Willa Cather

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Willa Cather Biography

Willa Cather’s name has become synonymous with the pioneering spirit of the American West. Novels like O Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia feature largely female characters cast into a world in which they are forced to contend with the overwhelming space and barrenness of the Midwest. Much of the drama of these early works arises not only from the isolation of the landscape but also the isolation of the immigrants who have left their homes in Europe to pursue the American Dream. Language barriers and cultural barriers often made for a lonely existence for these pioneers, struggles which stem from Cather’s own life. Her family moved south from Quebec, crossing six states by covered wagon before finally settling in Nebraska. In addition to her novels, short stories, and poetry, Cather also worked for many years as an editor. She died in 1947.

Facts and Trivia

  • Cather entered the University of Nebraska in 1895 disguised as her fictional twin brother, William Cather.
  • She worked as the managing editor of McClure’s magazine for many years until author Sarah Orne Jewett advised her to quit and seriously pursue a career as a writer.
  • Cather sustained a forty-year relationship with her nearly life-long companion, Edith White. Although a lesbian, Cather remained closeted all of her life. Still, there is subtext in most of her novels that reveals her feelings about sexuality.
  • A lover of life, Cather is quoted as saying, “I shall not die of a cold. I shall die of having lived.”
  • The state of Nebraska has declared a portion of protected land the “Willa Cather Memorial Prairie.”


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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.

Early Life

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...

(This entire section contains 3045 words.)

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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.

Life’s Work

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’ Home Journal carried her tribute to a friend, composer Ethelbert Nevin, who would die suddenly the following February. Nevin had lived the kind of restless questing life typical of many characters in Cather’s novels.

By 1901, The Library had ceased publication. Rather than seek another job in editing, Cather believed, wrongly as it appears, that teaching would allow her more time to pursue her writing career. Therefore, she taught the spring term at Pittsburgh’s Central High School. Though she found the work tedious and considerably more time-consuming than she had expected, Cather still managed to publish several pieces: a poem in Lippincott’s, a short story in New England Magazine, assorted reviews and articles for the Lincoln Courier. She occasionally used a pseudonym, “Henry Nicklemann,” for these early works, especially if she had doubts about their content or quality.

Cather was fortunate during her Pittsburgh years to have the friendship and moral support of Isabelle McClung and her father, Judge Samuel McClung. The McClungs came to regard Cather almost as a second daughter. She resided in their comfortable home, even accompanied their daughter on a European tour in 1902, and continued her high school teaching, writing important short stories such as “Paul’s Case” (based on one of her students), “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” and “A Wagner Matinee” during this period. The last two works appeared in a collection entitled The Troll Garden, handsomely published in 1905 by McClure and reviewed in The New York Times. This, added to April Twilights, a book of poems which had appeared in 1903, meant that Cather was now making solid progress in her career as a writer.

Cather’s sudden celebrity spurred the always impulsive McClure personally to come to the McClung’s Pittsburgh home and offer her an editorial post on McClure’s, his famous magazine. To accept meant a bright future, residence in New York’s Greenwich Village, and most important, a nationally published outlet for her writing. Though the McClungs were reluctant to see Cather leave Pittsburgh for the uncertainties of New York, and though Cather herself had doubts about reentering the world of journalism, she did accept the offer and began a spectacularly successful period at McClure’s.

There was real irony in the fact that the essentially conservative Cather found herself, in 1906, the managing editor of America’s foremost magazine of social protest, famous for its “muckraking” exposés by Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, John Phillips, and Ray Stannard Baker. She also found herself living among writers such as Theodore Dreiser in the bohemian atmosphere south of Washington Square. Still, Cather met the challenge, successfully editing a controversial serialized profile of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science Church, which made McClure’s circulation soar. She continued to write and began her novel Alexander’s Bridge (1912). It first appeared serialized in McClure’s under the title Alexander’s Masquerade.

All this work took its toll, and Cather began a holiday in the spring of 1912 in New Mexico and Arizona. She loved the Southwest, and it would provide inspiration for her The Song of the Lark, which appeared in 1915, immediately following O Pioneers! (1913), her poignant evocation of the Midwest. Cather recognized after the success of these works that her great strength lay in her ability to portray the yearnings of apparently simple people and to realize strikingly the settings in which they lived. She would refine, though never essentially change, her method throughout a long series of novels.

Upon returning to New York in 1913, Cather moved into a Bank Street, Greenwich Village apartment with Edith Lewis, a woman with whom she would share the remainder of her life and who would become her literary executrix. Bank Street provided the retreat Cather needed to write after frantically busy days at McClure’s. On Friday afternoons, she and Lewis would hold open house in their apartment; their guest list would read like a “who’s who” of the literary world. The onset of the war in 1914 prohibited Cather from traveling outside the United States; she came to know the Southwest even better during the war years. Even so, World War I would figure importantly in the concluding portions of One of Ours, in which she fused familiar themes of hopeless ambition and the menacing force of the war to produce an affectingly tragic novel.

