Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4895
Special Commissioned Entry on Willa Cather Janis P. Stout
(Full name Wilella Sibert Cather) American novelist, short story writer, and author of fiction for young adults.
This special entry, written by Janis P. Stout, presents an overview and analysis of Cather's career. For further information on her life and works, see TCLC, Volumes 1, 11, and 31; and for discussion of her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), see TCLC, Volume 99.
Cather is often thought of as a novelist of the western frontier. It is true that she did live in Nebraska, first on a ranch and then in the town of Red Cloud—settings that appear in several of her novels—from the age of nine until, as a recent college graduate, she left to begin her career in journalism in Pittsburgh. But in fact she was a southerner by birth and lived most of her adult life in New York, and her novel-writing career lay entirely in the twentieth century, not the nineteenth. Cather was a product of the rapidly changing America that also produced such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Katherine Anne Porter, and William Faulkner, and the tensions and uncertainties of the times through which she lived are evident beneath the surface of her writings.
Cather was born eight years after the end of the Civil War, in a far northwest corner of Virginia, only a few miles from the West Virginia line. West Virginia, which came into being as a state during the war itself, had been created as a political entity because the views on such issues as slavery and the preservation of the Union held by the Virginians who inhabited this mountainous region differed so drastically from those held by the Virginians who lived in the lowlands farther east, where there were large plantations. Virginia was a slave state and part of the Confederacy, though slavery was not so widely practiced in the western part of the state. West Virginia was Unionist. The heritage of the war was still very much alive when Cather was born—its bitter disagreements that even divided families, the vivid memories of battles and displacements of peoples, and perhaps most of all its resulting economic disruptions. They were real for the Cather family, specifically.
In 1882 this complex heritage of the Civil War, together with other motivations such as the desire for a drier climate for health reasons (because they believed the dampness of that part of Virginia might have contributed to the high incidence of tuberculosis among family members), drove the Cathers away from their verdant Virginia home to the open prairies of Nebraska. Nebraska was indeed a frontier territory; it had achieved statehood only fifteen years before, in 1867. The newness of the area to white Americans and the harshness of life there are recorded and sometimes celebrated in several of Cather's novels and short stories. For that reason, she has often been thought of as a Midwestern writer, a voice of the prairies. But it is important to remember that she was first of all a southerner.
It is also important to remember, when we encounter descriptions of her as a cheery, reassuring writer who praises home life and stability, that some of her earliest memories were of disruption. She grew up with a keen sense of having been snatched away from everything she knew and set down on a hostile and harsh plain, exposed to sun and wind, deprived of the comforting protection of hills and woods. Dividedness and conflict, not certainty and assurance, were her origins, and a barely disguised state of dividedness and conflict haunts her work.
Cather witnessed America's change from horse-and-buggy to automobile to airplane to jet. She lived through the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. She celebrated the heartiness of immigrants whom she knew personally on the farms of Nebraska, and she witnessed (and sometimes participated in) the increasing hostility of more settled Americans to the newcomers arriving from different parts of Europe than their own ancestors had come from. She witnessed and commented on women's gaining of the right to vote, the passage and then the repeal of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the dropping of the atomic bomb. If her books sometimes seem tranquil or detached from the turbulence of history, it is well to look a little closer. Underneath, they are stories both of personal dividedness and of historic and political struggle.
A Chronology of Cather's Life
December 7, 1873: Wilella Cather (as she was actually named) is born in the home of her maternal grandmother, Rachel Boak, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, a few miles west of the town of Winchester. She is the first child of Charles Fectigue Cather and Mary Virginia Boak Cather.
1875-1882: At the age of two, she, her mother, and father move just down the road to Willow Shade, the nearby home of her paternal grandparents, William and Caroline Cather. The tall brick house sits in a hollow on a hilly sheep farm with many trees and streams. (It has been restored in recent years and is sometimes open to visitors.) Hired laborers who help Charles Cather in the care of the sheep and Mary Virginia Cather in the management of the household come from neighboring families, many of them hill folk who are illiterate but greatly liked by the growing child.
1883-1884: In April 1883, Charles and Mary Virginia Cather, now with four children—Willa, Douglass, Roscoe, and Jessica—leave Willow Shade and travel by railroad to Webster County, Nebraska, to join Charles's father and mother, two sisters, and older brother, George P. Cather and his wife Frances, who have been settled there for about five years. Willow Shade has been sold by Grandfather Cather's decision following a fire that destroyed the large sheep barn. Grandmother Boak accompanies the family in the move, as well as a retarded hired girl named Marjorie Anderson and Marjorie's brother and two cousins, who will work on the ranch. Other families from Virginia live nearby in western Webster County, as well as immigrants from Bohemia, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Germany. It is a difficult adjustment for Cather, but she comes to love the prairie and finds her immigrant neighbors interesting.
September 1884-June 1890: The Cathers move into the thriving town of Red Cloud, where Charles Cather operates an insurance and land-financing business. They live in a small rented house where the children and the hired girl, Margie, have their bedrooms in the attic. Cather attends public school and enjoys the performances of touring companies after a local opera house opens in 1885. Along with her friends, including the four daughters of a local merchant, Mr. Miner, she also performs in amateur theatricals. In 1888 the already crowded household becomes even more crowded with the birth of another brother, James. About this time Cather begins to dress in masculine-looking styles and to wear her hair closely cropped. Studying biology as well as Latin with a local store clerk from England and learning some anatomy by accompanying local doctors on house calls, she aspires to be a doctor and begins calling herself Dr. William Cather. In June 1890 she graduates from Red Cloud High School. The family grows again, with the birth of another sister, Elsie.
September 1890-January 1896: Cather attends the Latin School of the University of Nebraska for one year, then, in the fall of 1891, matriculates at the university. Although she had planned to major in science, she decides to pursue the classics (Greek and Latin) and English literature program after seeing her essay on Thomas Carlyle in print in the Nebraska State Journal. She also studies French and one year of German. An essay on Shakespeare appears in the Journal in November 1891 and her first published fiction, “Peter,” in The Mahogany Tree, a small magazine, in May 1892. During her college years, Cather writes for and edits the university's literary newspaper, the Hesperian. After September 1893 she is also employed as a theater reviewer and columnist by the Journal, at a dollar a column. During these years Cather sees performances by Sarah Bernhardt and other noted actors and actresses, attends opera in Lincoln and Chicago, and perhaps meets Stephen Crane. Her friends include Louise Pound, later the first woman president of the Modern Language Association, Mariel Gere, the daughter of the publisher of the Nebraska State Journal, and Dorothy Canfield, who would become a well-known novelist. She is acquainted with William Jennings Bryan, an influential politician and newspaperman who would run for president in 1896. Cather graduates from the University of Nebraska in June 1895. After graduation she spends a year with her family in Red Cloud while continuing to write for newspapers and making various attempts at launching a career. Her short story “On the Divide” is published in the Overland Monthly, a major magazine, in January 1896.
1896-July 1900: In the summer of 1896 Cather gets a job as editor of the newly founded Home Monthly Magazine. She moves to Pittsburgh (then spelled Pittsburg), Pennsylvania, in July to make her way as a journalist. Until July 1897 she edits the Home Monthly, supervises its business dealings and layout, and writes much of it herself under pseudonyms. In October 1896 she makes her first visit to Virginia since the move to Nebraska, taking a bicycle tour of the Shenandoah Valley. When the magazine is sold while she is in Nebraska on vacation, she accepts a job with the Pittsburg Leader newspaper on the telegraph desk, where she receives and writes headlines for stories about the Spanish American War, among other news items. Throughout this period she continues to write theater reviews for newspapers in Nebraska as well as for the Leader and also short stories. In 1898 she spends a week in New York, writing reviews for the New York Sun and interviewing the famous actress Helena Modjeska, and spends two weeks in Washington, D.C. visiting a cousin. During these years in Pittsburgh she becomes acquainted with the composer Ethelbert Nevin and other members of the local artistic circle, including Isabelle McClung, who would remain Cather's dearest friend McClung's her death in 1938. During the last several months of 1900 Cather freelances, doing translation work for her cousin in Washington as well as columns about the Washington scene for the Nebraska State Journal and a magazine called the Index of Pittsburg Life.
1901-1906: From March 1901 until June 1906 Cather works as a teacher at Pittsburgh high schools, while continuing to write and publish short stories, articles, and poems. She lives at the McClung family mansion. In the summer of 1902 she makes her first trip to England and France, during which she meets poet A. E. Housman in London, making an unannounced call at his boarding house in company with her friends Canfield and McClung. In March 1903 she publishes her first book, a book of poems called April Twilights. On May 1, 1903, in response to a telegram from the noted editor S. S. McClure, she travels to New York to meet McClure, who tells her that he will take all the stories she cares to send him and either publish them in McClure's Magazine or arrange for publication elsewhere. She vacations with her family in Nebraska during the summer. In March 1904 her story “A Wagner Matinée” causes an uproar in Nebraska, where people think she has insulted the state. Her first book of short stories, The Troll Garden, appears in 1905. She vacations in Wyoming, the Black Hills of South Dakota, and Red Cloud. In December she attends a birthday dinner for Mark Twain in New York. In June 1906 she says goodbye to her students at Allegheny High School and joins the McClure's staff as an editor. Edith Lewis, whom she had met in the summer of 1903, also comes to work for McClure's as a copyeditor. Cather will continue, however, to spend extended periods at the McClung house, where she devotes herself to writing.
1907-spring 1908: On assignment by McClure to complete the writing of a magazine series for which he had bought a set of notes, Cather moves to Boston to carry out research on the founder of the Christian Science religion, Mary Baker Eddy. She writes the articles that later become a book, published under the name of the original compiler of the notes. Four new stories are published. In early 1908, while in Boston, she meets the writer Sarah Orne Jewett at the home of Jewett's friend Annie Fields, widow of the noted publisher James T. Fields and central presence of Boston's artistic and literary community. While in Boston, she also becomes acquainted with Ferris Greenslet, who will be her editor at Houghton Mifflin, the poet Louise Imogen Guiney, and jurist Louis Brandeis and his wife.
Summer 1908-1912: In May 1908 Cather travels to Italy. About this time she becomes managing editor of McClure's and settles into an apartment shared with Edith Lewis. Visiting England in May 1909 to gather material for McClure's, she meets H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford, and drama critic William Archer. In June, while still in England, she learns of the death of Sarah Orne Jewett. A period of valuable mentoring by the older writer is ended. In the fall of 1911, exhausted by illness and by the hectic pace of work at the magazine, she withdraws to upstate New York where Isabelle McClure has rented a cottage. In March 1912 Cather goes on leave from the magazine. She travels first to Pittsburgh, then on to New Mexico and Arizona, where she stays with her brother Douglass, an employee of the Santa Fe Railroad. Cather enjoys hiking and horseback riding, and she responds intensely to the stark southwestern landscape and her first glimpses of Native American culture. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, is published by Houghton Mifflin in May 1912. After two months in Red Cloud, she returns to Pittsburgh in August and begins writing O Pioneers!, the first of her Nebraska novels, combining two stories she had completed the previous year.
September 1912-1915: Cather returns to McClure's in a part-time capacity and in January moves into an apartment at 5 Bank Street which she shares with Edith Lewis. O Pioneers! is published in June 1913. During that summer she ghost-writes S. S. McClure's autobiography, which is published in eight installments in McClure's before appearing as a book. In September 1913 she again visits the area of her early childhood in Virginia. In February 1914 she is hospitalized with a scalp infection caused by a scratch from a hat pin. She vacations during the late summer in Red Cloud and in New Mexico. In August 1914, while she is vacationing, Germany invades Belgium, beginning World War I. In June 1915, on another trip to the Southwest, Cather visits Taos, Santa Fe, and the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, Colorado. The Song of the Lark is published in the fall, drawing on her early life in Red Cloud, her 1912 visit to the Southwest, and the familiarity with performing artists that she had developed as a reviewer. In November 1915 McClung's father dies, ending Cather's retreats to the house in Pittsburgh.
1916-1918: Cather continues publishing short stories in quality magazines, as she has for many years now. In April 1916 McClung marries violinist Jan Hambourg. Cather is deeply upset by the marriage. In the summer she returns to New Mexico, visits her brother Roscoe in Wyoming, and spends several months in Red Cloud, where her mother is ill. She commissions illustrator W. T. Benda to do pen-and-ink sketches for My Ántonia. In June 1917 she is given the first of her many honorary doctorates, this one from the University of Nebraska. After visits with her parents and with her brother's family in Wyoming, she spends three weeks with the Hambourgs at Jaffrey, New Hampshire, which will become a regular retreat of hers in the fall for many years. After the Hambourgs' departure, she stays on for a few weeks of writing on My Ántonia, working partly in a small tent set up in a meadow. On May 28, 1918, her cousin Grosvenor Cather is killed in action at Cantigny, in France. In the summer, Cather reads proofs of My Ántonia at Jaffrey. In August and September she again visits the Southwest and Red Cloud, and in October My Ántonia is published. World War I ends in November 1918. Cather writes letters declaring her joy that the world is free of kings.
1919-1922: Having attracted positive reviews by H. W. Mencken, Hugh Walpole, Mary Austin, and other leaders of the literary world, My Ántonia is nominated for, but does not win, the Pulitzer Prize. Despite this evidence of her publisher's support, Cather becomes increasingly dissatisfied with Houghton Mifflin. She is deeply involved in the writing of One of Ours, begun in late 1918. She spends August and most of September 1919 at the Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey, N.H., once again writing outdoors in a tent, but in September falls ill with the flu. In May 1920 she and Edith Lewis go to France for a six-month stay. Cather is in Paris for the Fourth of July, which fires her with patriotic sentiment. She visits battlefields with Jan and Isabelle Hambourg and locates her cousin Grosvenor's grave. In September Youth and the Bright Medusa, a collection of stories, is published, not by Houghton Mifflin but by Alfred A. Knopf. At the time, she insists that she has not yet decided where to place the novel that is now nearing completion, but in January 1921 announces that she has decided on Knopf. Knopf will remain her publisher for the rest of her life. She spends several months of 1921 in Toronto, enjoying a long visit with Isabelle and Jan Hambourg. Bothered by ill health during the winter and early spring in 1922, she has her tonsils and mastoids removed (not a trivial operation) before teaching at the Bread Loaf School in the summer and making the first of many visits to Grand Manan Island, off the coast of New Brunswick. Her essay “The Novel Démeublé” is published in the New Republic in April, stating her aesthetic principles of minimalism and suggestion. One of Ours is published in September. Cather spends December in Red Cloud where, on December 27, she and her parents are confirmed in the Episcopal Church. (They had been Baptists before.)
1923-1924: Early in 1923 Cather is hospitalized once again with influenza. A new edition of April Twilights, with some poems removed and new ones added, is published by Knopf in April. In May, while visiting the Hambourgs at their new home near Paris, she learns that One of Ours has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. A Lost Lady is published in September 1923. Cather's income for the year reaches a new high. In the spring of 1924 she makes a selection of stories by Jewett for a two-volume edition being published by Houghton Mifflin, for which she writes the preface. She sells film rights to A Lost Lady for ＄12,000. On June 16 Cather is awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Michigan. She visits her parents briefly, then returns in December to spend Christmas with them in Red Cloud.
1925-1926: A film version of A Lost Lady is released by Warner Brothers. Cather meets Robert Frost. During the summer of 1925 she and Edith Lewis again travel to the Southwest, staying for two weeks in Mabel Dodge Luhan's guest house in Taos and visiting D. H. and Frieda Lawrence at their ranch. While in Santa Fe she reads an account of Jean Baptiste Lamy, a nineteenth-century French missionary who became the first bishop of New Mexico and ultimately archbishop. The Professor's House is published in September 1925. During the fall she begins work on Death Comes for the Archbishop, based in part on the book by Father Howlett that she had read in Santa Fe. She and Lewis have a cottage built on Grand Manan. In November she gives lectures at the University of Chicago and in Cleveland. In the summer of 1926 she and Edith Lewis again visit New Mexico, where she continues work on Death Comes for the Archbishop. My Mortal Enemy is published in October.
1927-1928: While Cather is visiting her brother Roscoe and his family in Wyoming, her father suffers a heart attack. She cancels a trip to Europe to stay with him. She and Edith move out of their Bank Street apartment because of construction on a subway station on their block, put most of their belongings into storage, and move into the Grosvenor Hotel. She once again spends the fall at Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Death Comes for the Archbishop is published in September. She returns to Red Cloud for a Christmas visit prolonged through January and February 1928, and has been back in New York only a few days when her father dies on March 3. She returns to Red Cloud and stays several weeks, grieving his loss and having some repairs made on the family home. At the end of April, Marjorie Anderson, the Cathers' longtime household servant, dies. After a hospital stay with the flu, Cather accepts an honorary degree from Columbia University in June 1928 and makes her first visit to Quebec. She begins Shadows on the Rock in the fall. In late December her mother, who has been visiting Cather's brother Douglass in California, suffers a stroke that leaves her paralyzed and essentially helpless. Mrs. Cather is never able to return to Red Cloud.
1929-1930: Early in 1929 Cather begins a correspondence with Thomas Masaryk, the president of Czechoslovakia, who admires her writing. In March she goes to California and is devastated at seeing her mother's condition. In June she receives an honorary doctorate from Yale, and in July makes another visit to Quebec, then spends the rest of the summer at Grand Manan and the fall at Jaffrey. In November she is elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Her work on Shadows on the Rock is sporadic. In the spring of 1930 she again visits her mother, then travels to France in May. While visiting the Hambourgs in Paris she is introduced to Moshe and Marutha Menuhin and their virtuoso children Yehudi (the violinist) and Hephzibah and Yaltah (pianists). At Aix-les-Bains she meets the niece of the famous French writer Gustave Flaubert. She spends the fall in Quebec and in Jaffrey. In November she is awarded the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She completes Shadows on the Rock in December 1930.
1931-1932: Cather spends March through May of 1931 in California with her mother. While there, she receives an honorary doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, and upon going back East in June receives a doctorate from Princeton. While at Princeton she meets the famous pilot Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anna Morrow Lindbergh. She goes to Grand Manan in July to spend the rest of the summer and is still there at the end of August when she receives word that her mother has died. Shadows on the Rock is published. She goes to Red Cloud for a family reunion at Christmas. This is the last visit she will ever make to Red Cloud. The Great Depression is now causing severe distress for people she knew in Nebraska, and she sends occasional financial help, including saving the Pavelka farm (the farm that is depicted at the end of My Ántonia) from foreclosure. In early 1932 Cather is once again ill with influenza and makes a slow recovery. After its three stories appear separately in magazines, Obscure Destinies is published in August. Cather spends the summer on Grand Manan and the fall at Jaffrey, as is her custom. By now, she is very close to the Menuhin family, who have become one of her chief joys. In December she and Edith Lewis move into an apartment on Park Avenue, although Cather has said for years that she would like to leave New York. It is her first permanent home since they left their Bank Street apartment in 1927.
1933-1935: In the spring of 1933 Cather wins the Prix Femina Américain for Shadows on the Rock. In June she receives an honorary degree from Smith College. She spends the months of July, August, and September on Grand Manan and October and November at Jaffrey. In response to a plea from Ida Tarbell, a well-known journalist who preceded Cather on the staff of McClure's, she begins making regular contributions to a fund for S. S. McClure, who is now utterly without means of support. Early in 1934 she sprains a tendon in her left wrist. Problems with her wrists or hands will interfere with her daily functioning, and in particular with writing, for the rest of her life. A new film of A Lost Lady is released, to Cather's disgust. In March and April of 1935 she suffers attacks of appendicitis. From the end of March until mid-July she is very occupied with helping to care for Isabelle McClung Hambourg, now very ill with nephritis, who is in the U.S. with her husband while he is on concertizing and teaching tours. Following the Hambourgs' return to France, Cather and Edith Lewis sail for Europe early in August. Lucy Gayheart is published. Cather and Lewis spend six weeks in Italy; then Cather visits the Hambourgs for two months before sailing for New York on October 23. It is her last time to see Isabelle.
1936-1938: Cather's twin nieces from Wyoming visit her in August 1936 on Grand Manan. Not under Forty, a book of essays, is published in November. During 1937 she is occupied with the preparation of a collected edition of her works being published by Houghton Mifflin. More ailments come in 1938: another bout with influenza and an injury to her right hand when it is smashed in a drugstore door. In April she visits Virginia, renewing her memories for the writing of Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Her brother Douglass dies in June and Isabelle in October. The Menuhins are a consolation. She spends the fall of 1938 at Jaffrey again, but damage by a hurricane has ruined the beauty of the woods, and she does not return after this visit. The gathering of political storm clouds in Europe distresses her, and she is irritated by a proposal to broadcast a radio version of My Ántonia, which she prevents. In November she is elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
1939-1940: Early in the year Cather again has a long bout with influenza, but continues to work when she can on Sapphira and the Slave Girl. She becomes acquainted with Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset, now an exile from the Nazi occupation of her country. Cather continues to mourn the loss of Douglass and of Isabelle and is greatly distressed by the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in March. She takes pleasure in her continued interaction with the Menuhin family, but war news remains a distressing preoccupation. She finishes Sapphira and the Slave Girl in September 1940, at Grand Manan, and the book (her last novel) is published on December 7, her birthday. She spends Christmas in the French Hospital in New York, resting and being treated for the injury to her right hand, which remains immobilized in a brace for several months.
1941-1943: In March 1941 Cather's brother Roscoe suffers a heart attack. She goes to California to visit him in the summer, returning by way of Victoria and Lake Louise, Canada. In the fall she spends a week in the French Hospital to rest. She explains that she enjoys being attended by nurses who speak French. Her writing has virtually ceased because of continuing problems with her hand. Although she dictates correspondence to a stenographer, she is unable to write fiction that way. In the summer of 1942 Cather undergoes surgery for removal of her appendix and gall bladder, but has a slow recovery and is never again truly healthy or in good spirits. She remains preoccupied by the war, fearing the destruction of all of civilization and Christianity. In 1943, as a result of war shortages, she vacations on a small island off the coast of Maine, rather than Grand Manan. She engages in correspondence with soldiers who have read her books in armed forces editions, but finds the burden of so many letters wearisome.
1944-1947: Cather receives the Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in May. In 1944 and 1945 she completes her two last stories, “Before Breakfast” and “The Best Years,” both published posthumously. Her brother Roscoe dies on September 25, 1945. Although she had earlier said that the deaths of Douglass and Isabelle were the worst losses she ever suffered, and although she had deeply mourned the death of her father, she now says that it was Roscoe whom she loved best of all her family and that she will never be the same. Her letters to friends become less frequent and more gloomy in tone. She is ill with influenza in 1946. In correspondence with Houghton Mifflin, she continues to reject, in angry terms, overtures to make anthologies of her works or to broadcast or film them. She again has to keep her right hand in a brace. On April 17, 1947, she writes a letter to her old friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher, telling her that she means to write a true account of their long-ago visit with A. E. Housman in London, in order to correct false reports that are circulating. A week later, on April 24, she suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies. She is buried in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, the place where for many years she loved to hike and botanize, especially in the fall.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4257
Janis P. Stout (essay date 2003)
Stout, Janis P. “An Overview of the Life and Career of Willa Cather.” In Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 123, edited by Allison Marion and Linda Pavlovski. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2003.
[In the following original essay, Stout discusses Cather’s life, career, awards and recognitions, and the overall body of work, while also examining the era in which Cather wrote and the critical reception of her works.]
THE WORLD CATHER LIVED IN
To understand Willa Cather, we need to understand her world. For that reason, having established the rough chronology of her life, we will look first at her world before resuming the discussion of her own life and career within that world. We will then turn to the books she produced during her career as journalist, short story writer, poet, and novelist.
Willa Cather lived a long life—from 1873 to 1947—encompassing the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. During that seventy-four-year period enormous changes occurred in American life and in the history of the world. The telephone was invented and came into common use. Automobiles appeared and rapidly evolved in appearance, convenience, and availability. Airplanes appeared, came into general military use during World War I, and began providing passenger and mail service. Indoor lighting, as well as street lighting in cities, changed from oil lamps to gas lights to electric lights. Refrigerators became common equipment in homes. Movies became a popular and inexpensive form of entertainment. Women gained the right to vote, not only in the United States but in England and many other countries as well.
Although Cather is often read as a detached aesthete, inattentive to politics and social change and caring only about the beauty of literature, music, and painting, a closer look will show us that she not only experienced but in many ways reflected the times in which she lived.
