Last week, my sister Theresa and I took advantage of the opportunity to visit the grave of novelist Willa Cather and her longtime partner, Edith Lewis, in the Old Burying Ground behind the beautifully preserved Meeting House in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
I had known for a long time that Cather was buried in Jaffrey, but didn’t know how it had come to be that the woman who wrote “of prairie pioneering…the desert southwest…Quebec City at the end of the seventeenth century…her own birthplace, rural northern Virginia,”( https://www.willacather.org/willa-cathers-biography) chose a small New Hampshire town as her final resting place.
That was until I read an excerpt from the book Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record written by Edith Lewis, the one who knew her best:
“Jaffrey became the one [place] she found best to work in. The fresh, pine-scented woods and pastures, with their multitudinous wild flowers, the gentle skies, the enclosed fields, had in them nothing of the disturbing, exalting, impelling memories and associations of the past – her own past.
“Each day there was like an empty canvas, a clean sheet of paper to be filled.”
Cather (1873-1947) was born in Virginia, moved with her family to Nebraska at age nine, then to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for ten years after college graduation, and on to New York City at age thirty-three, which became her home base with Lewis (1881-1972) for the rest of her life.
Yet, in the summer of 1917, friends invited Cather to visit them while they were staying at the Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Cather obliged and was so taken by the landscape and people, she continued to spend months there every year for over two decades. She especially relished the autumn months in New Hampshire.
While in Jaffrey, Cather occupied two rooms on the top floor of the inn, with windows looking out over Mountain Monadnock and “its very individual outline.”
The inn was often busy and Cather preferred a quieter space to write. Two friends renting a place less than a mile from the inn suggested putting a tent up in the meadow next to where they were staying. That plan worked splendidly!
There “she wrote for two or three hours every day, surrounded by complete silence and peace. In the afternoons she took long walks about the countryside and up Monadnock mountain, often carrying her Mathew’s Field Book of American Flowers, her favourite botany,” recounts Lewis.
Over time, Cather became very close to the family who owned the inn, the Shattucks, and Austermanns.
Lewis remarks, “The fact that she was a celebrity meant, I think, little to them; they were too much New Englanders for that. They had a great admiration and liking for her character.”
That first summer in Jaffrey, Cather wrote large portions of My Ántonia, in the protective shadow of one of the most climbed mountains in the world, Mt. Monadnock.
“We read the proofs of My Ántonia together in Jaffrey early in the morning the following summer. Willa Cather liked to read proofs out of doors whenever it was possible; and one could always find convenient rocks to sit against in the woods near the Shattuck Inn. Those were wonderful mornings, full of beauty and pleasure,” says Lewis.
My Ántonia was Cather’s fourth book, published in 1918. Here’s NWW’S recent post about this remarkable novel: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia: An Unusually Beautiful Read.
When in Jaffrey, Cather “lived with a simple sense of physical well-being, of weather, and of country solitude,” an ideal balance to her otherwise city existence.
Willa Cather and Edith Lewis are buried side by side. They occupy a corner of the Old Burying Ground with a forever view of the mountain.
Willa Cather is a #Nasty Woman Writer.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather: A Personal Record. NY: Knopf, 1953.