Willa Cather

Max Perkins Slept Here, Willa Cather Slept There

Late last week I took off on my first literary field trip of the year. Appropriately enough, it was to a Willa Cather lecture at the Bush-Holley House in the Cos Cob neighborhood of Greenwich, CT which is about an hour away from my new digs.

But first, a stop: New Canaan
But first, on the drive down I made a slight detour to New Canaan to see the house of Max Perkins.

Max Perkins House, New Canaan, CT

Max Perkins was the editor of American literary greats Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, among others. Last year I fell in love with A. Scott Berg’s bio Max Perkins: Editor of Genius and look forward to the forthcoming movie inspired by the book. Colin Firth is signed on to play Perkins and Berg is a consultant on the film which I take as a good sign.

The Perkins house is currently home to an architectural firm. You can’t see if from the shot above, but there is a discreet sign buried in the bushes.

The house now overlooks a parking lot, but I can image in earlier years the view was stunning as it sits atop a hill. Just down the hill is the train station where Perkins walked every day to take the train to his office in Manhattan.

On to Cos Cob
The drive from New Canaan to Cos Cob took about 20 minutes.

The Bush-Holley House

I think many of my bookish readers might be familiar with the painting below:

Couch on the Porch, 1914, by Frederick Childe Hassam (source)

The painting is gorgeous in itself and of special sentiment for bibliophiles, but did you know that Willa Cather is thought to be the woman reading on the couch?

The porch pictured above is attached to the Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob. The house dates back to 1728 and became a boarding house in 1848. From the 1890s-1920s it became a gathering place for impressionist painters and came to be called the Cos Cob Art Colony.

Willa Cather started visiting Bush-Holley in 1902 and often stayed here on weekend getaways. She may have learned much from the painters about how to represent color, movement, tone, etc.

Willa Cather walked up these steps.
On the first floor porch looking south. (At least I think its south…my sense of direction in CT is royally messed up. What seems north is east, what seems south is west, etc.)
On the first floor porch looking north. (Maybe)

The focus of this visit was to attend a lecture by Dr. Laura Winters entitled “Willa Cather Slept Here.” Dr. Winters’ lecture explored how Cather was impacted by the revolution going on in Modernist art and how she represented some of its themes and tensions in all of her novels after Alexander’s Bridge. For example, those of you who’ve read Death Comes for the Archbishop may recall the scene at the opening of Book One where Father Latour rides on horseback through the landscape of New Mexico for the first time:

The difficulty was that the county in which he found himself was so featureless–or rather, that it was crowded with features, all exactly alike. As far as he could see, on every side, the landscape was heaped up into monotonous red sand-hills, not much larger than haycocks, and very much the shape of hay-cocks.

This scene, Dr. Winters asserts, is a Cubist nightmare. I can see that.

Dr Winters with a first edition of Death Comes for the Archbishop

The lecture was stimulating and very well attended, a packed house (or barn, as the case may be). Dr Winters has the passion and friendliness that I’ve come to associate with the Cather community. She introduced herself to folks as they were coming in which is something you don’t often see at lectures.

After the lecture I went next door to the art gallery and enjoyed the current exhibit: The New Spirit and the Cos Cob Art Colony: Before and After The Armory Show. 

I look forward to going back to the Bush-Holley House for a tour of the house and subsequent exhibits.

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