Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ten Great Recordings of Danny Boy

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Danny-blogging, essay 2 of 2
on the song "Danny Boy"

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the song “Danny Boy,” here’s a tasty selection of “Danny Boy” recordings by some favorite artists.  Please understand:  This list is purely subjective as well as limited to songs that I can easily link to via YouTube.  I’m making no claims that these are “the best.”  I’m simply making a claim that:  I like them!

So here are ten versions of Danny Boy, presented in chronological order, with a bonus track at the end:

Judy Garland:  I prefer this 1940 version to the showier version that Garland did in 1955, also available on YouTube.  With “Danny Boy,” I tend to prefer the simpler versions, no frills needed.

Paul Robeson:  With a restrained piano accompaniment, Robeson’s sublime bass voice conveys great depths of meaning.  Proof that men don’t have to be tenors to do “Danny Boy” right!

Harry Belafonte:  Taking his time, Belafonte’s mellow timbre lingers in the air as the last note fades.  Performed at Carnegie Hall, it sounds more like he’s sharing the song privately one-on-one, perhaps comforting a loved one.

Mahalia Jackson:  Usually associated with gospel music, Jackson’s powerful voice searches each word for new shades of meaning.  In her hands, “Danny Boy” sounds like it was meant to be a gospel song.

The Pogues:  You don’t need to be pitch perfect to do a classic “Danny Boy.”  Shane  MacGowan sounds like he’s lived it and that’s what counts.

Frank Patterson:  Of all these versions, this one sounds “most right” to me—an Irish tenor pouring his heart out in song.  Pretty cool that it featured so memorably in Miller’s Crossing (1990), too!

Judy Collins:  Such a beautiful voice, singing a capella.  I love the absolute silence in the hall until the waves of applause at the end.

Johnny Cash:  This is from near the end of Cash’s life, when he was making every word count.

Sinead O’Connor:  I slightly prefer this live version to O’Connor’s recorded one.  On both, she includes a political last stanza that was inserted anonymously many years ago and has become something of a standard over time.

Celtic Woman:  When angels sing “Danny Boy”…

And the 11th bonus track...

Swedish Chef, Beaker, and Animal:  “Moving right along, here are three gifted singers who have all kissed the Blarney Stone…”  It’s the Leprechaun Brothers! 

Reference Sources

The Danny Boy Trivia Connection by Michael Robinson

© 2013 Lee Price

Monday, January 28, 2013

Danny boy, oh, Danny boy

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Danny-blogging, essay 1 of 2
on the song "Danny Boy"

“Danny Boy” sounds timeless—like a song that’s been echoing through the glens and down the mountainsides for centuries—but it’s just 100 years old this year (2013).  In 1913, English lawyer and songwriter Fred Weatherley married his “Danny Boy” lyrics to the much-older melody of the Irish tune “Londonderry Air.”  Before he did that, there was no “Danny Boy.”

Back in 1913, there were just four Weatherley-penned verses:

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flow’rs are dying
’Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
’Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, and all the flowers are dying
If I am dead, as dead I well may be
I pray you'll find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.

And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warm and sweeter be
And then you’ll kneel and whisper that you love me
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.

That’s it.  Nothing about the Irish Republican Army.  Nothing to indicate if the person singing the song is a lover or a father or a mother.  But 16 lines turns out to be all that’s needed to masterfully weave three huge (and hugely sentimental) themes together into a compact emotional powerhouse.

“Danny Boy” links three archetypal narratives or themes, letting them flow together without explanation (which allows for that ambiguity regarding whether the singer is male or female).  So even while no clear story emerges, we instantly recognize the mythic themes and all they imply.

A boy leaves home…  In the first verse, the music of the pipes call Danny away from his childhood home and those who love him there.  This taps into hundreds of folk stories, myths, and legends from all over the world.  The hero breaks the bonds of childhood and goes out into the world to become a man through a series of trials.  Inevitably, there’s a sense of loss that accompanies the compelling need to move on.  The pipes may call to war or to adventure or to opportunity—but the basic story remains the same.

The loved one will be loyal…  The “I” who sings the song is introduced at the conclusion of the first verse, “I must bide.”  The second verse naturally follows, introducing the theme of loyalty and steadfastness.  Even during a long absence, love will remain strong—through summer and winter, the days and the long nights.  A childhood sweetheart could promise to love like this; a mother or father could promise to love like this.