THE CIVIL WAR AND MIGRATION FROM THE SOUTH
The Civil War, which ended in 1865, had profound effects on the South, including the part of the South where Cather was born only eight years later. One of those effects was the launching of a great westward migration.
The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, a region that included the Back Creek area where Cather was born and spent her early childhood, had served as a great corridor of troop movement throughout the War. Cather's father recorded in his diary, as a teenager, the experience of seeing both Union and Confederate soldiers near the family home. Located in beautiful green hills in the far northwestern part of Virginia, near the town of Winchester, the Cather farm lay scarcely five miles from what became, in the course of the War, the border with West Virginia.
The state of West Virginia came into existence in 1863 when the residents of that part of Virginia voted to return to the Union rather than stay with the rest of Virginia as part of the Confederacy. Although slavery was practiced in the area (and is depicted in Cather's last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl), local sentiments were less supportive of slavery than in the rest of state. But the political views of people in the area were by no means unanimous. Neighbors were in conflict, some for and some against slavery, some for and some against secession from the Union.
That same conflict divided the Cather family and the family of Cather's mother, the Boaks. The Cathers were mostly Unionist, although great-grandfather James Cather supported the Confederacy—though he opposed slavery. William and Caroline Cather, Willa's grandparents, sent their two military-age sons, George and Charles, over into the newly created state of West Virginia to avoid being drafted into the Confederate army.1 The Boaks were mostly Confederates. Rachel Seibert Boak, Cather's maternal grandmother, had three sons who fought for the South. One of them died from wounds suffered at Manassas. But Rachel Boak herself hated slavery, and before the War had helped one of her mother's slaves escape to Canada—an incident that would be at the center of Sapphira and the Slave Girl, the novel in which Cather wrestled with the sense of collective guilt still lingering from slavery over three quarters of a century later.
In her origins, then, and in family stories that she heard as a child, Willa Cather was very much a southerner, not only by place and language and way of life, but by the fact of conflict. She carried an awareness of her southern roots with her for as long as she lived.
Another effect of the Civil War was the ruin of the South's economy. At the end of the war Confederate money was worthless. The great planters who had controlled most of the wealth of the region had lost the great resource of chattel (unpaid) labor that had enabled them to produce an income out of their other great resource, land. Without their former laborers, their slaves, many of them could no longer make crops to pay their taxes and pay for daily necessities. Punitive rail rates charged by northern-owned railroads drained away profits when they did make crops and try to ship them to market. Many southern families gave up and moved west, either to the Great Plains of Kansas and Nebraska or to more southwesterly destinations like Arkansas and Texas. The Cather family's move to Nebraska was part of this migration.
THE CLOSING OF THE FRONTIER
Until the end of the nineteenth century the history of the United States had entailed a steady movement of people of European origins to the West, clearing land, building towns, and dispossessing the native inhabitants. In what we call the Southwest, that movement was northward from Mexico, at least until 1848. But U.S. citizens did not usually think of the northward movement of Mexican people as being comparable to their own pioneering migration westward, under the ideological sanctions of what was called Manifest Destiny.
Life on the western prairies was harsh for newcomers from eastern states. Many of them had left places of lush greenness and lofty hills or of settled farmland. They arrived at a bare, comparatively flat grassland better suited to grazing than to the planting way of life most of them were used to. The weather was harsh, too, with severe, windy winters and blazing hot summers during which the sun beat down with nothing to provide shade. The Midwestern plains we see today has many more trees than it did then. Those of the poorer classes who moved west had few resources such as tools to break the land, begin getting crops, and survive in the meantime. Those of the wealthier classes—and the Cathers were among the prosperous, at any rate—found themselves considerably reduced in resources and in style of living, and they missed the established social network they had been used to.
The rush of migration to the Midwest was harsh, too, on the people who had already been living there, the various Native American tribes who had survived from time immemorial by hunting migratory herds of bison and other game. The coming of settlers restricted their movement and broke up the animals' migration and feeding patterns, while at the same time the newcomers slaughtered and wasted the animals that the Indians needed for survival. As more settlers came in, the Indians were pushed off the land and onto reservations set up in areas that seemed unlikely to be wanted by white Americans. By the time Cather and her parents arrived in southern Nebraska's Webster County in 1883, the Sioux who had ranged over the area were gone, but when her uncle and his wife had come ten years earlier they had still seen bands of Sioux on horseback. The town of Red Cloud, where Cather grew up, was named for the Sioux chief whose people had been forced out under treaty to make way for settlers.
IMMIGRATION AND THE ANTI-IMMIGRATION MOVEMENT
During that same period of the latter nineteenth century, the Midwest was also receiving thousands of immigrants, mostly from northern and western Europe, which had traditionally supplied immigrants to this continent, but many, too, from parts of Europe farther east, such as Bohemia (later part of Czechoslovakia) and Russia. These newcomers, many of them speaking little or no English, were regarded with mixed feelings by native-born Americans—many of whom were themselves descended from immigrants who had arrived only a generation or two earlier. With so many groups pouring in, often in response to advertising by the railroads that were then being extended across the continent with the assistance of huge land grants from the government, rural Midwestern communities such as Red Cloud and its surrounding areas of Webster County became interestingly polyglot societies.
On the East Coast, immigrants were also pouring in from Italy and from Russia and Eastern Europe. Many of these latter were Jews. As the number of immigrants increased, fear and misunderstanding of them also increased. The American public began to regard immigrants as a threat, and the government began throwing up legal barriers to admission. The first law barring members of a specific group was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, when Cather was only a child. But a steady buildup of public sentiment hostile to immigrants was reflected in numerous newspaper and magazine articles during the early decades of the century. During Cather's years as an editor at McClure's, the magazine published many such articles. This movement of nativist, exclusionary spirit, much of it focused on Asians, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and Jews, led to the more sweeping Immigration Act of 1924.
CHANGES IN WOMEN'S LIVES
The late years of the nineteenth century were also a time of dramatic change in women's lives. It was the era of the so-called New Woman—a new idea of womanhood that envisioned active, vigorous young women who would pursue education, careers, and the reform of social problems. The New Woman wore what were called “sensible” clothes, which meant more tailored shirts (or “waists”) and less voluminous skirts, reaching only to ankles rather than to the floor. New Women rejected the custom of wearing tight-laced corsets, which gave women an hourglass figure at the price of shortness of breath and damage to internal organs. And in significant numbers they went to college.
College attendance had a far-reaching effect on women's aspirations. From the 1870s to the 1920s, the half-century during which Willa Cather was born and grew to maturity, 40 to 60 percent of women college graduates remained unmarried, compared to only 10 percent of American women generally.2 The New Woman traveled—even traveled abroad—unescorted.3 She wore shorter hair and rode a bicycle, perhaps wearing bloomers (voluminous pants with tight bands around the calves) when she did so. She was encouraged to get exercise and to live vigorously, but she also took up smoking, a practice that was not then known to be a serious health threat. What the New Woman wanted, one commentator has written, was “education, suffrage [the right to vote], and careers.”4 Willa Cather never showed much interest in suffrage, and in fact would sometimes make rather caustic comments about women she knew who were caught up in the struggle for the vote, which was finally granted women in 1920 under the 19th Amendment. But in going to college, dressing in masculine-looking “rational” garb, and pursuing a career, she acted out the pattern that was becoming prominent around the turn of the century. In fact, in pursuing a career in journalism she was following the single most desired career path of the New Woman, and one which was more receptive to women than most others. Certainly if she had persisted in becoming a medical doctor, as she wanted to do when she was an adolescent, she could have counted on meeting with rejection, discrimination, and ridicule.5
CHANGES IN TRANSPORTATION, COMMUNICATION, AND TECHNOLOGY
When Willa Cather was a child, transportation was a matter of horse-drawn conveyances and trains. Railroads first spanned the North American continent in 1869, when tracks of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific met at Promontory, in Utah. The last quarter of the nineteenth century became a time of furious railroad development. A second transcontinental route via the Santa Fe Railroad was completed in 1881. Railroad trains were in fact still the most commonly used form of long-distance transportation at the time of Cather's death.
Automobiles did not come into use until the 1890s, and at the turn of the century there were only about 8000 of them in use in the entire country. Production of cars and related vehicles greatly accelerated during World War I (1914-1918), and by the 1920s automobiles were the main mode of personal transportation in the U.S., with a parallel boom in highway building. Cather has usually been considered hostile to automobiles, and it is true that she made many negative comments both in fiction and in her personal statements, but on the other hand, in a letter written in 1922 she happily boasted of her father's prowess as a driver. Similarly, in 1930 she sounded pleased to report that a longtime friend was a good driver. We can believe that not only Cather but many other people as well regarded such new developments and their impact on life with ambivalence.
Although the telegraph had spanned the continent even before the railroad, personal communication over any significant distance—or even across town—was carried out exclusively by letter until well into the twentieth century. Even letters could not be counted on to keep people in touch; the families of those who headed west might never hear of them again. Telephones did not come into common use until well into the twentieth century. It was only in March of 1876, when Willa Cather was two years and four months old, that Alexander Graham Bell first developed his invention of the telephone to the point that he could speak over it. The Bell Telephone Company was formed the next year, but the first commercial switchboard did not come into existence until 1892, after Cather started to college, and the first dial telephones in 1896. As late as 1916 Cather would still be debating whether to have a telephone in her apartment, alternately having one installed and having it removed and even when she had one, keeping her number a secret so she would not be interrupted her work by its ringing. In 1919 and on into 1920, having decided that she did wanted a telephone, she had trouble getting one because of the rush of pent-up consumer demand after the war.6 Long-distance calls continued to be unusual and reserved for genuinely extraordinary needs until at least mid-century.
Technology transformed life in the twentieth century. Electrification of factory machinery comprised only about 5 percent of industrial horsepower in 1900, but had developed to an estimated 80 percent or more by 1929, bringing increased production. Household electrification, a rarity in 1910, became common in urban areas, making such equipment as electric lights and refrigerators available to households.7 Cather experienced the changing material circumstances of American life very directly. Letters show that she was lugging ice to her ice box from the dumbwaiter in her apartment building as late as 1921, but in 1933 was helping her maid defrost the refrigerator—a remark that not only demonstrates that she had obtained a refrigerator in the meantime, but illustrates her reliance on domestic employees, a common practice among the prosperous until at least mid-century.
WORLD WAR I
We have already noted that Cather's early life was affected by the aftermath of the Civil War. War again affected her life in 1898 when, as a young newspaper woman, she found herself handling telegraph notices coming in from Cuba, reporting on developments in the Spanish American War.
A far more devastating war would disrupt life for people all around the world less than two decades later. In August 1914 World War I broke out with the invasion of Belgium by Germany. Sentiment in England and France (the next to be attacked) labeled the Germans warmongers and monsters, and young men volunteered for military service in England in a rush of idealistic nationalism. Although the United States did not enter the war until April 1917, fervor for the Allied side (England, France, and initially Russia) also ran high in America, and Americans followed the news of the war intently.
Drastic changes in the nature of warfare occurred during World War I. When Germany's westward advance was halted, by the end of 1914, the armies on both sides dug trenches to protect themselves from gunfire. Entrenchment was a long-established defensive strategy. The stalemate that resulted produced a state of prolonged trench warfare on a scale for which there was no precedent. Soldiers lived in vermin-infested trenches and side dugouts, sometimes flooded with water above the knees, for months on end. A rotation system was maintained so that after a periods of perhaps a week in the front lines a unit would move back by way of communication trenches and be replaced by rested troops from the rear. But while in the trenches they were subjected to artillery bombardments, bombing from aircraft, and assaults by such new weapons as machine guns and poison gas. On parts of the line, any movement was likely to mean slogging through sucking mud where the ground had been so churned up by artillery shells that bodies would not stay buried. The idealism of the early war turned into horror and disillusionment as casualties mounted.
When the U.S. entered the war in the spring of 1917, fired by President Woodrow Wilson's proclamation that America was going to make the world safe for democracy, the level of hope and aspiration evident on this side of the Atlantic was similar to that which had been evident in England in August and September of 1914. Many Americans felt that the U.S. was coming to the rescue of allies who had been unable to finish the fight. In 1918 and '19, however, the epidemic of Spanish influenza that had been sweeping the world, abetted by the dislocations of war, hit U.S. cities and the concentrations of troops gathered together from widely scattered homes into training camps. Deaths were frighteningly swift.
Most flu epidemics strike hardest at the very old and the very young. But this strain of the disease chiefly affected young adults, which meant that there were thousands of deaths among the American Expeditionary Force in training camps or aboard transport ships. A chapter in Cather's novel One of Ours, based on the journal kept by an army doctor on shipboard, vividly narrates an outbreak aboard a transport.
In all, the flu epidemic would kill an estimated 20 million people worldwide. Children born twenty years later would still hear stories about the great flu epidemic.
In America, the public mood after the end of the war, which came in November 1918, would be one of disheartenment and disillusionment, especially as the peace negotiations at Versailles seemed to repeat ancient patterns of land aggrandizement of the winners and punishment of the losers, breeding resentments that would lead to future conflicts. Many literary historians have linked the rise of literary modernism in both Europe and the United States to the deep and multi-faceted disillusionment of World War I.
THE TWENTIES AND THE GREAT DEPRESSION
After the war, American society, as well as European society, was transformed by social changes. During the Roaring Twenties young people especially were caught up in a rush of materialism and pleasure-seeking. Women's fashions became daring, and “flappers” (devil-may-care young women) took to smoking in public and blatantly wearing cosmetics. Jazz music was all the rage. With Prohibition (the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, January 1919) liquor was outlawed, but illegal production and distribution of “booze” rose in response, and organized crime flourished. Even ordinary citizens far removed from the violent crime scene became lawbreakers by brewing at home or slipping bottles of wine or spirits into the country in their luggage. Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
On October 29, 1929, this national binge of recklessness and prosperity came to an end with the crash of the stock market. In the downward-spiralling national—and world—economy, industries slowed down or closed, banks failed, stores shut their doors, unemployment soared, and millions of people were totally impoverished. Farmers in large numbers, including many families Willa Cather knew in Nebraska, lost or were threatened with losing their land. In the Midwest and Southwest the problem was exacerbated by drought, contributing to conditions of severe erosion that caused the region to be labeled the “Dust Bowl.” Many families took to the road in desperate migrations in search of work, causing the vast spectacle of misery depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
The United States was not alone in suffering the Great Depression. It was a worldwide economic disaster. Conditions were, if anything, even worse in some other countries. Postwar Germany had suffered rampant inflation in the 1920s as a result of stringent war reparations payments, and by the time reparations payments were finally halted in the 1930s the depression spread unemployment and hunger across the country. Meanwhile, in Russia there was widespread starvation due to social disruptions resulting from the industrial and agricultural dislocations caused by the diversion of resources to the war effort, the Bolskevik Revolution of 1917, the resulting civil war, political and social confusion, and drought.
Conditions were in place for new internal and international conflict.
WORLD WAR II
In 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, promising to restore the country to its former power and greatness. In 1935 he instituted compulsory military training, and in 1936 sent German troops into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone west of the Rhine River, on the borders of France. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began—though, in fact, conflicts in other parts of the world had been going on since the early 1930s. Military casualties in the war would greatly exceed those in World War I, and civilian casualties would also be much greater. The two most deadly conflicts the world had ever known—or, in some historians' view, the two parts of the single most deadly war the world had ever known—would take place within less than forty years of each other.
The United States did not officially enter the war in Europe until December of 1941, declaring war on Japan on December 8, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A declaration of war on Germany and Italy was passed by Congress on December 11. The war was indeed worldwide in scope. Willa Cather, like many other people in the U.S. and elsewhere, feared the destruction of civilization as they knew it.
In the U.S., the war brought not only vast military mobilization but also industrial productivity and jobs, a renewed surge of women into the workplace, disruptions of family life, rationing and price controls, censorship and media propaganda. Moviegoing became the primary leisure-time occupation of Americans, and listening to newscast, music, and comedy shows on the radio was practically universal. At the end, in August 1945, the war brought the terrors of the atomic age, with the U.S. dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. An exhausted nation rejoiced when Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945, and Japan accepted surrender terms on August 14, 1945.
Willa Cather's seventy-three and a half years spanned vast social changes in American life—from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban society; from long skirts and corsets for women to above-the-knee skirts, loose torsos, and nylon stockings; from an identification of higher education with literary study and familiarity with the Greek and Roman Classics to a conception of advanced education as being scientific or technical in nature; from formal music as a concert hall experience available to the few, though extended to small-town populations via lyceums and visiting performances in “opera houses” scattered across the country, to music as an increasingly commercialized and broadcast experience available to almost every segment of society; from drama as a stage experience in towns of even moderate size to a predominantly film experience. In its historic events on the world stage, her three quarters of a century brought a sequence of devastating conflicts and disruptions that created a widely prevalent mood of disillusionment and anxiety, a mood commonly identified as the modern condition.
Woodress, p. 16. An upstairs closet in Willow Shade, William and Caroline Cather's home, has a false floor and is thought to have been a hiding place for escaped slaves going north. However, it may equally well have been a hiding place for goods the family were afraid might be stolen by marauding soldiers of either side during the war.
Smith-Rosenberg, Disorderly Conduct, 253.
Schriber, Writing Home, 41.
Marks, Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers, 2; also, Rudnick, “The New Woman,” 71. Mary Suzanne Schriber states that in the later nineteenth century “the female traveler who ventured into international spaces was often a type of the New Woman”; Cather so ventured in 1902. See also Gordon, “The Gibson Girl Goes to College.”
Marks, Bicycles 72.
Letters to Ferris Greenslet, her editor at Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company, include a running commentary on the subject of whether to telephone or not to telephone, from 1913 through 1920. The letters are located at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, but for more convenient use are summarized in Calendar of Letters, ed. Stout. The letters have not been published because they are still protected by copyright laws (until 2017, under current law) and Cather's literary executors have observed her expressed wishes and refused permission even to quote short excerpts.
Orvell, After the Machine, 407, citing Nathan Rosenberg, Technology and American Economic Growth (1972).
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4970
As we have seen, Willa Cather was born to a stable, prosperous family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. As an adult she would shave three years off her age, claiming to have been born in 1876, and on at least one occasion claiming that her younger brothers Roscoe and Douglass were older than she, but her first biographer, E. K. Brown, located a letter from her father, Charles F. Cather, to his brother and sister-in-law, dated January 22, 1874, that indisputably establishes her birthdate.1 This letter shows, too, that the family called her Willie from early infancy—a fact the importance of which will become evident later. For formal usage, the awkward middle syllable of her given name, Wilella, was soon dropped, and it became Willa.
Cather's father made his living by raising sheep. Cather herself would remember his gentleness and his care for his sheep dogs and how he sometimes made them little leather boots to protect their paws from the rocks of the hilly region in which they lived. Her mother, Mary Virginia Boak Cather, was a beautiful woman who seems to have been rather proud and to have expected others to cater to her. In 1873, not long before Willa's birth, Charles Cather's mother characterized her daughter-in-law as “easy insulted.” A long-time friend of Cather's and her companion for many years, Edith Lewis, stated that Mary Virginia Cather was “always the dominating figure in the family.”2 Yet she also seems to have allowed her children considerable latitude to be themselves.
During Willa's early childhood the Cathers were the leading family in their immediate area, called Back Creek, and she lived an idyllic life, sheltered by green mountains all around and cared for by a large extended family. Her maternal grandmother, Rachel Boak, who had once helped a slave girl escape to freedom as Rachel Blake does in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, lived nearby. Neighboring families of humbler folk worked on the farm sporadically as paid helpers with the sheep or as household servants, or performed tasks for the family in their own homes, such as the braiding of rugs (mentioned in one of Cather's letters).3
In 1873 the region was still suffering the economic and political, as well as emotional, after-effects of the Civil War. Neighbor had been divided against neighbor and family member against family member as opinions conflicted about secession versus loyalty to the union. Such divisions ran through the Cather family itself and must have caused some tension between the Cathers and Grandma Boak, who had lost a son in the service of the Confederacy. Charles Cather, Willa's father, had spent the latter part of the war in West Virginia, safe from conscription into the southern army. After the war, he and his brother George came home, and were appointed as deputies when their father, William Cather, became sheriff. The community may have resented the family's alliance with the Reconstruction government and their comparative prosperity, while so many others were suffering privation. Whether by arson or by some less blamable cause, in 1882 the big sheep barn that stood behind and to one side of Willow Shade caught fire and was destroyed.
By that time, William Cather and his wife had already moved to Nebraska, along with their son George and his wife Frances (whom Cather always called Aunt Franc; George and Franc's son Grosvenor would be the model for Claude in Cather's novel One of Ours). Grandfather Cather still owned the sheep farm. Upon being consulted by mail, he decided against rebuilding the barn. Instead, he directed Charles to sell the property and join the rest of the family in Nebraska. Part of the reason seems to have been the elder Cather's gratification in the amount of land available for little investment and the promise of future prosperity he sensed in his chosen region, reinforced by a belief that the Midwestern climate would be healthier. In Virginia's dampness, the Cathers had lost several family members to tuberculosis. Whatever the reason, in April 1883 the family went by train to the Midwest, taking Grandmother Boak with them.
The move from Virginia to the relatively flat, bare plains of southern Nebraska was so traumatic to the young Willa Cather that it went far toward shaping her life and character. She remained intensely sensitive to landscape throughout her life. She later said that during her first few months on the plains, living on the ranch her grandfather had put together by combining homesteaded land with land purchased from the railroads,4 she felt such a sense of exposure that it seemed her very identity might be erased. She was intensely homesick. She may also have suffered some sort of paralytic illness, perhaps a mild case of poliomyelitis. Her mother, too, was ill for a while as a result of a miscarriage. But as time went by Cather began to enjoy the prairie and the varied customs and household practices of the people who lived there, many of them recent immigrants from northern Europe. She enjoyed riding her pony several miles to pick up mail that she distributed to neighboring families on a circuitous route home.
After only a few months, she came to love Nebraska. She would later say, in an interview in 1913, that she was “gripped” by the “shaggy grass country” with a “passion” that she was “never … able to shake.”5 But even though she became quite a traveler, her sense of displacement left her with an urge to find or return to a home. A tension between restlessness and a yearning for a secure home became one of her most striking lifelong traits and a recurrent theme in her fiction.
In September 1884 the Cathers moved into the town of Red Cloud, not such an out-of-the-way place then as it is now, since it had regular railroad service on the Burlington line. There Charles Cather operated an insurance and real estate business, and Willa and her brothers Douglass and Roscoe attended school. Previously they had been taught mainly at home, largely by Grandmother Boak. A short composition by the apparently very young Willa, entitled “Dogs,” which is found among her papers at Red Cloud, may have been written as an assignment while she was being home-schooled. It expresses an emphatically pro-dog, anti-cat sentiment.
Grandmother Boak continued to live with the family after they moved to town, although the house they rented (presently owned by the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial in Red Cloud and open to visitors) was a tight fit. The older children had their bedrooms in the attic, where a small private space was walled off for Willa. By working at a local drugstore, she earned money to purchase wallpaper, which she hung in her room herself, just as in The Song of the Lark. It is still there today.
Also still living with the family, and also having her bed in the attic, was Marjorie or Margie Anderson, the hired girl who had come with the Cathers from Virginia. Somewhat retarded and fearful of the outside world, Margie would work for the Cathers and live in their home until her death in 1928. Cather was very attached to Margie and depicted her in “Old Mrs. Harris” and One of Ours, as well as the poem “Poor Marty.”
In the public schools of Red Cloud Cather studied arithmetic and algebra, Latin, rhetoric (which probably meant in part spelling), sciences, and ancient history. A learned local store clerk from England read Latin and Greek with her and led her through some chemistry and biology experiments. Two local physicians sometimes took her along on house calls. As a result, she developed an ambition to be a doctor and began to call herself, for a while, Dr. William Cather. She also furthered her learning by her own extensive reading. A neighboring merchant and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wiener, gave her access to their multi-lingual library, and the Cathers themselves owned English classics. Cather earned cheap copies of George Eliot novels and translations of the Russian Leo Tolstoy by working in a drug store. Even before she went to college, then, she was remarkably well read by today's standards.
Another compensation for moving from the ranch into the more restrictive life of Red Cloud was the local theater. At that time it was quite common for towns of any size to have “opera houses” where touring performers put on plays, musical concerts, and lectures. Also, there were lively amateur theatricals. Cather herself performed as Hiawatha and as the father in a children's production of Beauty and the Beast, where she wore a top hat, suit, and false mustache. She would continue to take part in plays when she went to the University of Nebraska, sometimes taking male parts (not an uncommon practice at the time) and sometimes female parts.
