The sea “like a wide blue road into the sky”: Willa Cather’s French journey


Marcia de Sanctis over at Lit Hub, recounts being on the trail of a major American author in  “Retracing Willa Cather’s Steps in the South of France.” I’ve written about Marcia’s book, 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, here and here (and I wrote about her years ago interview with Joseph Brodsky here.) The new article, and the journey that inspired it, was born from that book:

Francophile (Photo: Ron Haviv)

A few years ago, while researching my book on France, I immersed myself in the country’s rich travel writing canon, and decided to retrace the voyages (or parts of them) of many of my literary idols. In Nîmes, I imagined Colette dancing in the Jardins de la Fontaine; I conjured the ghost of a bored Henry James by the Rhône River in Arles; and in Chamonix, I pictured 16 year-old Mary Godwin unwittingly gathering inspiration for Frankenstein while hoofing it across the Alps with her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.  With her 1908 road trip classic A Motor Flight Through France always stuffed into my bag, Edith Wharton was my frequent guru and guide. But no one lit my path brighter than Willa Cather, who I have read and admired for as long as I can remember.

The collection of essays, Willa Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey, is a series of dispatches she filed for the Nebraska State Journal in Lincoln to help pay for her voyage. It was 1902, and Cather was accompanied by her friend Isabelle McClung. The book contains, to my mind, some of the most evocative travel writing in the English language. The stories bear all the elements—personal reflection, descriptive detail, observational insight, and cultural depth—we strive for when writing about place, and in perfect proportion.

For awhile, Cather and a friend stayed in Saint-Clair, in a villa that was owned by a painter. She wrote that it was “good for one’s soul,” to “do nothing but stare at this great water that seems to trail its delft-blue mantle across the world.” But the place she loved best was Lavandou, writing: “No books have ever been written about Lavandou, no music or pictures ever came from here, but I know well enough that I shall yearn for it long after I have forgotten London and Paris,” she writes. “One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world’s end somewhere, and holds fast to the days, as if to fortune and fame.”

And no wonder. Marcia writes, “The air was scented with dried lavender; the landscape was of pine, green fir and sea ‘reaching like a wide blue road into the sky.’”

Read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, photos by Marcia de Sanctis herself.)

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