Love will triumph over death…  The strength of this love is stressed in the last line of the second verse (“oh, Danny boy, I love you so”) and this idea is amplified in the third and fourth verses.  The singer imagines that even their own death cannot change the loyalty and steadfastness of their love.  While there is no promise of heaven, there is a conviction that there will be some sort of reunion in an afterlife.  “I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.”

And here are a few more things that I love about “Danny Boy”:

“From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.”  Savor that Shakespearean iambic pentameter, using simple words that are so crisp and beautifully evocative.

“The flow’rs are dying…”  I love how this is repeated, with the flowers dying both when Danny boy leaves in the first verse and when he returns home to find death in the third verse.

“When the valley’s hushed and white with snow.”  This is another beautifully descriptive line, especially with that musical stress on “hushed” in the middle (for best effect, a short pause following “hushed”).

“Then you’ll kneel and whisper that you love me…”  The song swells to its romantic height, shameless in its sentimentality while holding true to its universal themes.  The musical arrangement calls for the singer to strain for an impossibly high note on “kneel,” and then conclude the line with an exhaled whisper.

That’s when the tears should start to flow.

Here’s the earliest known recorded version, as sung by opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink in 1917.  Enjoy!

Reference Sources

The Danny Boy Trivia Connection by Michael Robinson

© 2013 Lee Price

Friday, January 25, 2013

Casting Call for O Pioneers!

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Pioneer-blogging, essay 5 on
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Here’s the set-up:  Interior of a small cabin on the Nebraska prairie.  Lying in his bed, John Bergson, the father of our heroine Alexandra Bergson, is dying.  A recent immigrant, John Bergson remains very Swedish.  His teenage daughter Alexandra stands by his bedside.  She has a will of iron.

Casting call!

Cork Ramer as John Bergson and Heather Graham as young Alexandra
in the 1992 Hallmark production of O Pioneers!

John Qualen in The Searchers.
As a classic film buff, I can’t help picturing this early scene in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! as a John Ford movie scene.  I see John Qualen as the dying father and Maureen O’Hara as Alexandra (yes, I know O’Hara is Irish but she’s got the right personality).   Alexandra’s two bone-headed brothers could grow up to be Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen.  And then I’ll round out the picture with Henry Fonda as Carl Linstrum, Natalie Wood as Marie, and Harry Carey Jr. as Emil.

Maureen O'Hara in
The Quiet Man.
Yeah, I realize there are problems galore with age and ethnicity in the above casting.  Not to mention John Ford’s inevitable problems with Willa Cather’s strong women dominating the weak men.  There’s no role for John Wayne in a Willa Cather story.  And what if Ford insisted on filming it in Monument Valley rather than Nebraska?  Truthfully, my real choice for a director from Hollywood’s golden age might be Jean Renoir, who proved his feel for landscape in movies like The Southerner (1946) and The River (1951).  And for my Renoir-directed O Pioneers!, I think I’ll take Ingrid Bergman as Alexandra.

Liv Ullmann in The Emigrants.
Jumping ahead thirty years to the 1970s, I see only one choice for Alexandra:  Liv Ullmann.  She would have been perfect.  For a supporting cast, how about Genevieve Bujold as Marie, Jeff Bridges as Emil, and Alan Arkin as Carl?  And for a 70s director, I propose Peter Bogdanovich, who showed a real flair for heartland dramas in his early days.  Seriously, imagine O Pioneers! with the feel for place that Bogdanovich brought to The Last Picture Show (1971) and the period details of Paper Moon (1973).

To date, there’s only been one film of O Pioneers! and that’s the Hallmark Production of 1992.  The casting was superb.  Jessica Lange had the right inner strength for Alexandra, David Strathairn handled the gentleness and humility of Carl with just the right amount of charm, and Anne Heche made a bewitching Marie, flirty and tantalizing.  The period details were exquisite and much wonderful dialogue was pulled straight from the book.  Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s the final word on the subject.  For me, it’s not the definitive O Pioneers!

I think there’s a better movie yet to be made.  Any ideas for casting?

Jessica Lange as Alexandra in the 1992
Hallmark production of O Pioneers!

Reference Sources

Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress
Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O'Brien
Willa Cather by Philip Gerber
Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir by Bernice Slote
O Pioneers!, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition at the Willa Cather Archive
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2013 Lee Price

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Young Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish in The
Mothering Heart (1913),
directed by D.W. Griffith.
One hundred years ago...