The photographic record of Cather in late childhood and as a teenager, such as a picture made in her Beauty and the Beast costume and several pictures that show her with what appears to be a boy's haircut, combined with her temporary affectation of the name “William” and her lifelong use of “Willie” among close family friends, have led some biographers and critics to conclude that Cather was lesbian. It is entirely possible—even probable—that she was, at any rate in her strongest emotional attachments. But as we have seen, the use of “Willie” was not a conscious choice, but rather one begun in her infancy, following a common practice of southerners when pronouncing names ending in a. Even her use of “William” seems to have begun in childhood, rather than during an adolescent discovery of her sexuality, as scholars have sometimes suggested; the little composition on “Dogs” is signed William Cather. Her boyish or mannish looking clothes in adolescence have been called crossdressing, but they actually followed the styles being worn by the New Woman of the period (though of course their masculinized look may have appealed to her for other reasons as well).
In short, conclusions about Cather's sexuality are not so obvious as they may seem. It is wise to be cautious about making positive assertions. What is clear is that she was rebelling against conventional roles for women, as exemplified by her mother, who continued to be very much the southern lady, following prescribed patterns of decorum and decorativeness and fulfilling her wifely duties. Mary Virginia Cather ultimately bore four younger brothers and two younger sisters of Willa. The household was crowded with babies and their needs.
In 1890 Willa Cather went away to Lincoln to the Latin School, or preparatory school, of the University of Nebraska. Pupils from rural and small-town schools were routinely required to take two “prep” years. Because she was so advanced in many subjects, she was allowed to proceed to the University proper after only one year, and even during her “prep” year was allowed to take the college-level chemistry course and Shakespeare course. She had gone to the university intending to follow the science curriculum, but after a professor submitted one of her compositions (on Thomas Carlyle) to the Nebraska State Journal, a respected newspaper, and it was printed, she switched to the literature and classics curriculum. She was still very much the New Woman in her attire and her habits. She smoked cigarettes, spoke of her skill at mixing cocktails, and rode a “wheel” (bicycle).
During her years at the University of Nebraska Cather was active in journalism both on campus and off. Her first paid writing for the Nebraska State Journal was as a theater reviewer, a practice she would continue for several years after her graduation in 1895, and miscellaneous columnist. She also served as editor of the campus literary journal, the Hesperian, for one year, and with the encouragement of English professors she began to publish short stories in magazines. By the time she graduated, she already had considerable newspaper experience and was known among theatrical producers as a severe reviewer. Her editor on the Journal said she wielded a meat-ax.
For a year she cast about for jobs, at one point applying for a position as instructor at the University when her favorite English professor left. Showing the tendency to despondency that had already appeared in her reaction to the ending of a “crush” she had on a fellow (female) student, she complained that having to live back at home in Red Cloud was like being sentenced to Siberia. But in the summer of 1896, probably on the recommendation of the publisher or the managing editor of the Nebraska State Journal, she was offered the position of Editor of a new magazine being launched in Pittsburg, the Home Monthly. In a rush, she got prepared and left, traveling by train to what was then a very sooty industrial city and being taken in by the owner of the magazine, Mr. Axtell, to live with his family until she found her own rooms.
Cather's work for the Home Monthly lasted only a year, but during that time she gained valuable experience by performing the duties of editor, writer (usually under pseudonym), acquisitions editor, layout editor, and business manager. She also continued to write theater reviews, mainly for the Pittsburg Leader. This breadth of experience stood her in good stead when the magazine was sold and she elected to quit.
In September 1897 Cather returned to Pittsburgh (to use today's spelling) as an employee of the Leader. Her main assignment was the telegraph desk, where she received stories from abroad and wrote headlines for them, at a salary of ＄75 a month. In addition, she was paid by the column for reviews and miscellaneous columns, which she also supplied to the New York Sun and to two newspapers in Nebraska. In the spring of 1898 she was kept busy with telegrams pouring in providing news of the Spanish-American War.
For the next several years Cather made numerous shifts of jobs, writing columns for various publications and for a while working as a translator in Washington, D.C. She had an active social life, too, with a variety of friends. The most important of these was Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a locally prominent judge, with whom she shared a lively interest in the arts. Most of her recent biographers have believed that her relationship with Isabelle was lesbian. Whatever the truth of that belief, it is certain that the two remained devoted to each other until Isabelle's death in 1938, in Paris, from kidney disease.
In the spring of 1901, if not before, Cather moved into the McClung mansion. That same spring she accepted what was supposed to be a temporary job as a teacher of Latin and algebra at Central High School. She continued there the next fall as an English teacher, then moved to the more desirable Allegheny High School, where she advanced to the position of head of the department in 1903. She was remembered fondly by her students, who found her both demanding and unconventional. After school hours she wrote poetry and fiction. Although her productivity was slow, due to the demands of her teaching job, she did publish several stories in good magazines, a few poems, and a group of travel essays about her trip to Europe in 1902 with Isabelle. In 1903 she published her first book, April Twilights, a book of poems from a vanity press.
In 1905 Cather's first book of fiction, The Troll Garden, a collection of short stories, was published by McClure. The happiness of the event was marred for Cather, however, by an acrimonious debate with her friend Dorothy Canfield over a story called “The Profile.” Canfield said it should be deleted from the collection because it recognizably depicted a young woman with a disfiguring facial scar to whom Dorothy had introduced Cather and the young woman would be devastated if she saw herself depicted as she was in the story. Cather insisted that the resemblance was only incidental and that anyway the demands of art should take priority. The story was finally omitted and another (with a recognizable portrait of Dorothy's mother) substituted for it, but “The Profile” was later published in McClure's Magazine. We might wonder whether Canfield's friend wasn't more likely to see it in the magazine than in the book, since McClure's had a very wide circulation. This was not the only time Cather would provoke angry reactions by her fictionalized portraits of real people.
During these years Cather's interest in the theater remained strong. She had become acquainted with at least the careers of a number of important actors and actresses during her years as a reviewer, and personally acquainted with several. Performers became prominent among the characters in her short fiction as well as some of her novels. After 1901, when she became involved in teaching, she stopped writing reviews, but she would later, as a magazine journalist, write articles about the theater and performers, including singers as well as actors.
Cather once said that she had been desperate to get away from Nebraska to the East because she felt afraid that she would die in a corn field longing for good music and plays. From the time she left, however, she kept feeling drawn back to Nebraska and to home. Most years she made long visits to Red Cloud in the summer or at Christmas, spending time with her extended family as well as her parents and driving about the countryside in a buggy (or later, being driven by her father in his car) visiting the immigrant families she had known as a child. The hard lives of immigrants on Midwestern farms are central to her novels O Pioneers! and My Ántonia. Even after she moved to New York in 1906 to become an editor for the famous magazine publisher S. S. McClure, she continued to waver in her wishes, sometimes longing for Nebraska and then being cross and quarrelsome when she was there, sometimes claiming that she couldn't bear New York any longer but then always coming back to the city and its concerts and plays.
Cather's life had a pattern, in fact, of intense attachment to particular places. Not only Virginia and Nebraska and New York, as we have seen, but other places as well became important to her. In 1912 she went away for several months to the Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico) and fell in love with that landscape, too. For the next fifteen years she made many return visits to New Mexico, exploring the open country and the Spanish-speaking villages by horseback and going on excursions to Native American pueblos such as Hopi and Acoma. A sense of freedom and invigoration is associated with southwestern settings in her novels The Song of the Lark, The Professor's House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop.
In late 1917 Cather first went to yet another place that would be important in her life for many years, Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and a well-established resort hotel there, the Shattuck Inn. Isabelle McClung had married in 1916, after the deaths of both of her parents. Cather was at first devastated—perhaps as much because of the loss of access to the comfortable McClung home as because of Isabelle's new status as wife. Since 1912 she had shared an apartment on New York's Bank Street (in Greenwich Village) with another journalist, Edith Lewis, but had continued her close relationship with Isabelle and her practice of retreating to the McClung mansion to write, and she felt deserted when Isabelle chose to marry and move away. Also, she did not particularly like Isabelle's husband, the violinist Jan Hambourg, whom she considered a fortune-hunter. But in the summer of 1917, after receiving an honorary degree from the University of Nebraska and making extended visits to her parents in Red Cloud and her brother Roscoe in Wyoming, Cather joined the Hambourgs at Jaffrey for three weeks of writing.
In 1918 she went to Jaffrey again and read most of the proofs of My Ántonia there. She returned in August 1919, and thereafter spent the late summer and early fall in Jaffrey most years until the mid-1930s. She and Edith Lewis regularly occupied a pair of rooms on the top floor, where Cather could work in a quiet space high up under the eaves that reminded her of her girlhood attic room in Red Cloud. She also enjoyed strenuous hikes in the mountainous terrain and for many years carried along on her walks a field guide to wildflowers in which she marked the plants that she sighted. She was such a close observer that she sometimes added descriptive details to the book's write-ups.6
Yet another important place was added to Cather's restless life in 1920, when she and Edith Lewis made their first visit to the island of Grand Manan, off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada. After this they usually spent a quiet late-summer vacation in Grand Manan, followed by early fall in Jaffrey, before returning to New York for the rest of the fall and the winter. In New York Cather tried to spend her mornings writing, but often complained of the interruptions caused by the surging tides of people who lived in New York and either knew her or wanted to know her or those who came to town and wanted to visit. In the evenings she enjoyed dressing splendidly and going to concerts or the theater. By this time in her life, now a very successful and famous writer, Cather usually made her visits to Nebraska around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Combined with these trips were many voyages to Europe, sometimes involving stays of several months. She was almost constantly on the move.
Yet she also attached great importance to being at home, or to the wish to feel that she was at home. In 1926 she and Edith Lewis built a cottage on Grand Manan, near a cliff where she could take long walks looking down at the water and at pods of whales that she wrote about in her letters to friends. She was there in 1931 when her mother died, three years after Charles Cather's death. She had rushed back to Red Cloud from New York for the funeral of her beloved father, but from Grant Manan there were boats to the mainland only twice a week, and she would still be a cross-continent train ride away from California, where her mother had suffered a stroke in late 1928. It was impossible to get to the funeral, and Cather does not seem to have wished to do so. She was worn out from depression and her prolonged grieving for her father.
Cather stopped going to Grand Manan after 1940, when defense measures made the island uncomfortable.
Wars were a distressing presence in Cather's life. Her early childhood was significantly affected by the aftermath of the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War had occurred while she was a newspaperwoman, receiving and editing telegraph despatches. Probably the most significant war she experienced, in terms of her emotional reaction to it but also in terms of its vast historic after-effects, was World War One, which broke out in Europe in August 1914 and lasted until November 1918. (The United States entered the war in April 1917.) Having loved European culture all her life and having loved Europe itself, especially France, ever since her first trip there in 1902, Cather was acutely distressed by the war. Like many others of her time, she felt that human life was changed forever by the experience and the spectacle of the war—the misery of the trenches, which made ideas of glory outmoded; the new weaponry that turned combat into a slaughter and an exercise in futility; the disillusionment and cynicism that came in its wake. She was acutely distressed by the destruction to the villages and the landscape of France. She later said that the world “broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts” (preface to Not under Forty). The year she specified, 1922, seems a little odd if she was thinking specifically of the war, but if she meant the social changes that came in its wake, with the advent of the “roaring twenties,” it was a plausible choice.
Cather's choice of 1922 “or thereabouts” as the breakpoint in human history may have been influenced, too, by the fact that her “war novel,” One of Ours, was published in that year and had bad reviews, though also the Pulitzer Prize, “thereabouts.” The death of her cousin G. P. Cather, the son of her Uncle George and Aunt Franc, had caught her imagination in 1918 as she was completing My Ántonia, and she immediately determined to make Grosvenor and the events leading up to his death the center of her next novel. She initially called it simply “Claude,” using the main character's first name, until her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, insisted on a different title.
When World War II broke out, the second vast war of her lifetime besides other lesser wars, Cather was overcome by depression. She wailed that it was not fair for a single generation to have to endure two such terrible wars, and she sometimes spoke as if all of civilization (by which she meant European civilization) was doomed. By this time in her life, having spent many years of her earlier adulthood as a freethinker or religious skeptic, she had returned to the certitude of her religious upbringing, and in her letters she sometimes referred to Christianity as the only light in a dark world. It seemed to her a light in danger of being put out.
Cather had developed health problems in her later years, too, and these added to the depression that increasingly troubled her, especially after the deaths of her brother Douglass in 1938 and Isabelle McClung Hambourg that same year. Her prolonged depression even interfered with her closeness to her surviving friends. She seemed to fear that if she went back to Red Cloud to visit her closest friends of long ago, especially her friend Carrie Miner Sherwood, with whom she had kept up a long correspondence, she would be overcome by emotion and might dissolve into crying fits. Not wanting to let the people of her home town, most of whom she had come to believe were envious and hostile, see her in such a weakened state, she stayed away. Even the people she cared most about she kept at arms' length, interacting mainly by letter. Her brothers and sisters had to call the Knopf offices if they wanted to get in touch with her quickly. When she went out on the streets of New York, she preferred to walk closely behind Edith Lewis, to avoid being recognized by strangers. She had become a recluse and a curmudgeon. The darlings of her later years, child prodigy violinist Yehudi Menuhin and his family, were for the most part exceptions to this pattern, but toward the end she intimated that she found even their presence draining, to the point of leaving her debilitated for days after a visit.
Cather herself was in many ways a puzzle. The tension between her roving disposition and her craving for a familiar home and private retreat runs throughout her personal letters as well as her published writing. The tension between her idealistic values and her gloominess, or between her apparent certitude about morality and public issues and the ambivalence and ambiguity that lurk just under the surface of almost everything she wrote, is also a puzzle never resolved. Her sexuality—whether she was lesbian, or only homosocial in her emotional orientation, or as some scholars have believed simply sexless in her devotion to art—is endlessly debated. Even her views of, and feelings toward, gender politics are puzzling, considering her avowed dislike of assertive feminists, on one hand, and her various expressions of realization that women were not afforded equal opportunity in American society, on the other. Certainly her depiction of strong women characters shows a kind of feminism, even if it did not take the forms one usually expects. There is plenty of evidence that she was interested in politics, though she cultivated a demeanor of detachment, as if her eye were fixed exclusively on the timeless and the classic, outside politics altogether.
On April 24, 1947, Willa Cather suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died after only a few hours. She is buried in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. The grave of the devoted Edith Lewis is at her feet. Her tombstone reads, “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great”—a line from My Ántonia.
Charles Cather to Mr. and Mrs. George P. Cather (in Webster County, Nebraska), from Back Creek Valley, Virginia, January 22, 1874, postmarked January 24, 1874; The Beinecke Library, Yale University, Za Cather (Brown), photostat copy.
Caroline Cather to Jennie Cather Ayre (in Upperville, Virginia), from Willow Shade, Back Creek, Virginia, April 17, 1873; Nebraska Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska. Lewis, p. 6.
This reference to Cather's mentioning of the braided rugs in one of her letters illustrates the value of doing archival research when studying a writer or other figure in depth. Archival research may mean the study of actual letters, diaries, financial records, or other original materials from the person's life, rather than simply relying on statements made in books or articles about the person.
To encourage development in the West, the United States government had granted vast tracts of land to the railroads, which they sold to settlers who then paid the railroads for shipping their crops. Vast fortunes were amassed by railroad industrialists in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Bohlke, 1913 interview.
Cather's personal copy of F. Schuyler Mathews's Field Book of American Wild Flowers (1902), bearing annotations in her hand, is located at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. When I examined it I found between two of the pages a tiny clover, still with its thread-like stem and pinhead-sized root ball attached—presumably placed there by the author herself.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5572
Willa Cather began to write and to think of herself as a writer at a relatively early age—at about eighteen, when her class essay on Thomas Carlyle was published in the Nebraska State Journal. She began her career as a journalist, or newspaperwoman, while she was still a student in college. During her college years she was also writing and publishing short stories. Even so, she did not publish her first novel until she was almost forty. It was in that same year that she first began to try to make her living solely by her writing. We could say, then, that despite her early start, she had a slow start.
In the fall of 1911 Cather took a long vacation from her job as Managing Editor of McClure's Magazine to spend some quiet time in upstate New York with her longtime friend Isabelle McClung, putting the finishing touches on her first completed novel, Alexander's Bridge (published in 1912). While there, she also wrote a story called “The Bohemian Girl,” set among the Bohemian immigrants in Nebraska. Her health was unsteady, and she had surgery of some kind in January. Returning to work at the magazine, she remained tired and irritable. In March 1912 she took a leave of absence and went to Winslow, Arizona, to visit her brother Douglass, who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. This time away from the city and the hectic pace of life in an editorial office proved to be her rebirth as a writer.
Why? The answer frequently given is the southwestern landscape itself. It is true that Cather was always unusually sensitive to landscape, to a sense of place, and she did respond very powerfully to the rugged Southwest. For the next fifteen years she would enjoy frequent trips to that part of the country, most often to New Mexico, during which she rode horseback and made vigorous climbs. The landscape of the Southwest would enter her work decisively in The Song of the Lark, The Professor's House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. But landscape alone is not the answer to the question of why the year 1912 was so profoundly determinant in her development as a writer.
Throughout her writing life, Cather had been looking for a way of writing that would seem authentic. She had been looking for her own voice. She had written stories, poems, and newspaper and magazine articles or essays in a number of different modes. Her early stories were sometimes sensationalistic, with tormented characters and suicides. Or some of them were sentimental, with idealized child characters and stock situations. For several years she had written stories in the manner of Henry James—stories emphasizing indirect narrative strategies, concealments and obscure meanings, and social settings among the fashionable and the artistic. Some of these stories had been quite successful and had been published in leading magazines, and she had built up a following of readers.
For several years leading up to 1912, however, Cather had felt that she was not advancing in her ability as a writer. In part, this view was one that had been urged on her by the well-established novelist and short story writer Sarah Orne Jewett, whom she had met in 1908 in Boston while on assignment with McClure's. Jewett, who always wrote in her own quiet way with little regard for commercial fashions, had urged Cather to leave her job with McClure's and devote herself to her writing. She had also urged her to stop writing in imitation of others, and especially to stop writing about places and situations that were not her own, in the voices of male narrators, which Jewett believed could never be authentic for a woman writer.
Unfortunately, Jewett died suddenly in 1909 while Cather was in England making contacts with prospective contributors to McClure's. It would be several years before Cather would follow her advice. But she retained it and continued to ponder it. In 1912, feeling more and more that her life in New York was artificial and distracting, and having written a story of the Midwestern prairies set among people she remembered from childhood (“The Bohemian Girl”), she went to the Southwest and experienced a landscape that combined the open spaces of Nebraska with the steep hills of Virginia's Blue Ridge. She experienced in the Southwest what James Joyce would have called an epiphany: a moment of awakening.
When she returned from her trip, via Nebraska, and settled into Isabelle McClung's family home in Pittsburgh for a time to write, Cather was ready to put the two together: the people she remembered from childhood and a vivid experience of outdoor spaces. Combining the draft of a sensationalistic love story called “The White Mulberry Tree” with the draft of a story called “Alexandra,” about a sturdy woman farmer, she produced O Pioneers! She would later speak of it as the book in which she hit her home pasture. By this she meant that she had “come home” to material that carried a resonance of personal origins and personal identity.
Another ingredient of Cather's rich experience in 1912, but one that did not by any means confirm Sarah Orne Jewett's advice to her, was that she undertook to ghost-write the autobiography of S. S. McClure, the famous but now failing publisher of McClure's. She would later say that the effort to catch his voice and make it sound natural in that book had led to her use of the male narrative voice in My Ántonia—a statement that ignored the fact that she had used male perspective before. But the experience in writing this book (the second she had ghost-written; the first was a biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science) was important in that it caused her to work in an autobiographical mode and to think about the shape of her own life, as a parallel to McClure's. Her next novel would be a long account of the development of a woman artist. Although the woman artist in question would be an operatic singer, and would in some ways be based on singers Cather had known, especially the Metropolitan Opera singer Olive Fremstad, the outlines of the story would be strongly autobiographical.
Place was very important to Cather's writing, not only in the sense of what she wrote about but of how and where she wrote. She tended to identify spaces where she could write and others where she could not write. Moreover, her congenial spaces—those that were conducive to her work—tended to have certain structural resemblances. These, too, could be traced to memories of her early life.
In childhood, at the Cather home in Red Cloud, she had a small room of her own in the attic, up under the roof, with a low, enclosing ceiling and a big window through which she could look out over the town and the nearby countryside, gaining a sense of expansive openness while remaining cosily in her room. Years later, she tended to find similar spaces in which to write. At the McClung mansion in Pittsburgh she had a space in the attic as a study. There the family stored dress forms for use by the seamstress who made Mrs. McClung's and the two daughters' clothes. (Dress forms were torso shapes, usually made of wire and canvas, shaped according to the size and contours of a particular woman, to which a seamstress could fit dresses in progress). These dress forms reappear in the attic study of The Professor's House. At the Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where Cather and Edith Lewis often stayed in the fall, they had rooms on the top floor, again tucked up under the roof with a sloping ceiling. At their cottage on Grand Manan, Cather worked in another attic room. When she was in the latter stages of work on My Ántonia, she took this principle one step further and worked in a pup tent (with sloping top and open ends) in a meadow in Jaffrey. Sometimes she would move from place to place until she found a place that was conducive to writing at that time.
In her tent at Jaffrey she worked for a few hours in the morning, returned to the lodge for a substantial noon meal, and then worked for a few hours in the afternoon. At her apartment in New York she seems to have worked mainly in the mornings, doing errands or visiting and receiving visitors in the afternoons. She greatly disliked interruptions—which was one reason she was hesitant to have a telephone.
After leaving Red Cloud to pursue her career in eastern cities, she found herself unable to work in Nebraska during trips home. She was also unable to work in her brother's house in Arizona, when she took leave from McClure's—a disappointing discovery, since she had hoped to use her time for a resurgence of writing. Instead, she used it to charge her batteries. She also usually did not write during her long trips to Europe. Rather, she seems to have absorbed impressions of the places she saw, to draw on after she returned to New York—or to Jaffrey or Grand Manan—and began to work on whatever project she had in mind. Interestingly, once she had written about a place, she usually stopped going there. This was true of New Mexico and of Quebec, where Shadows on the Rock is set.
Her working method was, first, to think about a story for a long time—although the word “think” may be inaccurate, in that her material often seemed to gestate in her mind without conscious thought for a long time and then emerge in a sudden inspired rush evoked by some external experience that crystallized a range of emotions and ideas. Sometimes it was an image or physical object: a glimpse of Olive Fremstad looking exhausted after a performance in a long Wagner opera (The Song of the Lark), a simple but handsome pottery jar isolated on a table which could be looked at and admired from all sides (My Ántonia). Sometimes it was something she happened to read: a newspaper report of the death of her cousin in World War I (One of Ours), a report of the death of someone she had known in Red Cloud (A Lost Lady), a biography that seemed to sum up a quality of character and place combined (Death Comes for the Archbishop). All of these books she claimed to have come into her mind in a sudden rush, though in fact they drew on impressions and feelings she had long pondered, as well as on varying amounts of research that she did in connection with the writing process. She was a familiar figure at the New York Public Library, where the director would set aside a private room for her use.
After the idea of the work had crystallized for her, Cather usually wrote a first draft in longhand, then typed it herself and marked it up with revisions, then gave it to a typist to prepare a good copy, then marked that up and had the typist prepare another good copy, which was usually the one sent to the publisher. (We can see how the computer has reduced the repetitive work of preparing copies.) She was never able to dictate her first drafts, even though she had a stenographer available who often produced her correspondence by dictation. That fact would be important and unfortunate in her later years, when a succession of hand problems and injuries sometimes left her unable to dress herself, write a letter, or even sign a check. In those situations, her companion, Edith Lewis, was always there to help.
When a typescript had gone to the publisher, it would be set in type and returned to her in the form of galley proofs—printed runs on long strips of paper without page divisions. (Pages would be struck off later.) She would go over the galleys and mark changes and corrections. After these were entered by the typesetters, she would receive page proofs—always two sets, not the usual one, because Edith Lewis also went over a set or read them aloud with her. Page proofs were (and still are) customarily expected to be very nearly the finished product. There was considerable expense involved in making changes at the page proof stage, and it was understood between publishers and writers that changes at this point in the process should be limited to legitimate corrections, not new ideas. Yet Cather frequently made numerous changes in page proof as well.
