Article abstract: At a time when such careers were nearly unheard of for women, Cather became a celebrated theater and music critic, crusading magazine editor, and accomplished novelist-poet in the tradition of American naturalism.
The life of Willela Sibert Cather is filled with small surprises. Though she became identified in the minds of her readers with Nebraska, the setting for much of her fiction, she actually lived the first nine years of her life at Willowshade, her family’s home in rural western Virginia. Then too, although many biographies report the year of her birth as 1874 and her tombstone reads 1876, her actual year of birth was 1873. S. S. McClure, founder of McClure’s magazine, suggested the first alteration when he hired Cather as one of his editors in 1906, while she herself chose 1876 upon publication of Youth and the Bright Medusa in 1920. Though almost every picture ever taken of Cather shows a round-faced, kindly-looking Midwestern farm woman in middy-blouse and tie, she actually lived half of her life in New York, first in Greenwich Village and later on Park Avenue. Her plain, almost mannish appearance served her well, both in the male world of journalism and later as adjunct to her distinctively American fiction. In later life, she would wear bright, sometimes almost garish colors and prints.
Cather liked to say that she had been named after both her grandfathers, William Cather and William Lee Boak, and for her mother’s brother Willie Sibert Boak, who fell fighting for the Confederacy. The family Bible, however, lists her name at birth as “Willela,” the same name as that of her father’s deceased sister. This small list of minor alterations and harmless deceptions tells much about Cather’s ability to recognize the importance of romantic characterization. It also implies, correctly as it appears, that many of Cather’s most appealing fictional protagonists reflect aspects both of their creator and of people she knew and often admired.
Cather was the eldest of seven children born to Charles Fectigue and Mary Virginia Boak Cather. Rachel Boak, Cather’s maternal grandmother, owned the house in which Cather was born. It was located in Back Creek Valley near the town of Winchester. Boak was a widow with five children, the youngest of whom was Cather’s mother. Even in her youth, Cather was attracted to the strength and self-sufficiency of both her mother and her grandmother. In contrast, Cather’s father remained boyish and impractical even to his last days. These, too, seemed attractive qualities to Cather, and she would later immortalize all three in her fiction.
The isolated life of Back Creek Valley as well as the divided North-South loyalties of Cather’s family gave her a more immediate insight into post-Civil War America than her date of birth alone would have allowed. Opportunities for homesteading in the Midwest, very real in the 1870’s, also tempted Cather’s father, and he decided in 1877 to settle his growing family in Nebraska. In 1883, the entire family made the difficult journey on the thirteen-year-old transcontinental railroad. Thus, the association of Cather and Red Cloud, Nebraska, began amid the child’s longings for the Virginia of her birth.
Though Red Cloud, with approximately twenty-five hundred residents, was considerably more populous than Back Creek Valley, it was still isolated. Furthermore, because it had become a railroad hub, the population was increasing and housing was scarce. The house which the Cathers rented (which still stands) is identical to Thea Kronborg’s home in The Song of the Lark (1915). Cather was as delighted as Thea to have been given her own room; like Thea’s it had roses on its wallpaper, and it became a sanctuary for the sensitive ten-year-old with six younger brothers and sisters.
College at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln was a period of happiness and great awakening for Cather. Jim Burden, in My Ántonia (1918), described the university as it must have appeared to Cather in 1890, a campus filled with new paths and young trees, a school located where there had been only prairie a few years before. It was in Lincoln that Cather met Dr. Julius Tynsdale, drama critic for the Lincoln Evening News, and his sister Emma Tynsdale Westermann, wife of the newspaper’s owner and the mother of six boys who would be fictionalized as the Erlichs in One of Ours (1922). Cather was impressed by the intelligence and unaffected intellectuality of the family. Before her graduation in 1895, she would be writing drama criticism for the Lincoln Journal and would become known for pithy and sometimes savage reviews of local drama and music events. Her earliest works, mostly criticism and poetry, were published in Hesperian, the university’s literary magazine.
It was only natural, given her considerable experience in newspaper work, that Cather would begin her career in journalism, though it was an unusual field for a woman in the 1880’s. For a time she continued at the Journal, but by late summer of her graduation year had moved her column, now called “The Passing Show,” to the Lincoln Courier. In these early years, she tried to balance journalism against creative writing, doing the latter evenings in her room. The year after graduation, she also applied for a teaching position in Nebraska’s English Department when a former professor of hers retired. The appointment was denied, however, possibly as much because Cather lacked a master’s degree as because of her sex.
At the age of twenty-two, Cather was offered the post of editor of a women’s magazine published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Home Monthly. Cather saw this as an important opportunity, not only because she would be living a mere 350 miles from New York but also because the magazine could provide an outlet for her fiction. Indeed, her short story “Tommy the Unsentimental,” which appeared in Home Monthly’s first issue, is a portrait of the young Cather, who left Nebraska at this early stage of her life and would never again reside in that state.
Pittsburgh’s cultural life was surprisingly rich in the mid-1890’s, and Cather was struck by its contrasting wealth and grinding poverty. She would write her famous short story “Paul’s Case” while there and use the city as its background. Cather became so well-known locally that in 1897 she was offered the position of full-time drama critic of the Pittsburgh Daily Leader. This led to her serving as guest critic for the New York Sun. All the while she was sending pieces back to Nebraska for publication in the Courier. By the turn of the century, Cather was a solidly established and respected Eastern-based journalist and critic.
In 1900, Cather worked for a brief time as editor of a Pittsburgh literary magazine known as The Library. Charles (Chuck) Clark intended it to be an American version of London’s The Spectator, and while it lasted The Library also provided an outlet for Cather’s fiction. Cather was also contributing to national publications at this time. The April, 1900, issue of Cosmopolitan contained her short story “Eric Hermannson’s Soul.” The November Ladies’...
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