Women figured out how to act in films before men.  First, Mary Pickford figured out how to underplay for effect under the direction of D.W. Griffith, quickly becoming the world’s first movie superstar.  Then, as Pickford moved toward independence, Griffith nurtured the careers of several talented young women, including Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, and Lillian’s sister Dorothy.  To varying degrees, these women all mastered film acting before the equivalent men in Griffith’s stock company.

Lillian Gish was a pioneer of film acting, blazing new paths in the wilderness.  She was smart, dedicated to her craft, blessed with innate talent, and pretty.

Only 18 years old when she signed on with the Biograph company in 1912, Lillian was everything that Griffith wanted for his Victorian melodramas.  In her second year with the company, she performed in at least 15 two-reelers (roughly 20-minute-long shorts).

Lillian Gish in The Battle at
Elderbush Gulch
 (1913), directed by
D.W. Griffith.
I’ve watched two of Lillian’s 1913 shorts, The Mothering Heart and The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.  She’s the star in The Mothering Heart but I prefer her as a supporting actress in The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, an ambitious three-reel western where Lillian plays a panic-stricken young mother attempting to find her baby in the middle of an Indian attack.  She completely inhabits the role even when she’s in the background of scenes.  She underplays her pantomime, expressively using her hands and eyes to reveal character.  When the plot calls for hysterics, she keeps it believable, ratcheting up the emotion while staying in character.

Please don’t take this as a recommendation for either The Mothering Heart or The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.  I find them fascinating documents of Lillian Gish’s growth as an actress, mastering an art that’s barely been imagined yet.  But the movies themselves haven’t aged well.  Both have scenes that showcase Griffith at his worst, with ugly racism toward Native Americans in Elderbush Gulch and cloying sentimentality in The Mothering Heart.

The promise of Lilian’s early performances was more than fulfilled during the following 15 years of her career.  You can see the roots of her masterful performances in movies like The Wind (1928), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and Way Down East (1920) back in these early shorts, when the art of film acting was blossoming for the first time.

© 2013 Lee Price

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Willa Cather's Hobbit Hole

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Pioneer-blogging, essay 4 on
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

“No house should ever be on a hill or on anything.  It should be of the hill.  Belonging to it.  Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”
                      Frank Lloyd Wright
                      An Autobiography (1932)

Sod houses are looked down upon in Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers!  As Cather writes, “The Bergsons had a log house, for instance, only because Mrs. Bergson would not live in a sod house.”  (Note:  Mrs. Bergson is our heroine Alexandra’s mother.)

But sod houses aren’t all bad.  The very sympathetic character Ivar lives in a sod house, and it seems a perfectly appropriate place for his barefoot, mystical personality.  It’s just not the sort of place that’s wanted in the newly emerging domesticated landscape of plowed farmland and respectable farmhouses.

Ivar runs back to his sod house in
the Hallmark production of O Pioneers! (1992).
Early in the novel, Alexandra, her three brothers, and her friend Carl Linstrum travel out to see Ivar.  Alexandra points out Ivar’s property and sod house to her youngest brother Emil.

“At one end of the pond was an earthen dam, planted with green willow bushes, and above it a door and a single window were set into the hillside.  You would not have seen them at all but for the reflection of the sunlight upon the four panes of window-glass.  And that was all you saw.  Not a shed, not a corral, not a well, not even a path broken in the curly grass.  But for the piece of rusty stovepipe sticking up through the sod, you could have walked over the roof of Ivar’s dwelling without dreaming that you were near a human habitation.  Ivan had lived for three years in the clay bank…”

I wonder if Frank Lloyd Wright would approve?  Ivar’s house is certainly “of the hill,” prairie-style!

My daughter at the entrance of a
reproduction sod house at the
Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in
Walnut Grove, Minnesota.
Reading the passage about Ivar’s house, I recalled our family’s Laura Ingalls Wilder vacation, when we spent two weeks touring the Midwest in search of the Little House sites.  In Walnut Grove, Minnesota, we visited the place that Wilder knew as Plum Creek.  Her fictionalized memories of her life in a sod house on Plum Creek are captured in the first third of On the Banks of Plum Creek (the third book in the Little House series).  She would have been seven or eight at the time.  In the book’s second chapter “The House in the Ground,” she recalls how her family adjusted to life in their new sod house:

“That front wall was built of sod.  Mr. Hanson had dug out his house, and then he had cut long strips of prairie sod and laid them on top of one another, to make the front wall.  It was a good, thick wall with not one crack in it.  No cold could get through that wall.

