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Willa Cather ranks among the most recognized female American authors. She is known for her depictions of prairie life in her novels.Early daysWilla Cather was born on December 7, 1873, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia. She was the eldest child of four, born to Charles Cather, who was a deputy sheriff, and Mary Virginia Boak Cather.In 1883, the family moved to join Willa's grandparents in Webster County, Nebraska. Willa’s mother was vain, mostly concerned with fashion, and tried to turn Willa into a "lady." Willa defied the norms for the way girls behaved by cutting her hair short, and wearing pants instead of dresses. While they were in Red Cloud, she met Annie Sadilek, whom she used for the character Antonia, in My Antonia.In 1890, Willa graduated from Red Cloud High School. In 1892, Willa published her first short story, “Peter,” in Boston magazine. She graduated from the university in 1895, and returned to Red Cloud until she was offered a position at Home Monthly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.In 1905, a collection of short stories, Troll Garden, was published. McClure, who offered Cather a position at his New York publication, McClure's Magazine. She moved to New York in 1906, and became the managing editor.On her ownIn 1912, Cather left the magazine to do her own writing. She published Alexander’s Bridge the same year. In 1913, Cather published O Pioneers, and in 1917, she wrote My Antonia while living in New Hampshire.In 1923 Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours and in the same year A Lady Lost was published. During that time, her novels focused on the destruction of provincial life and the death of the pioneering tradition.The Professor's House was published in 1925. The novel reflects Cather's own sense of alienation within the modern world. Some consider the book to be her best work.Busy to the endCather maintained an active writing career, publishing novels and short stories for many years, until her death on April 24, 1947. She was buried in New Hampshire.In 1973, Willa Cather was honored by the United States Postal Service with her image on a postage stamp. She also was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
Biography of Willa Cather, American Author
Willa Cather (born Wilella Sibert Cather December 7, 1873 to April 24, 1947) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer who gained acclaim for her novels capturing the American pioneer experience.
Fast Facts: Willa Cather
- Known For: Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer whose novels captured the American pioneer experience
- Born: December 7, 1873 in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, USA
- Died: April 24, 1947 in New York City, New York, USA
- Education: University of Nebraska–Lincoln
- Selected Works: My Ántonia (1918), O Pioneers! (1913), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), One of Ours (1922)
- Awards and Honors: 1923 Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, 1944 Gold Medal for Fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters
- Notable Quote: "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before."
Remembered for her depictions of pioneer life in Nebraska, Willa Cather established a reputation for giving breath to the landscape of her fiction. Sensitive to the mannerisms and phrases of the people who inhabited her spaces, she brought American regions to life through her loving portrayals of individuals within local cultures. Cather believed that the artist's materials must come from impressions formed before adolescence.  Drawing from her childhood in Nebraska, Cather brought to national consciousness the beauty and vastness of the western plains. She was able to evoke this sense of place for other regions as well, including the Southwest, Virginia, France, and Quebec.
Born Wilella Cather on December 7, 1873 (she would later answer to "Willa"), she spent the first nine years of her life in Back Creek, Virginia, before moving with her family to Catherton, Nebraska in April of 1883. In 1885 the family resettled in Red Cloud, the town that has become synonymous with Cather's name.  Leaving behind the mountainous ridge of Virginia for the wide open prairies of the Plains had a formative effect on Cather. She described the move in an interview: "I was little and homesick and lonely . . . So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn the shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life."  She directed this passion for the country into her writing, drawing upon her Nebraska experiences for seven of her books. In addition to the landscape of her new home, Cather was captivated by the customs and languages of the diverse immigrant population of Webster County. She felt a particular kinship with the older immigrant women and spent countless hours visiting them and listening to their stories. This exposure to Old World culture figures heavily within Cather's writings and choice of characters. 