Her practice of making late revisions was one of the major contributing factors, in fact, in her momentous decision to stop publishing with the Boston house of Houghton Mifflin (which had grown out of the venerable Ticknor and Fields, publisher of many of the classic American writers of the nineteenth century) and move to the high-quality publishing house founded by the young Alfred A. Knopf. A number of discontents fueled her irritation with Houghton Mifflin, which had published her first four novels, but chief among them were the company's charge-back of costs incurred for the corrections of page proofs of My Ántonia and Cather's dissatisfaction with the way in which Houghton Mifflin marketed, or failed to market, her books. She pointed out that Knopf was staging aggressive and intelligent marketing campaigns for his writers.
Some of Cather's revisions continued even after the publication of her novels and stories. There are several noted examples. After she came to believe The Song of the Lark went on too long and in too great detail, she cut some 7000 words (slightly over five percent of the length of this book). For a special edition of My Ántonia to be published by a book store in Utah she changed the name of a bull from Brigham Young to Andrew Jackson because Mormon readers would be offended by the use of their historic leader's name. (She specified that the change was for that edition only.) For a Revised Edition of the same novel in 1926 she greatly rewrote the Introduction, reducing its length and clarifying the relation of the narrator (Jim Burden) to her larger authorial perspective. For the multi-volume Autograph Edition of her works published by Houghton Mifflin beginning in 1937 she revised all her books, correcting errors of fact and smoothing language.
When Cather began to think of moving to Knopf, she studied the firm's list and its advertising very carefully. In the fall of 1920 Knopf published a new edition of her previous book of short stories with a few new stories added, under the new title Youth and the Bright Medusa. At that time Cather said that she still planned to send the war novel she was writing, which she was then calling “Claude,” to Houghton Mifflin. But in January 1921 she wrote her editor and friend at Houghton Mifflin, Ferris Greenslet, to tell him that she had decided to go with Knopf. It was a move that was to have far-reaching positive effects on her career and readership, positioning her with a publisher whose detail work was exacting and whose commitment to her as an artist and as a longterm commercial investment outweighed smaller questions of book-by-book sales. The relationship paid off financially, as well as artistically, for both publisher and author.
During the early years of her writing career, as a journalist, Willa Cather often wrote under the pressure of deadlines. Her years of work on newspapers and magazines taught her the skills of speed and inventiveness and helped her establish the elements of a style that would constitute a distinctive “voice” on the page. These early nonfiction writings have not been much read since their initial publication except by scholars who make the study of Cather a specialty, but they were extremely important in her development. Some of her magazine articles provided material she later developed in fiction. They also provide us important insights into her thinking—the writers she admired or didn't admire, her views on women in both the art and the business of literature, her wrestling with issues of morality in art versus the demands of art for its own sake. These and more issues that are important in understanding this major writer appear in her journalism. They show us how she both reflected her time and helped shape the evolution of American literature. Unfortunately, Cather's journalism is readily available only in fragmentary form, in two edited compilations that print parts of articles grouped by topic, rather than complete articles in their original form.1 It is hoped that within a few years a collection of her journalism in its original and complete form will be available.
While Cather was producing journalism, she was also writing short stories. Indeed, by June 1906, when she wrote an open letter to her students at Pittsburgh's Allegheny High School telling them that she was leaving to go to work for McClure's in New York, she had published at least thirty-six stories. (I say “at least” because some of her early work was published under pseudonyms and it is possible that some stories have not been identified.) From the time she joined McClure's until March 1912, when she left New York for the Southwest, she published only seven more. She had also written at least one unpublished novel, which she seems to have destroyed at the time; a ghostwritten biography of Mary Baker Eddy; and, of course, Alexander's Bridge, which was serialized in McClure's in 1912. In addition, she had written and published a number of poems, most of which were collected in the volume April Twilights in 1903. After her departure to the Southwest in 1912, she published an additional fifteen stories before her death. Three others appeared posthumously.
At one time Cather stated in a letter that she wrote short stories only because they paid well and she needed the income in order to support herself while writing her serious work, which was her novels. That statement was not entirely forthright; or at any rate, she did not always think that way about short fiction. Some of her stories, especially the later ones, were very serious work. But some were clearly potboilers—interesting, deserving of study and analysis, but essentially potboilers.
It is rather surprising that Cather should have thought of short fiction dismissively even sometimes, since the compressed form of the short story would seem to be so perfectly attuned to the aesthetic principles she enunciated in some of the self-reflective essays she published in her mature years as a writer, especially the essay “The Novel Démeublé.” This essay in particular is often cited by critics interested in her fiction because she so ringingly stated there her allegiance to an ideal of compression or minimalism. It was an ideal that was quite characteristic of literary modernism. For example, Ernest Hemingway—though his novels are obviously very different from Cather's—wrote in a severely minimalist style, and the short story writer Katherine Anne Porter, often called a “writer's writer,” was also somewhat of a minimalist.
What this meant to Cather was that the writer should not try to spell things out in detail, but instead should attempt to create an aura or atmosphere, or what she called an experience “felt on the page without being specifically named there,” that would imply the gist of an idea or emotion. The idea or emotion itself should be a “thing not named” in so many words, but conveyed to the reader through overtones, subtleties, and sometimes even silences. Details are needed, to be sure; they give a piece of fiction a sense of reality, and they establish the nature of a place or a situation. But in Cather's view only those details should be included that directly contribute to the establishment of the idea or emotion the writer seeks to convey. Everything else—all the other extraneous details that might be interesting for their own sake but are not essential to the purpose—was what she called “furniture,” and she said in “The Novel Démeublé” that all that furniture should be “thrown out the window.”
Cather did not always write in such an “unfurnished” way herself. Her third novel (that is, her third published novel), The Song of the Lark, is long and detailed. It establishes itself with a fullness that would prove uncharacteristic of her mature work, though it is not, in that novel, ineffective. One of Ours, the novel called “Claude” in manuscript, which carries its central character into World War One, is littered with details in its early sections—but there the littering is purposeful; it is a major component of what Claude wants to escape. In her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, there are many details that establish a sense of the society and place where the action occurs (the Virginia of Cather's early childhood), but she said that she threw out five pounds of manuscript that she decided was extraneous to the crux of the story. But in a novel published a decade earlier, Shadows on the Rock, Cather would seem to have been wanting to show how details of daily life actually constitute life itself. So there the “furniture” seems essential. “The Novel Démeublé” provides the key to an interesting way of looking at her work.
When Willa Cather was at work, she let the demands of the work itself lead her. Although some of today's readers may think she seems old-fashioned, she was actually quite experimental in the structural forms of her work, and she accommodated herself stylistically to the formal and emotional effects she was trying to create. Thus, although she could be quite prescriptive in her pronouncements on fiction, she was herself creatively inconsistent.
Although Cather's ideas about her purposes and techniques could often be unshakably rigid, she did take to heart the comments of a small number of friends and reviewers over the years. As we have already seen, the very outset of her writing career was the result of another person's opinion, the judgment of her professor that her essay on Thomas Carlyle deserved publication. Her favorite professor, Professor Bates, also took the initiative of sending her first published story, “Peter,” to a magazine called The Mahogany Tree that was published and read by aesthetes. The magazine published it in May 1892, when Cather was still only eighteen years old. Other friends who read her work in manuscript were Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a slightly younger friend whom Cather had first met at the University of Nebraska, and who also became a well-known novelist; Isabelle McClung, her devoted friend and perhaps lover in Pittsburgh; Edith Lewis, her companion for more than thirty-five years; and Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, a writer whose work Cather published in McClure's during her editorial days. Cather rightly credited Sergeant as having shored up her confidence and steered her right when she was working on her breakthrough novel, O Pioneers!
We have already noted the powerful advice given to Cather by novelist and short story writer Sarah Orne Jewett; even if she did not follow it in every particular, she did internalize Jewett's words sufficiently to redirect her career several years later. When she was publishing at Houghton Mifflin she sometimes heeded and followed the advice of the house's literary editor, Ferris Greenslet, who was not only an editor but truly a friend to her for many years. A small but notable example of the influence of Greenslet's comments is his suggestion that Dr. Archie in The Song of the Lark not be written in as having become the governor of Colorado. Cather agreed that a more moderate level of distinction would be better. Also, and more importantly, it was Greenslet who suggested that she rewrite the Introduction to My Ántonia, a change that critics have universally praised.
Two examples of the influence of Dorothy Canfield Fisher are separated by twenty years. The first was Dorothy's intervention when Cather was preparing to publish her first volume of stories, The Troll Garden, and meant to include a story called “The Profile.” Canfield (she had not yet added her married name, Fisher) insisted that it be left out to avoid hurting a friend to whom she had introduced Cather and who, she believed, would recognize herself in the story. Dorothy's feelings on the subject were so strong that when Cather refused to cut the story, she argued the case with S. S. McClure himself (who was publishing the book) and won. As a result, the two friends became estranged. They became reconciled when Cather was completing One of Ours, however, and Cather asked Canfield Fisher to read the portions of the novel set in France and to correct any errors in French language than she found. Canfield Fisher was the perfect person to carry out such a task, because she herself had been in France, along with her husband, during the war, serving as volunteers. Not only were their tastes frequently comparable (although Cather found that her friend spelled things out too much and was too tame in dealing with any odor of immorality), but Canfield Fisher was able to make suggestions about the credibility of the battlefield scenes in the novel and the descriptions of French countryside generally.
After we note these and other examples of the influence of friendly readers on Cather, we must remember that to a far greater extent Cather followed her own preferences. The primary external influence on her was not friends who read works in progress (she rarely showed anything before proof stage) but books on which she drew for historic background information, such as the history of French missionaries in North America when she was writing Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock.
Reviewers were another matter. Even if their opinions did not have a direct effect on the shaping of subsequent works or subsequent editions of the books on which they commented, Cather was keenly attuned to what the reviewers were saying and often commented on their opinions in her letters. In the latter part of her career Cather came to believe, or at least to say, that her early work had not been given favorable reviews. That was not true. From the outset she had many positive reviews. But she also had her critics (in the negative meaning of that term) among reviewers, and any adverse comments stung her to the quick.
The reception of Cather's novels, in particular, provides an important measure of changing literary taste in the United States. O Pioneers! was greeted with overwhelming praise for introducing a new kind of novel about a section of the country and a group of people who had not been written about before. Cather was hailed by the reviewer in the Chicago Evening Post as a genius. Yet in later years it was not these positive reviews she remembered but the reviewer in the Bookman who found the novel too regional, uneventful, and “depressing.” She generalized and exaggerated that mostly negative view of the book when she wrote her essay “My First Novels (There Were Two).”
O Pioneers! had been published simultaneously in England by William Heinemann, a respected press. But Heinemann declined to publish The Song of the Lark, on grounds that its exhaustively detailed method was a mistake, not suited to Cather's genius. She took his criticism to heart and never again wrote in what has been called the Theodore Dreiser manner, except in the early sections of One of Ours, where the accumulation of details serves an important purpose.
My Ántonia, probably the most widely read of Cather's books among later generations, was not initially greeted with great sales. Published in the fall of 1918, it suffered from the nation's preoccupation with the war and from government restrictions on the use of paper. In its first year the book sold only some 8600 copies,2 but it “gathered momentum as the years went by” (in the words of James Woodress) and became a mainstay of Cather's income for the rest of her life.
If book-buyers were not initially enthusiastic, however, reviewers were. The famous H. L. Mencken praised it in Smart Set as “one of the best that any American has ever done.”3 Randolph Bourne, a reviewer greatly respected by Cather, had not liked The Song of the Lark but praised My Ántonia extravagantly for its authenticity and compression, qualities she would seek to maintain in subsequent books. Others also praised the book's authenticity and the fact that Cather had not felt she had to write a standard love story or a conventional action novel.
Authenticity became precisely the issue when Cather's next novel, One of Ours, was published in 1922, four years after My Ántonia. The very critics who had praised her before now turned on her. H. L. Mencken and novelist Sinclair Lewis considered the book a failure, although they praised the sections set in Nebraska, before the novel follows its central character to France and into combat. Others, such as the influential Edmund Wilson and her earlier admirer Heywood Broun, thought the book boring and trite. Actually, there were also many favorable reviews, and the book was a commercial hit—in fact, a best-seller—but Cather always remembered the negative. She persisted in thinking of herself as a writer misunderstood and scorned by the establishment, who went on her lonely way in defiance of literary arbiters.
As she continued her experimental departures from conventional storytelling, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, for example, and Shadows on the Rock, Cather positioned herself as a an aesthete who disregarded the pedestrian notions of reviewers as to what constituted or did not constitute a novel. That posture was reinforced in the 1930s when Marxist critics demanding relevance to social and economic problems, such as Lionel Trilling and Granville Hicks, dismissed her as an escapist who refused to examine life as it really was.4 One of the results was her proclamation, in Not under Forty, a book of essays, that younger people need not read her. The announced grandly that art had always been escapist, and she chose even more escapist subjects in her next books, reaching even further back in time and to social settings that reflected very little of the contemporary society of her own world. She became more and more antagonistic to modernity.
Cather achieved many recognitions and won a number of awards during her career. The following examples indicate her stature in the literary world:
- 1893 Managing editor of the Hesperian, University of Nebraska literary magazine; while still an undergraduate, began regular contributions to the Nebraska State Journal that brought the notice of theater impresarios for the vehemence of her reviews
- 1896 First story in a national magazine, “On the Divide” in the Overland Monthly
- 1903 Promised by the famous publisher S. S. McClure that any story she sent would be published either in McClure's or in another magazine, and promised a volume of stories from the McClure's book press
- 1905 Invited to a birthday dinner for Mark Twain at Delmonico's Restaurant in New York
- 1906 Joined staff of McClure's
- 1908 Praised and encouraged by Sarah Orne Jewett
- 1912 Invited to a birthday dinner for William Dean Howells, who, like Twain, was a celebrated member of the literary establishment
- 1915 Recognized by literary arbiter H. L. Mencken as a novelist “to be reckoned with”
- 1917 Honorary doctorate from the University of Nebraska
- 1919 Nominated for the newly established Pulitzer Prize for My Ántonia
- 1922 Taught at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Middlebury, Vermont
- 1923 Received the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours; portrait painted by Léon Bakst upon commission by the Omaha Public Library
- 1924 Honorary doctorate from the University of Michigan
- 1925 By invitation, gave the William Vaughn Moody Lecture at the University of Chicago; repeated the same lecture at the Women's City Club in Cleveland; invited to a birthday dinner for Robert Frost
- 1926 Summer guest residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterboro, New Hampshire
- 1928 Honorary doctorate from Columbia University
- 1929 Honorary doctorate from Yale University; elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters
- 1930 Received the Howells Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for Death Comes for the Archbishop
- 1931 Honorary doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley; honorary doctorate from Princeton University; Shadows on the Rock taken as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection; pictured on the cover of Time magazine, August
- 1933 Prix Fémina Américain for Shadows on the Rock
- 1938 Elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters
- 1940 Pictured on the cover of the Saturday Review of Literature, December 14
- 1944 Received the Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
These are The Kingdom of Art, edited by Bernice Slote, and The World and the Parish, in two volumes, edited by William Curtin. Two valuable essays by Slote are also included in The Kingdom of Art. See Bibliography for full information.
For a very useful concise tracing of the production, reception, and various editions of My Ántonia, see the Historical Essay by James Woodress in the Scholarly Edition, edited by Charles Mignon with Kari Ronning (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 369-401. Each volume in this important edition includes both a Historical Essay and a Textual Essay written by Cather scholars, all of them of very high quality.
H. L. Mencken, review of My Ántonia, Smart Set, March 1919: 140-41.
Granville Hicks, “The Case against Willa Cather,” English Journal, November 1933, 703-10, rpt. Schroeter, Willa Cather and Her Critics
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7994
Willa Cather was a very prolific writer. Even aside from her novels, her known works include some five to six hundred newspaper and magazine articles, columns, and reviews and sixty-two short stories. Then there were the essays published in their own two volumes (with some repetitions) and the poems—thirty-seven of them in the original April Twilights and thirteen additional ones in later editions, which dropped some of the original poems. The bibliographic tracing of Cather's works from volume to volume, let alone all the variants caused by her revisions, is an effort of specialized scholars and a very difficult one.
This listing will give all her books (but not individual stories and poems) in the order published. Some stories that were never collected in a volume during her lifetime will be shown in the listing of a collection compiled later.
April Twilights (Richard G. Badger: The Gorham Press, 1903). Thirty-seven poems, some of which had previously been published in magazines. Thirteen were dropped and twelve added when a second edition was published by Knopf in 1923. In 1933 a new poem in memory of the Cather family hired girl, “Poor Marty,” was added. It is this grouping that is usually reprinted; the 1933 collection is used, for example, in the Library of America volume edited by Sharon O'Brien. Mostly short lyrics, the poems are predominantly classical in subject and in many cases are imitative of British poet A. E. Housman (1859-1936). Some, however, ring true with direct insights and scenes. Poems about the Midwest, conveying Cather's direct experience and employing an authentic-sounding language, include “Prairie Dawn,” “Prairie Spring” (which was used as an epigraph to O Pioneers!), “Macon Prairie (Nebraska),” and “Going Home (Burlington Route).” A medium-length poem of symbolic narrative called “A Silver Cup” is strikingly different from any of the others in the volume in its free blank-verse form and direct, pungent language. It has attracted little reading or commentary. One wonders what Cather would have done as a poet if she had continued in the mode seen in this poem.
The Troll Garden (McClure, Phillips & Co., 1905). Seven short stories, four original and three previous published. The most frequently reprinted have been “The Sculptor's Funeral” and “A Wagner Matinée,” both of them expressing a sense of the artistic deadness of frontier towns in the Midwest, and “Paul's Case,” expressing the dissatisfaction of an adolescent boy who yearns for a glamorous and perhaps artistic life. “Paul's Case” has sometimes been called Cather's best short story, but she did not think so herself. Readers and reviewers in the Midwest reacted angrily to “A Wagner Matinée,” with its depiction of a barren and slovenly home scene and a woman distraught at having to leave Boston's cultural opportunities to go back home to that deprived environment.
The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science (Doubleday, Page, & Co., 1909), shown as being authored by Georgine Milmine. First publication was in serial form in McClure's. Cather ghostwrote this hostile biography of the founder of Christian Science on assignment by S. S. McClure when Milmine, the original compiler of the material, proved unable to pull it together. McClure turned to male staffers at the magazine to try their hand with the material, but after the first number in the series appeared he was dissatisfied and assigned it to Cather. She spent months in Boston verifying Milmine's research and writing the subsequent chapters. It is a hostile book, depicting Mrs. Eddy as power-hungry and deceptive, and copies were systematically destroyed by members of the Church of Christ, Scientist. When it became rumored that the book was by Cather, contrary to Georgine Milmine's name on the title page, she replied angrily to queries, saying that she had done no more than edit the manuscript. But a letter to the Director of the New York Public Library admitted her authorship in terms that are more credible than her denials.
Alexander's Bridge (Houghton Mifflin, 1912). A novel about a bridge engineer whose last great bridge fails and falls into the water during construction. The catastrophe itself was modeled on the failure of the Quebec Bridge, which collapsed during construction in 1907. The novel was first published in installments in McClure's under the title “Alexander's Masquerade,” a reference to the hero's deceptive life after he enters into an affair with an actress. It is set mainly in upperclass Boston, where Bartley Alexander is a well-respected member of genteel society, and in London, where he encounters an actress he had known and loved before his marriage. Resuming his love for her, he begins to live a double life, while his cultured wife, waiting at home in Boston, maintains her faith in him. But he is consumed by guilt. In the final disaster, the (figurative) crack in his moral nature is paralleled by a great crack that opens up in the bridge while it is under construction. The bridge collapses, carrying many workmen and Alexander himself to their deaths. Both in setting and in technique it is imitative of Henry James and, as Cather later said, Edith Wharton, although brief sequences foretell Cather's distinctive work in subsequent novels.
Alexander's Bridge is not a bad novel, though it is seldom read. Clearly, however, with its drawing-room setting and its development of a plot based on love, sex, and melodramatic punishment, it is not characteristic of Cather's mature work. Though universally acknowledged as Cather's first novel, it was in fact only her first published novel, not the first she wrote. She had written a novel set in Pittsburgh before she moved to New York to join the staff of McClure's, but decided it was a failure and apparently destroyed it.
O Pioneers! (Houghton Mifflin, 1913). This is the first of Cather's novels set in Nebraska. It illustrates her willingness experiment with form—contrary to occasionally heard claims that she was never an experimentalist. The novel is a merger of two loosely related stories. Cather's term for it a “two-part pastoral,” points to both its traditional models and its departure from those models. The book also revises conventions of the Western by taking as its hero a female and a farmer, rather than a male and an adventurer. Alexandra (whose name, notably, is a feminine version of the name Alexander, used for the hero of Cather's first published novel) is the daughter of Swedish immigrants living in Nebraska. This, too, was innovative, since to that time Scandinavian immigrants had usually appeared in literature only as comic buffoons. When Alexandra's father dies, she takes over the running of the farm and despite complaints from the older two of her three brothers, not only makes a success of it but buys more land and becomes wealthy—prompting jealous growling from the brothers, who try to insist that the men in a family, not the women, are always the rightful owners of land. Meanwhile, in the second plot, Alexandra's youngest brother, Emil, grows up to be artistic, intelligent, and moody. He becomes involved with a young Bohemian woman who lives nearby, and the two are killed by her husband when he finds them in sexual embrace in the (somewhat Edenic) orchard. Alexandra is distraught, but opens her heart to the possibility of happiness when the sweetheart from her childhood, a man obviously of less energy and strength than she herself, returns to Nebraska to offer his consolation in marriage.
Cather called this novel the one in which she hit the home pasture. Unlike Alexander's Bridge, she said, in an essay called “My First Novels (There Were Two),” “Here, there was no arranging or ‘inventing,’ everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way …”
My Autobiography (Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1914), shown as being by S. S. McClure. For the second time, Cather was the ghost-writer of a book undertaken as a favor to McClure, who had been ousted from control of his own magazine by his partners and was facing financial ruin. She wrote it without accepting any pay as an act of gratitude, to try to help him financially. Her method was to listen to him talk about his life and then write the material up in sections soon after the interviews, in order to try to catch the pace and manner of his own voice. It was serialized in McClure's in 1913 before being published as a book, and attracted a sizable readership. Cather later said that her ability to write from a male perspective in My Ántonia was traceable to the practice she got by writing McClure's life story from his own perspective.
The Song of the Lark (Houghton Mifflin, 1915). A long novel in a heavily detailed style that Cather would not use again except in the first half of One of Ours, this book can be called a bildungsroman, a story of the growth and maturation of a person searching for identity and a mission in life, or a kunstlerroman, a story of the growth and development of an artist. Early sections are closely based on Cather's youth in Red Cloud, Nebraska, which is recognizable despite being called Moonstone, Colorado. The artist who is the central character, Thea Kronborg, is not a writer, however, but a singer. Like Alexandra, she is the daughter of Swedish immigrants.
The turning point of the novel comes when Thea (properly pronounced Tay-uh but usually Americanized to Thee-uh) withdraws from Chicago, where she is struggling to prepare for a musical career, and goes away for rest and renewal to a ranch in the mesas of Arizona. Cather had seen and admired this area in 1912 when she, too, left the city—in her case New York—and the rigors of her work and made a long visit to her brother Douglass, who was stationed in Winslow, Arizona, with the Santa Fe Railroad. There she rode horseback and hiked vigorously, and like Thea, found herself.
In addition to the autobiographical parallels, Thea Kronborg was also based on the famous operatic soprano Olive Fremstad, whom Cather knew. She observed and studied the rehearsal sessions of singers in preparation for writing the novel and had a music critic in Pittsburgh go over the text for accuracy when it was in proofs. At the end of the Panther Canyon (for the actual Walnut Canyon) sequence of the novel, Thea goes away to Mexico with a lover named Fred Ottenburg, whom she rejects after he reveals that he is already married—a sequence that scandalized many of Cather's original readers. After this point, she commits herself to the development of her art and her career, a process that is shown as being necessary for the fulfillment of the artist but inevitably hardening to her as an individual. She is strong, determined, and somewhat ruthless—hence, it might seem, somewhat masculinized. The fact that she eventually marries Fred Ottenburg is presented as something of an afterthought, and in fact is not always noticed by readers.
My Ántonia (Houghton Mifflin, 1918). The best known of Cather's novels, My Ántonia is set partly on the open prairie of southern Nebraska among Bohemian and Scandinavian immigrants (very much like the homestead where the Cathers first lived when they came from Virginia) and partly in a small town much like Red Cloud, but here called Black Hawk. It is worth noting that both Red Cloud and Black Hawk were names of important chiefs of Native American tribes. Cather was keenly aware that the town of Red Cloud had been built on land where the Sioux had their regular range only a few years before her family arrived.
Although the narrating character, Jim Burden, is a male, he strongly resembles the young Cather. A Bohemian—we would say Czech—hired girl Cather had known and liked, Annie Sadilek Pavelka, became the character Ántonia Shimerda (pronounced with the primary accent on the first syllable and a secondary accent on the -ni). When Ántonia is first seen, she is charming youngster fresh from Europe and eager to learn. She learns her first English from Jim, and the two become devoted companions. But her life leads her more and more into hard physical labor, while he goes away to college. When she has a baby by a railroad man who enticed her away with a promise of marriage and then deserted her, Jim is judgmental, even repelled. He does consent to see her briefly while her daughter is still only a baby and is surprised by her pride in the child. When he returns again many years later, he finds her married, the bountiful mother of many children, and living on a productive family farm, but severely aged in appearance. At the end of the novel he determines to keep coming back to enjoy taking a role as, in effect, one of her boys. One thing he seems to overlook is her determination that her daughters will have more options in life than she had herself.
The basic debate about My Ántonia is whether its narrative point of view, being told from Jim Burden's perspective, is transparent (that is, representative of Cather's own attitude toward her story) or unreliable (calling into question Jim views such as his minimizing of the hardships of Ántonia's adult life). Does she present farm life and the role of a nurturing wife and mother as a valid ideal, or does she show that such idealizing is engaged in by self-deceiving males?
The actual Pavelka farm, complete with the combination storm cellar/food storage cellar which Ántonia's children proudly display to Jim when he returns for his visit, is owned by the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and can be visited.
Youth and the Bright Medusa (Knopf, 1920). A collection of eight short stories, four of them revised from publication in The Troll Garden and four new. Readers have usually found the most interesting of the four new stories to be “Coming, Aphrodite!,” another story of aspiring artists. It has a surprisingly erotic element, for Cather, in that the central male character enjoys spying on his female neighbor, an aspiring singer, when she is undressed. The collection as a whole is unified by a theme of art, artists, and the artistic life. Youth and the Bright Medusa enjoyed surprisingly strong sales for a volume of short stories, especially considering that half of the stories had previously been collected.
One of Ours (Knopf, 1922). Known as Cather's war novel and subjected to hostile criticism by male literary powers such as Ernest Hemingway and Edmund Wilson, the novel was begun in 1918 after Cather learned of the death of her cousin Grosvenor P. Cather at Cantigny, France, in the first major engagement fought by the American troops of the U. S. Expeditionary Force in World War I. In 1920 Cather went to France to locate Grosvenor's burial place and to gather first-hand impressions for her novel. She also did research for the novel by reading her cousin's letters to his mother, studying newspaper accounts of the war, interviewing returning soldiers in hospitals, and reading a diary kept by a physician in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, who served with the U.S. troops. The part of the novel that she based on the diary was a sequence involving an outbreak of the deadly flu epidemic on a transport ship on its way to France. The book was a best-seller, despite drawing a number of negative reviews, and it was for One of Ours that Cather received her Pulitzer Prize.
The first half of the novel is set in Nebraska on the farm of the hero, Claude Wheeler's, parents, where Claude is restless and dissatisfied. The family's life is shown to be rather brutish, with the family domineered over by the crude Mr. Wheeler and the entire place littered with ill-maintained machinery and gadgets bought by Claude's older brother. This home setting is reminiscent of the littered farm in “A Wagner Matinée,” and its detailed presentation resembles the fully-fleshed-out method of The Song of the Lark.
Claude longs to escape and to go to Europe. In college, before his father made him come home to run the farm, he had studied European history and had especially concentrated on the story of Joan of Arc, whom he interpreted in his senior paper utterly without irony as a saintly hero. When the U.S. enters the war (as actually occurred in April 1917) he quickly enlists, sensing that it will be the most significant experience of his life. Even after serving in the filthy, brutal trenches on the front he feels that the whole experience has been ennobling, and he is glad to have seen France—though we may question whether, in seeing that war-torn society and landscape, he really saw the Europe he so idealizes at all. Much as with My Ántonia, but perhaps even more so, readers have trouble deciding whether Cather shares the idealizing point of her hero or regards it with irony. It seems clear, however, that shares Claude's dislike of a certain kind of ill-educated religious leadership, which is the source of his wife's marrying him out of a sense of duty, without love.
A Lost Lady (Knopf, 1923). Another popular success but this time also a success with reviewers and critics, this short novel with a fictionalized Nebraska setting was modeled on the character and decline of a beautiful, charming woman Cather had known and admired in Red Cloud, Lyra Garber. Mrs. Garber, known for her parties and picnics, was married to the much older Cyrus Garber, a banker and former railroad developer who had served as governor of Nebraska. She appears as the charming Marian Forrester in the novel. The late-nineteenth-century time setting of the novel is very important, encompassing as it does the town's transition from the status of a frontier settlement to a town struggling for prosperity and amenities through business deals.
Cather seems to idealize frontier railroad-builders but provides enough glimpses of an alternative perspective to lead readers to question the idealized version. Marian Forrester, the “lost lady” of the title, may be lost morally (since she has affairs and allows her unscrupulous young attorney to take sexual liberties with her and to invest her money in shady ways after Mr. Forrester's death) or simply lost in time, or it may be only in the misguided views of small-town gossips, such as the male narrator, Niel Herbert, that she is lost at all. Once again, readers are hard pressed to know whether the narrative voice is ironic.
Some informed readers consider A Lost Lady Cather's greatest masterpiece.
The Professor's House (Knopf, 1925). Another novel in experimental form. This time Cather breaks the book into three parts, inserting a contrasting story, told in a different narrative voice, into the middle. The first and third parts, told from third-person point of view, are about an aging and somewhat cynical professor of history who at the time the book opens has written eight books (like Cather, if we don't count her ghost-written books or her book of poetry) and won a prize, but feels burned out and discouraged. Even though St. Peter is a male, he can be seen as a representation of Cather herself in middle age, no longer so lively and optimistic as she had been a few years before.
The middle part of the novel is a charming but finally ambiguous adventure story told from first-person point of view by a very young man, Tom Outland, who became one of the professor's students before going away to World War I and being killed. Once again Cather's imagination was circling around the devastating historic event of the war. She called the middle section, which takes place on and around a western setting called Blue Mesa, a window opened to provide glimpses of the outdoors from a stuffy room, and a stuffy room is indeed important in a crucial part of the action. The professor spends most of his time in a stuffy attic where he has his study and where, near the end of the novel, he almost dies from suffocation. He is overcome by leaking gas in the unventilated attic room because the window, significantly, has fallen shut. His housekeeper saves him when she hears him fall to the floor and rushes in to open the window—a highly symbolic action.
In the middle section, the young Tom Outland discovers the long-abandoned cliff dwellings of Anasazi people (ancient Native Americans) who have long ago disappeared. The discovery follows very closely the discovery of Mesa Verde, in Colorado. When Tom's partner in the discovery betrays him—so Tom believes—by selling relics from the site to a German collector, Tom denounces him and goes off to become a college student. That is, of course, where his life intersects that of the main character, Professor Godfrey St. Peter. Years later, when the novel opens, the professor feels detached from his family, his work, and his sense of himself. The only vibrant, joyful memory he retains in his later years is his memory of Tom Outland. But at the end, after his brush with death, he discovers a rather subdued will to live, expecting no more joy in life but perhaps some satisfaction in his sharing of human commonality.
My Mortal Enemy (Knopf, 1926). A very short, bare-bones novel of industrial decline and economic displacement in early twentieth-century United States. So brief some readers complained of false advertising when Knopf announced it as a novel, it is an extreme version of what Cather called “the novel démeublé,” or the unfurnished novel—that is, the novel stripped of any unnecessary adornments. The central character, Nellie Birdseye, fixes her bird's-eye view on an older couple famous in her home town for having romantically eloped. What Nellie sees during a Christmas-time visit to them in New York City, years after their elopement, is that the romance has gone out of their marriage. Mr. Henshawe seems to have an eye for other women, and his wife, Myra, frets over having less money than their acquaintances. After Mr. Henshawe loses his job in a corporate restructuring (what we would call a rif, or reduction in force), they are left not only poor but estranged and, in the case of the wife, embittered. The ending, where the dying Myra Henshawe laments being left alone with her mortal enemy, has sometimes puzzled readers, who have variously conjectured that the “mortal enemy” was herself or Nellie or poverty itself or the nolonger-loved husband. Cather insisted that there was only one right reading. Her correspondence, which identifies certain of the novel's reviewers as having succeeded in reading the book correctly, makes it clear that she intended the “mortal enemy” as the husband, and the point of the book as the ironic intertwining of extreme love with hate.
The glimpses of New York in the early part of the book are charming and lively. They remind us that Cather lived in New York for most of her adult life and knew the city well.
Death Comes for the Archbishop (Knopf, 1927). On trips to New Mexico over several years, Cather immersed herself in the landscape and traditions of the Southwest, and through her extensive reading, especially in church history, she immersed herself in the area's past. The result was this novel that, like its predecessor, people have often thought was not a novel at all. Cather herself called it simply a narrative, something on the order of a legend. She also compared it to visual arts—both to the Hans Holbein woodcut referred to in the title and to the stylized, neo-Classical murals of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, whose work did not pretend to be either realistic or modern in style. (A mural by Puvis de Chavannes that Cather knew well can be seen at the Boston Public Library.)
In an episodic narrative, Cather follows the career of the French priest Jean Marie Latour, closely modeled on Jean Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888), the actual first bishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and later Archbishop. Latour comes to America as Vicar Apostolic when the region we call the Southwest has just been taken over by the United States from Mexico. He is ultimately elevated to the status of archbishop and finds the fullest meaning of his life in the construction of a cathedral in Santa Fe. In the last scene of the novel, his body lies in state in his cathedral. The actual cathedral, with the statue of Archbishop Lamy standing in front, can be visited in Santa Fe.
In parallel to the story of her archbishop, Cather follows the history of New Mexico, beginning with its seizure under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which ended the Mexican War. The historic specificity of the story is established in an entirely fictional introductory scene overlooking Rome, where Latour is discussed by church officials keenly aware of the treaty. At the end, the book raises the ironic idea that this civilizing representative of colonialism, the archbishop, enjoyed the place more when it was as he found it, fresh and uncluttered. Cather does not belabor the point (we would not expect her to), and she very clearly does both revere and celebrate Father Latour as a great hero; thus her attitude toward the historic process she chronicles is left very ambiguous.
One of the main issues in the novel is the tension between a newly imposed version of Catholicism and a long-established local Catholic tradition with its own practices. Latour brings in French and Spanish priests to replace the native (Mexican) priests he found there when he arrived. He also attempts to suppress the practices of the Penitentes, a religious brotherhood still in existence today whose secret devotionals during the Easter season were often bloody. At every turn, he proves himself an outsider—even, one might say, a self-deceived tool of imperialist colonialism. But it is never clear that Cather intends that meaning.
It should be noted that besides Lamy and his fellow priest, Joseph P. Machebeuf, who appear under the names Latour and Vaillant, other actual historic persons appear in the novel under their own names, including Padre Antonio José Martínez and Kit Carson. Many New Mexicans still revile Cather's hostile depiction of Martínez, who was one of the native priests Latour (and the actual Lamy) worked to vilify and displace.
The book has little sense of plot. It reads more like a series of static pictures whose sequence depicts the slow movement of a collective and rather impersonal destiny.
Obscure Destinies (Knopf, 1932). This collection of three substantial short stories—“Neighbour Rosicky,” “Old Mrs. Harris,” and “Two Friends”—is often thought to contain some of Cather's very best work. All three stories show a return to her earlier interest in common people and rural life in the area where she grew up. “Old Mrs. Harris,” with its three generations of women, the youngest of whom is intent on breaking free by going to college, is pointedly autobiographical. “Neighbour Rosicky” returns to Cather's interest in the immigrant people among whom she lived when her family migrated to Nebraska from Virginia, but explores the feelings of the second generation. “Two Friends” recalls the friendship and political debates of two businessmen in Red Cloud when she was growing up. Cather worried that her longtime friend Carrie Miner Sherwood, who had remained in Red Cloud, would be offended when she recognized her father in the character called Mr. Dillon.
Shadows on the Rock (Knopf, 1933). Cather began this novel of seventeenth-century Quebec in 1928 after rereading the famous history of the area by Francis Parkman, Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV, during a visit to the city. She also began reading, while there, other histories which she found in the hotel library, and she met a well-known church historian, Abbé Henri Scott. Having enjoyed the writing of Death Comes for the Archbishop so much that she admitted to feeling depressed after it was finished, she gladly returned to the subject of French religion and culture in America, and she continued her reading in the history of the place and time during her work on the novel. Her writing was interrupted, however, by a series of family problems, mainly the death of her father and the long last illness of her mother.
At one level, Shadows on the Rock is a celebration of home virtues and the daily realities of ordinary domestic life; at another, it celebrates the life of religious chastity lived by nuns and priests. Thus, like Death Comes for the Archbishop, it is rather quiet. It follows the life of a little girl growing up in Quebec whose father always means to return home to France, while she, despite being thoroughly obedient and submissive in other respects, insists that she is a Canadian. They remain in Quebec.
The novel drew negative comments at the time of its publication for its supposed evasion of current social problems—after all, it looked back three centuries for its milieu—and for its lack of action or excitement. Nevertheless, it proved very popular with readers, perhaps, in part, because it showed the ingenuity shown by its heroine in making daily life comfortable in spite of deprivations, due to Quebec's isolation. Because of the Great Depression of the 1930s, many Americans were also being challenged at that time to exert ingenuity in finding ways to get by. The book was greatly praised in the Catholic press, and many readers incorrectly believed Cather herself had converted to Catholicism. When asked about her supposed conversion, she stated that she was an admirer of Catholicism and its rituals, but she remained a member of the Episcopal Church in Red Cloud.
Lucy Gayheart (Knopf, 1935). This medium-length novel about a young girl who aspires to be an artist but (unlike Thea Kronborg of The Song of the Lark) lacks discipline and commitment, has never been considered one of Cather's best. It is set in Nebraska and in Chicago, where Lucy, like Thea, goes to study music. Cather had gone to Chicago for her first experience of big-city opera when she was a senior at the University of Nebraska. Lucy falls under the influence of the baritone for whom she works as practice accompanist, to the point that she tells her suitor from home that she has “gone all the way” with him. She means the phrase as a reference to her mental devotion to him and the artistic discipline he exemplifies, but she is rather dishonest in using the phrase, because she realizes that her suitor will believe she has become the singer's mistress. As expected, he disavows all further dealings with her. When she comes home for a Christmas visit, he refuses to give her a ride in his sleigh when she is caught out in freezing weather. Angrily, she trudges on through the cold, persisting in her intention of going ice skating on the frozen Platte River (a major actual river in Nebraska). But because of her anger she fails to notice that the ice is weak, and she drowns when it breaks under her. She is remembered years afterward by those who had known her as a vivid, cheerful presence in the rather gray town. It is a typical Cather ending, a retrospective view after a break in the text.
Like many other works by Cather, Lucy Gayheart was built out of her memories of Red Cloud, including a specific girl she had known who was a good skater.
Not under Forty (Knopf, 1936). By this time in her life Cather had become disaffected from the course of contemporary life. In her introduction to this collection of essays she proclaimed her withdrawal by insisting that readers could understand her meaning only if they were not under forty years of age. It was not an attitude calculated to win friendly readers—or critics. The essays in this collection that are usually regarded as most important are “A Chance Meeting,” because of its contribution to the later short story “An Old Beauty,” and “The Novel Démeuble,” a statement of Cather's principles of compression and uncluttering of main motifs.
Sapphira and the Slave Girl (Knopf, 1940). Once again Cather turned to the past, though not to such a distant past as in Shadows on the Rock. In this novel begun in 1937, she drew on childhood memories and family traditions for a story set in pre-Civil War Virginia. The central action in the book is that of Rachel Blake, the abolitionist daughter of the wealthy slave owner Sapphira, who in defiance of her powerful mother helps the slave girl Nancy escape to the North. Rachel Blake was modeled on Cather's maternal grandmother, Rachel Boak, who did help a female slave escape. The theme of the novel involves the ambiguous combination of social charm with a great social evil, since Virginian civilization is shown as being both quite lovely in some ways but at the same time utterly corrupted by being constructed on the injustice of slavery. The novel also involves a reconciliation of mother and daughter—a theme that must have been greatly on Cather's mind over the years, as she was often at odds with her own willful mother, who believed in traditional domestic lives for women.
Cather said that she threw away six pounds of paper with extraneous details about Virginia and its customs in order to produce an artful novel out of her material.
The Old Beauty and Others (Knopf, 1948). Like Obscure Destinies, this volume contains three long stories—“The Old Beauty,” written in 1937, and “The Best Years” and “Before Breakfast,” both written in 1944 and 1945. The three stories, none of them published before her death, are very different from each other and are set in widely disparate places, but all three concern aging and a variety of contrasts between age and youth.
Willa Cather on Writing (Knopf, 1949). Reprints the important essay “The Novel Démeublé” and two others (with some revisions) from Not under Forty, plus several previously uncollected short pieces. The most important of the essays, in addition to “The Novel Démeublé,” are “My First Novels (There Were Two),” “Escapism,” and three open letters (two having been written to editors of journals and one a private letter from which excerpts were used in Knopf publicity) about three of her own novels—Death Comes for the Archbishop, Shadows on the Rock, and The Professor's House.
Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912, edited by Virginia Faulkner, with Introduction by Mildred R. Bennett (University of Nebraska Press, 1965). A useful place to find many of Cather's earlier stories (up to 1912) that were not included in any of her volumes of short fiction. Organized in reverse chronological order, the volume begins with “The Bohemian Girl,” a story written by Cather shortly before she left McClure's and redirected her career, and reaches back to her first published story, “Peter,” plus four early stories published pseudonymously, for a total of 45. A reference book listing all of Cather's known stories (Sheryl L. Meyering, A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Willa Cather) lists a total of 61 and gives useful information about publication history.
ART IMITATING LIFE
The summaries above have given some indication of the extent to which Willa Cather's work is autobiographical. Not surprisingly, the settings of her work were almost always versions of the places with which her life was bound up. The southern writer Eudora Welty has argued forcefully that the sense of place is one of the most powerful ingredients of literary fiction, if not the most powerful. Welty was, as a matter of fact, a strong admirer of Cather's work. One wonders if the geographic aspect of Cather's work was not a major reason.
Nebraska or a version of Nebraska under another name was the setting of several of Cather's novels—O Pioneers!, parts of The Song of the Lark, My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, Lucy Gayheart, Obscure Destinies. Even Alexander's Bridge, remote as it seems from Cather's own life, has a brief but important scene drawn after a sandy island in the Republican River where she and her brothers liked to go to play when they were children. And in fact the Boston and London scenes that predominate in the book were places where she spent time in the course of her work for S. S. McClure—but of course, as an outsider.
Yet it is not really accurate to label Cather, as she has usually been labeled, a Nebraska writer. Her origins were in Virginia, and if the only Virginia settings that appear in her work are in Sapphira and the Slave Girl and one or two early stories, scholars have seen traces of her southern origins scattered throughout her work. New York dominates My Mortal Enemy and several short stories—but that, too, was a biographical setting, since Cather lived mainly in New York from 1906 on. The Quebec setting of Shadows on the Rock and the southwestern settings of Death Comes for the Archbishop, the central section of The Professor's House, and the crucial self-discovery section of The Song of the Lark were also important places in her life. Interestingly, after she had written about such places she tended not to go back again, as if she had used them up. But it was after her last visit to her house on the island of Grand Manan that she wrote “Before Breakfast,” where the landscape of the island is reproduced.
Cather's family members are recognizable in The Song of the Lark (despite the father's being made a minister rather than a businessman), My Ántonia, and “Old Mrs. Harris,” especially. Townspeople of Red Cloud and the country people who lived nearby are also recognizable—for instance, the Miner family in the Harlings of My Ántonia, Mr. Miner again in “Two Friends,” the friendly local doctor in Dr. Archie of The Song of the Lark, and others. Hill people who worked for the Cather family in Virginia reappear in Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
Cather wrote a fiction of memory. Though there is no evidence that she was doing this consciously, she might well have been following the views of the poet William Wordsworth, who defined the source of literature as powerful emotion recollected in tranquility. It seems that her memories of her early life, some of which were indeed powerful or even turbulent, served as the wellsprings of her imagination once they had settled into tranquility so that they could be recollected with aesthetic detachment.
Interestingly, at least three of Cather's major works are strongly autobiographical with respect to the experiences of central characters who are male, rather than female. Jim Burden of My Ántonia (the last name having been taken from the name of a local grocer) comes to Nebraska by train from Virginia after his parents have died. Cather was not orphaned, of course, but death had been a near presence in the extended family, and she might well have used orphaning as a metaphor to capture the feeling of displacement and loss that she felt when they moved. Jim Burden's reconstruction of his early impressions of the prairie essentially reproduce statements Cather made in letters and interviews.1 The move of Jim's grandparents from the farm into Black Hawk and his own move from Black Hawk to the University of Nebraska and on to the East Coast also parallel Cather's own, though of course when she went East she did not go to Harvard, as he does in the book. She also returned to Nebraska for brief visits, as he is shown doing near the end of the book—and in fact, visited Annie Pavelka, the model for Ántonia, at her family's farm.2 Annie had had a daughter before she was married, as Ántonia does in the book, and had proudly had a photograph of the baby displayed in a shop window in Red Cloud, as also happens in the book.
Niel Herbert, the central observer and narrator of A Lost Lady, is much like Cather, even if he is, in the eyes of some readers, a rather disagreeable character. He idolizes Marian Forrester much as the adolescent Cather idolized the charming, sociable, and strikingly pretty Lyra Garber. (But there was also a male model for Niel Herbert; see the Scholarly Edition for a detailed discussion.) The Forresters' grove and marsh, in the novel, reproduce features of the Garber farm on the edge of Red Cloud, which was also reached by way of a small bridge. The Garbers hosted dances under a canvas cover, as happens in My Ántonia, and enjoyed organizing picnics on their grounds (noted in early letters by Cather) as we see in A Lost Lady. In fact, the portrait of Lyra Garber in the novel was so recognizable that family members grumbled to Cather's brother in California that they might file lawsuit. They evidently did not like seeing her depicted as a lush and a sexual adventurer.
Last, Godfrey St. Peter, the central character of The Professor's House, was very closely autobiographical, despite the difference in sex, because of his interest in the Southwest and what were then called the cliff dwellings, the number of books he had written at the time the novel opens, and other details. One of the most striking of these is the attic in which he works, which closely reproduces the attic of the McClung mansion in Pittsburgh where Cather had her study for several years, down to the presence of the dressmakers' dummies.
Except for Death Comes for the Archbishop, where the two central characters are explicitly based on historical figures, and occasional passing references to public figures and events, Cather's fiction is not usually to be considered an example of the roman à clef, or the kind of story that is so explicitly modeled on a specific actual person that the reference is expected to be recognized. In fact, she more than once insisted that she did not model characters after specific people but made them up as composites of various people she had known. Nevertheless, the models for her characters are often identifiable, and the parallels with herself and her life are pervasive.
Because of the recognizable parallels between Cather's life and her works, much of the critical and scholarly material on her has been biographical in nature. That work has been quite valuable. Often it provides a basis for measuring what her intention may have been—though we can never be sure. Cather's irony is elusive. Often her stories and novels are characterized by a pervasive ambiguity that is thoroughly modern in its effects and implications, despite what sometimes seems to be the old-fashioned quality of her material and style.
Less often than the biographical study of Cather's work has been study that follows a historical approach. She has been considered rather apolitical, as if she stood outside her times and the public events and issues through which she lived. Yet that misconception is now being corrected. We can recognize in Cather's fiction a deep engagement with such issues as the disrupting and distressing recurrence of war during her lifetime and the divisive public debate over immigration that led to the Immigration Act of 1926. Thus Cather can be seen as an important figure in cultural studies, as well as an important figure in the history of the American novel and a remarkable prose stylist.