“Ma was pleased.  She said, ‘It’s small, but it’s clean and pleasant.’ ”

Except for the time when an ox put his rear leg through the roof, the Ingalls’ time in their sod house is fairly idyllic.  Nevertheless, they’re all happy when Pa begins building a log house for them.  It’s a step up.

But what’s wrong with the humble nature of a sod house, barely visible in a hill?  It’s good enough for Bilbo Baggins, after all!

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
                                                                                      The Hobbit
                                                                                      by J.R.R. Tolkien

A wizard and hobbit travel past a traditional hobbit hole in
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring  (2001).

Reference Sources

Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress
Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O'Brien
Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir by Bernice Slote
O Pioneers!, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition at the Willa Cather Archive
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2013 Lee Price

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Gun-Free Zone

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Pioneer-blogging, essay 3 on
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

“You love God as much as the one you love the least.”
                    Father John Hugo
                    Weapons of the Spirit

Jessica Lange as Alexandra Bergson forgives her brother's murderer
in the 1992 Hallmark production of O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.

With my wife and daughter out for the night at a revival of Les Mis, I’m home alone thinking about forgiveness and redemption on the plains of Nebraska.

Just as the plot of Les Miserables pivots on an act of mercy, the final section of O Pioneers! hinges on an intentional act of deeply-felt forgiveness.  In Part V, Chapter II, our heroine Alexandra travels to the prison to see Frank Shabata, the man who murdered her brother Emil:

“Alexandra held out her hand. ‘Frank,’ she said, her eyes filling suddenly, ‘I hope you’ll let me be friendly with you.  I understand how you did it.  I don’t feel hard toward you…’ ”

Alexandra not only forgives Frank for the double murder of Emil and Maria (Frank’s wife) but pledges her continued efforts to get him pardoned.  “I’ll never give the Governor any peace,” she tells him.  “I know I can get you out of this place.”

As Frank is undeniably guilty of two murders and therefore serving a just sentence, this act of Alexandra’s is one of complete and unearned mercy.  It is a freely given gift.  In return, Alexandra’s own life is transformed.  While there’s no direct causal relation, the narrative clearly makes the link.  Since the murders, Alexandra has lost all sense of purpose, falling into a deep depression.  She forgives Frank, returns to her hotel, and receives a telegram that Carl Linstrum is returning to her.  She bursts into tears as her life recovers meaning.

Her act of mercy may save Frank’s life.  And it appears to save her own life, as well.

Leigh Lawson as Frank Shabata in O Pioneers! (1992).
Alexandra accepts Frank’s tortured description of the murder (a description which mirrors the more objective murder passage in Part III).  Frank blames the gun.  He says, “An’ I ain’t never hurt her (Maria).  I never would-a done dat, if I ain’t had dat gun along.  I don’ know what in hell make me take dat gun.  She always say I ain’t no man to carry gun…”

O Pioneers! is a deeply anti-gun book.  The book’s most sympathetic characters—Alexandra, Carl Linstrum, and Ivar—want nothing to do with guns.  In contrast, Alexandra’s unsympathetic brothers celebrate their guns, Alexandra’s brother Emil deeply offends Maria by shooting a bird for her, and Frank’s experience with a gun proves disastrous.  I think it’s pretty clear that Willa Cather stands with the mystical Ivar.  “No guns, no guns!” Ivar shouts in his first appearance in the book, threatening to send a wagon of visitors back if any of them are armed.  Ivar’s land is a gun-free zone.

Now I don’t believe in making real-life arguments from fiction.  I’m not going there.  I’m just simply pointing out that a hundred years ago, Willa Cather—a pure product of Virginia and Nebraska—eloquently expressed her belief that guns were at the root of much violence in this world.  She loved the pioneers and their wild prairie world, but not their guns.

An image of mercy:  Jessica Lange as Alexandra Bergson
in O Pioneers! (1992).

