Authors: Willa Cather

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American Pulitzer Prize–winning author and editor.

December 7, 1873

Back Creek Valley, near Gore, Virginia

April 24, 1947

New York, New York

Biography

Willa Sibert Cather stands as one of the major novelists and interpreters of the American pioneer experience. She was the oldest child of Charles and Mary Virginia (née Boak) Cather. When she was nine, her father decided to homestead with his relatives on the divide between the Little Blue and Republican Rivers, northwest of Red Cloud, Nebraska. Cather later remembered her first impressions of the cold, flat, naked prairie, stretching on to the horizon. After a year of homesteading, Charles Cather moved his family back into Red Cloud and opened a farm mortgage office.

Cather was a precocious and unconventional child, excelling at school, absorbing the culture of immigrant families, and seeking out adult company. After completing high school in 1890, she entered the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. There she showed the first evidence of her literary talents. She wrote for the two campus literary magazines and worked as a theater critic for the Nebraska State Journal.

Willa Cather

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(Library of Congress)

Upon her graduation in 1895, Cather accepted an editorial position with the Home Monthly in Pittsburgh. There she became close friends with Isabelle McClung, daughter of a wealthy judge, and moved in with the McClungs in 1900. Cather and Isabelle McClung traveled together to Europe in the summer of 1903. While living in Pittsburgh, Cather taught English at Allegheny High School and published two early works, April Twilights and The Troll Garden. In 1906, Samuel Sidney McClure discovered one of Cather’s stories and invited her to join his magazine staff in New York. Cather gained valuable experience as an editor for McClure’s and published many of her early stories there. On a research trip to Boston, she met Sarah Orne Jewett, who advised her to devote herself to writing and to try a novel if her artistic gifts were ever to mature. Cather took this advice and completed her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, the same year that she left McClure’s. From that point on, she was a full-time writer.

In 1912, an invitation from her brother took Cather to Arizona, where she saw the cliff dwellings near Flagstaff. This discovery was later reflected in The Song of the Lark. The trip west also put Cather back in touch with her Nebraska roots and inspired her to begin her second novel, O Pioneers!, which was soon followed by My Ántonia. Cather’s remarkable heroines in these novels—Alexandra Bergson, Thea Kronborg, and Ántonia Shimerda—celebrate the pioneer virtues of idealism, generosity, vision, and vitality. They resist the greed and materialism that Cather believed were stifling American life. In the character of the opera singer Thea Kronborg, Cather also celebrates the artist who transcends her provincial roots and develops her artistic gifts. The other protagonists, Alexandra Bergson and Ántonia Shimerda, draw their strength from the land itself and triumph over the limitations of their circumstances.

World War I and its aftermath marked a period of disillusionment for Cather. She believed that postwar America was gripped by a new commercial spirit that was inimical to the spirit. The hero of One of Ours, Claude Wheeler, is a young, idealistic American who volunteers for service in France and loses his life in the war. Marian Forrester, in A Lost Lady, is a brilliant, attractive woman who is financially compromised by the unscrupulous Ivy Peters after her husband’s death. Godfrey St. Peters, in The Professor’s House, is a disillusioned middle-aged professor, oppressed by his greedy family and sustained only by the memory of his former student Tom Outland, who had died in the war. The income from Outland’s invention becomes a source of dissension within St. Peters’s family and leads to Godfrey’s attempted suicide.

To counteract the pervasive materialism, Cather invoked two forces: that of discovering one’s "true" self through a suitable vocation, which involved an idealistic dedication to a worthwhile cause, and that of recovering one’s past, or cultural roots. Father Jean Latour, the French Jesuit priest in Death Comes for the Archbishop, finds his mission in reforming the corrupt Catholic Church in the Southwest. Cather’s fascination with older cultures continued with Shadows on the Rock, a historical novel set in seventeenth century Quebec which celebrates the richness and stability of the French culture transplanted to the New World.

Cather’s fictional works show the benefits of her early drama criticism, especially in her critical ideal of the novel as a narrative stripped to its essentials. Though her most memorable characters were her female protagonists, she sometimes employed a male narrator, and she was adept in depicting the male sensibility. Her greatest strengths lie in the lyrical intensity of her pastoral novels, her celebration of the pioneer spirit, and her recognition of the ways in which the cultural heritage of Europe has enriched the American experience.

