Cather is regarded as one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century. Identified often as a "regional" writer because of her frequent use of western and midwestern backdrops in her stories, Cather is equally identified with women's issues because her works foreground the experiences of American and immigrant women in the prairies and towns of a burgeoning country.
Cather was born in Virginia and spent the first decade of her life on her family's farm in Back Creek Valley. After a fire destroyed their sheep barn, Cather's father auctioned off his remaining assets and moved the family to the Great Plains, where his parents and brother had already established a homestead. Arriving in 1884, the Cathers joined the ethnically diverse group of settlers in Webster County, Nebraska, but establishing a farm on the prairie proved a more difficult task than Cather's father was willing to undertake, and a year later the family moved to the nearby town of Red Cloud. Once settled there, Cather began to attend school on a regular basis. She rapidly distinguished herself as a brilliant, though somewhat temperamental, student. Although her primary interest was science, she displayed a talent for acting, and she performed plays she had composed for the entertainment of her family, gave recitations, and participated in amateur theatricals staged at the Red Cloud opera house. Planning to become a physician, she also accompanied a local doctor on his house calls, and she was eventually allowed to assist him. 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 some commentators suggest that this behavior can be construed simply as one aspect of Cather's blanket rejection of the strictures placed upon women 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 some female friends, with whom Cather may have had romantic relationships. 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 she intended to study medicine when she entered the University of Nebraska, she reconsidered her career choice when an essay she had written for her English class was published in the local newspaper, accompanied by lavish praise from the editor. Thereafter, Cather pursued a humanities curriculum, studying primarily English, French, German, and classical literature. After graduation, Cather moved to Pittsburgh to serve as editor of a short-lived women's magazine called Home Monthly. While she continued to write and publish stories, she 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. Her association with that publication brought her national recognition, and it was S. S. McClure, the dynamic, iconoclastic publisher of the magazine, who arranged for the release of Cather's first volume of short stories. 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 give up journalism to write fiction full-time. Cather was profoundly influenced by Jewett's opinion, and shortly afterward she relinquished her responsibilities at McClure's. After one unsuccessful novel (Alexander's Bridge, 1912), Cather found her stride with subject matter drawn from childhood memories of the Nebraska prairie, using them and other incidents from her life to create a series of well-received novels published between her retirement from journalism in 1912 and her death in 1947.
Although many critics have focused on Cather's American prairie themes, recent criticism has noted Cather's strong interest in women's personal development throughout her most recognized novels. In O Pioneers! (1913) Cather featured Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrants in Nebraska. On his deathbed, her father leaves her the family land and assets. When difficulties set in over the next few years, her brothers want to leave the farm and move on to other pursuits; Alexandra, however, chooses to remain. Struggling against both the surrounding wilderness and conventional female roles upheld by her brothers and the neighboring farmers, Alexandra turns the farm into a success despite the fear and resentment she inspires. In The Song of the Lark (1915) Cather turned to a different aspect of women's experience. Her protagonist, Thea Kronborg, is a young Swedish immigrant trying to pursue a career as an opera singer. In her small midwestern town, however, Thea—like Alexandra—encounters different expectations of what she will become. It is made clear to her that she may sing in the church choir, but pursuing a life as an artist is considered out of the question for a woman. Cather detailed the challenges and prejudices a woman artist faces, and the price she must pay for artistic freedom and success. My Ántonia (1918) is widely considered Cather's masterpiece; it is also her most problematic novel for feminist critics. My Ántonia begins with an introduction ostensibly narrated by Cather herself, which tells of meeting an old friend, Jim Burden, who has written a memoir of a girl both knew during their childhoods. The narrator of the introduction agrees to read Burden's manuscript, which then forms the body of the novel. In Book I, Burden describes his initial encounter with Ántonia's family, the Shimerdas, his friendship with fourteen-year-old Ántonia, and her father's suicide. Book II follows both Burden and Ántonia in their move to the town of Black Hawk, Ántonia having left her family to work for the Burdens' neighbors, the Harlings. Ántonia is absent from Book III, in which Burden goes to the state university, and she is featured only indirectly in Book IV, with Burden learning of her scandalous love affair and illegitimate child with a neighbor. She reappears only in the final section of the novel, when Burden visits the farm where she and her husband are raising their large family. As straightforward as the plot outline appears, My Ántonia presents several difficulties for feminists. First is the fact that Cather chose to tell Ántonia's story with a male narrator, thus disallowing her a voice of her own. Second is the complete absence of mutually satisfying sexual relationships, particularly the asexual relationship between Burden and Ántonia. While admitting that Cather's avowed impatience with the limitations imposed by men upon women in the nineteenth century led to a consistently negative portrayal of male-female relationships in her fiction, many commentators nevertheless consider such portrayals reflections of Cather's more basic and unacknowledged ambivalence toward heterosexuality. Either way, a darkness pervades the novel where sex is concerned. Finally, Ántonia's reappearance at the end of the story is viewed by some scholars as a joyous or affirmative event; but by others as a portrayal of a submissive, defeated, and weary character. While Ántonia survives childhood poverty, her father's suicide, an illicit affair, and the birth of an illegitimate child, she is triumphant mainly in the eyes of Jim Burden. Her appearance has declined dramatically, and the title of the final chapter, "Cuzak's Boys," not only focuses on Ántonia's children's patrimony, thus denying her a significant role in their lives, but also ignores Ántonia's daughters as well.
Recent critical attention has placed Cather's undocumented lesbianism in the foreground. Whether or not she was in fact a lesbian, most critics agree that Cather's fiction displays a marked discomfort with female sexuality. Cather's frequent use of male narrators to tell the stories of women, as well as her archetypal treatment of the women themselves, has led critics to link her works with her life, particularly her early cross-dressing phase. Despite her apparent difficulties in dealing with sexuality in her writings and her penchant for using male narrators, Cather and her works remain a subject of great interest for feminists into the twenty-first century.