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Willa Cather frequently gave her characters suggestive names. Consider several characters whose names suggest their traits or circumstances.

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Authors often combine some of the characteristics of two or more real person to fashion one fictional one. Consider Ántonia Shimerda as an instance of this practice.

What is Cather’s attitude toward social change as revealed in her novels? Nostalgic? Accepting? Resistant? Ambivalent? Does it vary from one work to another?

Discuss Cather’s work ethic as revealed in her life and in the characterization of the professor in The Professor’s House.

Describe some of the “unique secondary characters” in Death Comes to the Archbishop.

Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom published a book about Cather in 1962 titled Willa Cather’s Gift of Sympathy. What evidence of her sympathy do you find in a novel of your choice?

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Willa Cather is best known as a novelist, but she wrote prolifically in other forms, especially as a young woman; she had been publishing short stories for more than twenty years before she published her first novel. Although her fame rests largely on her twelve novels and a few short stories, she has a collection of poetry, several collections of essays, and hundreds of newspaper columns and magazine pieces to her credit. Only one of her books, A Lost Lady (1923), was filmed in Hollywood; after that one experience, Cather would not allow any of her work to be filmed again.


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Willa Cather was one of America’s first modern writers to make the prairie immigrant experience an important and continuing subject for high-quality fiction. Although her setting is often the American western frontier, she masterfully locates the universal through the specific, and her literary reputation transcends the limitations of regional or gender affiliation. In her exploration of the human spirit, Cather characteristically defends artistic values in an increasingly materialistic world, and she is known for her graceful rendering of place and character.

Praised in the 1920’s as one of the most successful novelists of her time, Cather was sometimes criticized in the next decade for neglecting contemporary social issues. Later, however, and especially since her death, she was recognized as a great artist and one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century. In 1923, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the novel One of Ours (1922). She also received the Howells Medal for fiction from the Academy of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1930, the Prix Fémina Américain for Shadows on the Rock (1931) in 1933, and the gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1944. With time, interest in Cather’s fiction continued to increase, rather than diminish, and she enjoys appreciative audiences abroad as well as in her own country.

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Willa Cather (KATH-ur) was a prolific writer, especially as a young woman. By the time her first novel was published when she was thirty-eight years old, she had written more than forty short stories, at least five hundred columns and reviews, numerous magazine articles and essays, and a volume of poetry. She collected three volumes of her short stores: The Troll Garden (1905), Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), and Obscure Destinies (1932). Those volumes contain the few short stories she allowed to be anthologized, most frequently “Paul’s Case,” “The Sculptor’s Funeral” (The Troll Garden), and “Neighbour Rosicky” (Obscure Destinies). Cather continued to write short stories after she began writing novels, but she wrote them less frequently. After her death, additional volumes were published that contain other stories: The Old Beauty and Others (1948), Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction: 1892-1912 (1965), and Uncle Valentine, and Other Stories: Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, 1915-1929 (1973).

A great many of Cather’s early newspaper columns and reviews have been collected in The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather’s First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896 (1966) and in The World and the Parish: Willa Cather’s Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902 (1970). Three volumes of her essays, which include prefaces to the works of writers she admired, have also been published. Cather herself prepared the earliest volume, Not Under Forty (1936), for publication; the other two, Willa Cather on Writing (1949) and Willa Cather in Europe (1956), appeared after her death. Her single volume of poetry, April Twilights, appeared in 1903, but Cather later spoke apologetically of that effort, even jokingly telling a friend that she had tried to buy up and destroy all extant copies so that no one would see them.

Cather’s novel A Lost Lady has twice been adapted for the screen, in 1924 and 1934. The second screen version was so distasteful to her that in her will she prohibited any such attempts in the future. Nevertheless, several of her novels—O Pioneers! (1992), My Ántonia (1995), and The Song of the Lark (2001)—have been adapted for television, as have some of her short stories. Cather also included instructions in her will forbidding the publication of her letters.


