Willa Cather and William Jennings Bryan


By Doug Boilesen, 2022

William Jennings Bryan, Nebraska's Boy Orator of the Platte, the Great Commoner and leader of the Populist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century played a prominent role in American politics and popular culture. Bryan unsuccessfully ran for President three times, was Secretary of State under President Wilson but resigned in 1915 over Wilson's handling of the sinking of the Luisitania by Germany as he thought Wilson was changing his neutrality position and that this would lead to the United States entering the war.

Bryan was popular in Nebraska but much of the popular press, particularly in the East, opposed Bryan's populist platform which included the unlimited coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, nationalization of the railroads, a decrease in immigration, antitrust laws and other government regulations of business. Bryan would also became known for his opposition to American imperialism. He was very religious (even though he was portrayed as "The Sacrilegious Candidate" by Judge magazine after his "Cross of Gold" speech), was against the teaching of evolution and ended his public career helping prosecute Tennessee school teacher John Scopes for teaching evolution.

Bryan is referenced in two Cather stories set in Nebraska.

The following are the two Cather book titles set in Nebraska with text referencing Bryan, explanatory notes, illustrations, ephemera, comments, and an essay written by Cather about Bryan.

O Pioneers, 1913

One of Ours, 1922

"The Personal Side of William Jennings Bryan" an essay written by Willa Cather under the pseudonym of Henry Nickelman, 1900.



O Pioneers, 1913

“Well, what do folks in New York think of William Jennings Bryan?”

“Having got his wife out of the way, Lou sat down on the step and began to whittle. “Well, what do folks in New York think of William Jennings Bryan?” Lou began to bluster, as he always did when he talked politics. “We gave Wall Street a scare in ninety-six, all right and we’re fixing another to hand them. Silver wasn’t the only issue,” he nodded mysteriously. “There’s a good many things got to be changed. The West is going to make itself heard.” p. 104

Explanatory Note 104.19 William Jennings Bryan: Bryan (1860-1925) was a midwestern lawyer and political leader who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1896, 1900, and 1908. His proposed cure for the depressed economic conditions in the 1890’s, strongly opposed by Wall Street bankers, was an “easy money” policy based on unlimited coinage of silver. Bryan was enormously popular in Nebraska.

When Lou asks Carl Linstrum, who was living in the East and who Lou expected to know something about what New Yorkers were thinking as the 1900 election approached, Carl doesn’t answer the question. Instead Carl said to Lou "but what do you folks out here have to kick about? You have the only safe place there is…"

Many New York newspapers and periodicals would disparage Bryan in the 1896, 1900 and 1908 Presidential elections and repeat images and themes in each election based on stoked up fears about populism, anarchy, Free-Silver (16-1), risks to the economy and losing democracy itself if Bryan was elected.


Puck, August 5, 1896


Judge, August 8, 1896


"The Wind Won't Hold Out." Puck, August 26, 1896


"A Noisy Mob," Puck, September, 1896


Bryan Controlled by the Silver Mining Syndicate, Puck, October 7, 1896


"Bryan's Gas," Puck, September 23, 1896 (PM-2099)


"The Last Straw." Judge magazine, November 7, 1896 (Courtesy History Nebraska Archives)


"In Battle Array, -- And There's Not Much Doubt About the Result." Puck, 1896 by Louis Dalrymple

William Jennings Bryan - Political Activist Mary Elizabeth Lease - Jacob Coxey - Silver Syndicate and 16 to 1.



Wheat and Silver, Puck, September 8, 1897


"ENUFSED." Judge, October 14, 1899 by Grant Hamilton (PM-1832)


Campaigning in 1900 Presidential Election, Puck, June 20, 1900


Puck, March 1900


Current good prices for farmers vs. the 16-1 Free Silver, August 29, 1900


"Had To Come To His Medicine" - William Jennings Bryan at the Republican Gold Cure Door, Judge, 1900 by Grant Hamilton


“Well, what do folks in New York think of William Jennings Bryan?”

In the 1896 Presidential Election Bryan lost New York by nearly 19% of the vote. Bryan did win Nebraska 51.53% to 46.18%

In the 1900 Presidential Election Bryan improved in New York, but still lost by 9.27% in the rematch with McKinley. Bryan, however, lost in Nebraska by a margin of 3.24%.

In the 1908 Presidential Election Bryan lost to Taft in New York by 12.37% (53.11% to 40.74%). Bryan did win in Nebraska by 1.54% (49.14% to Taft's 47.60%).



One of Ours, 1922

"Bidding the eagles of the West fly on . . ."

Explanatory Note No. 2 for title page epigraph: "Bidding the eagles of the West fly on . . ."

"Bidding the eagles of the West fly on . . .": This phrase is from Vachel Lindsay's 1919 poem "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan: The Campaign of Eighteen Ninety-Six, as Viewed at the Time by a Sixteen Year-Old."

William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), a Nebraskan, headed the Populist movement in the United States in the late nineteenth century; given his three unsuccessful runs for the presidency, the reference to him suggests the decline of the agrarian tradition in the United States. Lindsay recalls seeing Bryan as "the bard and the prophet" of the people of the Midwest and West, embodying "the hopes of all mankind," and asserts that although his 1896 candidacy ended in defeat by eastern money and corruption, Bryan established himself as a heroic figure. On the one hand, then, Cather may be suggesting certain parallels between Bryan and her protagonist, Claude Wheeler: both pursue a cause, embody "the hopes of all mankind," and can be seen as heroic figures. However, Janis Stout, noting the anti-Populist and anti-Bryan views of Cather's staunchly Republican father, suggests that Cather must have read Lindsay's poem as "foolish blather" and used this epigraph ironically (Willa Cather 179).


