7 Later Novels by Willa Cather

Death comes for the archbishop

Willa Cather (1873 – 1947), it could be argued, wrote several Great American Novels, characterized by their stark beauty and economy of language. Her earlier novels include several that have remained classics, notably, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Larkand My Ántonia — which came out 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. Here we take a brief look at the seven later novels of Willa Cather, beginning with A Lost Lady (1923).

In the 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.

Cather is described in the Library of America omnibus collecting her later works as “among the most accomplished American writers of the twentieth century, are at once intensely lyrical and highly controlled. Their formal perception and expansiveness of feeling are an expression of Cather’s dedications both to art and to the open spaces of America.”

The following descriptions of the later novels of Willa Cather, with the exception of My Mortal Enemy, are from the 1990 Library of America edition of Cather: Later Novels, published by Library Classics of the United States.

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A Lost Lady

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

A Lost Lady (1923) exemplifies Willa Cather’s principle of conciseness. It concerns a lady of uncommon loveliness and grace who lends an aura of sophistication to a frontier town, and explores the hidden passions and desires that confuse those who idealize her. The recurrent conflict in Cather’s work, between frontier culture and an encroaching commercialism, is nowhere more powerfully articulated.

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The Professor’s House

The professor's house by Willa Cather

The Professor’s House (1925) encapsulates a story within a story. In the framing narrative, Professor St. Peter, a prize-winning historian of the early Spanish explorers, finds himself disillusioned with family, career, even the house that reflects his success Within this story is another, of St. Peter’s friend Tom Outland, whose brief but adventurous life still shadows those he loved.

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My Mortal Enemy

My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

My Mortal Enemy (1926) is listed among Cather’s novels, though this slim volume is more of a novella. Cather sketches a character study of a woman and a life not particularly well-lived. In Cather’s inimitable spare style, the story of an ill-considered marriage unfolds. Unlike the nearly universal praise for her major works —My ÁntoniaDeath Comes for the Archbishop , and O Pioneers!  among others, My Mortal Enemy has been received with praise as well as met with disappointment.

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Death Comes for the Archbishop

Death comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) tells the story of the first bishop of New Mexico in a series of tableaux modeled on the medieval lives of the saints. Cather affectionately portrays the refined French Bishop Later and his more earthy assistant within the harsh and beautiful landscape of the Southwest and among the Mexicans, Indians, and settlers they were sent to serve.

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Shadows on the Rock

Shadows on the rock by Willa Cather

Shadows on the Rock (1931), though its setting and subject are unusual for Cather, expresses her fascination with the “curious endurance of a kind of culture, narrow but definite.”

It is a re-creation of 17th-century Quebec as it appears to the apothecary Auclaire and his daughter Cécile: the town’s narrow streets, the supplies ships on its great river, its merchants, profligates, explorers, and missionaries, and towering personalities like Frontenac and Laval, all parts of a colony struggling to survive.

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Lucy Gayheart

Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather

Lucy Gayheart (1935) returns to the themes of Cather’s easier writings, in a more somber key. Lucy, talented, spontaneous, and eager to explore the possibilities of life, leaves her prairie home to pursue a career in music. After a happy interval, her life takes an increasingly disastrous turn.

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Sapphira and the Slave Girl

Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa CAther

Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) marks a conclusion to Cather’s career as a novelist. Set in Virginia five years before the Civil War, the story shows the effects of slaveholding on Sapphira Colbert, a woman of spirit and common sense who is frighteningly capricious in dealing with people she “owns,” and on her husband, who hates slavery even while he conforms to the social order that permits it.

When, through kindness, he refuses to sell a slave, Sapphira’s jealous reaction precipitates a sequence of events that registers a conflict of cultural as well as personal values.


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