Willa Cather

Willa Cather

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.


Formative years

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.”


willa cather young

You might also like: Cather on the Art of Fiction


Productive years

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.


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. 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.


My Antonia by Willa Cather

Willa Cather page on Amazon


More about Willa Cather on this site

Major Works

Autobiographies and Biographies about Willa Cather

More Information

Read and listen online

Film adaptations of Cather’s books

Articles, News, Etc.

Visit and research


*This post contains affiliate links. If the product is purchased by linking through, The Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!

image_print

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.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

Subscribe to The Literary Ladies Guide weekly newsletter

Celebrating women’s voices
with inspiration for readers and writers

  • Find your next great read
  • Get writing advice from authors you love
  • Enjoy fascinating facts and quotes
  • Discover women’s literary history

... and lots more (look for a bonus in your welcome letter!)
Email address
Secure and Spam free...