In September 1890, Cather moved to Lincoln to continue her education at the University of Nebraska, initially planning to study science and medicine. She had had a childhood dream of becoming a physician and had become something of an apprentice to the local Red Cloud doctor.  During an initial year of preparatory studies, Cather wrote an English essay on Thomas Carlyle that her professor submitted to the Lincoln newspaper for publication. Later Cather recalled that seeing her name in print had a "hypnotic effect" on her—her aspirations changed she would become a writer.  Her college activities point to this goal: the young writer became managing editor of the school newspaper, the author of short stories, and a theater critic and columnist for the Nebraska State Journal as well as for the Lincoln Courier. Her reviews earned her the reputation of a "meat-ax critic," who, with a sharp eye and even sharper pen, intimidated the national road companies. While she was producing four columns per week, she was still a full-time student. 
Cather's classmates remembered her as one of the most colorful personalities on campus: intelligent, outspoken, talented, even mannish in her opinions and dress.  This strong personality would suit her well for her first career in journalism, a career that would take her away from Nebraska. In June of 1896, one year after graduating from the University, Cather accepted a job as managing editor for the Home Monthly, a women's magazine published in Pittsburgh. While she was turning out this magazine almost single-handedly, she also wrote theater reviews for the Pittsburgh Leader and the Nebraska State Journal.  Her intense interest in music, drama, and writing continued as she took in the Pittsburgh arts scene. Cather met a fellow theater lover, Isabelle McClung, who quickly became her closest friend. McClung encouraged the writer's creative streak: when Cather took some time away from journalism to foster her fictional bent, she found comfortable lodging in the spacious McClung family home.  Between 1901 and 1906, Cather took a break from journalism to teach English in local high schools. During this time, she published April Twilights (1903), a book of verse, and The Troll Garden (1905), a collection of short stories. 
Her short stories caught the eye of S. S. McClure, editor of the most famous muckraking journal. He published "Paul's Case" and "The Sculptor's Funeral" in McClure's Magazine and arranged for the publication of The Troll Garden in 1905. In 1906, he invited Cather to join his magazine staff. Once again, Cather returned to her work in periodicals, this time enjoying the prestige of editing the most widely circulated general monthly in the nation.  Cather ghostwrote a number of pieces for the magazine, including the year-long series The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science and The Autobiography of S. S. McClure. She continued to publish short stories and poems, but the demands of her job as managing editor took up most of her time and energy. McClure felt Cather's true genius lay in magazine business: he considered her the best magazine executive that he knew. Cather, however, remained unfulfilled in the position. Her friend and mentor Sarah Orne Jewett encouraged the writer to leave the hectic pace of the office to develop her craft. By 1911, Cather acted on the advice, leaving her managing position at the magazine. She was just shy of her thirty-eighth birthday and about to embark on a full-time writing career in fiction. 
In early 1912, Cather's first novel, Alexander's Bridge, appeared serially in McClure's as Alexander's Masquerade. Later she dismissed the work as imitative of Edith Wharton and Henry James, rather than her own material.  The following year she published O Pioneers!, the story that celebrates the immigrant farmers and their quest to cultivate the prairies. Cather placed her "shaggy grass country" at the center of the novel, allowing the form of the land to provide the structure of the book. She had taken Jewett's advice to heart, writing about the land and people she knew best, and dedicated this "second first novel" to the memory of her friend. Reviewers were enthusiastic about the novel, recognizing a new voice in American letters.  In her next book, Cather drew upon her past again, this time telling the story of a young Swedish immigrant and her quest to cultivate her artistic talent. Before writing The Song of the Lark (1915), she met Olive Fremstad, a Wagnerian soprano, who inspired her to create Thea Kronborg in the form of an artist. The resulting story of Thea Kronborg's development as an opera singer fused Cather's childhood with Fremstad's success. 
