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Looking for a sensuous Valentine’s Day read? Let me suggest Willa Cather.

The novelist of the frontier was a romantic with a capital ‘R.’

Willa Cather with Mount Monadnock in the background taken by her companion Edith Lewis.

My favorite romance author is Willa Cather. Yes, I am talking about the early 20th century author who wrote the classic American novels “O Pioneers!” and “My Antonia,” and no, I wouldn’t be any fun at your orgy.

Or would I? Cather belonged at least in part to the tradition of Romantics with a capital R, and as such had an expansive view of passion. If polyamory is the current flavor of the season, Cather was ahead of her time. In her books, sensuousness isn’t reserved for sexual dalliances. Indeed, insofar as there is any sex in her books, it’s sublimated according to the mores of her times — dissolved into descriptions of light, or trees — or just mentioned in passing as a dull afterthought.


Instead, her intensely evocative powers are reserved for things you don’t normally think of as objects of romance: nature, music, friendship, a little tin cup. Here is her description of the young opera singer Thea Kronborg, in “The Song of the Lark,” upon hearing her first symphony: “When the English horns gave out the theme of the Largo, she knew that what she wanted was exactly that. Here were the sand hills, the grasshoppers and locusts…the reaching and reaching of high plains, the immeasurable yearning of all flat lands…There was home in it, too…the amazement of a new soul in a new world…a soul obsessed with what it did not know.”

Or this one, from “Shadows on the Rock,” of a young girl from a rich family who longs to devote herself to the church: “From the window of her upstairs bedroom Jeanne could see at night the red spark of the sanctuary lamp showing in the dark church. When…the house was still, it was her custom to kneel beside her casement…watching that spot of light. ‘I will be that lamp,’ she used to whisper. ‘I will be that lamp; that shall be my life.’”


The romance in Cather’s novels is never so predictable as to involve only marriage or breakups. Her heroines’ (and heroes’) fiercenesses of feeling swirl around work, art, the loss of ideals, the building of earthly monuments. I read Cather all through my late teens and twenties; while I did eventually fall in love and get married, her worlds of passion and fateful perfidy remain my true romances. Swipe right.