Author Works Long Fiction: Alexander’s Bridge, 1912 O Pioneers!, 1913 The Song of the Lark, 1915 My Ántonia, 1918 One of Ours, 1922 A Lost Lady, 1923 The Professor’s House, 1925 My Mortal Enemy, 1926 Death Comes for the Archbishop, 1927 Shadows on the Rock, 1931 Lucy Gayheart, 1935 Sapphira and the Slave Girl, 1940 Short Fiction: The Troll Garden, 1905 Youth and the Bright Medusa, 1920 Obscure Destinies, 1932 The Old Beauty and Others, 1948 Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction: 1892-1912, 1965 Uncle Valentine, and Other Stories: Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, 1915-1929, 1973 Poetry: April Twilights, 1903 April Twilights and Other Poems, 1923 Nonfiction: My Autobiography, by S. S. McClure, 1914 (ghostwriter) Not Under Forty, 1936 Willa Cather on Writing, 1949 Willa Cather in Europe, 1956 The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather’s First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893–1896, 1966 The World and the Parish: Willa Cather’s Articles and Reviews, 1893–1902, 1970 (2 volumes) Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters, 1986 The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, 2013 Miscellaneous: Writings from Willa Cather’s Campus Years, 1950 Bibliography Arnold, Marilyn. Willa Cather’s Short Fiction. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984. In this indexed volume, Arnold discusses all Cather’s known short fiction chronologically. Includes a selected bibliography. Bennett, Mildred R. The World of Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961. A biography, particularly good in recalling Cather’s Nebraska girlhood. It is filled with vivid descriptions of Red Cloud and the Midwest of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Willa Cather’s Gift of Sympathy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. Considered a classic work of criticism on Cather’s works. Addresses Cather’s gift of sympathy and skillfully relates it to her thematic interests and technical proficiency. Discusses not only Cather’s fiction but also her poetry and essays. Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Willa Cather. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Collection of essays includes what Bloom describes as "the best literary criticism on Cather over the last half-century." Includes chronology and bibliography. Brown, Edward K., and Leon Edel. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. This volume concentrates on biographical information which can be deduced from Cather’s works. Daiches, David. Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1951. An appropriate book for readers new to Cather’s works. It is scholarly, well indexed, and a classic reference text. De Roche, Linda. Student Companion to Willa Cather. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. Provides an introductory overview of Cather’s life and work aimed at high school students, college undergraduates, and general readers. Includes analyses of O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. A full-length examination of Cather using feminist thinking. Includes extensive notes. Gerber, Philip L. Willa Cather. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1995. Provides an overview of Cather’s life and her work, including novels and short stories, and describes the resurgence of criticism of her writings. Includes chronology, notes, annotated bibliography, and index. Goldberg, Jonathan. Willa Cather and Others. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001. Discusses Cather’s work in relation to the work of various female contemporaries of the author, including opera singer Olive Fremstad, ethnographer and novelist Blair Niles, photographer Laura Gilpin, and writer Pat Barker. Uses the work of these other women as a means to study Cather’s fiction, including O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, The Song of the Lark, and other novels. Harris, Jeane. "Aspects of Athene in Willa Cather’s Short Fiction." Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Spring, 1991): 177-182. Discusses Cather’s conflict between her gender and her inherited male aesthetic principles and how this is reflected in some of her early short stories by "manly" female characters modeled after the Greek goddess Athene. Maintains that Cather’s androgynous females represent her dissatisfaction with traditional notions of femininity and masculinity. Lathrop, JoAnna, ed. Willa Cather: A Checklist of Her Published Writing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975. An annotated list of all of Cather’s works including the lesser known posthumously published essays on writing as well as her travel essays, reviews, and student works. Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. A famous memoir written by Cather’s longtime friend, companion, and literary executor. Lindermann, Marilee. The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Collection of essays includes examinations of such topics as politics, sexuality, and modernism in Cather’s works. Four of the essays focus on analysis of the novels My Ántonia, The Professor’s House, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Meyering, Sheryl L. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Willa Cather. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Discusses individual Cather stories, focusing on publishing history, circumstances of composition, sources, influence, relationship to other Cather works, and interpretations and criticism. Deals with her debt to Henry James, the influence of her sexual orientation on her fiction, and the influence of Sarah Orne Jewett. Murphy, John J., ed. Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Among the thirty-five essays in this substantial collection are reprinted reviews and articles by Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Leon Edel, Blanche H. Gelfant, and Bernice Slote. It also includes original essays by David Stouck, James Leslie Woodress, Paul Cameau, and John J. Murphy. The introduction offers a history of Cather scholarship. Nettels, Elsa. Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. Elsa Nettels examines American writers struggling with the problems of patriarchy. O’Connor, Margaret Anne, ed. Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Collection reprints reviews that appeared when Cather’s books were initially published, with pieces dating from 1903 to 1948. Most of the reviews are from major national journals and newspapers, but some demonstrate critical responses to Cather’s works in Nebraska, New Mexico, and other locales in which her books are set. Porter, David. On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2008. This is an overview of Cather’s life and works which looks at the people and ideas that influenced her writing. Robinson, Phyllis C. Willa: The Life of Willa Cather. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1983. A popular biography, with good material on Cather’s family and friends. It contains some biographical analyses of Cather’s major works. Romines, Ann, ed. Willa Cather’s Southern Connections: New Essays on Cather and the South. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Collection of essays focuses on the influence of Cather’s roots in Virginia. Among the novels discussed are My Mortal Enemy and Saphira and the Slave Girl. Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Romanticism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Thematic study interprets Cather’s writing within the literary tradition of Romanticism, with a chapter devoted to an analysis of each of her novels. Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1953. A recollection written by a longtime friend. Sergeant provides interesting information on Cather’s life in Pittsburgh and New York as well as Cather’s several meetings with American writer Sarah Orne Jewett and her friendship with Annie Anderson Fields, widow of James T. Fields, the publisher of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. Seaton, James. "The Prosaic Willa Cather." The American Scholar 67 (Winter, 1998): 146-150. Argues that Gary Saul Morson’s concept of prosaics, which implies the most important events may be the most banal and common ones, should be used to understand Cather’s view of romantic love and normal family life. Shanley, J. Lyndon. "Willa Cather’s Fierce Necessity." The Sewanee Review 102 (Fall, 1994): 620-630. Notes that Cather’s stories are about ordinary people and that one of her most important themes is youthful dreams; discusses Cather’s clear prose and the apparent simplicity of her stories. Shaw, Patrick W. Willa Cather and the Art of Conflict: Re-visioning Her Creative Imagination. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1992. Devotes separate chapters to all of Cather’s major novels. Reexamines Cather’s fiction in terms of her conflicts over her sexuality. The introduction provides a helpful overview of Cather criticism on the topic. Skaggs, Merrill Maguire, ed. Willa Cather’s New York: New Essays on Cather in the City. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001. Collection of twenty essays focuses on Cather’s urban fiction and her work for McClure’s. Stout, Janis P. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. A deconstructionist analysis of Cather’s work, viewed in the context of crumbling modernism and the emerging "new woman." Thomas, Susie. Willa Cather. Savage, Md.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1990. This feminist study, which draws extensively on Cather’s unpublished letters, focuses on the particular contributions Cather made as a woman writing about America and analyzes how her cultural awareness influenced the development of her style. The volume includes a short biography and chapters on Cather’s major novels and works of short fiction. Wasserman, Loretta. Willa Cather: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Focuses on selected short stories that the author feels are the most challenging and lend themselves to different critical approaches. Includes interviews with Cather, one of Cather’s essays on the craft of writing, samples of current criticism, a chronology, and a select bibliography. Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Definitive biography extends previous studies of Cather with fuller accounts of Cather’s life and includes new and expanded critical responses to her work, taking feminist criticism into account. In preparing the volume, Woodress was able to use the papers of Cather scholar Bernice Slote. Includes photographs of Cather as well as of people and places important to her.

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