Cather continued in her autobiographical frame as she wrote My Ántonia (1918), her best loved novel. She placed her childhood friend Annie Pavelka at the center of the story, renaming her "Ántonia."  Although the story is told through the eyes of Jim, a young boy, his experiences are taken from Cather's, particularly his move from Virginia to Nebraska. Jim's first reaction to the landscape undoubtedly parallels the author's: "There was nothing but land not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. . . . I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. . . . Between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out."  Eventually Jim becomes entranced with the vastness of the landscape, feeling himself one with his surroundings: "I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep."  Jim's attachment to the land parallels his relationship with Ántonia, his Bohemian neighbor and playmate. When he leaves Nebraska, he leaves behind Ántonia, his childhood, his family, the land: Ántonia comes to represent the West Jim's memories of her stand in for his lost youth.
Critics unanimously praised the novel. H. L. Mencken wrote, "No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia."  Randolph Bourne of the Dial ranked Cather as a member of the worldwide modern literary movement.  The author herself felt a special connection to this story, recognizing it as the best thing she had ever done. As she confided to her childhood friend Carrie Miner Sherwood, "I feel I've made a contribution to American letters with that book."  It seems fitting that Cather rests underneath the beauty of this writing: The headstone marking her grave reads: "That is happiness to be dissolved into something complete and great." 
Desiring a publisher who would promote her artistic concerns, Cather switched her alliances in 1921 from Houghton-Mifflin to Alfred Knopf. Knopf allowed Cather the freedom to be uncompromising in her work he fostered her national reputation and ensured her financial success.  During the 1920s, Cather was at the height of her artistic career. Psychologically, however, Cather's mood had changed. In comparison to her epic novels of the 1910s, Cather's post-war novels seem pervaded by disillusionment and despondency.  After publishing Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), a collection of short stories centered on artists, she wrote One of Ours (1922), a World War I story based on the life of her cousin G. P. Cather. At the end of the novel, a mother reflects gratefully that her son died as a soldier, still believing "the cause was glorious" — a belief he could not have possibly sustained had he survived the war. Although many critics panned it, scores of former soldiers wrote her letters of appreciation, thanking her for capturing just how they felt during the war. Her efforts secured her the Pulitzer Prize for this novel.  A Lost Lady followed (1923), for which Cather drew upon her memory of Lyra Garber, the beautiful wife of a prominent banker in Red Cloud. Once again, innocence brushes up against the realities of the world: the young Niel Herbert first adores Mrs. Forrester, then scorns her in disillusionment when she betrays his ideals. In the end he recalls her memory, glad for the part she played "in breaking him to life," and also for her power "of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring." In A Lost Lady, Cather employed her philosophy of the "novel démueblé," telling by suggestion rather than by minute details. Most critics applauded the power of her artistry in this novel, although a handful complained about the immorality of the adulterous heroine. 
The same theme of disillusionment runs heavily throughout The Professor's House (1925) as well. Godfrey St. Peter, reaching success at middle age, finds himself dispirited, withdrawn, almost estranged from his wife and daughters. As his wife prepares a new house for him, the Professor feels he cannot leave his old home. As his despondency deepens, he turns to the memory of his former student Tom Outland, in whom he recalls the promise of youth cut short by death in World War I. The purposelessness of Tom's death underscores the post-war malaise of the Professor — indeed, of the modernist world. The Professor will always feel solitude, alienation, the sense of always being not-at-home — in short, he concludes, he will learn to live without delight. The novel reflects Cather's own sense of alienation within the modern world. 
Cather published My Mortal Enemy (1926) before producing her greatest artistic achievement, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). With the same power she had used to invoke the landscape of the Plains, Cather represented the beauty and the history of the southwest United States. Drawing from the life of Archbishop Lamy, Catholic French missionary to New Mexico in the 1850s, Cather created Bishop Latour, the man who ministers to the Mexican, Navajo, Hopi, and American people of his diocese. Cather took pains with her presentation: her writing was well researched and her attention to the details of layout made this the most handsomely produced book of her career. Critics immediately hailed it as "an American classic," a book of perfection. Cather reflected that writing the novel had been such an enjoyable process for her, she was sad to say goodbye to her characters when she finished. The American Academy of Arts and Letters bestowed the Howells Medal on her for this accomplishment. 
