Willa Cather, Masterful Author of American Fiction

Willa Cather

Willa Cather (December 7, 1873 – April 24, 1947), author of classic American fiction, was born in Winchester, Virginia. At nine years of age, she moved with her family  from the staid, conservative life of Virginia society to Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Growing up among hardworking European immigrants who worked the land inspired some of her best-known novels, including O Pioneers! and My Antonia.

In this untamed landscape, young Willa Sibert Cather rode her pony about to get to know her foreign-born neighbors who were homesteading on the Great Plains. She observed their struggles to conquer an unforgiving land with its extremes of droughts, blizzards, storms, and prairie fires.


Formative years

Though it would be some time before she turned her hand to fiction, the Norwegian, Swedish, and German neighbors she grew up around would later inspire the characters in her novels. Cather’s respect for immigrants’ devotion to working the land is reflected in her work.

Willa graduated from Red Cloud High School in 1890 and went on to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Because she had spent time with the local doctor in Red Cloud, her intention was to study medicine. While pursuing her studies, she also edited the University’s magazine and began reviewing plays in local papers.

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.”

In 1892, a short story titled “Peter” was published in a Boston publication. Similarly, without her knowledge, this story was submitted to The Mahogany Tree, a Boston-based literary magazine, by her English professor.

Like many authors before and since, Willa 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- April Twilights

. . . . . . . . . .

A love for the Great Plains

Though she was from Virginia and spent much of her adult life in New York City, Willa never got over her deep love for the Great Plains region that had been her home during her formative years. In a 1931 interview she was quoted as saying:

“It’s a queer thing about the flat country — it takes a hold of you, or it leaves you perfectly cold. A great many people find it dull and monotonous; they like a church steeple, an old mill, a waterfall, country all touched up and furnished, like a German Christmas card.

I go everywhere, I admire all kinds of country. I tried to live in France. But when I strike the open plains, something happens. I’m home. I breathe differently. That love of great spaces, of rolling open country like the sea — it’s the grand passion of my life. I tried for years to get over it. I’ve stopped trying. It’s incurable.”

. . . . . . . . . . .

willa cather young

Willa Cather on the Art of Fiction
. . . . . . . . . . .

Productive years, novels that have become classics

Cather’s publishing debut came as a poet, with a collection titled April Twilights (1903). It remained her only volume of poetry.

The Troll Garden (1905), a collection of short stories, was Cather’s first published book of fiction, 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 devoted her full efforts to writing fiction.

When New England author Sarah Orne Jewett became Willa Cather’s mentor, she urged her to shed her fixation on writing like Henry James and instead, to mine memories of her youth in Red Cloud for inspiration. 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 Ántoniacame in quick succession in the nineteen-teens. Several novels, all well received, came out in the twenties. One of Ours (1922) received a Pulitzer Prize the following year.Death Comes for the Archbishop, considered one of her finest novels, was published in 1927.

In these post-World War I years, Cather was distressed by the growth of materialism and the loss of the pioneering spirit of the country that had informed so many of her most successful works.

Her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), was possibly her least well-received novel, 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.” As a teen, she often signed her name as “William Cather, Jr.”

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.

Willa Cather died at age 73 of a cerebral hemorrhage in New York City, where she had lived for many years. Edith Lewis outlived Cather by many years and served as her literary executor. They are buried together in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Willa Cather - My Antonia. . . . . . . . . . .

The legacy of 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. With her lean prose, she captured the spirit of people — including women — who lived and worked with pride and purpose. 

Her life and legacy, and impact are encapsulated by the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska:

“Today, Willa Cather is one of the most important American novelists of the first half of the twentieth century. Seen as a regional writer for decades after her passing in 1947, critics have increasingly identified Cather as a canonical American writer, the peer of authors like Hemingway, Faulkner and Wharton

As one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th century, Willa Cather was gifted in conveying an intimate understanding of her characters in relation to their personal and cultural environments—environments that often derived from Red Cloud.”

. . . . . . . . . . .

Willa Cather books

More about Willa Cather

On this site

Major Works

Full texts on this site


  • 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

More information and sources

Read and listen online

Film adaptations of Cather’s books

  • O Pioneers! (1992)
  • My Antonia (1995)
  • The Song of the Lark (2006)

Articles, News, Etc.

2 Responses to “Willa Cather, Masterful Author of American Fiction”

  1. One thing in Cather’s works not often commented upon is the presence of the spiritual. The way you can feel the prairie in her prairie books, the way you can feel northern New Mexico in “Archbishop.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *