Willa Cather

Willa Cather

Willa Silbert Cather (December 7, 1873 – April 24, 1947), American fiction writer, was born in Winchester, Virginia. When she was nine years old, her family moved from the staid, conservative life of Virginia society to Red Cloud, Nebraska. Her exposure to the world of hardworking European immigrants inspired some of her best-known works. 

In this untamed landscape, young Willa Cather rode her pony about to get to know her foreign-born neighbors. She observed their struggles to conquer an unforgiving land with its extremes of droughts, blizzards, storms, and prairie fires. Though it would be some time before she turned her hand to fiction, her Norwegian, Swedish, and German neighbors were the basis of characters in her best known novels, including O Pioneers! and My Antonia.

Starting her career in journalism

Recognizing her talent for writing, her college classmates secretly submitted an essay she wrote to the Nebraska State Journal. Seeing her work in print promptly changed her plans: “Up to that time I had planned to specialize in medicine … But what youthful vanity can be unaffected by the sight of itself in print! It was a kind of hypnotic effect.”

Like many authors before and since, Willa Cather first worked as a journalist, starting with a position at the aforementioned Nebraska State Journal  as she completed her college studies in the 1890s. Her first post-graduation position was on the editorial staff of McClure’s magazine in New York City, where she worked her way up to managing editor.

She credited the fast pace of newspaper and magazine production for helping to work off what she described as the “purple flurry” of her early writing attempts. 

willa cather young

You might also like: Cather on the Art of Fiction

Productive years

The Troll Garden (1905), a collection of short stories, was Cather’s first published book, completed in her early days in New York City. After putting in six years as an editor, Alexander’s Bridge, her first novel, was published in 1912. After that, she devote her full efforts to writing fiction.

When New England author Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) became Willa Cather’s mentor, she urged her to shed her fixation on writing like Henry James, and mine memories of her youth in Red Cloud for material. The prairies and immigrant families of Cather’s childhood home inspired the classics she’s best remembered for. 

O Pioneers! , The Song of the Lark , and My Ántonia  came in quick succession in the nineteen-teens. Several novels, all well received, came out in the twenties; Death Comes for the Archbishop, considered among her finest, was published in 1927. Her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), was possibly the least well reviewed, but it was the capstone of a truly stellar career in American letters.

Edith Lewis

Even as a child, Cather recognized her masculine aspect. She went through a phase of wearing her hair completely shorn, wearing boys’ clothing, and asking to be called “William.”  She fell in love with a few young women in her youth, though she was never open about discussing her sexuality. A product of her time, she may have felt it could harm her career. To her credit, she didn’t marry a man just to keep up appearances.

Edith Lewis, like Cather, was an editor at McClure’s Magazine. The two women became life partners and lived together in New York City for 40 years. Lewis served as a personal editor to Cather. She outlived Cather by many years, and served as her literary executor. They are buried together in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

Willa Cather and My Antonia

See also: My Antonia by Willa Cather

An artist of distinction

Cather’s 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.

Willa Cather died at age 73 of a cerebral hemorrhage in New York City, where she had lived for many years.

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