Cather willingly signed a contract with Warner Brothers for movie rights to A Lost Lady. It was filmed twice. The first film version, a silent picture starring Irene Rich and George Fawcett emphasizing the presence of railroads, opened in January 1925. Some of the scenes that had been altered from the novel were ridiculed by reviewers. A second filming by Warner Brothers in 1934, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Morgan with Ricardo Cortez, transformed the story drastically, both modernizing it and moving it to the suburbs of Chicago. Cather was furious. She was never again willing to consider allowing any adaptations of her works in other media. Her publishers regularly brought to her attention lucrative offers from moving picture companies and radio, but she steadfastly refused. When Houghton Mifflin urged her to permit the filming of My Ántonia, she signed her permission for preliminary work toward a film of The Song of the Lark in exchange for a signed statement from the publishing company that it would never again ask her to allow filming of Ántonia. The film of The Song of the Lark was never developed.
To ensure that her resistance to adaptation would be respected in the future, Cather's will specified that her works may not be adapted. Her executors have dutifully observed this prohibition, and since the holder of a copyright has the power to say what can and cannot be done with a work, no adaptations have appeared so long as individual works remained copyrighted.
In recent years, however, the copyrights on Cather's books have begun to expire, and both film and radio adaptations, as well as musical renditions, have appeared. Recent adaptations include:
- “Eric Hermannson's Soul.” Opera in 6 scenes. Grinnell, Iowa: Grinnell College, 1990. Music and Libretto by Jonathan Chenette. Performed at Iowa City, Iowa, September 24, 1993. Video and sound recording by Images Productions.
- “Jack-a-Boy.” Filmed dramatization, Phoenix Films, 1980. Written, produced, and directed by Carl Colby. Featuring Jean Marsh, Fred Gwynne, and Sebastian Fernandez.
- Lost Lady. A song cycle in jazz idiom interpreting A Lost Lady. Music by Nancy Harrow. Benfan Music, 1991 and 1992. Recorded at Sear Sound, New York, in June and November, 1993. Executive producer Giovanni Bonandrini. Featuring Nancy Harrow (vocals), Vernel Bagneris (vocals), Phil Woods (alto saxophone/clarinet), Dick Katz (piano), Ray Drummond (bass), and Ben Riley (drums).
- My Ántonia. Made-for-television movie, distributed by Paramount Pictures, 1995. Written for TV by Victoria Riskin. Executive producer David W. Rintels. Produced by Victoria Riskin. Directed by Joseph Sargent. Featuring Jason Robards, Eva Marie Saint, Neil Patrick Harris, and Jan Triska.
- “Nanette: An Aside.” Filmed dramatization, distributed by New Dimension Media, 1991. Adapted and dramatized by Rick Glintenkamp for Sandpail Productions. Executive producer Pamela Glintenkamp. Director of photography Hiro Narita.
- O Pioneers! Made-for-television movie, distributed by Hallmark Home Entertainment, 1992. Written for TV by Robert W. Lenski. Produced and directed by Glenn Jordan. Featuring Jessica Lange, David Strathavin, and Tom Aldredge.
- O Pioneers! Opera. 1990. Adaptation and lyrics by Darrah Cloud. Music by Kim D. Sherman. Performed and recorded at Boston University Theatre in February, 1990. Directed by Kevin Kuhlke and Kirk Browning. Produced by Michael Bronson.
- “Paul's Case.” Filmed dramatization, Perspective Films, 1979. Teleplay by Ron Cowen. Produced by Ed Lynch. Directed by Lamong Johnson. Featuring Eric Roberts and Michael Higgins. Included in the American Short Story Video Series.
- The Song of the Lark. Made-for-television movie, 2000.
- “Two by Cather.” Filmed dramatizations of “Nanette: An Aside” and “The Sentimentality of William Tavenor.” Produced by Nebraska TV Network, Gone West Productions, and KUON-TV, 1997.
In addition, several of Cather's poems have been set to music:
- “Grandmither, Think Not I Forget.” Music by Garth W. Baxter. 1991. [holograph]
- “The Palatine (In the Dark Ages).” Music by Herbert Elwell. 1940/1949? [holograph]
- “Spanish Johnny.” Music by John Sacco. New York: G. Schirmer, 1941.
- “The Tavern,” “The Hawthorne Tree,” “L'envoi,” and “Spanish Johnny.” Music by Garth Baxter. In “From the Heart: Three American Women. Songs for Soprano and Guitar.” T. Presser, 1994.
- Three songs of Margaret Elliot in the opera Eric Hermannson's Soul. Oxford University Press, 1998.
The letters cannot be quoted because she forbade the reproduction or quoting of any unpublished writings in her will, and her literary executors have faithfully enforced that prohibition. The permission of executors is necessary in order to avoid legal penalties so long as a work is protected by copyright. Under present U.S. law, the copyright period on unpublished works is 70 years after death of the author, which for Cather will be 2017.
Later, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Cather helped saved the Pavelkas' farm from foreclosure.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4724
As we have seen, Willa Cather did not fully devote herself to the writing of fiction until she was almost forty years old. Yet by the time she was fifty she had become recognized as a major literary figure and had received a Pulitzer Prize, one of the first to be awarded. A decade later she was being vilified by critics as a romanticizer and an escapist. Some dismissed her as old fashioned and fit only for the pages of women's magazines (as if that meant her work could not possibly be of any real value). Popular readers continued to enjoy her books, and one or two of her titles continued to hold a place on high school and college reading lists. But it was not until the 1980s that scholarly attention and recognition restored Cather to a place among America's greatest writers of the modernist period—and in fact, a writer in the modernist vein.
Her reception from the general reading public was warm throughout most of her career. She began receiving letters from readers when she was still only publishing short stories in magazines, and her fan mail surged with the publication of O Pioneers! She occasionally answered such letters, but for the most part was happier to answer letters from ordinary readers than from teachers, whom she sometimes scolded for having their students read current fiction rather than the classics. During World War II, publication of some of her works in Armed Forces Editions (special small-format paperbacks that could be tucked into a fatigue uniform pocket) brought so many letters that they became a burden, especially since they forced her to think about the misery of troops around the world.
EARLY ENCOURAGEMENT, 1903-1917
Cather often said in later life, and perhaps even believed, that reviewers had been hard on her early work. In an essay called “My First Novels [There Were Two],” she claimed that a New York critic had said of O Pioneers!, “I simply don't care a damn what happens in Nebraska,” and that when he did he had spoken for reviewers in general. It is true, there was a review of O Pioneers! in the Bookman complaining that it was boring and a reader was not likely to care much about characters in this dull place or how their lives came out. But the general tone of the reviews of O Pioneers! and of Cather's other earlier novels was much more positive than either this one hostile remark or Cather's later recollections about her early reviews would indicate.
Even her book of poems in 1903 and The Troll Garden, a volume of short stories, in 1905 were favorably reviewed in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. To be sure, these reviews were of the short, unsigned variety, but an unknown writer could scarcely expect more. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, also attracted cautiously positive reviews in major newspapers, mainly offering comments to the effect that the work showed promise. But with O Pioneers! Cather entered a period of almost twenty years during which she repeatedly and almost consistently drew enthusiastic reviews, the notable exception being the reviews of One of Ours.
Both the Boston Evening Transcript and the New York Harold Tribune—two of the country's leading newspapers—recognized in O Pioneers! a striking originality both in subject matter and in style and hailed it as an authentically American kind of novel. Reviews in the New York Times and the Chicago Evening Post celebrated it as having touches of genius, real depth beneath its simple surface, and a rich sense of “the earth, the land, patient and bountiful source of all things.” The Times reviewer, already recognizing an idea that has been developed by many subsequent scholars and critics, pointed out that a “thread of symbolism runs through it, in which the goddess of fertility once more subdues the barren and stubborn earth.” Floyd Dell, in the Chicago Evening Post, thought O Pioneers! was “touched with genius” and “worthy of being recognized as the most vital, subtle, and artistic piece of the year's fiction.” A review in the respected magazine The Nation of November 14, 1913, began, “Few American novels of recent years have impressed us so strongly as this.”1
Cather's next novel, The Song of the Lark, also attracted strongly positive notice. Some reviewers complained of its length and excessive detail (two qualities that would not, in fact, be characteristic of Cather's work generally), but most emphasized the authenticity of its characters, especially Thea Kronborg, the hero. The influential H. L. Mencken noted Cather's steady advance in skill and hailed her, on the strength of this third novel, as a member of “the small class of American novelists who are seriously to be reckoned with.”2 From that point on she was indeed regarded as an established novelist and one to be reckoned with.
RECOGNITION IN MATURITY, 1918-1929
Cather's next novel, My Ántonia is, of course, the work by which she has been best known by later readers. It was published at an unfortunate time, commercially speaking. Public attention was focused on the war in Europe, which by September 1918 had involved the United States as a participant for almost eighteen months. Even so, the first printing of 3500 copies sold out in slightly over a week, and there were two more printings that year and one the next. H. L. Mencken, continuing his important fostering of her career, actually wrote two reviews, calling the novel “one of the best that any American has ever done.”3 Randolph Bourne, who had not admired The Song of the Lark, called My Ántonia a work that could be “fairly class[ed] with modern literary art the world over.” Perceptively noting a quality of Cather's work that she herself would explicitly advocate some years later in her essay “The Novel Démeublé,” Bourne pointed out that “everything irrelevant” had been “scraped away,” leaving a structure of “artistic simplicity.”4 Another reviewer called the novel “a story of great truth and great beauty.”5 Once again reviewers recognized the quality of authenticity in the work, its originality, its reflection of a true Americanness, and most of all, the artistry with which it was executed.
It is hard to understand how, looking back, Cather could have said that there had been only one friendly critic of the novel. They were a splendid set of reviews. But that was all the more reason why the reviews of her long-awaited next novel, One of Ours, came as such a blow. Youth and the Bright Medusa, published in the meantime, had also been highly praised. But with her “war novel” Cather first had the experience of being panned, not by any means by all the reviewers, but by many.
She had known from the time she started writing the book that it would be a problem because of the fact that she was a woman. There may, of course, have been other reasons as well, but she was correct in expecting rejection of a war novel by a woman. Certainly there had already been books by women about the war, but they were, for the most part, either descriptions of the ordeal of serving as a field nurse, taken from direct experience, or lyric poems expressing grief. Women had not imagined their way into the situation of battle, nor had women who had not served in relief work (and Cather had not) attempted to describe what went on there. There was a strong bias among readers and reviewers alike toward writing from battlefield experience. Cather was swimming against the current in all these ways. But it is clear from her personal letters that she felt possessed by the subject and unable to write anything else until she did this book.
What was worse, when the reviews started coming, was that some of her severest critics were leaders of the literary world who had previously been her staunchest supporters. H. L. Mencken pronounced the novel uninformed and unrealistic, and the influential Edmund Wilson called it “a pretty flat failure.” Fortunately, as Cather's major biographer, James Woodress, has pointed out, she was spared reading Ernest Hemingway's killing comments in a letter to Wilson, in which he ridiculed the book as having been derived from the melodramatic movie The Birth of a Nation and concluded, with blatant sexism, “Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere.”6 Although Cather won the Pulitzer Prize the next year, it was the severity of the reviews that she always remembered.
The severity of the reviews—actually, only some of the reviews—of One of Ours was only an aberration, however, in the chorus of praise that reviewers continued to sing through the 1920s. A Lost Lady, published the next year, was praised as a work of subtlety and compression. Once again reviewers linked Cather's work to the idea of quality writing. Some reviewers thought it showed she was a romanticizer, some that it showed she belonged among the realists—an uncertainty that has persisted to this day. The book was favorably compared to Henry James's works and to Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth—high comparators indeed. Henry Seidel Canby called it a “masterpiece,” and Heywood Broun said it was “truly a great book.” Joseph Wood Krutch though it “nearly perfect,” though he raised a question of whether its shortness allowed it to be called really great.7 These were all highly respected critics. Not all reviewers were so enamored of A Lost Lady; there were some dissenting views. In addition to the note of doubt as to whether it was substantial enough to be really a great novel—or even, to be called a novel at all—there were some who thought it gossipy or insignificant. But on the whole the book was recognized, and has continued to be recognized, as a work of great polish. F. Scott Fitzgerald told Cather in a letter written after the publication of The Great Gatsby that he thought he had unintentionally borrowed from A Lost Lady in his description of Daisy.8
Cather's next novel, The Professor's House, was also celebrated for its style and subtlety, though with some complaints of dullness and some objections to its puzzling structure. My Mortal Enemy, which followed, was seen, in the main, as a brilliant piece of compressed narrative, and some reviewers again called Cather America's greatest, or one of its greatest, novelists. The earlier comments about length and whether A Lost Lady could really be called a novel resurfaced with the publication of this even shorter work, My Mortal Enemy, to the point that Cather asked her publisher to call it simply a new book, not a new novel, in advertising materials.
Cather's last novel of the decade, Death Comes for the Archbishop, was again hailed as a masterpiece and a work that defined a genre of its own, neither nonfiction nor precisely fiction. She herself said it should simply called a narrative. Joseph Wood Krutch spoke of the “continuous presence of beauty” in the book.9
By this point in her career, Cather was being written about in critical and scholarly books, too, as well as in newspaper and magazine reviews. She had received three honorary doctorates from major universities during the decade of the 1920s, in addition to other awards. Her status as a major writer was indisputable. Yet she continued, and would continue for the rest of her life, to chafe under the adverse reviews of One of Ours, magnifying them into a belief that she had been usually mistreated or ignored by reviewers—in spite of the fact that by far the greater number of her reviews were at least positive and often adulatory.
On the other hand, as later scholars have sometimes observed, a note of condescension did, with increasing frequency, creep into Cather's reviews, as if she were just a bit old-fashioned and just a bit trite in her thinking, or as if she were certainly unable to deal with the weightier topics dealt with by serious writers. In short, she was sometimes belittled by a tinge of sexism in her reviews as someone who wrote pretty stories very well but was, after all, womanish.
REJECTION IN THE 1930S
During the 1930s the United States, like much of the rest of the world, suffered the effects of the Great Depression. Stock markets dropped, wiping out people's assets; banks failed; farms were lost to foreclosure; and unemployment soared. The suffering was widespread. In this time of trouble, critics insisted that literature must show an awareness of social problems and a willingness to emphasize society's actual realities rather than romanticize individual wishes and destinies.10 Sometimes such arguments were made in order to advance Marxist political and economic thought, but often they merely indicated the seriousness of the writers' concern about problems that seemed so severe and so complex as to overwhelm the literary topics of the past. Then, too, such calls for social responsibility on the part of writers and artists were partly made in reaction against the excesses of the fun-loving twenties.
In this literary and journalistic environment, Willa Cather suffered. Her books were almost always more timeless than timely, even though they did show, in subtle ways, an involvement in the larger patterns of history through which she lived. But subtle reflection of historic issues did not constitute direct commentary on the issues and struggles of the moment, and as we have noted, her fiction could be regarded as romantic. To critics convinced that the writer was turning her back on contemporary issues, praise of her style might seem to be only confirmation of her aesthetic escapism. She had always believed that moral exhortation and crusading for social reform should be carried on directly, not in fiction. But it was a time when many people thought the contrary, that fiction should enlist in the service of social causes.
Cather's first novel of the thirties, Shadows on the Rock, played directly into the hands of such critics, in that it was set two and a half centuries in the past and in colonial Quebed, a place far away from what seemed to most American readers the center of things. The book averted its face from the twentieth century, and reviewers who disapproved called Cather to task for it. The old charges that her novels were dull and lacked action or plot also resurfaced, and some reviewers puzzled that she seemed to have lost her way as a realist. The reviewer in the respected journal Bookman wrote severely, “There is no blood in it, no muscle, no bodily emotion … it is commonplace flavored with lavender, domesticity without domestic strife, old Quebec swept clean and fresh by human hands, but unpeopled by human beings.”11 Newton Arvin, in the politically left-leaning journal New Republic, said she wrote as though “mass production and technological unemployment and cyclical depressions and the struggle between the classes did not exist.”12
Those reviews that praised the beauty of style that they found in Shadows on the Rock only provided fuel for the hostile fires. Praise by the Catholic press for the religious values of the novel, with its celebration of sanctity and religious discipline, also did little to rescue it in the eyes of a suspicious Protestant majority. It was falsely reported that she had converted to Catholicism. Celebrations of the timelessness of both her subject matter and her style only moved her further from the troubled mainstream. By both favorable and unfavorable reviewers, then, Cather was cast as an old-fashioned aesthete with little sense of what was happening around her.
Reviewers were relieved when Obscure Destinies was published in 1932, with its stories of the daily lives of common people. Cather was congratulated for returning to her true subject, life on the Midwestern prairies. Henry Seidel Canby, a longtime friend and admirer, wrote that the book's scenes were “the West of Miss Cather's early novels … and into it her imagination plunges deep for recollections of great souls that make a contrast and a salvation.”13 Reviewers praised her ability to find significance in the life of ordinary people and events. Nevertheless, the note of blame for being too nostalgic for simpler times persisted, and there was a general sentiment that after all, a book of stories could not be as significant as a novel.
In 1932, too, although there was no way she could know it and she might not have cared, novelist William Faulkner named her as one of the five contemporary writers.
The severest and most sweeping criticism of Cather appeared in 1933 from Marxist critic Granville Hicks, who, in an essay called “The Case Against Willa Cather,” accused her of “supine romanticism” and an inability to “face the harshness of our world.”14 Cather sputtered with indignation, but confined herself to expressing her anger in personal letters until three years later, when she went on the offensive against critics like Hicks with her essay “Escapism.” The positive appreciations of Cather's work continued, with a growing emphasis on her artistry of style and of pictorial effects, but her reputation had been damaged for years to come.
Reviews of Lucy Gayheart, published in 1935, did little to reverse the general view. There were again the usual appreciations, but praise of the book as “airy” or “fragile, tender, sympathetic” or for Cather herself as a artistically capable escapist continued the note of condescension even by those who took a positive stance.15 She was hopelessly branded as a “naively romantic” traditionalist.16 Her book of essays in 1936, Not under Forty, was a direct and perhaps deliberate irritant to critics, with its prefatory statement that the meaning of the title was, people younger than forty shouldn't bother reading it. Louis Kronenberger wrote in the Nation that she was smug and “self-righteous,” and in 1937 the influential Lionel Trilling wrote a retrospective on her work as a whole in which he characterized her as limited, unable to deal either with sex or with contemporary issues—clearly, in his view, major failings. Trilling dismissed Cather as “genteel.”17
RETURN TO CELEBRATION, 1938-1947
After the reviewers' various punishments in the early and mid thirties, Cather attracted less attention toward the end of the decade. Nevertheless, appreciative retrospectives on her career appeared that reasserted her importance in American literature. She was praised as a classic kind of writer with integrity and polished mastery of her craft. The Nobel Prize winning novelist Sinclair Lewis continued to celebrate her as being worthy of the Nobel Prize herself. He thought her perhaps America's greatest living writer.18 Much of the celebration of Cather's work, however, came from conservative religious publications, thus perpetuating the reputation for conservatism or even retrograde escapism that had been foisted on her in the 1930s. In effect, this aspect of the renewed enthusiasm for Cather in her last years combined with the slams of the previous decade's social critics to close her into a reputational box that would severely limit the interest in her work for many years to come.
When Sapphira and the Slave Girl appeared in 1940, reviews were mixed but on the whole positive. The noted arbiter of literary taste Henry Seidel Canby reviewed it as a book that deals with serious moral and philosophical issues, thus implicitly countering the dismissal of her work as trivial. Clifton Fadiman, in the New Yorker, insisted on calling it a “minor” book, but Cather's old friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a respected and well-known writer herself, spoke of it in the Book-of-the-Month Club News as a work of “golden human values.”19 Some reviewers persisted in speaking of Cather as dated and her fiction as lacking in action, but others praised her return to her earlier high level of achievement.
The general tone of the late commentary on Cather during her lifetime is summed up in the title of an essay by Professor E. K. Brown that Cather herself particularly liked: “Homage to Willa Cather.”20 She could rest in the knowledge that she was appreciated, if generally regarded as a relic of a past America. But her letters demonstrate that the memories of her severe handling by the masculinist critics who took One of Ours to task and the socially conscious leftist critics of the 1930s who accused her of timidity and irrelevance rankled to the end.
A SAMPLING OF WHAT PEOPLE HAVE SAID ABOUT CATHER
Willa Cather is “a thoroughly up-to-date woman … among the pioneers in woman's advancement.”
Pittsburg Press, March 28, 1897; Bohlke, 2
“Miss Cather herself is a hard-headed, clear-visioned, straight-forward young woman.”
Bookman, July 1905; Bohlke, 5
“When a woman writes in a man's character,—it must always, I believe, be something of a masquerade.”
Sarah Orne Jewett, 1908; Letters, 1911
“My Ántonia … is not only the best done by Miss Cather, but also one of the best that any American has ever done, east or west, early or late.”
H. L. Mencken, Smart Set, 1919; Bohlke, 17
“… our foremost American woman novelist.”
Henry Blackman Sell, Chicago Daily News, March 12, 1919; Bohlke, 18
“She has a mental sturdiness … Miss Cather has never sought publicity, or quick success … she has consistently chosen the path of fine work.”
Latrobe Carroll, Bookman, May 3, 1921; Bohlke, 22-24
Alfred A. Knopf telegraphed Cather, after reading the proofs of One of Ours, that it was “masterly, a perfectly gorgeous novel” that would make her position in literary history “secure forever.” He added that he was “proud to have [his] name associated with it.”
September 21, 1921
“To live intensely—that has been the creed of Willa Sibert Cather from the days when, a born feminist, she was mayoress of the play-town of ‘Sandy Point’ in a Red Cloud, Nebraska backyard, to the present, when she has achieved recognition as one of America's foremost novelists.”
Omaha Daily News, October 29, 1921; Bohlke, 30
“She is alert, alive, quick-witted, vigorous-minded, and assertive, not at all dreamy, preoccupied, self-isolated, or diffident.”
Arts and Decorations, April 1924; Bohlke, 65
“She and [S. S.] McClure were sympathetic; they both were simple, ambitious, and straightforward. … She admires big careers and ambitious, strong characters, especially if they are the careers and characters of women.”
Louise Bogan, New Yorker, August 8, 1931; Bohlke, 116, 118
When movie star Clark Gable asked William Faulkner, in 1932, who he thought were the best modern writers, he answered, “Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, John Dos Passos, and myself.”
Joel Williamson, William Faulkner and Southern History, p. 237
George Seibel, a newspaper writer and critic who knew Cather well during her Pittsburgh years, recalled her as having “an eager mind” not only for books but also for “the study of human nature.” He said she was “avid of the world, always wondering.”
Seibel, “Miss Willa Cather, from Nebraska,” New Colophon, 1949
“A public figure through her own efforts, she steadfastly refused to play the public figure, but lived a sedulously quiet life with her close friend and companion Edith Lewis in a Park Avenue apartment. Now and then she would be seen at concerts on theatre, and now and then she would entertain a few such guests as Sigrid Undset [Danish novelist], Yehui Menuhin [celebrated violinist], or Thornton Wilder [American novelist and playwright], but most of the time she kept her distance from the world, and expected the world to keep its distance in return.”
Fanny Butcher, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 12, 1948; Bohlke, xxviii
Mrs. Henry Seidel Canby is quoted as having recalled a dinner party Cather attended at the Canbys' residence: “Willa Cather, disliking on sight the young English journalist who made up the foursome, retired into one of her dudgeons, and when she found herself alone with her hosts explicitly requested that she might come alone to dine henceforth, unless there were someone who could be guaranteed to her liking.”
Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir, 1953
“Miss Cather looks awfully like somebody's big sister, or maiden aunt, both of which she was. No genius ever looked less like one, according to the romantic popular view, unless it was her idol, Flaubert, whose photographs could pass easily for those of any paunchy country squire indifferent to his appearance. Like him, none of her genius was in her looks, only in her works. … Indeed, Willa Cather was as provincial as Hawthorne or Flaubert or Turgenev, as little concerned with aesthetics and as much with morals as Tolstoy, as obstinately reserved as Melville. In fact she always reminds me of very good literary company, of the particularly admirable masters who formed her youthful tastes, her thinking and feeling.”
Katherine Anne Porter, “Reflections on Willa Cather,” 1952; Collected Essays and Occasional Writings, 1970
The famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin wrote in his memoir that Cather was “fascinated with the Menuhin children,” all of whom were artistic, and that she thought of their lives as a “European novel.”
