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Willa Silbert Cather (December 7, 1873 – April 24, 1947), author of classic American fiction, was born in Winchester, Virginia. At nine years of age, her family moved 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 works.
In this untamed landscape, young Willa 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.
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. Cather’s respect for the immigrants’ devotion to the land is reflected in these stories and their characters.
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.
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, lika 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.”
You might also like: Cather on the Art of Fiction
Cather’s publishing debut came as a poet, with a collection titled April Highlights (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 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 instead 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 Ántonia came 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 WWI-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-reviewed novel, but it was the capstone of a truly stellar career in American letters.
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. She outlived Cather by many years, and served as her literary executor. They are buried together in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
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.
Willa Cather page on Amazon
More about Willa Cather on this site
- Cather On the Art of Fiction
- Review by Cather of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
- 5 Pieces of Writing Wisdom from Willa Cather
- Willa Cather Loved and Hated Fame & the Press
- Willa Cather’s Inspiration for The Song of the Lark, Olive Fremstad
- Dear Literary Ladies: How can I write, when I have so little time?
- Dear Literary Ladies: How can I find my unique writing voice?
- The Troll Garden (1905)
- Alexander’s Bridge (1912)
- O Pioneers! (1913)
- The Song of the Lark (1915)
- My Ántonia (1918)
- One of Ours (1922)
- 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
- 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
Read and listen online
- Cather public domain works on Project Gutenberg
- Audio recordings of Cather’s public domain works on Librivox
Film adaptations of Cather’s books
Articles, News, Etc.
- LGBT History: Famous Women Who Loved Women
- A Lecture on Cather
- Willa Cather vs. Scott Fitzgerald
- Will Cather Was Skeptical of Analytics
- Media Studies Experience: An Afternoon with Willa Cather
- Willa Cather, Pioneer — an appreciation by Jane Smiley
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
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