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Of Barack Obama & Willa Cather

At one point in Willa Cather’s novel, My Ántonia, her narrator eager to flee his small-town Nebraska home reflects on his fellows and almost seems to wish he could be like they, content in that rural environment.  But, he is ever eager to escape to the world beyond. 

Fascinated in his childhood by the exotic eponymous Ántonia, a beautiful young woman of Bohemian extraction, he returns to his home as an adult (at the end of the book) to discover her living the ordinary life of a Midwestern housewife and at peace in her rural surroundings.

Unlike other writers who fled their Midwestern homes, Willa Cather always showed an appreciation for those who lived a life she could not live.

I thought of her a lot this weekend when I read of Barack Obama’s now infamous comment about the bitterness of gun-toting Christians in small-town America.  It’s why the scene in search of a story, the subject of my most recent post, came to mind.  The younger brother of that tale, will, in the course of his return trip to the Midwest, learn what Cather discovered nearly a century previously, of the basic decency of Americans in, what is to many urban élites, “flyover” country.

The Democratic frontrunner’s comments reminded me of what my (as-yet unrealized) screen hero felt before he returned home for his father’s funeral.

When, over the years, I have heard some of my peers, whether in the New England college I attended, in Washington, D.C., or in Hollywood, discuss their fellow citizens, it seems a certain strain of them (most of whom hold leftish politics and vote Democratic), I have heard from many nothing but contempt.   These people, they claim, are shallow, hypocritical and, worst of all, duped into voting Republican.  The GOP, they claim, is better able to gin up the masses by appealing to their prejudices.

A view of small-town America not too different from that offered by the Chicago politician recently in San Francisco.

But, I wonder if, in assuming, rural Americans vote Republican because of their bitterness, they’re projecting their own anxieties and malcontent onto those who live lives they could not live in places they choose not to visit.   When these urban and coastal denizens “get bitter,” they turn to fancy wines or leftist politics or “antipathy to people who aren’t like them” or anti-Republican or anti-war “sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Because rural voters aren’t like them.  They have different values and very often find contentment in activities these urbanities have left behind and/or scorned.  They enjoy hunting, find a sense of community and spiritual fulfillment in their churches and love this great country which gave them so many freedoms and opportunities. 

They don’t need some of the things which we in urban areas seem to find essential for our comfort and well-being.  But, some of us who have flocked to coastal urban meccas sometimes envy the fellows we left behind.  We recognize that their needs are different from our own and that oftentimes, it seems easier for them to find contentment in this confusing world.

Such was the lesson Willa Cather’s narrator learned upon returning to Red Cloud, Nebraska.  This great writer, whose greatest loves were for women, appreciated the world she left behind.

It’s too bad too many urban Democrats, including their presidential favorite, don’t.



  1. There’s an excellent article in today’s New York Times about Mayhill Fowler, the blogger/journalist who broke the story about Obama’s speech behind closed doors in a San Francisco mansion.

    She works for a subsidary blog of Huffington Post and is pro-Obama, having contributed the maxium $2,300 to his campaign.

    The event, the last of four fund-raisers in the San Francisco area, was closed to the press. Fowler wasn’t invited but got a friend to take her. Obama staff members knew her and made no effort to stop her when she began recording his remarks. She believes they assumed anything she did would be pro-Obama.

    She said she was shocked by Obama’s elistist remarks. Initially she decided not to write about them, not wanting to hurt Obama. But her journalist instincts (and ethics, which a few journalists still have) got the best of her and she told her editor about the story she was sitting on. He urged her to write it up and post it, which she did on a Friday (hoping deep down that no one would see it). She buried the worst of his remarks inside the story to soften its impact.

    She has been viciously attacked as a traitor by Obama supporters, especially those who have their own leftist blogs. But she is standing firm, that it was something that had to be told to the American public.

    There’s a lot I want to say about Obama’s elitism — I think he was actually complaining to the latte crowd in that behind-closed-door session: “hey, look at what I have to put up with to get elected President; I have to put up with these gun totin’, Bible thumpin’ bigots in backwater small towns.” But I am late for a trip out of town and will bloviate tomorrow.

    Comment by Trace Phelps — April 16, 2008 @ 7:22 pm - April 16, 2008

  2. I’ll have to check the article out as I admire the woman’s integrity, putting principle before candidate, a quality to which we all should aspire.

    Comment by GayPatriotWest — April 16, 2008 @ 7:28 pm - April 16, 2008

  3. As Kristol said, the mask slipped.

    (and thanks for the Cather reminder. I’ll be rereading her this week,)

    Comment by Tom — April 17, 2008 @ 1:57 am - April 17, 2008

  4. I heard Obama did horribly at the debate last night

    Comment by Vince P — April 17, 2008 @ 2:20 am - April 17, 2008

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