Menuhin, Unfinished Journey, 1977, p. 174
Lionel Menuhin Rolfe, a nephew of Yehudi Menuhin, wrote that “Aunt Willa's … life-long relationship” with Edith Lewis was “scandalous in those days.”
Rolfe, The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey, 1978, p. 50
Witter Bynner, a poet who worked at McClure's as an editor earlier than Cather did, remembered Cather's “cold harshness in refusing to let us withdraw from publication, in McClure's magazine, “The Birthmark,” which friends of hers assured us at a tense session with her in Mr. McClure's office might ruin the life, even by suicide as in the story, of another friend of hers and theirs upon whose disfigurement and dilemma it was based. I can hear her now, saying briskly: ‘My art is more important than my friend.’”
Witter Bynner, Prose Pieces, 1979; quoted in Donald Hall, ed., The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes, 1981.
Reviews of O Pioneers! in the New York Times Book Review, November 30, 1913: 664, by Floyd Dell in the Chicago Evening Post, July 25, 1913, and in Nation, September 14, 1913: 210-11. These reviews are summarized and quoted in the Scholarly Edition of the novel.
Review of The Song of the Lark by H. L. Mencken in Smart Set, January 1916, pp. 306-8.
Review of My Ántonia by H. L. Mencken in Smart Set, March 1919, pp. 140-41.
Review of My Ántonia by Randolph Bourne in the Dial, December 1918, p. 557.
N. P. Dawson, Review of My Ántonia in the New York Globe and Commercial Advertiser, January 11, 1919. This and other reviews are summarized and quoted in the Scholarly Edition.
Reviews of One of Ours: by H. L. Mencken, Smart Set, October 1922, pp. 140-42; by Edmund Wilson, Vanity Fair, October 1922, pp. 26-27. Hemingway's slam of the book appears in Carlos Baker, ed., Ernest Hemingway's Selected Letters, 1917-1961 (NY: Scribner's, 1981), 105. James Woodress's summary of the episode appears in Willa Cather: A Literary Life, p. 333.
Henry Seidel Canby, Review in New York Evening Post Literary Review, September 22, 1923: 59; Heywood Brown, Review in New York World, September 28, 1923: 9; Joseph Wood Krutch, Review in The Nation, November 28, 1923: 610.
On the exchange between Fitzgerald and Cather regarding a possible link between A Lost Lady and The Great Gatsby, see Matthew L. Bruccoli, “‘An Instance of Apparent Plagiarism’: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, and the First Gatsby Manuscript,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 39 (1978): 171-78. For an assessment of Cather's influence on Fitzgerald more generally see Tom Quirk, “Fitzgerald and Cather: The Great Gatsby,” American Literature 54 (1982): 576-91.
Joseph Wood Krutch, “The Pathos of Distance,” Nation 125 (October 12, 1927): 390.
Biographer Hermione Lee surprisingly and incorrectly labels these reviewers New Critics; Willa Cather: Double Lives (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989), 328.
Review of Shadows on the Rock by Louis Kronenberger, Bookman, Mach 1932, pp. 634-40.
Newton Arvin, “Quebec, Nebraska and Pittsburgh,” New Republic 67 (August 12, 1931): 345-46.
Henry Seidel Canby, review in Saturday Review of Literature, August 6, 1932: 649. This and other reviews of Obscure Destinies are summarized and quoted in the Scholarly Edition.
Granville Hicks, “The Case against Willa Cather,” English Journal 22 (November 1933): 703-10.
Reviews of Lucy Gayheart: Helen MacAfee, Yale Review, Autumn 1935, p. viii; George Grimes, Omaha Sunday World-Herald, August 4, 1935. Harland Hatcher, “Willa Cather and the Shifting Moods,” in Creating the Modern American Novel (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1935), 58-71.
Review of Lucy Gayheart, William Troy, Nation, August 14, 1935, p. 193.
Louis Kronenberger “In Dubious Battle” (a review of Not under Forty), Nation, December 19, 1936, pp. 738-39; Lionel Trilling, “Willa Cather,” New Republic, February 10, 1937, pp. 10-13; reprinted in After the Genteel Tradition: American Writers 1910-1930, ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1937), 52-63.
Sinclair Lewis, Newsweek, January 3, 1938, p. 29.
Reviews of Sapphira and the Slave Girl: Henry Seidel Canby, Saturday Review of Literature, December 14, 1940, p. 5; Clifton Fadiman, New Yorker, December 7, 1940, pp. 103-04; and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Book-of-the-Month Club News, December 1940, pp. 2-3.
E. K. Brown, “Homage to Willa Cather,” Yale Review 36 (September 1946): 77-92.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3770
Much of the critical and scholarly attention to Willa Cather in the decades since her death has fallen into two categories: biographical study and stylistic or textual study. A third category, cultural and historicist study, has emerged since about 1980. We will make a brief survey of each of these three kinds of Cather scholarship, then briefly examine some of the themes that are often identified in her works and writers with whom she is often compared.
Two books about Cather that have proven lastingly useful for scholars and critics appeared soon after her death. These were a biographical tribute by her staunch admirer Mildred Bennett (The World of Willa Cather, 1951) and a memoir by her longtime companion Edith Lewis (Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record, 1953). A decade later Cather's longtime friend and correspondent Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant published Willa Cather: A Memoir (1963). The three remain sourcebooks of information and anecdote about Cather for those who continue to carry on biographically-based study of her work.
The first true scholarly biography was by E. K. Brown, a scholar-critic whom Cather personally admired, whose work she approved, and with whom she engaged in correspondence late in her life. Her letters to Brown are quite illuminating, so much so that it seems regrettable that her sudden death prevented the return visits and discussions they had planned. Brown, however, died before he could finish his book (Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, 1953). It was completed by the noted literary biographer Leon Edel. Brown can be credited, among other things, with documenting Cather's birth year as 1873, rather than 1876, as she had claimed.
The standard biographer of Willa Cather, however, is James Woodress, who actually produced, in addition to various important essays, two full biographies: a shorter volume called Willa Cather: Her Life and Art in 1970 and the massive Willa Cather: A Literary Life in 1987. The second book, in particular, where Woodress makes extensive use of Cather's letters, is a standard reference for all Cather scholars. All writers and all scholarship, however, have their limitations. Woodress was notably affiliated with the traditionalists among Cather scholars. An admirably thorough documentarist, a searcher-out of facts and evidence, he resolutely closed his eyes to questions that were, by the mid-eighties, being insistently raised by others—for example, the question of Cather's sexuality and such social/historical questions as whether or to what extent she might be called an anti-Semite. Woodress's work centers on the idea of Cather's artistry. His view of her emphasizes a self-denying devotion to her art and a dutiful devotion to family, these two being, for her, above all other things. In Woodress's pages a Willa Cather emerges whose life was so centered on her writing that she had little time or need for such ordinary human concerns as sexual expression, desire for money, or political involvement. That is, Woodress's Cather was rather unworldly. It is hard not to see his account as a rather idealized one.
In the same year as Woodress's second biography, 1987, a biography by Sharon O'Brien was published that centered exclusively on Cather's early life and her growth toward an authentic voice in fiction. O'Brien's Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice remains the single most influential presentation of the idea that Cather was probably a lesbian, at least in an emotional sense. O'Brien explains the shifting and uncertainty of Cather's early writing by the idea that she was essentially writing in disguise, in a voice that felt artificial and inauthentic. Only in O Pioneers!, O'Brien argues, with its strong and notably androgynous hero Alexandra, did Cather find an authentic way of literary production, in which her perspective and style were almost wholly shaped by the fact that she was female. Although numerous later scholars and critics have objected that O'Brien's book is over-argued or exaggerated, her work has in one way or another affected everything that has come after it.
Another biography of about that same time that has proven useful to subsequent scholarship is Hermione Lee's Willa Cather: Double Lives (1989). Although Lee's view of Cather and her experiences was somewhat limited by the fact that she was British and she found the American Midwest rather off-putting, she contributed to the study of Cather the important idea of self-conflict, which has proven well-grounded and widely influential. The idea of doubleness or inner conflict helped shape, for example, Merrill Skaggs's After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather (1990) and Janis Stout's Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World (2000). Neither of these latter books is a biography, strictly speaking, but both approach her work from a firm grounding in biographical information.
STYLISTIC, FORMAL, AND APPRECIATIVE STUDY
Cather has been greatly admired as a stylist. Much of the study of her work has been given to considerations of the formal structures or the verbal style of her work or to questions of how she can be classified—as a romanticist, a realist, a classicist, etc. Often, too, critics have examined her work for its human values, such as its celebration of home and family relationships or its hopefulness or its expression of how people of limited resources have persevered in the face of hardship to achieve lives that are meaningful both to themselves and to those around them. Criticism that explains how beautiful or how wholesome or meaningful Cather's writings are can be summed up as appreciative study. Such studies were especially prevalent in the criticism on Cather before the late 1980s, when biographically or socially questioning examination of her work came to the fore.
One of the most important of all stylistic or formal studies of Cather's fiction is David Stouck's very standard book Willa Cather's Imagination (1975). Stouck showed the affinities between various of her works and such traditional genres as the epic or the pastoral. There have also been a number of articles and chapters devoted to her techniques with respect to manipulation of narrative point of view; these, too, might be classified as formalist or stylistic in nature, although their purposes may vary a good deal. An important study demonstrating that certain features of her prose style link her to literary modernism is Jo Ann Middleton's Willa Cather's Modernism: A Study of Style and Technique (1990).
Janis Stout's chapter on Cather in Through the Window, Out the Door: Women's Narratives of Departure (1998) is formalist in that it sees a characteristic pattern of action—departure followed by retreat to a safe place—in much of her work. Probably the best and most influential of all studies that seek to establish a characteristic formal pattern in Cather's work and, on the basis of that pattern, link it to a particular literary tradition are two books published in the late 1980s and early 1990s: Susan J. Rosowski's The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism (1986), which links Cather to the tradition of English romanticism, and Ann Romines's The Home Plot: Women, Writing, and Domestic Ritual (1992), which groups Cather with other women writers who find meaningful patterns for their fiction in the repeated rhythms of daily home life.
Textual study of Cather's work has often meant the tracing of her reading and the literary influences that are identifiable in her novels. She was indeed extraordinarily well read, and scholars have established such ties as her awareness of classical music (Richard Giannone, Music in Willa Cather's Fiction, 1968), her emulation of certain schools of French painting (Clinton Keeler, “Narrative without Accent: Willa Cather and Puvis de Chavannes,” American Quarterly 17 : 119-26), and her agreement with vitalist philosophy (Tom Quirk, Bergson and American Culture: The Worlds of Willa Cather and Wallace Stevens, 1990). Many other studies could be mentioned here; there are a great many books and articles on Cather available.
Textual study of Cather has also meant the recovery of her texts. We see this largely in two big compendia of her journalistic writing: Bernice Slote, ed., The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896 (1966) and William M. Curtin, ed., The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902 (1970). Such projects require a huge investment of time and effort. Both of these compendia include useful notes, and Slote's includes two major essays.
In recent years, textual study of Cather has moved to an entirely different level with the issuance of the authoritative Scholarly Editions, edited and published at the University of Nebraska Press and bearing the seal of approval of the Committee on Scholarly Editions of the Modern Language Association of America. Only a handful of volumes have been issued to date, but each provides an authoritative guide to changes made by Cather from one edition of her novels to another, explanatory notes for references in the text that might be unclear to present-day readers (such as the definition of a democrat wagon, in A Lost Lady), a summary of the critical reception of each work on publication, and other valuable information. The production of these editions is of inestimable value to serious students of her work. Each volume includes a Historical Essay and a Textual Essay as well as extensive notes on variant readings as well as on content.
CULTURAL AND HISTORICIST STUDY
Much of the scholarly criticism of literature in the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first has been of a kind known as cultural studies and—not identical, but related—historicist studies. Such work attempts to place literary texts or works of art in the context of the social and economic conditions within which they were produced. It also seeks to see how a literary text or a work of art reflects major currents of thought and experience in the surrounding culture—or really, to see art and literature as cultural documents.
Cather scholars were slow to adopt the methods of cultural studies and historicism, with the exception that by the late 1970s and early 1980s some critics were using the theories and arguments of feminist scholarship as a basis for their study of Cather. Sharon O'Brien was one of those. More recent examples of cultural studies and historicist approaches to Cather are Mike Fischer's article “Pastoralism and Its Discontents: Willa Cather and the Burden of Imperialism,” Mosaic 23 : 31-44, Joseph Urgo's Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration (1995), Walter Benn Michaels's Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (1995), and Guy Reynolds's Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire (1996). Sometimes biographical study merges with cultural study, as it does, for example, in Stout's Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. An important short text that examines Cather quite negatively in relation to the social and cultural problems of race and the heritage of slavery is a small book by Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (1992). Morrison takes Cather to task for insensitivity in her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
THEMES IN CATHER'S WORK
THE MIDWEST AND FARM LIFE
Not all of Cather's writing, of course, is about the Midwest, even though it would sometimes seem as if that were true, from some of the references that are made to her work. Many people, however, even those who are well-informed about the range of her work, think that her most characteristic novels were O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, which were set at least partly on farms in the Midwest. It is interesting to compare Cather's writing about life on the prairies to Sinclair Lewis's treatments of Midwestern town life. Perhaps the most direct comparison between the two is with the society in change depicted in A Lost Lady. Cather seems by far the more optimistic, less jaded of the two, and by far the more positive about America, at least until one notices details like the tramp who throws himself into a reaping machine in Ántonia or the parallel between Frank Shabata's shooting of his wife Marie and the shooting of female wild ducks in O Pioneers!, or the grim despair of Marian Forrester in A Lost Lady as she is left without funds and without fun in the judgmental society of Sweet Water. Sinclair Lewis himself said that Cather, rather than himself, should have won a Nobel Prize. Another writer with whom Cather is sometimes compared in reference to the novel of the Midwest is Hamlin Garland. Once again, however, Garland's stories in Main-Travelled Roads (1891) are much more obviously grim than Cather's, which in general become grim only after one has looked past the rather sunny surface. (Her story “A Wagner Matinée” is an exception that might well be compared to Garland's stories.)
It is worth noting that Cather is beginning to be looked at in relation to the Western, a genre that has usually considered emphatically masculine. Susan J. Rosowski's Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature (1999) studies Cather alongside such other women writers who deal with America's West as Jean Stafford and Marilynne Robinson.
ESCAPE, AND THE AMERICAN IN EUROPE
A frequent theme in the novel of growing-up or in the novel of Midwestern life is the escape wish, the desire to get away to a more independent or more exciting or beautiful life. Cather's story “Paul's Case” has often been read in those terms, but in fact, as she herself indicated in correspondence with her friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher, the impulse of escape runs throughout her work, in partnership with an equally strong wish to find or return to a secure home. The escape wish is especially clear in One of Ours.
As the story of Claude Wheeler in Cather's so-called war novel, One of Ours, demonstrates, she often sees an American's escape wish as being a wish to go to Europe and to live there a life imagined as being more sophisticated, artistic, and beautiful or mature in its style than life in the rawer society of America, especially America's West. The yearning for Europe or a depiction of an American's experience in Europe is especially strong in Alexander's Bridge, One of Ours, and The Professor's House, but is important in The Song of the Lark and, by inference, in My Ántonia as well, and also in some of Cather's essays, short stories, journalism, and poetry. In her attention to the theme of the American in Europe or the American's yearning for Europe, Cather demonstrated a strong link with other writers of her time, such as Henry James, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and others.
Cather is consistently recognized for having written fiction that deals seriously with women's lives. Usually, it is women's domestic lives as mothers and as creators of order and nurturance in the home that are thought of as her fictional milieu, largely on the strength of My Ántonia. But in fact she also wrote about women's urge to find themselves through professions or careers, often careers as artists. She wrote a number of short stories about opera singers, as well as her novel about the development of a singer's career, The Song of the Lark, and the thwarted development of a pianist's career, Lucy Gayheart. Her less-read short novel My Mortal Enemy is importantly concerned with a woman's frustration in the constraints of a domestic and social role, a younger woman's efforts to find herself as a journalist, and, in the background, the career development of a woman actress (the actual Helena Modjeska, whom Cather met and interviewed during her newspaperwoman years). Even in My Ántonia there is a counter-current of interest in freedom to pursue non-traditional and/or non-domestic lives for women.
There are, of course, a great number of women writers with whom Cather has been compared in this respect. One of the most important of these, though not often recognized until recent years, is Mary Austin, who also wrote books about the West and Southwest and a book about an aspiring woman performer, A Woman of Genius (1912). Cather is sometimes mentioned in connection with the very successful novelist Edith Wharton, partly because of overlap of time, though she claimed not to welcome such comparisons. A recent book by Deborah Williams, Not in Sisterhood (2001), studies the parallels and interactions among Cather, Wharton, and another quite successful writer of the time who is little known today, Zona Gale. Parallels and, in fact, borrowings have been seen with Ellen Glasgow and with Katherine Anne Porter. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar explore a number of parallels with other women modernists in Sexchanges, Volume 2 of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (1989). Comparisons with Sarah Orne Jewett (for example, in Ann Romines's The Home Plot) are very persuasive, since Jewett was an important, though brief, mentor for Cather. Romines also draws comparisons with Eudora Welty. Links have also been made with the current novelist Anne Tyler and with others. She has also been compared—though not frequently—with Virginia Woolf, not only for her interest in women's lives and the subtlety with which she explores them, but for her emphasis on an art of ineffable implication rather than direct statement.
THE WAR NOVEL
It is interesting to discuss Cather's work in relation to the war novel, which was such a major genre in the twentieth century. Of course, the war novel (like the Western) is usually regarded as a men's genre. But in fact a number of women have written about war, and especially about World War I, both in memoir and in poetry. Since Cather's One of Ours was so severely criticized by men such as Ernest Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, and H. L. Mencken, it is interesting to place her novel alongside Hemingway's and those of other novelists of war such as John Dos Passos. Is Cather more romanticizing and idealizing than they are? In fact, does her novel truly romanticize the war, or is it only her young hero, Claude, who romanticizes it? We can also compare One of Ours to the World War I writings of Edith Wharton and of Cather's friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who assisted her with the revisions of the novel.
Cather first became enamored of the arid Southwest when she read about it as a child. In 1912 she traveled to New Mexico and Arizona and spent several months in the area with her brother. She would make a number of return trips in later years, during one of which she happened upon W. J. Howlett's Life of Bishop Machebeuf (1908). These experiences entered into at least three of her novels—The Song of the Lark, The Professor's House, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. There is a great deal of information about fiction and art dealing with the Southwest, and it is interesting to discover that Cather's period of excitement about the region coincided with a general surge of interest in the Southwest after the First World War. In fact, there are theories of why that interest arose, having to do with Americans' feeling of recoil from identification from Europe, where ancient hostilities had contributed to such a horrifying event as the terrible war.
Writers with whom it is useful to compare Cather with respect to her interest in the Southwest include Mary Austin, Oliver La Farge (whose novel Laughing Boy Cather liked a great deal), and Adolf Bandelier (like La Farge, an anthropologist who did professional work in the Southwest and also wrote fiction set there). Mary Austin is a writer who was essentially rediscovered in the 1990s, but was well known in the early decades of the century. As interest in her works has increased in recent years, scholars have discovered that she and Cather were personally acquainted, and direct connections have been established between Austin and some of Cather's works. We might also consider parallels between Cather and the popular travel writer Charles Lummis, who coined the phrase “See America first,” and between Cather and a number of women anthropologists who worked in the Southwest at about the same time, such as Elsie Clews Parsons. Her work has sometimes been compared to the southwestern art of photographer Laura Gilpin and painter Georgia O'Keeffe, both of whom emphasize a female presence and a certain starkness or minimalist view.
A major influence on Cather's sensibility and on her writing was her study of the Classics—that is, the standard writings of Roman authors in Latin and the Greek poets, dramatists, and philosophers (whom Cather knew less well than the Romans, because of her mastery of Latin). A considerable amount of very useful criticism has been done on the Classical nature of her standards of judgment and her own writing, most notably books by David Stouck and by Susan J. Rosowski.
Cather read some Latin and Greek during her youth in Red Cloud and while she was a student at the University of Nebraska. The traces of Virgil, the great epic poet in Latin and also the writer of the celebrated Eclogues (stylized pastorals) and Georgics (more humanly realistic poems praising the virtues of agricultural life and work), are particularly evident in her works, in their formal affinities and motifs as well as in direct allusions.
A Virgilian epigraph from Book Three of the Georgics adorns the title page of My Ántonia: Optima dies … prima fugit, meaning, the best day is the first to flee or, by implication, the earliest part of life is the most precious. Jim Burden reads that line as a college student in the “Lena Lingard” book of My Ántonia and goes on to ponder another line from the Georgics, Primus ego in patriam mecum … deducam Musas, I will be the first to bring the Muses into my homeland. It is very much a statement of Cather's sense of herself in relation to the Nebraska Divide (the area in Webster County lying between the Republican River and the Little Blue River, where her Nebraska novels are set). Virgil's Aeneid, an epic of the founding of Rome by migration from the defeated city of Troy, is paralleled in the motif of heroic migration and occupation in My Ántonia and The Professor's House, especially. Also, many of her poems in April Twilights (including some that appeared in the original volume but were dropped from subsequent editions) have Classical settings, references, and personages.
This survey of the study of Willa Cather demonstrates that interest in her work has not waned since her death. In fact, it has seen a resurgence after a few years when she was not often read seriously by scholars. Her readership among general readers and in high school classrooms remained strong all along, and she is now considered a major figure in the canon of American literature both by scholars and by readers at all levels.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5087
Like many other writers (such as her contemporaries Ernest Hemingway and Katherine Anne Porter), Willa Cather was throughout her professional life an inveterate interpreter and reinterpreter of her own writings and career. She constructed herself as an aesthete and a bohemian, then rejected the label of bohemian, then built up her image as an active, capable newsperson and journalist, then (following the model of the man she called her “chief,” S. S. McClure) constructed herself as an editor and an impresario of high-quality commercial writing, then depicted her weariness as an artist distracted from her art by the demands of commercial journalism. And so on, throughout her life. She was always looking at herself in a mental mirror and was always conscious of being looked at and sized up by others. And she tried to control the varying ways in which both she herself and others directed their gaze.
To a great extent, Cather seems to have tried to minimize the complexity that lurks under the seemingly transparent surface of her writings and to maximize their romantic, as opposed to realistic, tendencies. She insisted that she did not wish to write fiction that raised the reader's awareness of social problems or argued out positions on issues, but to write what might be called pure literature, literature valuable purely for its artistic merits. In part, this was a reaction against the popularity of many sensationalist and romantic women writers and an effort to avoid being categorized with them as a popular but lightweight and unsophisticated “scribbler” (a term used in the nineteenth century by Nathaniel Hawthorne in an angry outburst against the women writers whose books were more commercially successful than his own). As a successful literary businesswoman, she knew she had to define a niche for herself, and she chose an elevated one.
When critics in the 1930s charged Cather with being escapist—that is, with not taking notice of the severe economic and social problems all around her—she insisted that she was doing what true artists have always done, because true art is by definition escapist. Some recent scholars, including myself, have believed that she was in fact very involved in social issues, sometimes consciously so, but more often unconsciously reflecting the public issues and cultural trends of the times she lived in. For example, the debate over immigration that culminated in the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924 is very present in her writing, though in indirect or disguised ways.
Cather positioned herself among her contemporaries (who were also her rivals) partly by her comments but more often by her silences. In private letters she claimed not to have a high regard for Edith Wharton, who was probably regarded by most literary critics and serious readers as the greatest of the women writers of the time, and stated her displeasure when people occasionally dared to compare them. In public she took no notice of Wharton. She did not like the hard-hitting war fiction of John Dos Passos, though that may have been partly because her own book that touches on World War I, One of Ours, was unfavorably compared to his Three Soldiers and to the standard of war writing that was modeled on it. She coveted the good opinion of Sinclair Lewis but had little to say about what she thought of his novels, except (again, in private letters) that her mother was distressed by his hostile portrayal of the Midwest in Main Street. She liked Dorothy Canfield Fisher (a writer who is now little known but at the time had a sizable readership and was a member of the selection committee of the influential Book-of-the-Month Club) but more than once took Dorothy gently to task for being too prone to spell things out and to go on at length with nonessentials, obscuring the structural design of her novels. By so doing, of course, she positioned herself not only as one well qualified to judge but as a writer who adhered to a more demanding artistic standard requiring discipline, compression, and a keen sense of form.
