Willa Cather

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(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 42,443 words.)