Cather wrote another historical novel, Shadows on the Rock (1931), this time centering on seventeenth-century French Quebec. Although her father's death and her mother's stroke slowed progress on this book, Cather felt that writing this novel gave her a sense of refuge during a tumultuous emotional period.  By this time, Cather was reaping the rewards of a long and successful career: she received honorary degrees from Yale, Princeton and Berkeley, in addition to the ones she had already received from the Universities of Nebraska and of Michigan. With the publication of Shadows, Cather appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, and the French awarded her the Prix Femina Américain. The book enjoyed high sales, becoming the most popular book of 1932.  In the same year, she brought out Obscure Destinies, the collection of short stories including "Old Mrs. Harris" and "Neighbour Rosicky." 
The pace of her writing slowed tremendously during the 1930s. Cather published Lucy Gayheart in 1935 and Sapphira and the Slave Girl in 1940, her last completed novel drawing from her family history in Virginia.  She spent two years revising her collected works for an Autograph edition put out by Houghton Mifflin, the first volume of which appeared in 1937.  Having risen as a national icon by the 1930s, Cather became one of the favorite targets of Marxist critics who said that she was out of touch with contemporary social issues. Granville Hicks claimed that Cather offered her readers "supine romanticism" instead of substance.  In addition to these criticisms, Cather had to deal with the deaths of her mother, her brothers Douglass and Roscoe, and her friend Isabelle McClung, the person for whom she said she had written all of her books.  The outbreak of World War II occupied her attention, and problems with her right hand impaired her ability to write.  Still, there were some bright spots in these final years. She received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1944, an honor that marked a decade of achievement. Three years later on April 24, 1947, Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage in her New York residence. 
Fifty years after her death, readers are still drawn to the beauty and depth of Cather's art. Seamless enough to draw in the casual reader and nuanced enough to entice the literary scholar, Cather's writing appeals to many walks of life. Her faithful portrayal of immigrant cultures has attracted readers outside the United States, and her work has been translated into countless languages, including Japanese, German, Russian, French, Czech, Polish, and Swedish. Scholastically, Cather has not always held a prominent place in the American literary canon. For many years she was relegated to the status of a regional writer. Within the last twenty years, however, there has been an "explosion of academic interest in Cather," interest that has moved the writer from marginalized to canonical status. In their efforts to expand the canon, feminist critics "recovered" her writing as they remembered the strong heroines of O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia. Likewise, Cather has been reclaimed by old-school traditionalists: currently, she is the only American woman writer included in the Encyclopedia Britannica's list of "Great Books of the Western World" (1990). 
Meanwhile, basic questions about Cather's life remain: the writer tried to destroy all of her letters before her death, burning a rich correspondence that would have delighted any researcher. Thousands of her letters escaped destruction, but they are protected from reproduction or quotation by Cather's will. James Woodress's biography (Willa Cather: A Literary Life), the primary source for this account, provides a comprehensive synthesis of Cather's life, gleaned from family records, letters, critical reviews, and recollections of friends and family. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant and Edith Lewis offer more personal accounts of their friend in Willa Cather: A Memoir and Willa Cather Living, respectively. Cather's sexual orientation became a subject of inquiry in the 1980s, with Sharon O'Brien considering the possibility of lesbianism in Cather's life (see Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice). Other critics have examined the larger cultural issues that serve as a backdrop to Cather's writing. Guy Reynolds looks at issues of race and empire in Willa Cather in Context, while Susan J. Rosowski examines the romantic literary tradition out of which Cather wrote (see The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism).  Deborah Carlin and Merrill Skaggs investigate her later novels in Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading and After the World Broke in Two.  Painstaking efforts have gone toward recovering Cather's juvenilia and journalism, thanks to Bernice Slote (The Kingdom of Art) and William Curtin (The World and the Parish).
