Wednesday, June 8, 2016

2016 Cather Conference

W.W. I inspired painting

Detail of the above painting
Since my blog post of March 17, 2016 titled "Occupying My Time" (which you can find in the blog archives) shared that my  proposal for a paper had been accepted, I thought you might enjoy a follow up blog about the conference.  This year's Cather Conference in Red Cloud, NE focused on Cather's Pulitzer Prize winning novel One of Ours, in which the main character struggles with finding a purposeful life until he becomes a soldier in W.W. I.  My paper, titled "The Road Not Taken:  Comparing Cather's One of Ours with W.W. I Poetry," began with the Robert Frost poem by that name, a well-known poem which is rarely recognized as being related to W.W. I.  Twenty-one different poets were referenced in my paper, many of whom were soldier poets.  Did you notice that the cloud behind the farmer in the above painting was created from images of soldiers?  Farmers were considered very important to the war effort, as were the frugal cooking efforts of women and the plot gardens growing food for families so commodities needed for the soldiers were not consumed. 

American poet Alan Seeger
Perhaps the poem that best describes struggles most similar to what Cather's hero Claude Wheeler faced is "Sonnet 10" by Alan Seeger.  Seeger lived a bohemian life in Greenwich Village and the Latin Quarter of Paris before enlisting in the French Foreign Legion in 1914, well before his own country entered the war.  The sonnet begins, "I have sought Happiness, but it has been a lovely rainbow, baffling all pursuit..." and concludes "...Amid the clash of arms I was at peace."  Seeger is best known for his poem I Have a Rendezvous with Death, but it is Sonnet 10 that expresses the purposefulness of fighting for a cause in which you believe, which Seeger shared with the fictional Claude.  Seeger was killed in action on July 4, 1916, before the American troops arrived.

Der Tag from the exhibition
My paper was well received and I was pleased when several of the friends we have made at earlier conferences came to hear me read.  I had great fun preparing the paper, and I actually enjoyed presenting it.  I'm not sure whether I will ever have the opportunity to read it anywhere again nor whether I will publish it, but the days I spent exploring the wealth of W.W. I poetry, writing the paper, and preparing the slide presentation that accompanied my reading (with the power-point training from my nephew Darin Beck and my 'presentation assistant' Larry Fenwick), was time well spent for all of the things I learned.
On display in the Opera House was a wonderful exhibit curated by Tracy Tucker.  The painting at the top of this blog is from the collection of the Herbert Hoover Museum, one of six paintings loaned to the Cather Foundation for the conference.  It was the first time the Hoover Museum had allowed the paintings to travel--quite a privilege for the Cather Foundation.  Also on display was a W.W. I uniform, as well as many other interesting objects, including a copy of Der Tag from the collection of Cather's youngest brother. 
The cast of Der Tag
Der Tag is a 1-act play written by Sir J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) as part of an effort by England to utilize the talents of its famous writers to create propaganda.  Barrie's concept was to show the political and military pressure imposed on the Kaiser to declare war through the characters of Chancellor and Officer, who exit the scene to allow the Kaiser time to reflect on what he is about to do.  He dreams, and The Spirit of Culture enters to urge against war, and the Kaiser (called Emperor in the play) tears up the declaration of war in front of Chancellor and Officer.  Again, he falls asleep and Culture reappears, wearing a bloody wound.  The Kaiser awakens believing his earlier dream had been real and war had been avoided, only to be told by Culture that he had brought the war upon his now devastated people.  The play was performed with high expectations in England and America but was not successfully received, perhaps because the Kaiser was depicted too sympathetically. 
Culture offers the Kaiser a dagger to end his regret 

Because of the illness of the woman intended to portray Culture, I was asked to assume the role.  To my surprise, I had a great time!  The play was performed twice in the lovely Red Cloud Episcopal Chapel to a nearly full house both times, and apparently we received more cheers than the actors did in the W.W. I productions of 1915!  (Notice my bleeding wound, a red scarf.)

Learning W.W. I dance steps
As always, we had a great time in Red Cloud enjoying speakers, the papers that were read, author Karen Gettert Shoemaker reading from her book The Meaning of Names, the singing and playing of popular W.W. I music by Kansans Dr. Sarah Young and Judy Chadwick, and learning a few dance steps from the era.  That's my partner stand-in-male-dancer Nancy and me just to the right of the support beam.  We were short of men eager to dance but certainly not short of eager dancers!
It is no surprise to any of you who follow my blog that I am a great fan of Willa Cather.  She is not only a great American author but also is among the few great authors to depict the central region of America, and many would say that she is the greatest among them.  You may want to revisit "What If Isaac had met Alexandra Bergson?," 5-2-2013, and "My Steadfast Tin Soldier," 9-25-2014, and the sequel 10-2-2014 for more W.W. I history.  I hope my love of Cather makes at least some of you curious to read her novels and short stories, and perhaps even to visit Red Cloud, NE!

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