"Blowing" Himself Around the Country. Puck, September 1896

Bryan campaigning from the train's platform bellowing out populist messages. Artist: J.S. Pughe, 1896. N.Y., Published by Keppler & Schwarzmann. Library of Congress.

Bryan's whistle-stop tours during the 1896 presidential campaign were unprecedented. "Bryan took four major railroad trips, giving stump speeches at nearly every stop on the line." See "Railroads and the Making of America – William Jennings Bryan's 1896 Campaign" for a list of states and speeches given on those whistle stop train trips. (1)

The revolutionary method of whistle-stop campaigning by train was popular with the tens of thousands who attended Bryan's speeches while McKinley famously sat on his front porch. Bryan traveled 18,000 miles by train to give over 600 speeches (36 in one day) to about five million people according to Jerry Claire in his 2016 article for the National Museum of History's "Stories from the Museum" about Bryan's Cross of Gold speech and the Wizard of Oz.

Bryan gave a speech at the Red Cloud, Nebraska Opera House during the 1896 campaign. Here is a link to the speech Bryan gave on November 3, 1896 at School House Square in Hastings, Nebraska.


Bryan, The Talking Machine, Puck, Jos. Opper. October 21, 1896 (PM-0527)



Willa Cather and William Jennings Bryan

Cather wrote an essay entitled "The Personal Side of William Jennings Bryan" under the pseudonym of Henry Nickelman. James Woodress in Willa Cather: A Literary Life, wrote "The occasion was Bryan's second nomination for president by the Democratic National Convention in July 1900."

The following is extracted from Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress, Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1987 - Chapter 5 "Turning Profession."

She met Bryan on a streetcar in Lincoln when she was a "second prep." He was stumping the first congressional district in his first campaign for public office, which he won by a resounding margin. He had just made a speech and was carrying an ugly floral tribute given him by his supporters. A talkative old lady sitting near him inquired sympathetically:

"Is it for a funeral?"

Mr. Bryan looked quizzically at the flowers and replied politely:

"Well, I hope not, madam."

After this encounter Cather saw him occasionally. He lived in Lincoln and was always at home to students in his library in the evenings, and he occasionally wrote for the Hesperian when she was editor. She must have visited his library a number of times, for she describes it in detail. It fascinated her because it was so different—except for the classics—from any library she would have collected: lives of American statesmen, marked and annotated schoolboy-fashion; works on political economy, mostly by quacks; much poetry of a didactic or declamatory nature; little fiction more recent than Thackeray. "Mr. Bryan used always to be urging us to read Les Misérables if we hadn't, and to re-read it if we had. He declared that it was the greatest novel written, yet I think he had never considered its merits or demerits as a novel at all. It was Hugo's vague hyperbolic generalizations on sociological questions that he marked and quoted." That was one of Cather's favorite novels too, but for entirely different reasons.

When Bryan was in good form, Cather remembered, his conversation was "absolutely overwhelming in its richness and novelty and power, in the force and aptness of his illustrations. Yet one always felt that it was meant for the many, not the few, that it was addressed to humanity, and that there should be a stenographer present to take it down." Sometimes what he said was strikingly original; sometimes it was trite. "He chipped his eggs to the accompaniment of maxims . . . . He buttered his toast with an epigram." She also heard him speak publicly in Red Cloud at the funeral of a friend who had been a member of Congress, but she could not have heard the famous "Cross of Gold" speech that stampeded the Democratic Convention in Chicago in July 1896 and brought him his first nomination for president. Henry Nickelman says he heard it, but Willa Cather was already in Pittsburgh.

For Cather, Bryan symbolized "the entire Middle West; all its newness and vigor, its magnitude and monotony, its richness and lack of variety, its inflammability and volubility, its strength and its crudeness, its high seriousness and self-confidence, its egotism and its nobility." He never made a Democrat out of her or aroused any interest in politics, but the campaign of 1896 did give her the denouement for "Two Friends." Bryan is the only political figure she ever profiled. Like Carlyle, whom she characterized as a bad political economist, she was also inept and indifferent in the political realm. It was only the kingdom of art that she cared about.


Stereoview card of Bryan's Lincoln home 1625 "D" Street (prior to Fairview home),1900 by Underwood & Underwood.


Stereoview Card, Bryan in his Home Library, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1900 by Underwood & Underwood.



Postcard of Bryan's Library at Fairview home c. 1910





Bryan's "Cross of Gold" Speech, Judge magazine, September 14, 1896 Illustrated by Grant Hamilton

"The Sacrilegious Candidate" - William Jennings Bryan, full-length portrait wearing cape, standing on open bible, facing front with large cross cradled in left arm, holding crown of thorns overhead; in the background, on the left is a vandalized church, on the right is a man wearing a liberty cap and ragged cape, and waving a banner labeled "Anarchy". (Library of Congress).


Bryan Addressing Christian Endeavor Convention, July 17, 1897, Stereoview card by Keystone View Company, 1897



William Jennings Bryan and the Phonograph

See Phonographia's Factola W.J. Bryan and the Phonograph for popular culture connections of Bryan and the Phonograph.

There is also a two-degrees separation to Cather and Phonograph via 1) Cather's references to Bryan in O Pioneers and One of Ours and 2) to William Jennings Bryan and the Phonograph.