Most serious readers of Cather will appreciate the judgment of her made by Wallace Stevens toward the end of her life: "We have nothing better than she is. She takes so much pains to conceal her sophistication that it is easy to miss her quality."  It is in this vein of appreciating Cather's sophistication that current scholarship continues to develop.
The Christian Humanism of Willa Cather
On Sunday, August 11, 2013, my family and I began our now-yearly odyssey into the West. As I write this, our vacation is ending, and I’m typing this from the second floor of a rented house in the Rockies, looking across my laptop out the window at Mt. Ouray.
In two days, our kids have pre-opening at their academy, back in Michigan, and the next morning I’ll attend the same for my job. I’m not quite ready to leave the glories of the American West, but, should I continue to care about a steady income and providing for my family, eastward I must return.
Some of my very first posts at The Imaginative Conservative were written three years ago on such a trek. I can no longer embark on annual trips without thinking of The Imaginative Conservative and without considering editorial mastermind Winston Elliott’s birthday (August 13), a day that will be celebrated some day in the Republic of Texas and, if it still exists, the United States of America.
A significant part of our yearly ritual and travel is my wife reading fiction to me as I drive. Dedra has one of the best reading voices I’ve ever encountered, and, as long as my children aren’t fighting with one another or with imaginary friends, I look forward to her reading almost as much as I look forward to the sites I’m about to encounter on our adventures.
Dedra can read anything and read it well, but she most often gravitates either to the mysteries of Ralph McInerny and Sharon McCrumb or to the fiction of Willa Cather. We both have adored Cather since college. With The Imaginative Conservative’s beloved John Willson, I try to read Death Comes for the Archbishop at least once year. I think a solid case could be argued for considering this novel the “Great American Novel” if such a label needs to be employed. Cather’s West is what the American West should’ve been, rather than what it was. In Cather’s vision, the West is humane, challenging, and, ultimately, in the best Ciceronian sense, cosmopolitan.
Looking back a century and a half, it would probably not have been wise to have bet on the success of Cather. Born in Virginia, her parents moved her to extreme south central Nebraska (only miles from the Kansas line and only about fifteen miles from the geographic center of the 48 states). Oldest of seven children, her parents homeschooled (or its past equivalent) Willa with their neighbors, raising her around German, Polish, Bohemian, Moravian, Swedish, and Russian immigrants. American Indians arrived in Red Cloud from time to time, as did Americans of African descent. All of this immigration and community with the treeless backdrop of the Great Plains fascinated Cather. Here, as a young woman, she experienced what most sociologists only imagine in their wildest dreams. While the various peoples and peopling of the land mattered to Cather, so too did the land.
Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.
So wrote Cather of her first great heroine, Alexandra, in O Pioneers!.
Graduating from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1895, Cather went east to work as a muck-racking journalist. She gained considerable attention and fame at the notorious but popular McClures and she gave herself fulltime to her fiction in 1912. Her many works include: April Twilights (1903) Alexander’s Bridge (1912) O Pioneers! (1913) The Song of the Lark (1915) My Ántonia (1918) Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920) One of Ours (1922 for which she won the Pulitizer Prize) A Lost Lady (1923) The Professor’s House (1925) My Mortal Enemy (1926) Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927) Shadows on the Rock (1931) Obscure Destinies (1932) and Lucy Gayheart (1935).
Sometime in the 1920s, Cather’s anti-progressive views became quite clear, and the left despised her. She died, horribly, in some literary obscurity, rescued only after her death.
The Critics: Almost All Wrong
Numerous literary scholars have examined Cather’s work, deconstructing it, and trying to find who she was. What almost every writer about Cather misses (grant me a bit of righteous arrogance for this claim, please) is her intense Humanism (in the sense of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More) and her even more intense Christian Humanism. Raised a Baptist, she later converted to Anglicanism, becoming a very high Anglo-Catholic, always in love with (but mixed with a bit of fear of) the Roman Catholic Church.