Reference Sources

Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress
Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O'Brien
Willa Cather by Philip Gerber
Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir by Bernice Slote
O Pioneers!, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition at the Willa Cather Archive
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2013 Lee Price

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Centennial of N.C. Wyeth's Kidnapped

Celebrating cultural highlights
of 1913...
Wyeth-blogging, essay 1 on
N.C. Wyeth's Illustrations 
for Kidnapped

Dustjacket cover of Kidnapped by Robert Louis
Stevenson, a Scribner Illustrated Classic published
in 1913 with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his classic adventure novel Kidnapped in 1886, so the text technically falls outside of my current 1913 focus.  Nevertheless, I’m hoping to take this occasion to celebrate the 100th anniversary of a very special book, the 1913 Charles Scribner’s Sons “Juvenile Classics” edition of Kidnapped for which the publisher commissioned illustrations by Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth.

Wyeth was still young, just 30 years old, when his illustrated Kidnapped was published, but he already commanded a formidable reputation as one of the country’s most talented illustrators.  Scribner’s was a top national publisher and they were intentionally striving toward an unusually high standard for book illustration.  While still a student of the renowned illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911), Wyeth began selling pictures and taking commissions from Scribners, quickly establishing himself as the go-to artist for scenes of history and adventure.

Kidnapped was Wyeth’s follow-up to Treasure Island, a breakthrough masterpiece of adventure illustration.  A huge bestseller for Scribners, Treasure Island set a standard that even Wyeth knew would be hard to equal, much less surpass.  Scribners suggested doing Kidnapped next, and Wyeth weighed his options.  He was feeling ambitious.  “I want you to know,” he wrote the publisher, “that I have the greatest hopes, and unless I outclass Treasure Island I want you to cancel the entire scheme.”

Looking back on these highlights of a golden age of illustration, who really cares anymore if the illustrations for Kidnapped are better than Treasure Island?  Wyeth hurled himself into reimagining the adventure plots with an almost inhuman vigor and artistry, creating images that define and enlarge—even mythologize—the texts.  Considered as objects, these books are among the finest ever published because of the near perfect meshing of prose and illustration.  With the Scribners’ editions of Treasure Island and Kidnapped, the boys’ novel became art.

Title page of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson,
a Scribner Illustrated Classic published
in 1913 with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth.

Reference Sources

N. C. Wyeth: A Biography by David Michaelis
N.C. Wyeth: The Collected Paintings, Illustrations, and Murals by Douglas Allen and Douglas Allen, Jr.
The Brandywine Tradition by Henry C. Pitz
An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art
Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life by Richard Meryman
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

My low-resolution copies of the N.C. Wyeth book illustrations are via the beautiful high-resolution scans at The Golden Age, one of my favorite art blogs on the internet.

© 2013 Lee Price

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A Tallgrass Prairie

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Pioneer-blogging, essay 2 on
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

“Of all the bewildering things about a new country, the absence of human landmarks is one of the most depressing and disheartening…  The roads were but faint tracks in the grass and the fields were scarcely noticeable.  The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches left by prehistoric races, so indeterminate that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings.”
Part I (The Wild Land), Chapter II
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Prairie as far as the eye can see:
My children on vacation at
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
Several years ago, my family and I took the 90-minute ranger-led prairie bus tour of  Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County, Kansas.  It was my destination request.  I wanted to get an idea of what America’s vast plains looked like before European settlement.  The 10,894 acres of Tallgrass Prairie offer one of the few available approximations of a landscape that once stretched out across the American Midwest, seemingly forever.

The O Pioneers! description above describes the prairie before it was tamed into farmland.  Even though John Bergson (father of heroine Alexandra Bergson) has spent 11 years working the land at this point, his work has barely changed its appearance.  Over a subsequent 16 years, Alexandra marshals her feel for the land and new agricultural  resources to create the farmland that we now associate with the Midwest.

In Part II (Neighboring Fields) of O Pioneers!, Alexandra gives the land credit for the transformation that has made her wealthy:  “The land did it.  It had its little joke.  It pretended to be poor because nobody knew how to work it right;  and then, all at once, it worked itself.  It woke up out of its sleep and stretched itself, and it was so big, so rich, that we suddenly found we were rich, just from sitting still.”

