Willa Cather was born in Virginia and lived her first few years there. Most of her mature life was lived in Pittsburgh and New York. Nevertheless, she is the most celebrated writer of the Nebraska frontier. How did it happen?
Cather moved to Nebraska with her family when she was nine. She grew up in the small town of Red Cloud, attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, left the state at twenty-two and never lived there again, though she returned for many visits with her family. Her experiences in her maturing years, her friendships, and the impressions made upon her consciousness by her surroundings remained with her for the rest of her life, and they profoundly influenced much of her writing. As with many other writers, notably James Joyce and Thomas Wolfe, it seemed that only by leaving the scenes of her childhood could Cather be inspired to write about them. Blending memory, imagination, real people and places, she created characters and scenes that still stir readers of her stories and novels.
Phyllis Robinson’s Willa is the most important Cather biography since E. K. Brown’s Willa Cather (completed in 1953 by Leon Edel after Brown’s death), the “official” life written at the request of Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived for forty years.
Willa differs considerably, in both content and approach, from the Brown biography. Edith Lewis had asked Brown to write a critical biography on the principle “that the person was to be studied not for herself but for the light her life and character might cast upon her art.”
Robinson places a much greater emphasis on Cather herself, in part because numerous critical examinations and analyses of Cather’s work have been published since Brown’s. Robinson includes many details from Cather’s life that Brown either omitted deliberately or did not know. Also, Robinson paints an often unflattering portrait that, almost certainly, neither Cather nor her close friend Edith Lewis would have wished the public to see.
Hundreds of letters Cather wrote to various correspondents from her teens until the end of her life were returned to her by request, and she and Edith Lewis burned them. Others were obtained by Lewis after Cather’s death and also destroyed. Robinson regrets the “incalculable” loss, as perhaps will many readers of the biography. Cather wished to be remembered for her published writing, not for her private correspondence. Nevertheless, because of certain aspects of Cather’s work and because of her long, intimate friendships with several women, Robinson wonders, as the reader does, what might have been revealed in the burned letters.
Robinson repeatedly calls attention to Cather’s sexual “duality.” She cites a brief college-girl crush on Louise Pound that was broken up by Louise’s family after Cather attacked Louise’s older brother, Roscoe (though not by name), in a profile written for the University of Nebraska student magazine. Robinson speculates that Roscoe may have suspected something perverse in the young women’s relationship and perhaps angered Cather when he spoke of it.
In Pittsburgh, where Cather moved after graduation from the university, she established an intense relationship with Isabelle McClung; Cather lived in the McClung home during much of her ten-year stay in the city, and after she moved to New York, she returned to the McClungs’ home on several occasions for both brief and extended visits. Cather was overwhelmed when Isabelle, near forty, married a younger Russian Jewish violinist after her father’s death. In Robinson’s view, the strongly anti-Semitic element in two Cather stories represents a sublimation of her anger over McClung’s marriage.
In New York, Cather began her forty-year relationship with Edith Lewis; Robinson remarks that “Their life...
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