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Willa Cather actually had at least two careers in her lifetime. Prior to becoming a novelist, she was a highly successful journalist and writer of short fiction as well as a high school English teacher. She began her career as a writer while still in college, where she published several short stories and wrote a regular newspaper column for the Nebraska State Journal. Later she also wrote for the Lincoln Courier. Her columns addressed a variety of subjects, but many of them were related to the arts. She discussed books and authors and reviewed the many plays, operas, and concerts that came through Lincoln on tour. She gained an early reputation as an astute (and opinionated) critic. Even after she moved to Pittsburgh, the Lincoln papers continued to print her columns.

Over the years, Cather published stories in such national magazines as Century, Collier’s, Harper’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Woman’s Home Companion, Saturday Evening Post, and McClure’s, the popular journal for which she served as an editor for several years. During her affiliation with McClure’s, Cather traveled widely, gathering material for stories and making contacts with contributors to the magazine. She helped many a struggling young writer to find a market, and she worked regularly with already prominent writers. Cather had been a student of the classics since childhood, and she was unusually well read. She was also a devoted and knowledgeable student of art and music, a truly educated woman with highly developed, intelligent tastes. She was friendly with several celebrated musicians, including Metropolitan Opera soprano Olive Fremstad, on whom she patterned Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark; songwriter Ethelbert Nevin; and the famous child prodigies the Menuhins. She also knew author Sarah Orne Jewett briefly.

Typically, Cather did not move in writers’ circles but preferred to work by her own light and without the regular association of other writers of her time. She never sought the public eye, and as the years went on she chose to work in relative solitude, preferring the company of only close friends and family. Known primarily as a novelist, she also later enjoyed a growing reputation as a writer of short fiction. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, and an ardent admirer, Sinclair Lewis, was heard to remark that she was more deserving than he of the Nobel Prize he won. Cather is particularly appealing to readers who like wholesome, value-centered art. She is held in increasingly high regard among critics and scholars of twentieth century literature and is recognized as one of the finest stylists in American letters.


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Arnold, Marilyn. Willa Cather’s Short Fiction. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984. In this indexed volume, Arnold discusses all Cather’s known short fiction chronologically. The detailed investigations will be helpful both for readers new to Cather’s stories and those who are more familiar with them. Discussions of stories which have received little critical attention are especially useful. Includes a selected bibliography.

Bennett, Mildred R. The World of Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961. A biography, particularly good in recalling Cather’s Nebraska girlhood. It is filled with vivid descriptions of Red Cloud and the Midwest of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Willa Cather’s Gift of Sympathy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. Considered a classic work of criticism on Cather’s works. Addresses Cather’s gift of sympathy and skillfully relates it to her thematic interests and technical proficiency. Discusses not only Cather’s fiction but also her poetry and essays.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Willa Cather. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. Collection of essays includes what Bloom describes as “the best literary criticism on Cather over the last half-century.” Particularly valuable for serious Cather scholars. Includes chronology and bibliography.

Brown, Edward K., and Leon Edel. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. The standard scholarly biography, completed by Edel, the well-known biographer of Henry James. This volume concentrates on biographical information which can be deduced from Cather’s works.

Daiches, David. Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1951. An appropriate book for readers new to Cather’s works. It is scholarly, well indexed, and a classic reference text.

De Roche, Linda. Student Companion to Willa Cather. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. Provides an introductory overview of Cather’s life and work aimed at high school students, college undergraduates, and general readers. Includes analyses of O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Fryer, Judith. Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Although there are many full-length studies on Cather’s writing, this volume is particularly noteworthy for its examination of Cather using current feminist thinking. Fryer explores Cather’s fiction in terms of the “interconnectedness between space and the female imagination” and cites her as a transformer of social and cultural structures. A thorough and interesting study, recommended for its contribution to women’s studies in literature. Includes extensive notes.

Gerber, Philip L. Willa Cather. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1995. Provides an overview of Cather’s life and her work, including novels and short stories, and describes the resurgence of criticism of her writings. Includes chronology, notes, annotated bibliography, and index.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Willa Cather and Others. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001. Discusses Cather’s work in relation to the work of various female contemporaries of the author, including opera singer Olive Fremstad, ethnographer and novelist Blair Niles, photographer Laura Gilpin, and writer Pat Barker. Uses the work of these other women as a means to study Cather’s fiction, including O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, The Song of the Lark, and other novels.

