Speakers give talk on author Willa Cather at Amos Fortune Forum

  • Ashley Olson, executive director of the Willa Cather Center, speaks on the writer's life during the Amos Fortune Forum. STAFF PHOTO BY ASHLEY SAARI

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 8/14/2023 10:41:24 AM

The topic of the Amos Fortune Forum on Friday was one of Jaffrey’s most-prominent summer residents – author Willa Cather, who spent the late summer and autumn in Jaffrey for 30 years and is buried in the old burying grounds behind the meetinghouse.

The speakers were Littleton Alston, a professor of sculpture at Creighton University who recently completed a sculpture of Cather for the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., and Ashley Olson, the executive director of the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Neb.

The Cather family came to Nebraska in 1893, when Willa was 9. At the time, Olson said it was expected for women to raise families and tend the home.

“Willa Cather no doubt understood these rules, but she didn’t feel bound by them,” Olson said.

Cather originally hoped to become a surgeon, a profession believed to be for men. But after enrolling in college, she had one of her essays published in a local newspaper and shifted gears toward journalism and editorial work – which was also still a highly male-dominated profession.

“Cather was part of a very small group of women journalists, and the fact that she was managing editor of one of the day’s leading magazines is certainly noteworthy,” Olson said.

But despite her working life success, Cather was starting to feel unfulfilled by the constraints of journalism, wanting to concentrate on her fiction writing. She eventually took a leave from her work as an editor to do just that, and wrote five novels over the next 10 years. The novels were both commercially and critically successful, culminating in a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “One of Ours.”

Cather first discovered Jaffrey around 1916, and continued to visit through 1945, staying at the Shattuck Inn. She did some of her best writing in Jaffrey, noting in a letter that she wrote the “best part of all the better books” of her catalog while in Jaffrey.

Alston, speaking on the bronze statue he created for the National Statuary Hall, said he completed his model while listening to Cather’s books on audiobooks, and while photos of her were hung on his walls. He sculpted her with a pen and walking stick, saying it was meant to capture the “moment of inspiration.”

“She like to be outdoors. She liked to walk in the prairie. She liked to walk in the fields, and that brought her solace and also brought together her creative spirit,” Alston said.

This Friday is the final session of the Amos Fortune Forum for the 2023 season, and is titled “A View from Behind the Bench,” with guest speaker Jennifer A. Gruda, senior judicial assistant to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson. The program is at 8 p.m. at the Jaffrey Meetinghouse.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 603-924-7172, Ext. 244, or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.

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