Willa Cather Biography

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.”


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
ph_0111201193-Cather.jpg Willa Cather Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 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’...

(The entire section is 3045 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Willa Cather was born near Winchester, Virginia, on December 7, 1873. She was the oldest of seven children. When Cather was nine years old,...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In novels as varied as My Ántonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather created eloquently written portraits of individuals whose lives achieve a universality of experience and feeling within the confines of very specific, and often unremarkable, settings.

In Cather’s best works, the courage and strength of the human spirit are brought vividly to life in stories that capture crucial moments in the history of the American frontier. In the midst of situations that test the limits of their endurance, Cather’s characters are helping to shape the face of a changing nation as the threads of their quiet, individual stories are woven together in the fabric of history.

(The entire section is 111 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Willa Sibert Cather moved with her family from Virginia to Nebraska when she was only nine years old, a move that was to influence her mind and art throughout her life. As a student at the University of Nebraska, she wrote for various college magazines; she also became a regular contributor to the Nebraska State Journal, publishing book, theater, and concert reviews, as well as commentary on the passing scene. Even after she moved to Pittsburgh to take an editorial job, she continued to send columns home to the Nebraska State Journal. Later she also began contributing to the Lincoln Courier. She taught English in Pittsburgh (an experience that became the source for one of her most famous short stories,...

(The entire section is 175 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Wilella Sibert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, on December 7, 1873, the first of seven children. Her father’s side of the family settled in Virginia during colonial times. Her grandfather, William Cather, was opposed to slavery and favored the Union cause during the Civil War, creating a rift in a family of Confederate sympathizers. Her grandfather on her mother’s side, William Boak, served three terms in the Virginia House of Delegates. He died before Cather was born, while serving in Washington in the Department of the Interior. Cather’s maternal grandmother, Rachel Boak, returned with her children to Back Creek Valley and eventually moved to Nebraska with her son-in-law Charles, Willa Cather’s father, and...

(The entire section is 1151 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The single greatest trauma and most powerful positive influence on Willa Cather and her writing was her uprooting, at nine, from the farmlands of Virginia to the barren and lonely plains of Nebraska. The unfriendly landscape horrified her until she discovered the plains’ underlying beauty—and then that landscape never left her. Her realization that such harshness could also yield splendor gave her a keen awareness of other dichotomies: of pain and pleasure, of love and hate, and of what one hopes to attain and what is actually attainable.

Her early intellectual development came from associations with the immigrants who settled in the wilderness of Red Cloud, Nebraska. A German piano teacher, the town drunk,...

(The entire section is 460 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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....

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(eNotes Publishing)

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...

(The entire section is 286 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873 in Back Creek Valley, Virginia. Her family resided in this state for the first decade of her life,...

(The entire section is 398 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(Novels for Students)

Wilella (“Willa”) Cather was born December 7, 1873, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, the eldest of seven children. She spent much of her...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(Novels for Students)

Born in Virginia in 1873. Willa Cather spent the first decade of her life on her family's farm in Back Creek Valley. In 1884, her family...

(The entire section is 508 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111226217-Cather.jpg Willa Cather Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Willa Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, near Gore, Virginia, on December 7, 1873. Christened Wilella and called by the nickname “Willie” throughout her childhood, Cather later adopted the name Willa. The daughter of Charles Cather, a farmer, and his wife, Mary Virginia Boak Cather, she was the eldest of the couple’s four children, who also included brothers Roscoe and Douglass and a second daughter, Jessica.

Although the Cather family had long been established in the small Virginia community where Willa was born, a general westward migration of family members, sparked by the railroad’s opening of the Great Plains states to increasing numbers of settlers, was already under way at the time of Cather’s...

(The entire section is 932 words.)

Willa Cather Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Willa Cather was born in 1873 in Virginia, where her family lived in a small farming community. In 1884 her father, Charles Cather, decided...

(The entire section is 447 words.)