'Willa Cather: The Road Is All'

Joel Geyer and Richard Giannone
Filmmaker; Literary Scholar and Author
Thursday, September 8, 2005; 12:30 PM

Featuring the life and career of author Willa Cather, the American Masters film "Willa Cather: The Road Is All" aired on PBS on Wednesday, Sept. 7, at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Willa Cather was taken from her luxurious home in Virginia and dropped into the grass prairies of Nebraska in 1883, an experience that became the force behind all of her great novels: "O Pioneer," "The Song of the Lark," "My Antonia," "Death Comes for the Archbishop" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "One of Ours."

Filmmaker Joel Geyer and literary scholar Richard Giannone, author of "Music of Willa Cather's Fiction," were online Thursday, Sept. 8, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss Cather's life and work, as well as the American Masters documentary that features her.

This program is filmed in widescreen HD and David Strathairn narrates. Marcia Gay Harden, an Oscar winner for Pollock, provides the voice of Willa Cather.

Geyer has been producing, directing, and writing award-winning, national PBS documentaries for two decades. Recent programs distributed nationally include "Last of the One Room Schools," "Coach Osborne - More Than Winning" and "In Search of the Oregon Trail." He has produced two previous documentaries on Willa Cather that won numerous awards, including the CINE, Gabriel, Intercom and Ohio State awards. Geyer has specialized in directing historical re-enactments and dramatizations, working with Emmy Award-winning actors such as Julie Harris, E.G. Marshall, and Colleen Dewhurst. He is currently senior producer in the documentary unit at NET Television.

Giannone, who was a consultant/commentator in the American Masters film, is professor of literature at Fordham University.

The Transcript Follows.


Marysville, Calif.: For someone who has never read a Willa Cather book, which one would you suggest as a first experience? Should one read her books in order of publication? Thanks.

Joel Geyer: "My Antonia" is a great book with which to begin. My fifteen year old daughter is reading it in her high school English class this semester. She loves it.


Palm Springs, Calif.: Will Cather is one of the most talented writers this country has produced, but her novel about New Mexico promotes negative stereotype of the native Hispanic clergy. The peers of Padre Antonio Jose Martinez, "Cura de Taos" in the N.M. Territorial Legislature, upon his death in 1867, called him the honor of his homeland. Historian Fray Angelico Chavez called him New Mexico's greatest son, and Fr. Tom Steele, S.J. opines that in the long view of history his heritage will outshine that of Bishop Lamy. The state of N.M. will soon unveil a life-sized bronze memorial of the Padre, to be installed in the center of the Taos Plaza.

Joel Geyer: Tony Mares, the New Mexico writer and poet, makes it clear in the documentary that Cather took significant liberties with Martinez. Cather work was fiction. However, she often used real people as models and even hurt some of her close friends by that practice.


Cheverly, Md.: What seems to be the role of Samson (Blind) D'Arnault and his music in _My Antonia_? What seems to be the purpose of those in relation to the novel?

Richard Giannone: The music conveys Cather's passion for instinctive talent that is quite apart from technical ability. D'Arnault expresses Antonia's inner ability to respond to life beyond herdship.


Akron, Ohio: On the program, one critic said that Cather did not write a "single word" that would suggest she knew anything about sex. I strongly disagree and would like to know your opinion.

Joel Geyer: Vivian Gornick was the writer who said that. I don't agree with it either. However, we tried to represent different points of view in the program. "Coming Eden Bower", a short story by Cather, evocatively captures erotic experience.


You had my full attention: I had planned to watch just a portion of the show, but it was so interesting I watched every minute and plan to read a biography of her.

Is there a book you would specially recommend? Thank you.

Richard Giannone: Read LUCY GAYHEART (1935). This novel is Cather at her stylistic best, and it it filled with a lifetime of wisdom about young talent, lost love, and early death. Read it slowly, as though it were a poem (which it is).


Philadelphia, Pa.: How close to reality were Willa Cather's writings? Were they close to being autobiographical, or were they mostly her fictional inventions?

Joel Geyer: Both. One of Cather's greatest characters was Antonia, based on the "real" Annie Pavelka. However, the professor Godfrey (God-free) St. Peter was very autobiographical. He was precisely the same age as Cather and was at a similar place in his professional writing life as Cather. So, each case is different.


Marysville, Calif.: I actually had my 15 year old daughter in mind. Can a fifteen year old "handle" all of Cather's works? Are there some of her stories that a parent needs to read first?

