Willa Cather 1873–-1947
(Born Willa Sibert Cather) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. See also O Pioneers! Criticism.
Cather is regarded as one of the most important American authors of the early twentieth century. While she is best known for such novels as O Pioneers! (1913) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Cather began her career as a writer of short stories, and many critics consider her a master of the form. Like her longer works, Cather's short stories often focus on sensitive, alienated individuals and examine their varying degrees of success in resolving conflict.
Cather was born in Virginia in 1873 and spent the first decade of her life on her family's farm in Back Creek Valley. In 1884 the Cathers moved to Webster County, Nebraska, but establishing a farm on the prairie proved a more arduous task than Cather's father was willing to undertake, and a year later the family moved to the nearby town of Red Cloud. There, Cather began to attend school on a regular basis, and she rapidly distinguished herself as a brilliant, though somewhat temperamental, student. Sometime shortly before her thirteenth birthday, Cather adopted the outward appearance and manner of a male and began signing her name “William Cather Jr.” or “William Cather M.D.” While biographer James Woodress suggests that this behavior can be construed as just one aspect of Cather's blanket rejection of strictures placed upon females in the nineteenth century, others contend that Cather's masculine persona was an authentic reflection of her identity, citing as proof her consistent use of male narrators and her strong attachments to female friends. In either case, Cather was eventually persuaded by friends to return to a more conventional mode of dress, and she later dismissed the episode as juvenile posturing. Although Cather intended to study medicine when she entered the University of Nebraska, she reconsidered her choice when an essay she had written for an English class was published in the local newspaper, accompanied by lavish praise from the editor. By the time she graduated from the university, she was working as a full-time reporter and critic for the Nebraska State Journal. After graduation Cather moved to Pittsburgh to serve as editor of a short-lived women's magazine called the Home Monthly. While she continued to write and publish short stories, Cather made her living as a journalist and teacher for the next seventeen years. In 1906 she moved to New York City to assume the managing editorship of the influential McClure's magazine. Cather's affiliation with McClure's proved to be pivotal in her writing career: Cather's work for the magazine brought her national recognition and it was S. S. McClure, the dynamic, iconoclastic publisher, who arranged for the release of her first volume of short stories in 1905, The Troll Garden. While on assignment in Boston in 1908, Cather met Sarah Orne Jewett, an author whose work she greatly admired; after reading Cather's fiction, Jewett encouraged her to abandon journalism and Cather relinquished her responsibilities at McClure's in order to devote herself to fiction writing. After one unsuccessful attempt in the novel Alexander's Bridge (1912), Cather found her “quiet centre of life” in childhood memories of the Nebraska prairie, using them and other incidents from her life to create a series of remarkably successful novels between her retirement from McClure's and her death in 1947.
Major Works of Short Fiction
During her lifetime, Cather published three volumes of stories; a fourth, in preparation at the time of her death, was issued one year later. The majority of her stories, published in various periodicals between 1895 and 1913, she later repudiated as apprentice work unworthy of further notice, and these were not collected until after her death. In each of the four collections compiled by Cather herself, the stories are grouped around a specific subject: in The Troll Garden and Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920) the topic is the artist and society; in Obscure Destinies (1932) it is death; and in The Old Beauty and Others (1948) the theme is lost youth. The stories in The Troll Garden describe various characters' encounters with the art world, which is implicitly equated with the compelling but treacherous troll garden. In one of the most widely discussed tales of the collection, “Paul's Case,” an impoverished young man is beguiled by the splendor of the art world, represented by the music hall where he works, to the extent that he steals money in order to immerse himself in its sensual pleasures, and this action results in disgrace and death. Although some of the characters portrayed in The Troll Garden do successfully enter and exploit the art world, many more, like Paul, do not, and those who do must make great sacrifices for their art. Like The Troll Garden, Cather's second volume of stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa, focuses primarily on the “vision of aspiring youth,” reprinting four stories from the earlier collection and presenting four others. The best-known of the latter group is entitled “Coming, Aphrodite!” and is frequently counted among Cather's finest short pieces. In this story Cather juxtaposes a young painter, whose devotion to his art is pure and spiritual, with an aspiring opera singer who is motivated primarily by a desire for fame and material comfort. Each of the three stories in Obscure Destinies concerns the death of a character who embodies a vanishing ideal. However, while the stories in Obscure Destinies lament the demise of these characters and the values they represent, critics note that they also affirm the continuity of life itself. Although the three stories of Cather's fourth collection, The Old Beauty and Others, do not deal as specifically with death, they do lament the transience of youth, the disappearance of the pioneer values that Cather revered, and the increasing materialism of twentieth-century American society.
While critical response to The Troll Garden was not very favorable, the success of the novels Cather produced between 1913 and 1920 resulted in greater attention to and wider acceptance of Youth and the Bright Medusa, although several of the stories had in fact appeared in the former volume. Indeed, from the publication of O Pioneers! in 1913 onward, Cather's literary prominence was assured. In the decades following her death, a critical reappraisal of Cather's stories led to increased emphasis on her importance as an author of short fiction. While her novels remain at the center of her critical reputation, Cather is also recognized as an accomplished writer in the short story genre.