As one of the few scholars who understands Cather, Ralph McInerny knew that one could never understand Cather unless one considers her a Roman Catholic writer. To consider her anything else would and will continue to distract the critic toward oblivion.
And, McInerny was correct. Any sensible reader of The Professor’s House, Death Comes, or Shadows on the Rock would be willfully blind to miss Cather’s love of the Roman church. Additionally, those of us who are Catholic might give God a little thanks that she never officially entered the Church. Why? Because, it gave her the ability to believe without being one of the Faithful. In Death Comes, for example, Cather portrays the bishops and Cardinals of Rome as soft, velvety, and decadent. Of course, the year is 1848, and things are about to change mightily at the Vatican. But, turn to the American Southwest and meet Father (now Bishop) Latour.
Mais, c’est fantastique!” he muttered, closing his eyes to rest them from the intrusive omnipresence of the triangle. When he opened his eyes again, his glance immediately fell upon one juniper which differed in shape from the others. It was not a thick-growing cone, but a naked, twisted trunk, perhaps ten feet high, and at the top it parted into two lateral, flat-lying branches, with a little crest of green in the centre, just above the cleavage. Living vegetation could not present more faithfully the form of the Cross. The traveller dismounted, drew from his pocket a much worn book, and baring his head, knelt at the foot of the cruciform tree. Under his buckskin riding-coat he wore a black vest and the cravat and collar of a churchman. A young priest, at his devotions and a priest in a thousand, one knew at a glance. His bowed head was not that of an ordinary man,–it was built for the seat of a fine intelligence. His brow was open, generous, reflective, his features handsome and somewhat severe. There was a singular elegance about the hands below the fringed cuffs of the buckskin jacket. Everything showed him to be a man of gentle birth–brave, sensitive, courteous. His manners, even when he was alone in the desert, were distinguished. He had a kind of courtesy toward himself, toward his beasts, toward the juniper tree before which he knelt, and the God whom he was addressing.–Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop
Dear Lord, who wants to live in a parish with a priest possessing a limp and sweaty handshake, a lisp, and the inability to look his parishioners in the eye? Give me a manly priest, every time! Give me a Father Brian Stanley! Give me a Bishop Latour. This is what Cather understands and expresses so well. Yet, open almost any criticism of Cather, and you’ll likely see several themes/questions: was Cather a lesbian? (who knows and who cares?) was she anti-black? (no) and was she as simple as her writing? (no!)
Cather’s Christian Humanism
Consider this long but glorious passage from one of her finest works of fiction, The Professor’s House:
I don’t myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys they take our attention away from the real problems, of course, and since the problems are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for distraction. But the fact is, the human mind, the individual mind, has always been made more interesting by dwelling on the old riddles, even if it makes nothing of them. Science hasn’t given us any new amazements, except of the superficial kind we get from witnessing dexterity and sleight-of-hand. It hasn’t given us any richer pleasures, as the Renaissance did, nor any new sins–not one! Indeed, it takes our old ones away. It’s the laboratory, not the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. You’ll agree there is not much thrill about a physiological sin. We were better off when even the prosaic matter of taking nourishment could have the magnificence of a sin. I don’t think you help people by making their conduct of no importance–you impoverish them.– Godfrey St. Peter in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House
This is Cather at her best. And, frankly, it’s the single best definition of Christian Humanism I have ever encountered, rivaling anything Christopher Dawson or Russell Kirk claimed. And, for those of you who read The Imaginative Conservative, you know what huge praise I am giving Cather. Cather just “gets it,” and her critics don’t. But, don’t take my word for it. Pick up a Cather novel (sold in beautiful editions by Vintage). Neither your mind nor your soul will regret it.
As I mentioned above, I’m at the end of my vacation. It’s been a glorious time. I will always give thanks, especially, for two things. First, my wife read The Professor’s House to me. Second, my entire family and I got to visit Red Cloud, Nebraska, the home of Cather and the setting of some of the best fiction ever written in the new world.
