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
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
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.