Richard Giannone: I first read Cather when I was about 10 or ll. Yes, your daughter may find Cather very much to her liking. At the center of Cather's work is the search of n ever-young female genius for new life and new forms.


Wwlls Maine: I would like to know where I can find her books

Richard Giannone: All of WC's books are in paperback--not only at amazon but also on used book tables at local garage sales. Enjoy!


Baltimore, Md.: Why did you completely skip over the impact of Isabelle's heterosexual relationship and marriage on Willa Cather? You report that she was "devastated" by Isabelle's death, but Isabelle's marriage was a tragedy for Willa.

Joel Geyer: You might not have been watching carefully. It is clear in documentary, as you say, that Cather was devastated by Isabelle's marriage. But it is important to know that Cather's world was "breaking in two" in many ways, not simply that one.


Birthplace of Willa Cather: I didn't recognize the name of the town in Virginia in which she was born. Can you tell me any more? Is there anything to see at her birthplace? Thanks.

Richard Giannone: Gore, VA, near Winchester. A lovely town.


Tucson, Ariz.: Willa Cather enrolled in U. Nebraska as a man, and chose a woman, Edith Lewis, to be her lifetime companion. In your view, how did these aspects of Cather's life influence her writing?

Richard Giannone: I believe that the complex sense of gender gave Cather an extraordinary capacity to sympathize with how both men and women feel and think. Shakespeare was her model: He understood Juliet and Cleopatra as well as Falstaff and Caesar. Antonia's story is told by a man to express male admiration that transcends the claims of sexual desire.


Page, Ariz.: I watched the program last night and was completely captivated by the story of a woman who truly lived her life for the person she knew herself to be. Thank you for this enlightenment and inspiration. At one point you identify her as financially well off and I wondered if that wealth came solely from her writing? Thanks.

Joel Geyer: Willa was not really financially comfortable until "One of Ours' was published. She had modest financial success up to that point.


Akron, Ohio: What writers influenced Cather the most and why?

Richard Giannone: Shakespeare (most of all), Virgil, Homer, Hawthorne (THE SCARLET LETTER) is an early version of MY ANTONIA), George Sand. WC was especially well read in the classics.


Akron, Ohio: Early in the program Cather was quoted as saying (something like) "There is only one true God and Art is his revealer" and then we have Professor "Godfree". Can you elaborate on Willa Cather's feelings about this subject?

Joel Geyer: Cather saw art as one of the highest expressions of spirituality. Cather's own spirituality grew and changed over her lifetime. When she published "The Professor's House" with Godfrey St. Peter, she herself was going through a dark night of the soul when she was questioning the value of her own previous work and was wondering where her personal, spiritual and artistic life was going next. Her genius was that she had both the courage and the ability to explored her "dark night" in her work. Amazing.


New York, N.Y.: I actually have an unusual little comment to add -- I took a course on Edith Wharton and Willa Cather and enjoyed it totally. I collected a number of her books and shared them with some of my friends ... as an indication of how they have maintained interest one of my friends asked "When is her next book coming out!"

What a shame our young people do not do more reading of these types of classics.

Richard Giannone: I believe that many young people do read both Cather and Wharton now. Feminism has brought their writing to the center of undergraduates' attention.


Joel Geyer: Regarding the question about "what order to read Cather's book in?": You can read Cather in any order. However, if you really want to understand Cather's evolution as an artist, you should read them in order of publication. Early Cather is very different from late Cather. For example, Cather's early work celebrates youth. That worked while Cather was young. In Cather's short story "Old Mrs. Harris", she explores the challenges and satisfactions of old age.


Joel Geyer: Re: Cather European experience: Cather European experience was essential to her view of America. As Cather said, and I am paraphrasing, "you must know the world to understand the parrish." Cather celebrated the collision of cultures. Exploring what happens when different meaning systems meet and negotiate meaning is part of Cather's magic. In her novels of the American plains she makes it clear that America is being formed in a crucible filled with a rich diversity of cultures.

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Munich, Germany: While Willa Cather is known for her stories about the Mideast and the Southwest, The Norten Anthology that was used for my Short Story course at university includes "The Old Beauty" and "Paul's Case".

I enjoyed both of these stories, especially "The Old Beauty" since I now live in Europe, but why do you think that Norton went away from Cather's strength when choosing short stories for its anthology?

Also, how much was Willa Cather influenced by European travels or other European authors?