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Biography of Willa Cather
Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873 in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, a small farming community close to the Blue Ridge Mountains. She was the eldest child of Charles Cather, a deputy sheriff, and Mary Virginia Boak Cather. The family came to Pennsylvania from Ireland in the 1750's.
In 1883, the Cather family moved to join Willa's grandparents, William and Caroline, and her uncle, George, in Webster County, Nebraska. At the time her family included Willa's two brothers, a sister, and her grandmother. A year later they moved to Red Cloud, a nearby railroad town, where her father opened a loan and insurance office. The family never became rich or influential, and Willa attributed their lack of financial success to her father, whom she claimed placed intellectual and spiritual matters over the commercial. Her mother was a vain woman, mostly concerned with fashion and trying to turn Willa into "a lady," in spite of the fact that Willa defied the norms for girls and cut her hair short and wore trousers. While living in the town, Willa met Annie Sadilek, whom she later used for the Antonia character in her novel My Antonia. Indeed, many of Willa's characters are inspired by people she met in her youth: another notable example is Olive Fremstad, an opera singer, who inspired the character Thea Kronborg in her novel The Song of the Lark.
Willa graduated from Red Cloud High School in 1890. She moved to the state capitol in Lincoln in order to study for entrance at the University of Nebraska. In Red Cloud, she had spent time with and learned from a local doctor, and she dreamed of becoming a physician. However, when one of Willa's stories for a writing class got published, she discovered a passion for writing. In college, Willa spent time editing the school magazine and publishing articles and play reviews in the local papers. In 1892, she published her short story "Peter" in a Boston magazine, a story that later became part of her novel My Antonia. After graduating in 1895, she returned to Red Cloud until she was offered a position editing the magazine Home Monthly in Pittsburgh.
During a visit home to Nebraska while living in Pittsburgh, Cather met a woman named Edith Lewis. Lewis lived in New York City and worked as a copy editor at the Century Publishing Company. The two women had a strong connection and by 1908 they were living together in New York. They shared a life together as committed domestic partners until Cather's death in 1947.
As editor of Home Monthly, Cather also wrote short stories to fill its pages, which were published in her first collection, Troll Garden (1905). These stories brought her to the attention of S.S. McClure, owner of one of the most widely read magazines of the day. In 1906, Cather moved to New York to join McClure's Magazine, initially as a member of the staff and ultimately as its managing editor. During this time she met Sara Orne Jewett, a woman from Maine who inspired her to later write about Nebraska. In 1912, after five years with McClure's, she left the magazine to have time for her own writing.
In 1913, Cather published O Pioneers, and in 1917, she wrote My Antonia while living in New Hampshire. By 1923, she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her One of Ours, and in this year her modernist book A Lost Lady was also published. At the time, her novels focused on the destruction of provincial life and the death of the pioneering tradition. She also wrote some of her greatest novels during this period, such as The Professor's House (1925), My Mortal Enemy (1926), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).
Willa Cather’s fiction is infused with many of her deeply held beliefs and values. Among these values are a reverence for art, for history, and for the “pomp and circumstance” of organized Catholic and Episcopalian religion. Cather also felt strongly that peoples and civilizations who live in harmony with their natural environments were sources of inspiration. She decried materialism and the advent of modern mass culture, which she believed blunted human intellectual achievement and polluted public taste.
Cather published novels and short stories all the way until her death on April 24, 1947. At the time of her death, she ordered her letters burned and she included in her will the stipulation that any surviving documents not be published. In 1988, Cather's granddaughter, Vivian Hixon, discovered a new collection of letters exchanged between Cather and her colleague and friend, Dorothy Canfield Fisher. These letters are now housed in an archive at the University of Vermont, and can be viewed by appointment.
