The Novels of Willa Cather, Master of American Literature
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Willa Cather (1873 – 1947) was born near Winchester, VA, where her family had lived and farmed for generations. The course of her life was altered when she was nine years old. Her father bought a ranch in Nebraska, uprooting the family and leaving behind the genteel, tranquil, and traditional life they had been accustomed to. The prairie was wild and free, yet more hazardous, with the struggle to tame the land and its attendant blizzards, droughts, and storms.
This new way of life made a deep impression on Cather, and would come to inspire some of her most iconic novels later in her life. After abandoning her initial ambition to study medicine, she embarked on a life of letters, first working as a journalist, critic, and editor. Her first published book was a collection of poems titled April Highlights (1903), remaining her only volume of poetry.
Next came The Troll Garden (1905), a collection of short stories. The author was nearly forty years old when her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was published in 1912.
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New England author Sarah Orne Jewett had become Willa Cather’s mentor and persuaded her to stop trying to write like Henry James and instead, to draw from memories of her youth in Red Cloud, Nebraska. Life on the prairie and the immigrant families she had encountered inspired O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia, which came in quick succession in the nineteen-teens. Several novels came out in the twenties including One of Ours (1922), which won a Pulitzer Prize despite mixed reviews.
Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) was Cather’s last published, and was arguably her least well-reviewed novel. Still, it was the final addition to a body of work that has become one of the most respected in American literature.
In a 1961 essay about Cather’s novels, eminent critic Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times: “In the 1920s, Willa Cather’s sober fiction was overwhelmed by the showmanship of Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway. In the 1960s, her novels are more readable than theirs … Her spare and supple writing has a classical simplicity. But her signature is bold on every page.” Now, decades after this assessment, Willa Cather’s novels are still in print, still read and studied, and deservedly so.
O Pioneers! (1913)
O Pioneers! is one of Cather’s most iconic novels. One of her earliest full-length works, it was published in 1913. Written in the kind of spare, lyric prose that would become her trademark, the story explores themes of destiny, chance, love, and perseverance.Continue Reading
The Song of the Lark (1915)
Thea Kronborg, born into the family of a Swedish Methodist minister in a Colorado village, has a voice, an ambition, and a native sense of the true and fine — qualities all in contrast with the cheapness and tawdriness about her.Continue Reading
My Antonia (1918)
The story is My Antonia and the scene is that part of Nebraska in which Miss Cather passed her girlhood; the Nebraska in which Swedes, Russians, Bohemians, and Poles settled putting their vigor into the virgin land.Continue Reading
One of Ours (1922)
One of Ours tells the story of Claude Wheeler, the son of a Nebraska farmer and a religious mother. He drifts through what seems to be a predictable life, devoid of purpose, until he goes to war in Europe. Though it won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, it received mixed reviews.Continue Reading
A Lost Lady (1923)
A Lost Lady (1923) is a shining example of Willa Cather’s gift for concise expression and talent for vivid character studies. Marian Forrester, a young woman of beauty and grace, brings an uncommon air of sophistication to the frontier town of Sweet Water.Continue Reading
The Professor’s House (1925)
This a masterly study in introspection tells the story of Godfrey St. Peter, a scholarly professor in a Middle Western university. He is passing through the critical, uneasy period between middle age and old age.Continue Reading
My Mortal Enemy (1926)
Cather sketches a character study of a woman and a life not particularly well-lived. In this slim work, the story of an ill-considered marriage unfolds. My Mortal Enemy is considered a minor work by Cather, and there has been debate as to whether it has stood the test of time.Continue Reading
Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
Here is the story, not of death, but of life, for Miss Cather’s Archbishop Latour died of having lived. She is concerned, not with any climactic moment in a career, but with the whole broad view of the career.Continue Reading
Shadows on the Rock (1931)
Cécile Auclair is a child in the Quebec of the waning seventeenth century, when both Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, Governor of French Canada, and François-Xavier de Laval-Montmorency, the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Quebec, are very old men living their last days.Continue Reading
Lucy Gayheart (1935)
Lucy Gayheart gropes a wistful way back to the time of the horse and buggy, when some men and some women loved deeply and truly and make themselves miserable and hugged their misery.Continue Reading
Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)
Willa Cather’s last novel was the only book the Virginia-born author set in her home state. An actual incident from her own family history provided the seed of the story, which concerns the troubled marriage of Henry and Sapphira Colbert, who own and operate a small farm and mill near Winchester, Virginia, before the years of the Civil War.Continue Reading