Driving around the Midwest, you can see the land that determined people like Alexandra nurtured into being.  These days, it takes work to ferret out the rare places like Tallgrass Prairie that offer a suggestion of what the land might have looked like in 1883.  The National Park Service has been thoughtfully developing Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve since 1996.  The tour bus takes tourists like my family out into the middle of the prairie which stretches out flat and quiet all around you.  From a distance, it all looks the same;  close up, you start seeing variety.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
in Chase County, Kansas.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to a beautiful day and a knowledgeable ranger guide, the prairie didn’t feel depressing and disheartening at all on our visit.  My memories are of a sublime beauty, albeit a little frightening in its sheer scale, gazing across miles of seemingly unbroken grassland to the distant horizon.  If you were abandoned here, no one would ever know.  You feel small. But looking down at the ground, you see that the unending acreage is speckled with life.  Hundreds of plant species live on a healthy prairie, along with a wide variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.  While it all looks level and dry at first, creeks meander through the tall grass, creating mini-ecosystems within the broader prairie.

This isn’t the precise world that is described in the early chapters of O Pioneers!  Cather based her novel on memories of the land around Red Cloud, Nebraska, approximately 150 miles northwest of Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  Elevation can make a big difference in the ecology of the prairie.  Tallgrass Prairie is only about 1,200 feet above sea level while at 1,700 feet, Red Cloud is really more of the tabletop described by Cather in the opening sentence of the book.

Maybe Tallgrass Prairie is more representative of the low-lying river farms that Alexandra visits in the concluding chapter of Part I of O Pioneers!  Alexandra decides that their Nebraska land is better than the farmland of the low-lying valleys and resolves to stay planted on her father’s rough and windy tabletop land.

I haven’t visited the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, managed by the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska.  Here the Foundation preserves a 608-acre tract of native prairie, untouched by plow.  Red Cloud is the town where Willa Cather spent much of her youth.  This may be as close as we can now get to the prairie land that Cather first saw when she arrived in Nebraska in 1883, an experience deeply reflected in the descriptions in the first part of O Pioneers!

We’re lucky to have these isolated places where you can still squint your eyes on a windy prairie, remember Cather’s words, and imagine life on the prairie, circa 1883.

Historical markers at Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, located on the
west side of U.S. Highway 28 just north of the Nebraska-Kansas
border in southern Webster County, Nebraska.
Photo by Ammodramus.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Reference Sources

Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress
Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O'Brien
Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir by Bernice Slote
O Pioneers!, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition at the Willa Cather Archive
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2013 Lee Price

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Eberswalde Hoard

Replicas of objects discovered in the Eberswalde Hoard from Berlin's
Museum fur Vor- und Fruhgeschichte.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
One hundred years ago...

On May 16, 1913, workers were digging a foundation for a new house on the property of a brass factory in Eberswalde, Germany, near Berlin.  Three feet underground, one of them struck a buried earthenware vessel.  The workers dug it out, not having any idea of what they had discovered.  It turned out to be one of the great archaeological discoveries of the century.

When the workers opened it, they discovered five and a half pounds of beautifully designed gold objects.  Stored within eight elaborately ornamented gold bowls, they found 73 smaller gold objects including neck rings, arm spirals, and bracelets.

Intermittent research over the past century has pegged the Eberswalde Hoard as probably dating to the 9th or 10th century BC, a time known by archaeologists as the Late European Bronze Age.  They come from roughly the same time as when Homer was composing his epics and Solomon was reigning as king of Israel.  You don’t hear much about European culture during this period.  The Eberswalde Hoard offers a tantalizing glimpse into the high levels of craftsmanship achieved in some Bronze Age European communities, over a thousand years before the Romans began calling the northern Europeans “barbarians.”

The rest of the story of the Eberswalde Hoard is singularly discouraging, a litany of nearly everything that went wrong in the 20th century.  It was initially interpreted by many German scholars as evidence of German racial superiority.  The items survived the fall of Berlin in World War II, only to have Soviet troops quietly remove the Eberswalde Hoard from its museum storage and carry it back as war loot to Russia.  For the following six decades, this great archaeological resource was lost to science.

In 2004, Der Spiegel revealed that the Eberswalde Hoard was in storage at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.  Despite attempts by German cultural authorities to reclaim their treasure, the Eberswalde Hoard remains in the collection of the Pushkin Museum.  Fortunately, now that its existence has finally been acknowledged, the museum has increased accessibility to scholars and to the public through exhibitions.

