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.