chose to write about Nebraska and the immigrants she grew up among.  One of her early novels, My Antonia, today is considered a classic.  Ta Duh! A big score for Cather, Nebraska, farmers, and Swedes. 

Me, I’m a huge fan of My Antonia—it’s well-written, sure, reframed literary boundaries, all of that—but I like it because it helps me feel a bit closer to my paternal kin, Swedish and Dutch immigrants, farmers and tradesmen, who arrived in the American Midwest just 3 or 4 generations back. So I feel a kinship, I guess, with Cather’s novel, but I also admire the way the characters of My Antonia represent a broad swath of 19th century immigrants, those northern Europeans, with their varied languages, religions, and customs. And the novel includes migrants from the American east and south. Just for that range, the novel is a good read.  But, between you and me, the novel sanctions one of my guilty pleasures – Ole and Lena jokes. If you have Scandinavian roots, you probably have a repertoire.  If not, look Ole and Lena up on your favorite internet search engine, ok?  These are best told in a lilting voice, by the way.

Thank you, Willa Cather. And thank you, Radio Readers.   

For HPPR, dis is Yane Holverda channeling her Swedish roots-- from Dodge City, Kansas.