© 2013 Lee Price

Thursday, January 3, 2013

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1913...
Pioneer-blogging, essay 1 on
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.”
Part I (The Wild Land), Chapter I
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Dover Thrift Edition of O Pioneers!
by Willa Cather, available at
Amazon and other booksellers.
The setting:  The fictional town of Hanover is located a short distance north of the Nebraska-Kansas border, about midway across the state (southwest of the city of Lincoln, Nebraska).  The time:  O Pioneers! was published in 1913, so thirty years previous places us approximately in 1883.

Willa Cather’s novel O Pioneers! is all about the land on that windy tabletop setting.  There are three types of characters in this challenging landscape:  those who fight the land, those who learn to co-exist with the land, and those who leave.

At first glance, you might think Willa Cather and I have little common ground to stand on.  Her strongest characters—like Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers!—place their faith in the soil.  While her neighbors fail in their attempts to force the land into shape, Alexandra succeeds because she believes in working with the land rather than against it.  Others fight the land and fail;  Alexandra’s approach is that of a steward.

I don’t fall into either camp.  I neither fight the land (of our little suburban yard) nor steward it, resolutely immune to the joys of farming, gardening, and even basic lawn care.  To the greatest degree possible, I simply ignore our land.  That’s not an attitude you find much in Willa Cather where so much depends upon one’s relationship with the land.  You might think she’d disapprove of me.

But Willa Cather isn’t Alexandra, her land-loving heroine.  Cather was one of those who left.  If you're looking for a Cather surrogate in O Pioneers!, you might consider Carl Linstrum, the ineffectual artist who returns to the prairie but remains apart from it.  With one unsuccessful novel behind her, Cather was hardly a blazing success when she returned to her hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska to take notes in preparation for her second novel.  She was an outsider with an uncertain future.

Portrait of Willa Cather.
Photo by Carl Van Vechten.
Van Vechten Collection,
Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress.
Source:  Wikimedia Commons
Cather naturally gravitated toward universities and cities.  She was the type of person whom Alexandra’s brothers Oscar and Lou would have detested, similar to the way they strongly disapprove of the academic pretensions of Carl Linstrum and their own brother Emil.  It’s that deep-rooted American distrust of the intellectual that still flourishes today.  Cather’s too honest not to show it.  She must have felt it herself when she returned to Nebraska, taking notes for her books.

Truthfully, I think Willa Cather and I would have gotten along just fine.  Confronted with the real-life practicality of an Alexandra Bergson, she’d probably be bored to tears.  But I could see Cather and I discussing our shared fantasies of loving the land for hours, drinking coffee in a city café far from the brutal environments that we idealize.

Reference Sources

Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress
Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O'Brien
Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir by Bernice Slote
O Pioneers!, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition at the Willa Cather Archive
... and an occasional sneak glance at Wikipedia entries (but always double-checking everything!)

© 2013 Lee Price

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

21 Essays on 1913

"The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" illustration by
Paul Bransom for the 1913 edition of
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For the month of January 2013, the focus of 21 Essays will be on the year 1913.  Woodrow Wilson was starting his first term as President of the United States, the events that led to World War I were steadily falling into place, and my four grandparents were children and teenagers growing up in Virginia, Connecticut, and New York.  Cars, airplanes, movies, record players, telephones, and electric lights were still exciting.  They represented the modern age.

As always, the focus of 21 Essays is very personal—I write about the subjects that particularly appeal to me.  In reviewing the highlights of 1913, the following things leap out at me as being particularly promising:

--  The publication of O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
--  The publication of the Scribners’ edition of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth
--  The publication of The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
--  Publication of Mother West Wind’s Neighbors by Thornton Burgess
--  The premiere of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion
--  Publication of “September 1913” by W.B. Yeats
--  First publication of “Danny Boy” lyrics
--  The Insects’ Christmas, animated and directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz
--  The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, directed by D.W. Griffith
--  The Armory Show
--  The discovery of the Eberswalde Hoard
--  First discovery and identification of Styracosaurus fossils

I might write on some of these.  And I might even write in-depth on a couple of these.

Of course, this is just a small sampling of potential 1913 highlights.  As always, I’m completely open to suggestions for essays on other subjects or to receiving volunteer essay contributions.  Just keep it positive—this is a place for sharing enthusiasms.

Welcome to the world of one hundred years ago, 1913…

© 2013 Lee Price