Willa Cather

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(Feminism in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 33,474 words.)