Willa Silbert Cather (December 7, 1873 – April 24, 1947) created a body of work that represented consummate craftsmanship of the written word. She first worked as a journalist, starting with a position at the Nebraska State Journal while still a college student in the 1890’s and after graduating she started at McClure’s magazine in New York City; making it to a managing editor position. Cather felt that working in the fast pace of newspaper and magazine production helped her to work off her flood of exaggerated, novice writings.
Her novels, known for their stark beauty and spare language, reflect her philosophy that writing is an art as well as a craft (and a skill) that can be honed and polished. She advised aspiring writers to spill out all their overwrought, adjective-laden prose, allowing clearer focus and language to come through in one’s writing.Cather’s considerable wisdom has been fully preserved, especially in the numerous interviews she granted despite her professed disdain for the press and with fame in general.
From the 1953 edition of The Professor’s House (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf):
“Willa Cather was born near Winchester, VA, where her father and ancestors for several generations farmed the land. When she was eight years old, her father bought a ranch in Nebraska, and the family moved from the tranquil, ordered life of an old Virginia society, with its conservative traditions, to the wild, free, adventurous scene of the Western prairies, then thinly populated with foreign settlers — Norwegians, Swedes, Bohemians, Germans. Her Willa Cather spend most of her time riding about on her pony, visiting these foreign-born neighbors, whose struggles to master the soil in the face of droughts and blizzards, hailstorms and prairie-fires, gave its first great awakening to her imagination — deeply coloring her later life and work.
The family moved afterward to the town of Red Cloud, where Willa Cather entered high school — she had never gone to school before, but had read many of the English classics with her two grandmothers, and had learned Latin. At nineteen she graduated from the University of Nebraska. She spent the next few years in Pittsburgh doing newspaper work and teaching.
It was during those years that she wrote the brilliantly original short stories that came under the eye of S.S. McClure, who telegraphed her to come to New York and offered her a position on his magazine. Six years later she resigned her editorship of McClure’s to give time to her original work.
Willa Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was published in 1912. It was followed by the distinguished list of works. With each new book, recognition of Willa Cather, both in the United States and abroad, as an artist of supreme distinction and creative genius has steadily grown. Her novels have been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, and Dutch.”
Willa Cather died at age 73 of a cerebral hemorrhage in New York City, where she had lived for many years.
More about Willa Cather on this site
- On the Art of Fiction, According to Willa Cather
- Review by Willa Cather of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
- 5 Pieces of Writing Wisdom from Willa Cather
- Inspiration: “I don’t hold myself to longer hours”
- Dear Literary Ladies: How can I write, when I have so little time?
- Dear Literary Ladies: How can I find my unique writing voice?
- Alexander’s Bridge (1912)
- O Pioneers! (1913)
- The Song of the Lark (1915)
- My Ántonia (1918)
- A Lost Lady (1923)
- My Mortal Enemy (1926)
- The Professor’s House (1925)
- Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
- Shadows on the Rock (1931)
- Lucy Gayheart (1935)
- Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)
Autobiographies and Biographies about Willa Cather
- Willa Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey
- Willa Cather: A Literary Life by James Woodress
- The World of Willa Cather by Mildred R. Bennett
- Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record by Edith Lewis
- Willa Cather on Wikipedia
- The Willa Cather Foundation
- Willa Cather: A Longer Biographical Sketch
- PBS Documentary on Willa Cather: The Road is All
- Reader discussions of Willa Cather’s books on Goodreads
- Willa Cather page on Amazon
Read and listen online
- Willa Cather public domain works on Project Gutenberg
- Audio recordings of Willa Cather’s public domain works on Librivox
Film adaptations of Willa Cather’s books
Articles, News, Etc.
- LGBT History: Famous Women Who Loved Women
- A Lecture on Cather
- Willa Cather vs. Scott Fitzgerald
- January 2, 1896: Willa Cather to “Push”
- Will Cather Was Skeptical of Analytics
- Media Studies Experience: An Afternoon with Willa Cather
Visit and research
- Cather’s Childhood Home – Red Cloud, NE
- Cather Homes and Places – Red Cloud, NE and Gore, VA
- The Willa Cather Archive – University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Willa Cather Quotes
“It does not matter much whom we live with in this world, but it matters a great deal whom we dream of.”
“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
“The fact that I was a girl never damaged my ambitions to be a pope or an emperor.”
“In this country a writer has to hide and lie and almost steal in order to get time to work—and peace of mind to work with.”
“To note an artist’s limitations is but to define his talent. A reporter can write equally well about everything that is presented to his view, but a creative writer can do his best only with what lies within the range and character of his deepest sympathies.”
“The business of writing is a personal problem and must be worked out in an individual way. A great many people, ambitious to write, fall by the wayside, but if they are the discourageable kind it is better that they drop out. No beginner knows what [she] has to go through with or [she] would never begin.” (From an interview with the Lincoln Daily Star, 1915)
“What I write results from a personal explosional experience. All of a sudden, the idea for a story is in my head. It is in the ink bottle when I start to write. But I don’t start until the idea has found its own pattern and fixed its proper tone.” (Interview, San Francisco Chronicle, 1931)
“A novel should be like a symphony, developed from one theme, one dominating tone.” (Interview, San Francisco Chronicle, 1931)
“Imagination, which is a quality writers must have, does not mean the ability to weave pretty stories out of nothing. In the right sense, imagination is a response to what is going on — a sensitiveness to which outside things appeal. It is a composition of sympathy and observation.”
(Interview, Lincoln Daily Star, 1915)
“A painter or writer must learn to distinguish what is [her] own from what [she] admires. I never abandoned trying to compromise between the kinds of matter which my experience had given me, and the kind of writing I admired, until I began my second novel, O Pioneers!.” (Interview, The New Yorker, 1931)
“All students imitate, and I began by imitating Henry James. He was the most interesting American who was writing at the time, and I strove laboriously to pattern after him … it is a perfectly right form of education. (Interview, New York World, 1925)
“The young writer must learn to deal with subjects [she] really knows about. No matter how commonplace a subject may be, if it is one with which the author is thoroughly familiar it makes a much better story than the purely imaginational.” (Interview, Lincoln Daily Star, 1915)
“Art and religion (they are the same thing, in the end, of course) have given man the only happiness he has ever had.”
“Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.”
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