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Willa Cather and Material Culture
Real-World Writing, Writing the Real World
By Janis P. Stout
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2005 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
A Life with Quilts
The American artist Georgia O'Keeffe, born in 1887, remembered that her first visual memory, at the age of "eight or nine months," featured a star-patterned patchwork quilt. Recalling even the smallest details of the fabrics in that quilt, O'Keeffe wrote, "This was all new to me — the brightness of light and pillows and a quilt" (O'Keeffe unpaged).
Willa Cather, born in her grandmother Rachel Seibert Boak's Virginia house fourteen years earlier, might have had similar early memories. For we know that quilts were a part of Cather's material environment from the first to the last years of her life. Her mother often told a favorite story of Willa's strong attachment to her cradle where she slept until she was three or four years old (Lewis 9), and it is likely that that cradle was made comfortable by hand-stitched quilts. Soon the little girl was observing quilt makers at work at her parents' home, Willow Shade: "When the old women came from Timber Ridge to make quilts, Willa Cather would creep under the quilting frames and sit there listening to their talk. ... Many of these stories Willa Cather remembered all her life" (Lewis 10–11). By the time she was five, the child was piecing quilt blocks herself, as she sat in the kitchen with her grandmother Boak and "Aunt Till," who had been her great-grandparents' slave — again under the "spell" of the old women's tales (Sapphira 287–88). From this early age and on, throughout her life, Cather seems to have associated quilts with old women and their stories.
Such an early education in quilt making was entirely typical for a rural girl of Willa Cather's generation. Her companion, Edith Lewis, reported that Cather "took great pride in making those quilts. She did the piecing, and the old women quilted them with lamb's-wool from the lambs on the place." Also involved in this process was Marjorie Anderson, the Cathers' young servant woman who later accompanied them to Nebraska; she "helped [Willa] to select calico for the quilts she was set to piece" (11–12). So from the beginning Cather — like so many other women born in the nineteenth century — thought of quilts both as a mark of individual accomplishment and as a collaborative process in which other women helped her make aesthetic choices and complete her work, as when the "old women" did the more demanding tasks of preparing the wool batting and quilting the tops that Willa pieced.
Significantly, Cather got her early quilting lessons, as far as we can tell, from older women, who had received their own domestic educations before 1850, or from women (like Marjorie Anderson) who were significantly below the Cathers in social class. In the early 1880s, however, when young Willa was sewing plain geometric patchwork, meant for practical use, the quilting fashion was beginning to change. In 1882 Harper's Bazaar announced the advent of the crazy quilt: "We have quite discarded in our modern quilts the regular geometric design once so popular. ... Now we are very daring. We go boldly on without any apparent design at all" (quoted in Kirakofe 146). The most fashionable crazy quilts, elaborate improvisations, were made from perishable silks that could not be washed and were embellished with intricate silk embroidery, as well as occasional beading, lace, and fringe. They were intended for parlor ornamentation, not for warmth and use. Such creations epitomized "fancy work," such as Willa Cather professed to despise when, at the age of fourteen, she wrote in a Red Cloud friend's album that her "idea of real misery" was "Doing Fancy work" (Bennett, World 113). Just about that time, Godey's Ladies' Book proclaimed (somewhat prematurely) the end of the crazy quilt fashion, dismissing "'crazy' patchwork" as "the most childish, and unsatisfactory of all work done with the needle" (quoted in Kirakofe 149).
Throughout Willa Cather's life in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States, quilt fashions continued to change, proliferate, and recur, often tied to economic, political, and aesthetic changes, including the fluctuating status of women. Often quilts and their construction, preservation, and display became material links to earlier generations of sewing women. Although we have no current records of quilts that may have traveled with the Cather family from Virginia to Nebraska when they emigrated in 1883, it seems almost certain that such portable household essentials would have made the trip, as they did with so many westward emigrants. The picture of the Templeton household in "Old Mrs. Harris," similarly transplanted from the South and probably Cather's most complete fictional portrait of her family of origin, includes heavy (presumably wool-stuffed?) "old home-made quilts" (80) brought from their Southern home. One Cather family textile heirloom, almost certainly from Virginia, that did survive in Red Cloud is a woven coverlet, which family members recall seeing in use in Willa Cather's parents' Nebraska household (Romines, interview). And the letters that flew back and forth between the women and girls of Willa Cather's family, from Virginia to Nebraska and back, often mention homemade textile products, including rugs, clothing, and quilts.