Richard Giannone: Norton probably chose these stories because they are out of copyright and therefore cost nothing to use. There are restrictions on just what Cather stories can been anthologized. She was averse to reading excerpts of her work, and didn't like paperbacks (which at her time were sleazy drugstore editions). Cather's will, I believe, has restriction on republication. The will has also been broken on occasion.

Cather was a francophile. Like Henry James, but to a lesser degree, her stories about America were anchored in the tensions poised over the Atlantic.


Purcellville, Va.: Whatever happened to Edith Lewis? Did she receive Willa Cather's estate, and, if so, how did she dispose of it when she died? Did she ever live with anyone else?

Richard Giannone: Yes, I believe, Edith Lewis received WC's estate. EL lived on in the east side NYC apartment until her death (I can't recall the year). Lewis by the way was herself a gifted woman and fine writer. Read her WILLA CATHER LIVING. I don't know the terms of the will. Royalties must still be poring in.


Akron, Ohio: Can you discuss her politics? Was she active politically?

Joel Geyer: Cather was not strongly political. She felt that art was the most powerful way to explore, and, I think, influence the world around her. In her older years she was "Republican." However, what it means to be a "Republican" and "Democrat" changes over time. However, critics with varying political interests have long fought to claim Cather as one of their own. Cather would have hated it.

Richard Giannone: I believe that Cather was traditional in political outlook ("conservative" would not be accurate for me) and culturally traditional as well. She had her back turned firmly on public debate about the pressing political debate of her time. In 1935, when the country was brought to its economic and political knees, she wrote LUCY GAYHEART, about turn-of-the-century life. 1935 was the year of the Social Security Act, but Cather found security (or searched for it) in memory, forgiveness, and art. War, hardship, Ford's Model A, technology, capitalism are all in the novel by quiet reference; but security for Cather was behind the brow and in the heart tempered by self-scrutiny. She didn't look to government for answers, except for those thta guarded the privacy require to find the only freedom she valued--to live her life as she wanted to live it by the highest ethical an artistic standards.


Ewing, N.J.: Joel,

How did this film come to be? I was delighted to see her profiled on PBS, but I admit I was a little surprised, too. As "New York, NY" suggested above, she's not really a household name (though she certainly is an American Master!)

Joel Geyer: I'm the director of the program and have wanted to do Willa Cather even since I moved here some 20 years ago. The writer and my co-producer, Christine Lesiak is a Nebraska native. We've both circled Cather as a subject for more than a decade. It was an article by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker that specifically fired the creative act. We at NET Television in Nebraska then approach American Masters with the idea. To praise the National Endowment for the humanities, this never would have been possible without their significant support. They are the primary funder. High profile artists with stronger commercial appeal such as Bob Dylan and Clint Eastwood can often find funding elsewhere. This Cather documentary would not have been done without the NEH.


Joel Geyer: Regarding the "Music of Willa Cather": Richard Giannone writes brilliantly about music and Cather. I highly recommend it. It provides insight into Cather you won't find elsewhere. Christine Lesiak (the writer of the documentary) and I sought out Richard to talk about music. We found him so compelling we asking him to be on camera as an interviewee. We're very glad we did!


Griffin, Ga.: Mr. Giannone,

What exactly is "The Music of Willa Cather's Fiction"? (I suppose I could search Google and find out for myself, but how often does one get to hear from the author himself?)

Richard Giannone: The music OF rather than IN WC's fiction is the cadence of the prose, the emotional aura of a reader who listens as well as reads the text. Read the ending of THE PROFESSOR'S HOUSE and let the repeated (usually triadic) sentences bring you into the professor's resignation to death and his commitment to a life alone, with joy, without grief. Such interior patterning is the music on the spirit's inner voice negotiating its anguish to find an emotional resting place. Such music is utterance of the true self formed in time and sound.

One gets to hear the author herself by letting the writing wash over one, take one in through a willing submission of one's own verbal patterns to those of the text. Only a great writer (Virgil, Shakespeare, James, Faulkner) will have gone deep enough into the true seld to tap this voice. You know it when you hear it for all the words have passed through the nervous system and come out alive, filled with breath and pulse.

Nice question. I hope I've opened it up for you.


Joel Geyer: JOEL SIGNING OFF: Speaking for Christine Lesiak, co-producer and writer,and myself, we thank you for your interest. If you have further questions, please feel free to write us at -- And, thank you Richard for being a part of this web chat. You've brought new and interesting dimensions to Cather's story.


Joel Geyer: JOEL's E-Mail:


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