It’s a mystery to me why it’s taking so long to install Willa Cather’s statue in the Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., but I can no longer hold back on sharing the news of this upcoming event!
Clearly, the whole process of deciding who gets to be represented in our Capitol Building is involved, especially when it comes to replacing another statue that has resided there for some time. The statue of novelist Willa Cather will be replacing that of Julius Sterling Morton, credited with initiating Arbor Day, among other things, but also a supporter of slavery.
While the statue of Cather is lingering in a warehouse somewhere around Washington, D.C., there’s NO doubt that she will eventually make her way to Statuary Hall, becoming the twelfth statue of a woman on display there. The way it works in Statuary Hall is that states are allowed to display two statues of notable individuals representing their states. Nebraska has opted to switch out both of their original statues for new ones; Chief Standing Bear, Native American civil rights activist, replaced William Jennings Bryan in 2019. Bryan has made his way home to Nebraska and continues to serve his home state well.
Willa Cather, the Writer
Willa Cather (1873-1947) was born in Virginia but her family moved to Nebraska when she was a young girl. She attended the University of Nebraska and in her thirties moved to New York City where, primarily, she lived the rest of her life. Yet, she was a Nebraskan for sure and this is reflected in several of her most esteemed novels.
Discover more about Cather in these two posts on our NWW site: Willa Cather’s My Antonia: An Unusually Beautiful Read and Woman Writer Willa Cather: A Forever View of the Mountain.
It is duly noted that although Cather was talented, accomplished and well-known, she was not flawless and “critics have pointed out shortcomings in how she represented race”(Wise).
Scholar Andrew Jewell from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln agrees:
“She was a woman of her time. And she didn’t represent Native American life well. She did not represent African American life well or frequently. And I think that’s good for readers to contend with the fact that she has a power, and there are some things that are not perfect about her”(Wise).
Littleton Alston, the Sculptor
Soon Cather’s statue, created by sculptor Littleton Alston, will be standing in the Hall representing Nebraska alongside Ponco Chief Standing Bear.
Albeit long overdue, it’s significant and exciting to note that Littleton Alston is the “first African American artist to contribute to Statuary Hall in its over 160-year history”(Wise).
Alston, associate professor of sculpture at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, is originally from Washington, D.C. and he recounts the summers he and his brothers would ride their bikes from their home section of D.C. to the Capitol and other buildings and sites in the vicinity.
“Alston grew up in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s and 70’s, in a neighborhood that felt worlds away from the grandeur of the U.S. Capitol,” explains journalist Cat Wise.
To think he’ll have a sculpture, selected from over seventy entries, displayed in the Capitol soon. It’s a dream come true.
Alston says about his subject, Cather:
“I connected to her, her being a writer and an artist. And when I won, it had rounded a circle, putting a piece into the US Capitol, a place I had gone as a child, no idea of what a sculptor was. I was just moved to tears”(Wise).
He goes on to explain:
“There was no path cut for me. I had to cut that path. It’s going to be a culmination of all those years. I can tell you this much. Willa will hold her own in that collection. She will hold her own. And I hope all of the young girls who want to be writers can look at that and know that there’s a hero in that collection for them”(Wise).
Not only does Cather continue to inspire a wide range of writers and artists, she is a role model for many because of who she was and the way she lived her life. As Cat Wise notes, “A 21st century lens has also helped scholars redefine a key relationship in Cather’s life. For almost forty years, Cather lived with her partner, Edith Lewis,” in what was clearly a committed, loving and working relationship. Wise points out that Lewis, an editor by trade, worked closely with Cather on the editing of her work too.
It is no surprise Cather is one of the women contributing to the Breaking the Bronze Ceiling initiative, working to increase the number of real women represented in public spaces. (If you’re interested in discovering more women who have cracked the bronze ceiling, check out the many posts in our NWW category Nasty Women Writers: Breaking the Bronze Ceiling, Statues of Real Women in Public Spaces.)
Ashley Olson, Executive Director of the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Nebraska states:
“[Cather] portrayed in her fiction very strong women characters and she herself, of course, was a self-made woman who really didn’t conform to societal norms.”
This year, 2023, is the 150th anniversary of Cather’s birth and although we’ve been waiting three years for her statue to be installed in the Capitol, due to this year’s significance, it WILL indeed happen. When it does, you’ll hear more about it from us!
Willa Cather is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Maria Dintino 2023
Wise, Cat. “A Sculpted Life: Nebraska Public Media.” PBS NewsHour, 20 Dec 2022.