The earliest of Willa Cather's female relatives to set up housekeeping in Nebraska, her favorite aunt Franc Cather, soon began to produce quilts there; she wrote in 1876 to her sister-in-law back in Virginia that she was "piecing a quilt; but get along very slowly — quilted one the first of the winter." Whether the women of Willa Cather's own household also made quilts after their move to Nebraska, a few years later, is not known. But we do know that soon after the Cathers' arrival young Willa began to visit neighbors who would become lifelong friends. In her most famous comments on her early Nebraska years, Cather recalled that (as in Virginia) she loved to listen to these women telling stories as they went about their domestic work (Bohlke 10–11). Some of these neighboring families — such as the Lambrechts and the Sadilek-Pavelkas — were active quilt makers, and young Willa probably saw them working on their quilts.
So far as we know, Willa Cather herself did not remain a practicing quilter or practitioner of other needlework in her adult life. From her fiction, letters, and other texts (including some exemplary quilts), however, it becomes clear that she continued to respond to quilts and to the quilt culture of her times throughout her life. For example, a World War I–era Red Cross fundraising quilt, made and preserved in Red Cloud, is embroidered with Cather's name, among other local names. (Customarily, on such quilts, names were embroidered in exchange for a financial contribution to the Red Cross.) And an indication of Cather's eye for quilt makers' techniques is also suggested by a gift she purchased for her mother on one of her European trips, probably in the 1920s. She chose Egyptian wall hangings (typically made for the tourist trade), which feature traditional Egyptian figures and motifs, executed in careful layered appliqué similar to the work on traditional mid-nineteenth-century American "display" quilts made by members of the Cather family. According to her niece, Willa Cather meant for these appliqué works to be displayed prominently in her mother's bedroom, above the bed.
The most specific images of quilts in Cather's fiction occur in One of Ours (1922) and are connected with Mahailey, a character who has intimate ties to Cather's private life and her early quilting experience. According to Lewis, Mahailey is Cather's "most complete portrait" of Marjorie Anderson, the Cather family servant (11). Mahailey comes from a poor Blue Ridge family, just as Marjorie Anderson came from a large, poor family on Timber Ridge. Marjorie's mother was Mary Ann Marple Anderson, one of the old women who came to Willow Shade to quilt and to nurse young Willa in her childhood illnesses; Cather remembered her fondly as one of the great storytellers and influences of her life. In One of Ours, Mahailey is the proud owner of three explicitly designated quilts.
The only possessions Mahailey brought with her [from Virginia] when she came to live with the Wheelers [in Nebraska] were a feather bed and three patchwork quilts, interlined with wool off the backs of Virginia sheep, washed and carded by hand. The quilts had been made by her old mother, and given to her for a marriage portion. The patchwork on each was done in a different design; one was the popular "log-cabin" pattern, another the "laurel-leaf," the third the "blazing star." This quilt Mahailey thought too good for use.(85)
This is a very astute description, with an awareness of local and chronological quilting styles. The wool batting ties these quilts to a relatively cold region (Frederick County, Cather's birthplace, is Virginia's northernmost county), where sheep were plentiful, as they were at Willow Shade, and to the descriptions of quilts that Cather herself pieced. Mahailey, who is an "old woman" at the end of World War I and remembers the Civil War, would likely have been born in the 1850s; her mother might have made the quilts for her "marriage portion" in the 1850s or 1860s (Virginia mountain women typically married very early). The "Log Cabin," which has many variations, was one of the most popular patchwork patterns of the nineteenth century. "Most experts agree that it emerged sometime during or immediately after the Civil War. Log Cabin quilts were immensely popular during the last quarter of the 19th century" (Kirakofe 152). So this would have been a very likely pattern for Mahailey's mother (or Mary Ann Anderson) to piece for her young daughter, and one that Willa Cather, growing up in the last quarter of the nineteeth century, would probably have known.
The "Laurel Leaf" is a less-familiar pattern — but one that would have had special appeal for Cather and for other residents of rural Frederick County, where mountain laurel grew abundantly. Sapphira is explicit about the beauties of the laurel blossom and leaf, describing "the wayward wild laurel which in June covered the wooded slopes of our mountains with drifts of rose and peach and flesh colour. And in winter ... the laurel thickets spread green and brilliant through the frosty woods" (171–72). Two intricate appliqué patterns, both requiring fine cutting and stitching, celebrate the laurel. The "Mountain Laurel" pattern has been dated as early as 1820 by Hall and Kretsinger (108); and a similar "Laurel Leaves" quilt is dated 1865 by Safford and Bishop (158). Especially in the 1850s and 1860s, appliqué was a common quilt-making technique among Frederick County's most skilled quilt makers: the three surviving quilts from that period known to be associated with Willa Cather's family all employ appliqué. So local and family ssociations would have made the "Laurel Leaf" another likely and credible choice for her.
