You can’t escape Willa Cather’s shadow if you’re a Nebraskan. Who can best “the golden light seemed to be rippling through the curly grass like the tide racing in” when it comes to nailing dawn in that state? Cather makes any competing author just want to write about New York City. But it takes an exile to really see a landscape. She was not Nebraskan, she left the rolling hills of Virginia behind for remote Red Cloud at the tender age of nine and stayed only a decade. I am a native, but I too have the advantage of an exile’s perspective, having fled to New York after my own time in a small Nebraskan town. Cather is the eldest of seven children, I am the eldest of nine. We both had a Latin tutor, we both feared “we might die in a cornfield”—her words. But I am Bohemian.
But how could I go so far as to steal the title of her most famous short story? By following in her footsteps. She stole part of the plot of her story–and some of the lines–from the Balfe opera “The Bohemian Girl” first staged in 1843. The opera’s influence was so pervasive that Joyce mentions it twice in Dubliners, published two years after Cather, and Lauren and Hardy did a version in 1936. The opera itself was based on Cervantes “La Gitanilla.” And did anyone mention Flaubert? The barn-raising scene in Cather’s story is similar to the wedding scene in Madame Bovary. If literary thievery is always a form of flattery, Cather is neck-deep.
Cather’s plot tones down Balfe’s libretto. In the opera, a gypsy named Devilshoof kidnaps the child Arline, then returns her for ransom. Some nostalgic songs ensue about a gypsy childhood, then a medallion’s planted on Arline so she’s arrested, then she dies in a struggle with a musket-toting gypsy rival for Devilshoof. In Cather’s story, Nils returns home to court the exotic Bohemian girl Clara and they run off together. No one dies. The French believed the gypsies arrived from Bohemia, and coined the term to describe those short of money and morals. Bret Harte nominated himself as “The Bohemian” in 1861 and included Mark Twain and Charles Warren Stoddard by 1867—so there were Bohemian Boys.
In my novel—Bohemian Girl vs. “The Bohemian Girl,” by the way–I gently mock what I consider Cather’s snobbishness with regard to the Bohemians when a petulant 12-year-old Willa flounces through my opera house, exclaiming, O, pioneers!
Stealing that was just fun. (Oh, and she took O Pioneers! from Whitman’s poem “O Pioneers, O Pioneers.”)
You will have to read my book to find out what else I filched. But in keeping with Forster’s theory in the classic Aspects of the Novel that all writers are involved in a conversation between the centuries, Cervantes sitting with Sappho across the dinner table, might I suggest that Cather stole from me—the mind time-traveling in its reverie, dipping into the 21st century?