In 1917, Cather received an honorary doctor of letters degree from her alma mater, the University of Nebraska. She and Edith Abbott, the assistant of social worker Jane Addams, were the first women ever awarded honorary degrees by that institution. The honor meant much to Cather, for it implied recognition by the state she had always considered her own. Cather spent the balance of that summer in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, visiting her friend Isabelle McClung, who had recently married; she wrote much of My Ántonia while there. Despite generally mixed reviews when it appeared in 1918, My Ántonia has come to be considered by many Cather’s masterpiece, perhaps the most typically American novel of the twentieth century. It is based on Cather’s Nebraska childhood, and many of its characters resemble people she had known in Red Cloud.

Cather was disappointed by the initial sales of My Ántonia. Her dissatisfaction with Houghton Mifflin caused her to seek out Alfred A. Knopf, then new in the field, a man who, like Cather, believed that books should have both durability and a pleasing appearance. Knopf also had a reputation for treating his authors as artists and consulting them in matters of format and publicity. All this was congenial to the by now established author, who during her lifetime refused to allow her works to appear in paperback editions; Cather remained with Knopf for the balance of her career. Their business relationship deepened into warm friendship, which endured until Cather’s death twenty-seven years later.

Despite the fact that My Ántonia had appeared in 1922 in French serialization, the year was a difficult one for Cather. One of Ours, which had been published that year, was criticized severely for its melodramatic war passages. Heywood Broun, writing in the New York World, believed Cather had sentimentalized the war, while L. M. Field of the Literary Digest believed that the book’s message was that the world was no place for an idealist. These critics failed to see that Cather’s real purpose was to show the universal human need to devote one’s life to some cause greater than oneself. That Claude Wheeler, the hero of the novel, was able to find his cause only on the battlefields of France is the essence of human tragedy. One of Ours, nevertheless, became a popular success, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Still, Cather had been deeply hurt by what she considered unfair criticism, and thought that her world had been shaken to its foundations. She sought consolation in religion, and at the end of 1922 was confirmed a member of the Episcopal Church.

The mid-1920’s brought lectures at the Breadloaf Writers Conference, Middlebury, Vermont, and the University of Chicago, as well as an invitation to the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, New Hampshire. Cather also published The Professor’s House (1925), her most personal novel since The Song of the Lark. In 1925, she returned to New Mexico, having by now been discovered by D. H. Lawrence and his circle. Her conversations with Lawrence, a writer she admired, were uneasy but cordial. This visit to New Mexico inspired her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), based on her reading of William Joseph Howlett’s The Life of the Right Reverend Joseph P. Machebeuf (1908). In 1927, she moved to the Grosvenor, the Fifth Avenue apartment hotel she would make her home for the last twenty years of her life.

In the last third of her life, Cather received numerous honors: doctorates from Yale University (1929), the University of California, and Princeton; a profile in The New Yorker, which was written by Louise Bogan and subtitled “American-Classic,” and a Time magazine cover story (all in 1931); the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1944). Though she wrote several more novels, Shadows on the Rock (1931), Obscure Destinies (1932), Lucy Gayheart (1935), and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), she turned increasingly to short stories and personal memoirs. World War II publication restrictions and her own failing health curtailed her output considerably during the 1940’s. Her short-story anthology The Old Beauty and Others appeared posthumously in 1948.


On April 17, 1947, Cather wrote to her longtime friend Dorothy Canfield asking for her recollections of a meeting they had had forty-five years earlier with the distinguished English poet A. E. Housman. Cather was preparing a memoir on that meeting, unfortunately one she would not live to write. She no doubt was looking back on an incredibly productive and distinguished career of her own. She would die quietly in her New York apartment on April 24 and be buried in her beloved Jaffrey, New Hampshire, a place where she had spent many happy summers.

Cather’s works provide an unmatched legacy of American life. Though she was always an admirer of Henry James and though critics have deduced Jamesian influences in Cather’s fiction, her spare, lean style and bold characterizations made her unlike any author before her or since. Though she believed that setting should serve characterization, it is certainly true that the America in which she lived provided inspiration for her most memorable works.


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.

Brown, Edward K., and Leon Edel. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. The standard scholarly biography, completed by Edel, the well-known biographer of Henry James. 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.

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 executrix.

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.

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.


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Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1873, but her family moved to Nebraska when Cather was just nine years old. She thus matured on the Great Plains at a time when they were still raw and sparsely inhabited. Many of Cather’s best-known works, such as O Pioneers! and My Antonia, were based on personal experience from living in the areas described. Cather herself said that she often drew inspiration from the land and from the people she knew, especially in the early years when most of her neighbors were immigrants.

Cather graduated from high school in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and later went to the University of Nebraska. She had not intended to become a writer—she had instead planned to study science—but attention to her written work soon led her in that direction. She wrote for The Nebraska State Journal, and then, not long after college, Cather moved to Pittsburgh where she taught English and Latin and wrote and did editorial work for two magazines. After Pittsburgh, Cather moved to New York, where she edited the influential magazine McClure’s.

Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was not published until 1912. O Pioneers! followed in 1913. It was the first of her works to integrate her childhood in Nebraska, material she returned to in One of Ours, a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

In addition to her formal studies, Cather, like her character Claude Wheeler, was defined by two other factors: her travels and her close companions. Cather traveled to Europe, journeyed throughout the American southwest, and spent summers at the Bay of Fundy in North America. As an adult, she had close, extended relationships with a number of women. Cather died in 1947.


Critical Essays