XML Version
Rau, E., Kirilloff, G. (2016). Mapping Imagined and Experienced Places: An Exploration of the Geography of Willa Cather’s Writing. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, p. 868.
Mapping Imagined and Experienced Places: An Exploration of the Geography of Willa Cather’s Writing

Mapping Imagined and Experienced Places: An Exploration of the Geography of Willa Cather’s Writing

1. Introduction

The American novelist, Willa Cather, was an extensive traveler whose experience of and attachment to places greatly influenced her writing. As an author whose novels are traditionally regarded as depicting fictional versions of real places, Cather’s novels are particularly suited for an examination of the artistic relationship between real and imagined places. The effects that geography had on Cather’s work are demonstrated not only by her fiction, but also by her recently published letters, many of which include vivid descriptions of geographic places. This project explores the relationships between real places and those depicted in Cather’s writing by creating a series of digital, interactive maps. Using both text analysis and digitally cartographic tools, we examine the differences between Cather’s first-hand experience of place and her mental conception of place.

2. Methodologies

Our project employs two distinct approaches in order to gain a better understanding of the representations of place in Cather’s works; the first approach is concerned with Cather’s references to real locations and the second explores fictional places. We created digital maps using ArcGIS, a geographic information system designed to capture and analyze geographical data. The first series of maps we created examine place on a global scale. They provide readers and scholars with a visual representation of the places Cather lived in and traveled to, the places she wrote about in 200 of her letters, and the places she references in her novel My Ántonia. In order to create these maps, we first had to extract spatial data from the correspondence and My Ántonia, which we accomplished by using preexisting information encoded in the Willa Cather Archive’s XML and by using the Stanford Named Entity Recognizer.

The second series of maps examine space on a more intimate scale. These maps compare Cather’s fictional depictions of the town of Red Cloud Nebraska with the geographic layout of the town at the time Cather experienced it in the late 19 th century. In this project, we used ArcGIS to create a map of Red Cloud, NE, circa 1890, based on data provided by the Webster County Assessor’s Office and historic information gathered from the Nebraska State Historical Society. The map is interactive, so that each location includes historical information and a photo, when available. From this historic and geographic data, we constructed interpretive maps of two fictional versions of Red Cloud found in Cather’s fiction:  Black Hawk of My Ántonia (1918) and Sweet Water of A Lost Lady (1923).  

3. Results

The maps we created helped us to expose Cather’s engagement with real space, highlighting moments when she departs from mappable, physical space into the realm of imagination.  Further, by uncovering these intricacies and depicting them in maps, readers can perform interpretive work concerning Cather’s production of fictional space. The world map of My Ántonia indicates that cities within Nebraska are mentioned frequently, as are Eastern European countries. This result makes sense since the novel centers on Eastern European immigrants living in Nebraska. However, more granular Eastern European locations, such as specific cities, do not appear in the novel. Surprisingly, the majority of European cities mentioned are in Italy. This suggests a correlation between Cather’s personal experience and the places she writes about, as she visited Italy, but never visited Eastern Europe. Similarly, the local map of My Ántonia highlights Cather’s reliance on personal experience, as it correlates closely to the historic map of Red Cloud. Scholars have often emphasized that Cather based Jim Burden’s home on her grandparents’ house, in the northwest part of town. However, the map of the novel reveals that Jim’s home is beside the Harlings’ house in the southwest part of town, which is the location of Cather’s childhood home. In the novel, Cather transplants the internal details of her grandparents’ home into the location of her childhood home.  

4. Future Work

The eventual goal of this project is to incorporate all of Cather’s letters and novels into our maps and to create additional maps of Cather’s other fictional depictions of real places. Expanding the texts used would provide a more nuanced picture of the places Cather writes about. In addition, including more texts will allow users to better query the data, asking questions such as, which of Cather’s novels include the most references to places she experienced first-hand? Do Cather’s fictional depictions of Pittsburgh and New York align as closely with reality as her re-imaginations of historic Red Cloud? Creating additional maps will allow for an exploration of the ways in which Cather's frame of spatial reference shifts among these works.