Authors need places to write and sometimes those places are not where we might expect them. Willa Cather is a case in point. Cather was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author most famous for her prairie trilogy O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia. These three novels focused on the lives of people living in the beautiful but unforgiving landscape of the Great Plains.
Cather is forever associated with Nebraska where she grew up, but she loved New Hampshire.
Willa Cather in New Hampshire
From 1917 until the late 1930s, Cather spent most autumns in Jaffrey, staying at the Shattuck Inn, a rambling multi-story quintessential New England retreat. From her window, she had views of Mount Monadnock. The Shattuck Inn no longer stands, a victim of the wrecker’s ball.
Jaffrey was a place she could write free from any distractions, especially from her life in New York City where she had lived since 1906. During her time in Jaffrey, she worked on several novels, including My Ántonia and One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.
She delighted in the autumn air of New Hampshire, finding it conducive to writing.
“She enjoyed the quiet, the invigorating air and good sleeping weather, long walks up and around Mount Monadnock after mornings writing…” said Catherine Pond, Marketing Coordinator at the National Willa Cather Center, who grew up in Jaffrey.
Cather made many friends in Jaffrey and became close to the owners of the Shattuck Inn, and especially to their daughter Eleanor, who later took over running the Inn after her parents’ retirement.
In 1928, Cather built a summer retreat at Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, but Jaffrey still had a hold on her. She often would stop over there on her way back from Canada to New York City. And that hold was greater than anyone suspected. Shortly before her death in April 1947, she asked her lifetime companion Edith Lewis to arrange for her burial in Jaffrey’s Old Burying Ground.
Lewis followed her longtime partner to Jaffrey; she too was laid to rest at the Old Burying Ground when she died in 1972.
But the question remains: why did Cather choose Jaffrey as her final resting place? After all, she lived most of her adult life in New York City and as a child and student in Nebraska. She was born in Virginia. And the only house she ever owned was on Grand Manan Island.
Margaret Bean offers a possible clue in an essay for the Jaffrey Historical Society. The four-year-old son of Cather’s Jaffrey friend Eleanor Shattuck Austermann died suddenly in November 1933. Cather knew the boy and his twin brother since they were babies. She attended the boy’s burial at the Old Burying Ground and comforted the grief-stricken mother in that very cemetery where Cather herself would be laid to rest. Could this have provided a lasting bond with the place?
This Lovely Country
Another bond was the area’s natural beauty. She called it “this lovely country.” In a letter to Edith Lewis, Cather describes the intense pleasure she feels while stargazing out the window at the Shattuck Inn. Looking out at the woods, everything delights her. She is “saturated with the pleasure of breathing clear mountain air…”
“Like so many writers and artists before her, and since, she was very much drawn to Mount Monadnock as a presence—a kind of muse or talisman,” said Pond.
Cather had once written that in the autumn she was often homesick for New England.
Maybe she just wanted to be home.
James F. Lee, the author of this story, is a freelance writer and blogger whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, and AAA Tidewater Traveler Magazine. He can be reached at www.jamesflee.com and 570-713-5926.
Images: Willa Cather headstone By Faithers2019 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75993492. By Jonwmcinenrey – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39308867
Sources on Willa Cather
Willa Cather in Jaffrey by Margaret Bean. Jaffrey Historical Society, 2005.
Letter from Willa Cather to Edith Lewis, Oct. 4, 1936. National Willa Cather Center.
“Willa Cather: Old Burying Ground, Jaffrey, New Hampshire,” by Catherine Seiberling Pond. The New Territory.