Reading Between the Lines: A Q&A with Fort Hays State University
My Ántonia: Words and Music, one of the Big Read events to take place in Hays, Kansas. Photo by Pamela Shaffer
For its first Big Read program, Fort Hays State University (FHSU) chose to stay close to its region?s literary roots and read Willa Cather?s My Ántonia, for, as Big Read organizer Steven Trout says, ?She?s our author.? Read on for more about how FHSU, in partnership with the Hays Public Library and USD 489, helped its community to embrace Willa Cather?s much-loved classic.
NEA: This is the first time Fort Hays State University has participated in The Big Read. What drew you to the program?
STEVEN TROUT: My university is almost constantly involved in collaboration, of one kind or another, with the greater community of Hays. However, I have felt for some time that the humanities have tended to lag behind. With our Big Read initiative, I wanted to see if a team of university professors, public librarians, and high-school teachers could actually get a significant number of non-educators (and non-English majors) to care about a major work of American literature. I think we were modestly successful.
In addition, I was attracted to the idea of celebrating an author whose work essentially put the High Plains on the American literary map. For people who live in ?fly over space,? it?s hard not to feel a sense of pride when reading My Ántonia?not because Cather glorifies our region (the book is much too dark for that) but because she finds so many rich stories (some romantic, some grotesque) to tell about a place that strikes most Americans as a cultureless void. She?s our author.
NEA: Willa Cather?s My Ántonia was published in 1918. How did you go about drawing connections between the novel and modern day in Hays, Kansas?
TROUT: This really wasn?t difficult. As motorists race across Kansas on I-70, trying to get to either Kansas City or Denver as quickly as possible (Hays sits almost exactly midway between these two destinations), they feel just as erased and blotted out as Cather did in 1883. As Timothy Egan points out in The Worst Hard Time, the High Plains region is still a place that scares people. Cather?s treatment of landscape served as an ideal jumping-off point for our book discussions.
And, of course, the theme of immigration, which we addressed through an interdisciplinary panel, could not be more relevant to Hays. Volga-German immigrants, whose initial experiences on the prairie were much like those of the Shimerdas, helped shaped the culture of our community during the late nineteenth century?just as Mexican-American immigrants are helping to shape it today. Cather wrote about multiculturalism decades before the word was coined, and the questions she raises about ethnicity and nationality (who, after all, is the real American by the end of the book, Jim or Ántonia?) couldn?t be more timely. Participants in our Big Read picked up on that almost immediately, young and old alike.
NEA: Last week, the Hays community took a field trip to Red Cloud, Nebraska, to tour Cather-related sites. Tell me about that day.
TROUT: Eighteen people went on the trip (not including the bus driver and myself). How did it go? Consider this: a tour of the seven main Cather sites in Red Cloud?the Opera House, the Garber Bank Building, the Cather childhood home, the so-called Harling House, the train depot, the Catholic church, and the Episcopal church?usually takes about an hour and a half. With this group, it took over three hours. Everyone in the group had read My Ántonia, and everyone was fascinated by Willa Cather. In short, the tour participants had become, by this point, true Cather die-hards?people whose lives were literally changed by a great American novel. They had lots of questions for the tour guide.
NEA: What has been your favorite Big Read moment?
TROUT: That?s easy. Our climactic event, a series of chapter readings interspersed with live classical music, was pure magic. Charles Peek, a noted Cather scholar and an Episcopal priest, read beautifully and in a way that reflected his deep knowledge of Cather?s writing. And the musical selections?these included pieces by Dvo?ák, Martin?, Kodály, and Scriabin?fit Cather?s text in ways that were sometimes playful, sometimes haunting. I worked for weeks with cellist (and FHSU Music Department Chair) Ben Morris-Cline to create what we hoped would be the right mix of words and music, but neither of us knew how the performance would go over. You can imagine our surprise when My Ántonia: Words and Music received a heartfelt standing ovation from the audience, many of whom had tears in their eyes. This was more than a tribute to the performance; the audience was left shaken by the power of Cather?s art.
For more information on Willa Cather and My Ántonia visit The Big Read website.