In 1903 Cather published a collection of poems, April Twilights. In 1905 a collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, was issued. Neither collection really displayed her talent. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, the story of an engineer's love for two women, was published in 1912.
With a moving story of the prairie, O Pioneers! (1913), Cather at last discovered her subject matter. This tale of Alexandra Bergson, daughter of Swedish settlers, whose devotion to the land and to her younger brother interferes with her own chance for happiness, is a major novel and an important source for Cather's later work. In Song of the Lark (1915), she presents the story of a young woman's attempt at artistic accomplishment in a small town. My Antonia (1918), generally considered her finest novel, is based on a successful city lawyer's memories of his prairie boyhood and his love for Antonia Shimerda, a bright Bohemian girl.
Cather's next novel, One of Ours (1922), about a man who goes to war in order to escape his midwestern farm environment, won the Pulitzer Prize. A Lost Lady (1923) tells the story of an educated, thoughtful young woman faced with the materialism (desire for wealth and material goods) of the post-pioneer period. The Professor's House (1925) is a study of the problems of youth and middle age. These three novels differ from Cather's earlier studies of prairie life in that the midwestern atmosphere is now described as a force working against the artistic dreams and intellectual development of the characters.
On the Stage with Willa Cather
The Red Cloud Opera House on February 4, 1888, was the scene of an amateur theatrical entitled Beauty and the Beast. Small-town opera houses hosted such entertainments frequently, but the unique feature of this particular play was the inclusion of the young Willa Cather among the cast. Donning suit, top hat, and wax mustache, Cather played Beauty’s merchant father to a large and appreciative crowd.
The Red Cloud Chief on February 10, 1888, described the play, given “for the benefit of the indigent poor of this city. . . . The young folks who took part in the comedy were in training for about two weeks, under the management of Mr. W. F. O’Brien and Mrs. Sill, and to say that they merit great praise in the matter would be putting it in a light form. . . . For instance Willa Cather took the part of ’The Merchant’ and carried it through with such grace and ease that she called forth the admiration of the entire audience. It was a difficult part and well rendered.”
Read a brief reminiscence about Willa Cather’s later work on the Nebraska State Journal as a music and dramatic critic in a Timeline column on the Nebraska State Historical Society website. The NSHS has a collection of materials related to Cather, which includes microfilm, photocopies, and original material. Willa Cather: A Matter of Appearances, a Nebraska History Museum exhibit scheduled to end August 31, includes clothing, toys, dolls, and jewelry that belonged to both Cather and her friends and family. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor for Research and Publications
This newspaper clipping from the Red Cloud Daily Evening Chief, February 3, 1888, announced the production of Amateur Night at the Red Cloud Opera House, featuring two plays. NSHS 3560-2884
Cather and other authors: literary criticism
Frus, Phyllis and Corkin, Stanley. "Willa Cather's 'pioneer' novels and (not new, not old) historical reading." College Literature , Spring 1999.
Flannigan, John H. "Words and music made flesh in Cather's 'Eric Hermannson's Soul.'" Studies in Short Fiction , Spring 1995.
perhaps find later, if valuable
Kot, Paula. "Speculation, tourism, and The Professor's House ." Twentieth Century Literature , Winter 2002.
Lucenti, Lisa Marie. "Willa Cather's My Antonia : Haunting the Houses of Memory." Twentieth Century Literature , Summer 2000.
Zitter, Emmy Stark. "The unfinished picture: Willa Cather's 'The Marriage of Phaedra.'" On an early short story of Cather's, Studies in Short Fiction , Spring 1993.
Newman, S. "No Place Like Home: Reading Sapphira and the Slave Girl against the Great Depression." Ann Romines Willa Cather's Southern Connections: New Essays on Cather and the South (U of Virginia P 2000).
Skaggs, Merrill M. "Viola Roseboro': A prototype for Cather's My Mortal Enemy," Mississippi Quarterly, Winter 2000/2001 http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3729/is_200001/ai_n8898031.