Finally, the "Blazing Star," a large, intricate, pieced star pattern (of which there are several versions), reflects the nineteenth-century enthusiasm for star quilts, which women often executed as their "masterpiece" quilts (as did Cather's aunt, Sidney Gore). Such special quilts were indeed considered "too fine" for everyday use. A 1930s exhibit of Frederick County quilts (probably at the 1934 bicentennial celebration of the Hopewell Friends Quaker Meeting) included a number of intricate star quilts, which appear to be nineteeth-century "masterpiece" quilts that have been carefully preserved.
From the precise description of Mahailey's quilts, we know that Willa Cather was well versed in local and national nineteenth-century quilt culture and history. Given the closeness of this character to a person that Cather knew intimately and loved from her own birth until Anderson's death in 1924, it seems quite possible that the quilts described here — or quilts very like them — did indeed belong to Marjorie Anderson and were a part of the Cather household and of Cather's memories of home, both in Virginia and in Nebraska.
We also know that quilts continued to be a part of Cather's constructions of home when she had moved far from Virginia and Red Cloud. About 1932, when "the cloud of the depression rested very darkly" on parts of New York City, Cather's old friend Elizabeth Sergeant visited her in the new, "spacious" apartment that Cather and Lewis had taken on Park Avenue. Cather found her new home "comfortable and convenient," she told Sergeant, who was full of enthusiasm for her friend's new Nebraska book, Obscure Destinies. However, Sergeant's (left-leaning) disapproval of such luxurious surroundings for an artist is palpable in her account of the visit. The only feature of the apartment that she seems to approve is Cather's private bedroom.
She led me from the sizable hall down a little corridor to her bedroom, where my coat was soon laid out on a calico patchwork counterpane, surely of Red Cloud make. This little room seemed bright and inviting and individual, and I hoped she wrote there — for how could Willa, so connected with primeval nature, write in the luxurious sheltered cave of the connecting main rooms. (250–51)
This account is interesting and important for two reasons. First, it reminds us of much that quilts had come to signify in the Depression 1930s when a revival of quilting and renewed interest in quilts were flourishing. Sergeant read the quilt on Cather's bed as a signifier of comfort, cheer, and stereotypically enduring small town ("Red Cloud") values. In her view, this quilt (the only object mentioned in the room besides an unspecified bed) created an atmosphere where the rural Nebraska characters of Obscure Destinies would be welcome, although Sergeant feared those personages would be unwelcome and perhaps even banished by the "snobbery" that prevailed in the lobby of Cather's apartment building, "with its repressed attendants in uniform" (251). Second, Sergeant's account corroborates that, after a difficult period when Cather and Lewis had had to put their belongings into storage and live in a hotel, this quilt (and perhaps others?) was among the cherished possessions that had made the cut in the new apartment, where much of the previous furniture had been banished for "new tables and chairs, more formal than those in Bank Street," their previous home in Greenwich Village (252). The quilt is displayed prominently in an intimate, "individual" space. Sergeant assumes that it is "of Red Cloud make" — but it could also have been one of the Virginia quilts that Cather pieced as a young child. Those quilts are described by Lewis, the companion of Cather's New York life, and obviously she is familiar with them; the description is specific (12).
Whatever the provenance of the quilt that Sergeant saw in New York, we know that it was joined in 1935 by a new Nebraska quilt. That year, Willa Cather received a gift from old Webster County friends and neighbors. Mrs. C. F. Lambrecht and her daughters, Lydia and Pauline, made her a quilt in a style that was very popular at the moment, with blocks embroidered with realistic representations of American flowers. (Embroidered "state flower" quilts were popular in the 1930s and 1940s.) Cather's letter of thanks to her friends reflects her real pleasure in their gift, and the next year she wrote again to let them know that this treasured quilt had traveled with her from New York City to her house at Grand Manan, New Brunswick, where she was spending her summer vacation (Calendar #1249 and #1321). The flower quilt was with Willa Cather, then, and on her mind, just around the time that she was beginning work on her last published novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
Excerpted from Willa Cather and Material Culture by Janis P. Stout. Copyright © 2005 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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