More often Cather preferred to position herself in the company of selected predecessors, rather than contemporaries. By singling out in her early newspaper columns the writers of the past whom she most admired and then echoing them in her fiction, she guided her readers to compare her with them, rather than with those whose books were currently selling. Almost always these were writers whose names were not household words and writers whose works were admired in academic, high-art circles. Writers of heavily romantic love-story fiction and tear-jerkers she regarded as the fare of the lower classes, and was careful to distance herself from them and their readers. She meant to be seen as a writer of capital-L Literature—even while she also made it clear to her publishers that she expected them to sell her books. In numerous letters to her editor at Houghton Mifflin, Ferris Greenslet, she provided instructions on how she thought her books should best be advertised. Mainly this meant supplying to Houghton Mifflin the snippets from reviewers' comments that she thought would generate the most excitement, but on one occasion she suggested a contest among female college students to stimulate interest in The Song of the Lark.
For most writers, the primary source of such self-examination and self-construction is letters. (In the future that may not be true, as telephones and now e-mail more and more replace written personal communication.) But for Cather it is very difficult to have access to that important source of information, because only a very few of her letters—no more than a handful—have been published. What's worse, her unpublished letters are neither collected into one primary archive, so that scholars could confidently know where to find them, nor are they quotable even when found.
It is often said that before Cather died she made an effort to retrieve and destroy, or have her friends destroy, her letters. Many scholars have believed that she was largely successful in that effort. And certainly there are gaps. Very few of her letters to her family are known to have survived; if they did, they are still in the hands of relatives who have not released them for general use in research. Her letters to Isabelle McClung Hambourg, which would almost certainly be very valuable for understanding not only Cather's sexual orientation (which has been much discussed and debated) but other aspects of her emotional, intellectual, and social life in her early years as an independent professional woman, did not survive. Only one letter to Edith Lewis, her companion for some thirty-five years, is known.
Cather's will contains a clause specifying that none of her writings that were not published during her lifetime could be published, in whole or in part, after her death. That clause was quickly violated in the case of three posthumously published stories which Edith Lewis knew to have been in polished condition and intended for publication. Otherwise, it has been enforced by her executors. The standard procedure for a scholar wanting to quote from unpublished material written by a person who has been deceased for seventy years or less (the present term of copyright protection for unpublished material) is to request permission both from the library where the material is found and from the writer's executor. But Cather's executor (at present, a nephew) steadfastly refuses permission, citing the prohibition clearly stated in the will. What this means in practical terms is that if the person making the request then proceeded to publish the letter or an excerpt (quotation) from it after being denied, he or she as well as the publisher could be sued in court. More basically, it would be a violation of professional ethics.
Researchers can and do visit the various libraries where letters written by Cather are known to be kept. The knowledge of these locations has grown up gradually over the years, as many scholars and critics have written on Cather and cited such resources. Scholars who make such research visits can and do benefit in their understanding of Cather by reading the letters. It is then perfectly allowable to publish a paraphrase of what is in a letter or to comment on it. But great care must be taken to avoid writing a paraphrase that is so close to the original that it becomes, in effect, an unacknowledged quotation—again, a violation of accepted ethical norms in research.
Despite this ban on reprinting or quoting from her letters, there are available, published sources of Cather's comments on the art of fiction-writing, and occasionally on her own fiction. These include, as the above listing of her works indicates, a few essays and open letters that she published as a mature writer. In addition, there are several known interviews and published speeches, which have been gathered into a convenient volume (Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters, ed. L. Brent Bohlke). Her early journalism often comments on books, literature, and the arts in ways that illuminate her own practices.
CATHER SPEAKS ON HER OWN LIFE
“When I was eight years old,* my father moved from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to that Western country. My grandfather and grandmother had moved to Nebraska eight years before we left Virginia; they were among the real pioneers.
“But it was still wild enough and bleak enough when we got there. My grandfather's homestead was about eighteen miles from Red Cloud—a little town on the Burlington, named after the old Indian chief who used to come hunting in that country …
“I shall never forget my introduction to it. We drove out from Red Cloud to my grandfather's homestead one day in April [after arriving from Virginia via the Burlington Railroad]. I was sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on to the side of the wagon box to steady myself—the roads were mostly faint trails over the bunch grass in those days. The land was open range and there was almost no fencing. As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything—it was a kind of erasure of personality.
“I would not know how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been jerked away from all these and thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron … my one purpose in life just then was not to cry …
“For the first week or two on the homestead I had that kind of contraction of the stomach which comes from homesickness. I didn't like canned things anyhow, and I made an agreement with myself that I would not eat much until I got back to Virginia and could get some fresh mutton. I think the first thing that interested me after I got to the homestead was a heavy hickory cane with a steel tip which my grandmother always carried with her when she went to the garden to kill rattlesnakes. She had killed a good many snakes with it, and that seemed to argue that life might not be so flat as it looked there.
“We had very few American neighbors—they were mostly Swedes and Danes, Norwegians and Bohemians. I liked them from the first and they made up for what I missed in the country. I particularly liked the old women, they understood my homesickness and were kind to me.”
Interview, Philadelphia Record, August 10, 1913; Bohlke, 9-10. *Actually, she was nine.
Of her childhood move from Virginia to Nebraska: “I was little and homesick and lonely and my mother was homesick and nobody paid any attention to us. So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and the curse of my life. … I always come back to Nebraska.”
Interview, Omaha Bee, October 29, 1921; Bohlke 32
“I shall never live abroad permanently. I do not want to. But for a number of reasons it is easier to work in Paris than in New York. There are fewer interruptions and the comforts of life, such as good food and service, are obtained with less effort.”
Lincoln State Journal, November 2, 1921; Bohlke, 41
“The leading popular misconceptions about Miss Cather are (a) that she was born in the West and (b) that she is a Catholic. ‘I'm an Episcopalian and a good one, I hope!’”
Stephen Vincent Benet and Rosemary Benet, New York Herald Tribune Books, December 15, 1940; Bohlke, 135
ADVICE ON WRITING
“… the main thing always was to be honest. … I think a writer ought to get into his copy as he really is, in his everyday clothes. His readers are thrown with him in a personal relation, just as if they were traveling with him; and if he is not sincere, there is no possibility of any sort of comradeship.”
Interview, Philadelphia Record, August 10, 1913; Bohlke, 8
“It is always hard to write about the things that are near to your heart, from a kind of instinct of self-protection you distort them and disguise them.”
Interview, Philadelphia Record, August 10, 1913; Bohlke, 11
“The business of writing is a personal problem and must be worked out in an individual way. … No beginner knows what he has to go through with or he would never begin.”
Interview, Lincoln Daily Star, October 24, 1915; Bohlke, 12
“One trouble with young writers is that they imitate too much.”
Interview, Lincoln Daily Star, October 24, 1915; Bohlke, 14
“Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader's consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page.”
“On the Art of Fiction,” The Borzoi 1920; On Writing, 102
“For me, the morning is the best time to write. During the other hours of the day I attend to my housekeeping, take walks in Central Park, go to concerts, and see something of my friends. I try to keep myself fit, fresh: one has to be in as good form to write as to sing. When not working, I shut work from my mind.”
Interview, Bookman, May 3, 1921; Bohlke, 23-24
“‘… the years from 8 to 15 are the formative period of a writer's life, when he [sic] unconsciously gathers basic material. He may acquire a great many interesting and vivid impressions in his mature years, … but his thematic material, he acquires under 15 years of age. Other writers will tell you this.’”
Interview, Omaha Bee, October 29, 1921; Bohlke, 31-32
“My first novel, Alexander's Bridge, was very like what painters call a studio picture. It was the result of meeting some interesting people in London. …
“I found [writing O Pioneers!] a much more absorbing occupation than writing Alexander's Bridge; a different process altogether. Here there was no arranging or ‘inventing’; everything was spontaneous and took its own place, right or wrong. This was like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding. The other was like riding in a park, with someone not altogether congenial, to whom you had to be talking all the time.”
“My First Novel [There Were Two],” The Colophon, 1931; On Writing, 91-93
“The ideas for all my novels have come from things that happened around Red Cloud when I was a child. I was all over the country then, on foot, on horseback and in our farm wagons. My nose went poking into nearly everything. It happened that my mind was constructed for the particular purpose of absorbing impressions and retaining them. I always intended to write, and there were certain persons I studied. I seldom had much idea of the plot or the other characters, but I used my eyes and my ears.”
Lincoln Sunday Star, November 6, 1921; Bohlke, 44
“The higher processes of art are all processes of simplification. …
“Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named. …
“How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window.”
“The Novel Démeublé,” Not under Forty, 1936; On Writing, 40-42
“When all is said, it is personality that counts in art as in everything else, a personality that reaches out of art into life, commanding alike the wise and the foolish.”
The Library, March 24, 1900; The World and the Parish, 755-56
“Whether art itself can be propagated by infusion or no, has not been proven; but in some measure taste can be.”
Lincoln Courier, August 10, 1901; The World and the Parish, 843
“Whether it is a pianist, or a singer, or a writer, art ought to simplify—that seems to me to be the whole process. Millet did hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated, but when he came to paint ‘The Sower,’ the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. It was probably the hundred sketches that went before that made the picture what it finally became—a process of simplifying all the time—of sacrificing many things that were in themselves interesting and pleasing, and all the time getting closer to the one thing—It.”
Interview, Philadelphia Record, August 10, 1913; Bohlke, 8
“Art must have freedom.”
Speech in Omaha, Lincoln Evening State Journal, October 31, 1921; Bohlke, 148
“When in big cities or other lands, I have sometimes found types and conditions which particularly interested me, and then after returning to Nebraska, discovered the same types right at home, only I had not recognized their special value until seen thru another environment.”
Lincoln State Journal, November 2, 1921; Bohlke, 40
“The thing worth while is always unplanned. Any art that is a result of preconcerted plans is a dead baby.”
Rose C. Feld, New York Times Book Review, December 21, 1924; Bohlke 72
“The arts can not stand still; if they mark time, they die. There must be experimenting.”
Interview by Harold Small, San Francisco Chronicle, March 29, 1931; Bohlke, 110
“You were asking me what I thought about a new term in criticism: the Art of ‘Escape.’ Isn't the phrase tautological? What has art ever been but escape? To be sure, this definition is for the moment used in a derogatory sense, implying an evasion of duty, something like the behavious of a poltroon. When the world is in a bad way, we are told, it is the business of the composer and the poet to devote himself to propaganda and fan the flames of indignation.
“But the world has a habit of being in a bad way from time to time, and art has never contributed anything to help matters—except escape.”
Letter to The Commonweal, April 1936; On Writing, 18-19
“Superstition has ever been the curse of the church, and until she can acknowledge that since her principles are true, no scientific truth can contradict them, she will never realize her full strength. There is another book of God than that of the scriptural revelation, a book written in chapters of creation upon the pages of the universe bound by mystery. …
“It is the most sacred right of man to investigate; we paid dearly for it in Eden; we have been shedding our heart's blood for it ever since. It is ours; we have bought it with a price.
“Scientific investigation is the hope of our age.”
High school commencement address, Red Cloud Chief, June 13, 1890; Bohlke, 142
“Woman may be man's inferior but she makes him pay for it.”
Lincoln Courier, September 28, 1895; The World and the Parish, 127
“The struggle for power is essentially the same whether it is fought with railroad shares or the flint hatchets of the stone man.”
Lincoln Courier, August 24, 1901; The World and the Parish, 858
“As for the choice between a woman's home and her career, is there any reason why she cannot have both?”
Lincoln Sunday Star, November 6, 1921; Bohlke, 48
“Bad Governments come and go without altering the direction of a people's progress. The sanity of people always brings things right.”
New York World, May 21, 1923; Bohlke, 59
ON NOVELS—HER OWN AND THOSE OF OTHERS
“It is a solemn and terrible thing to write a novel. I wish there was a tax levied on every novel published. We would have fewer ones and better.
“I have not much faith in women in fiction. They have a sort of sex consciousness that is abominable. They are so limited to one string and they lie so about that. They are so few, the ones who really did anything worth while; there were the great Georges, George Eliot and George Sand, and they were anything but women, and there was Miss Brontë who kept her sentimentality under control, and there was Jane Austen who certainly had more common sense than any of them and was in some respects the greatest of them all. Women are so horribly subjective and they have such scorn for the healthy commonplace. When a woman writes a story of adventure, a stout sea tale, a manly battle yarn, anything without wine, women and love, then I will begin to hope for something great from them, not before.”
Lincoln Courier, November 23, 1895; The World and the Parish, 276-77
“It is quite as important that a child should read as that it should go to school. The habit of reading formed in childhood will follow the girls and boys all through this trying life, and will give them comfort and pleasure that nothing else can. It is our duty to our children to supply them with good books. …
“If I were asked what two books were the most essential to a child's library and most important in his education, I should name two very old-fashioned ones that their fathers and mothers read and loved before them: Pilgrim's Progress and The Swiss Family Robinson. Any child who has not read these has missed a part of his or her childhood.”
“Books Old and New,” Home Monthly, January 1897; The World and the Parish, 336
“I know that Daniel Deronda  is considered George Eliot's best novel, and that Middlemarch  ranks next in the judgment of the critics. The critics may say what they please—that is their privilege, but a book is precious to me for what it means to me, not for what it means to cleverer persons than I. And of all George Eliot's masterpieces give me that one in which she touched the hearts of the people, The Mill on the Floss .”
“Old Books and New,” Home Monthly, November 1897; The World and the Parish, 362
“A Creole Bovary is this little novel [The Awakening] of Miss [Kate] Chopin's. Not that the heroine is a Creole exactly, or that Miss Chopin is a Flaubert—save the mark!—but the theme is similar to that which occupied Flaubert. There was, indeed, no need that a second Madame Bovary should be written … and I shall not attempt to say why Miss Chopin has devoted so exquisite and sensitive, well-governed a style to so trite and sordid a theme. She writes much better than it is ever given to most people to write, and hers is a genuinely literary style; of no great elegance or solidity; but light, flexible, subtle, and capable of producing telling effects directly and simply. The story she has to tell in the present instance is new neither in matter nor treatment. Edna Pontellier, a Kentucky girl, who, like Emma Bovary, had been in love with innumerable dream heroes before she was out of short skirts, married. …
“Edna Pontellier and Emma Bovary are studies in the same feminine type; one a finished and complete portrayal, the other a hasty sketch, but the theme is essentially the same. Both women belong to a class, not large, but forever clamoring in our ears, that demands more romance out of life than God put into it. Mr. G. Bernard Shaw would say that they are the victims of the over-idealization of love. … These people really expect the passion of love to fill and gratify every need of life, whereas nature only intended that it should meet one of many demands. … And next time I hope that Miss Chopin will devote that flexible, iridescent style of hers to a better cause.”
Pittsburgh Leader, July 8, 1899; The World and the Parish, 697-99
“Ordinarily the most unattractive feature about western stories is their monotonous cheerlessness, a feature so indigenous to the atmosphere of a prairie country that perhaps only people that have lived there can understand its inevitableness.”
Lincoln Courier, November 4, 1899; The World and the Parish, 728
“[Alexander's Bridge] does not give any more information about bridge building than it does about whist. In fact it doesn't give information about anything. Do I believe in the industrial novel that does give information? Certainly, but that is one kind of a story; this is another.”
New York Sun, May 25, 1912; Bohlke, 6
“I have never drawn but one portrait of an actual person. That was the mother of the neighbor family, in My Ántonia. … All my other characters are drawn from life, but they are all composites of three or four persons.”
Lincoln Sunday Star, November 6, 1921; Bohlke, 45
On One of Ours: “I have cut out all picture making because that boy does not see pictures.”
Eva Mahoney, Omaha World-Herald, November 27, 1921; Bohlke, 39
“The new American novel is better than the old-fashioned conventional one, with its plot always the same, its accent always on the same incidents. With its unvarying, carefully dosed ingredients, the old-fashioned American novel was like a chemist's prescription. I certainly prefer the modern novelist, even if he does become a little ridiculous when he carries too far the process of chopping up his character on the Freudian psycho-analytical plan.”
New York World, May 21, 1923; Bohlke, 58
“My Ántonia … is just the other side of the rug, the pattern that is supposed not to count in a story. In it there is no love affair, no courtship, no marriage, no broken heart, no struggle for success. I knew I'd ruin my material if I put it in the usual fictional pattern. I just used it the way I thought absolutely true. A Lost Lady was a woman I loved very much in my childhood. Now the problem was to get her, not like a standardized heroine in fiction, but as she really was, and not to care about anything else in the story except that one character. And there is nothing but that portrait. Everything else is subordinate.
“I didn't try to make a character study, but just a portrait like a thin miniature painted on ivory. A character study of Mrs. Forrester would have been very, very different. … Neither is ‘Niel’ a character study. In fact, he isn't a character at all; he is just a peephole into that world. I am amused when people tell me he is a lovely character, when in reality he is only a point of view.”
Interview by Flora Merrill, New York World, April 19, 1925; Bohlke, 77
“Plot—that is heard much of among critics and is discussed by the book-makers on such subjects. They say ‘the plot shows poverty of invention.’ Great literature has no plot.”
Lecture at Bowdoin College, reported by Arthur G. Staples, An Institute of Modern Literature, 1926; Bohlke, 163
On Death Comes for the Archbishop: “My book was a conjunction of the general and the particular, like most works of the imagination. I had all my life wanted to do something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment. Since I first saw the [Pierre] Puvis de Chavannes frescoes of the life of Saint Geneviève in my student days, I have wished that I could try something a little like that in prose; something without accent, with none of the artificial elements of composition. … The essence of such writing is not to hold the note, not to use an incident for all there is in it—but to touch and pass on. …
“Writing this book (the title, by the way, which has caused a good deal of comment, was simply taken from Holbein's Dance of Death) was like a happy vacation from life, a return to childhood, to early memories.”
Letter to the editor of The Commonweal, November 1927; On Writing, 9
On Death Comes for the Archbishop: “I am amused that so many of the reviews of this book begin with the statement: ‘This book is hard to classify.’ Then why bother? Many more assert vehemently that it is not a novel. Myself, I prefer to call it a narrative.”
Letter to the editor of The Commonweal, November 1927; On Writing, 12
On Shadows on the Rock: “To me the rock of Quebec is not only a stronghold on which many strange figures have for a little time cast a shadow in the sun; it is the curious endurance of a kind of culture, narrow but definite. There another age persists. There, among the country people and the nuns, I caught something new to me; a kind of feeling about life and human fate that I could not accept, wholly, but which I could not but admire. It is hard to state that feeling in language; it was more like an old song, incomplete but uncorrupted, than like a legend.”
Letter to Wilbur Cross, The Saturday Review of Literature, October 17, 1931; On Writing, 15-16
“I do not believe in courses in contemporary literature. … As regards contemporary literature, the work of living authors, I think young people should be allowed to discover for themselves what they like. For young people, half the pleasure of reading new books is in finding them out for themselves.”
Letter to the News Letter of the CEA (College English Association), December 1939; Bohlke, 190-91
On The Professor's House: “In my book I tried to make Professor St. Peter's house rather overcrowded and stuffy with new things; American proprieties, clothes, furs, petty ambitions, quivering jealousies—until one got rather stifled. Then I wanted to open the square window and let in the fresh air that blew off the Blue Mesa, and the fine disregard of trivialities which was in Tom Outland's face and in his behaviour.”
Letter to the News Letter of the CEA (College English Association), October 1940; On Writing, 31-32
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1174
HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL BACKGROUND
Bridgers, Lynn. Death's Deceiver: The Life of Joseph P. Machebeuf. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.
Cherny, Robert W. “Willa Cather's Nebraska.” In Approaches to Teaching Cather's My Ántonia, ed. Susan J. Rosowski. 31-36. New York: Modern Language Association, 1989.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Gordon, Lynn D. “The Gibson Girl Goes to College: Popular Culture and Women's Higher Education in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920.” American Quarterly 39.2 (1987): 211-30.
Mares, E. A., ed. Padre Martinez: New Perspectives from Taos. Taos, N.M.: Millicent Rogers Museum, 1988.
Marks, Patricia. Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers: The New Woman in the Popular Press. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.
McNall, Sally Allen. “Immigrant Backgrounds to My Ántonia: ‘A Curious Social Situation in Black Hawk.’” In Approaches to Teaching Cather's My Ántonia, ed. Susan J. Rosowski. 22-30. New York: Modern Language Association, 1989.
Rudnick, Lois. “The New Woman.” In 1915, the Cultural Moment: The New Politics, the New Woman, the New Psychology, the New Art and the New Theatre in America, ed. Adele Heller and Lois Rudnick. 69-81. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.
Schriber, Mary Suzanne. Writing Home: American Women Abroad, 1830-1920. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997.
Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1993.
BASIC REFERENCE WORKS
Crane, Joan. Willa Cather: A Bibliography. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
Curtin, William M., ed. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902. 2 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
March, John. A Reader's Companion to the Fiction of Willa Cather. Edited by Marilyn Arnold. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993.
Meyering, Sheryl L. A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Willa Cather. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994.
Schroeter, James, ed. Willa Cather and Her Critics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967.
Slote, Bernice, ed. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
There is no one collection of Willa Cather's papers. The following are some of the major archives:
Bailey/Howe Library, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont
Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Huntington Library, San Marino, California
J. Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City
Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin, Texas
Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial, Red Cloud, Nebraska
Byrne, Kathleen D., and Richard C. Snyder. Chrysalis: Willa Cather in Pittsburgh, 1896-1906. Pittsburgh: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1980.
Fisher, Dorothy Canfield. “Daughter of the Frontier.” New York Herald Tribune, May 28, 1933. 7, 9.
Greenslet, Ferris. Under the Bridge: An Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.
Knopf, Alfred A. “Publishing Willa Cather.” In Miracles of Perception: The Art of Willa Cather, ed. Joan Crane. 1-4. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, Alderman Library, 1980.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. New York: Knopf, 1953.
Menuhin, Yehudi. Unfinished Journey. New York: Knopf, 1977.
Porter, Katherine Anne. “Reflections on Willa Cather.” The Collected Essays and Occasional Writings of Katherine Anne Porter. 29-39. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1970.
Rolfe, Lionel Menuhin. The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey. San Francisco: Panjandrum/Aris Books, 1978.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Lindoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963.
Southwick, Helen Cather. “Willa Cather's Early Career: Origins of a Legend.” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 65.2 (April 1982): 85-98.
Welty, Eudora. “The House of Willa Cather.” In The Art of Willa Cather, ed. Bernice Slote and Virginia Faulkner. 3-20. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974.
COLLECTION OF INTERVIEWS
Bohlke, L. Brent. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL STUDIES
Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Bennett, Mildred R. The World of Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1951.
Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.
Brown, E. K., with Leon Edel. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1953.
Fischer, Mike. “Pastoralism and Its Discontents: Willa Cather and the Burden of Imperialism.” Mosaic 23 (1990: 31-44.
Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Spaces: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. Sexchanges. Vol. 2 of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Goldman, Dorothy. “‘Eagles of the West?’ American Women Writers and World War I.” In Women and World War I: The Written Response, ed. Dorothy Goldman. 188-208. New York: St. Martin's, 1993.
Hicks, Granville. “The Case against Willa Cather.” English Journal, November 1933. Rpt. Willa Cather and Her Critics, ed. James Schroeter. 139-47. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967.
Lee, Hermoine. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Murphy, John J., ed. Willa Cather: Family, Community, and History. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Humanities Publications Center, 1990.
O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Reynolds, Guy. Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.
Romines, Ann. The Home Plot: Women, Writing, and Domestic Ritual. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Rosowski, Susan J. Birthing a Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
———, ed. Cather Studies. Ongoing series of volumes. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990-.
———. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
Skaggs, Merrill. After the World Broke in Two: The Later Novels of Willa Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990.
Stouck, David. Willa Cather's Imagination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.
Stout, Janis P. Through the Window, Out the Door: Women's Narratives of Departure, from Austin and Cather to Tyler, Morrison, and Didion. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
———. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.
Urgo, Joseph R. Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Williams, Deborah Lindsay. Not in Sisterhood: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Zona Gale, and the Politics of Female Authorship. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Additional coverage of Cather's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 24; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865–1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 128; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 54, 78, 256; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 1; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied and Novelists; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Literature Resource Center; Modern American Woman Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 2, 7; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2, 50; Something about the Author, Vol. 30; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 11, 31, 99; Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers; Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2; and World Literature Criticism.
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