Harris, Jeane. “Aspects of Athene in Willa Cather’s Short Fiction.” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Spring, 1991): 177-182. Discusses Cather’s conflict between her gender and her inherited male aesthetic principles and how this is reflected in some of her early short stories by “manly” female characters modeled after the Greek goddess Athene. Maintains that Cather’s androgynous females represent her dissatisfaction with traditional notions of femininity and masculinity.

Lathrop, JoAnna, ed. Willa Cather: A Checklist of Her Published Writing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975. An annotated list of all of Cather’s works including the lesser known posthumously published essays on writing as well as her travel essays, reviews, and student works.

Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989.

Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. A famous memoir written by Cather’s longtime friend, companion, and literary executrix.

Lindermann, Marilee. The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Collection of essays includes examinations of such topics as politics, sexuality, and modernism in Cather’s works. Four of the essays focus on analysis of the novels My Ántonia, The Professor’s House, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Sapphira and the Slave Girl.

Meyering, Sheryl L. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Willa Cather. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Discusses individual Cather stories, focusing on publishing history, circumstances of composition, sources, influence, relationship to other Cather works, and interpretations and criticism. Deals with her debt to Henry James, the influence of her sexual orientation on her fiction, and the influence of Sarah Orne Jewett.

Murphy, John J., ed. Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Among the thirty-five essays in this substantial collection are reprinted reviews and articles by Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Leon Edel, Blanche H. Gelfant, and Bernice Slote. It also includes original essays by David Stouck, James Leslie Woodress, Paul Cameau, and John J. Murphy. The introduction offers a history of Cather scholarship.

Nettels, Elsa. Language and Gender in American Fiction: Howells, James, Wharton, and Cather. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. Elsa Nettels examines American writers struggling with the problems of patriarchy.

O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

O’Connor, Margaret Anne, ed. Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Collection reprints reviews that appeared when Cather’s books were initially published, with pieces dating from 1903 to 1948. Most of the reviews are from major national journals and newspapers, but some demonstrate critical responses to Cather’s works in Nebraska, New Mexico, and other locales in which her books are set.

Porter, David. On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2008. This is an overview of Cather’s life and works which looks at the people and ideas that influenced her writing.

Robinson, Phyllis C. Willa: The Life of Willa Cather. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1983. A popular biography, with good material on Cather’s family and friends. It contains some biographical analyses of Cather’s major works.

Romines, Ann, ed. Willa Cather’s Southern Connections: New Essays on Cather and the South. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Collection of essays focuses on the influence of Cather’s roots in Virginia. Among the novels discussed are My Mortal Enemy and Saphira and the Slave Girl‘.

Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Romanticism. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986. Thematic study interprets Cather’s writing within the literary tradition of Romanticism, with a chapter devoted to an analysis of each of her novels.

Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1953. A recollection written by a longtime friend. Sergeant provides interesting information on Cather’s life in Pittsburgh and New York as well as Cather’s several meetings with American writer Sarah Orne Jewett and her friendship with Annie Anderson Fields, widow of James T. Fields, the publisher of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.

Seaton, James. “The Prosaic Willa Cather.” The American Scholar 67 (Winter, 1998): 146-150. Argues that Gary Saul Morson’s concept of prosaics, which implies the most important events may be the most banal and common ones, should be used to understand Cather’s view of romantic love and normal family life.

Shanley, J. Lyndon. “Willa Cather’s Fierce Necessity.” The Sewanee Review 102 (Fall, 1994): 620-630. Notes that Cather’s stories are about ordinary people and that one of her most important themes is youthful dreams; discusses Cather’s clear prose and the apparent simplicity of her stories.

Shaw, Patrick W. Willa Cather and the Art of Conflict: Re-visioning Her Creative Imagination. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1992. Devotes separate chapters to all of Cather’s major novels. Reexamines Cather’s fiction in terms of her conflicts over her sexuality. The introduction provides a helpful overview of Cather criticism on the topic.

Skaggs, Merrill Maguire, ed. Willa Cather’s New York: New Essays on Cather in the City. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001. Collection of twenty essays focuses on Cather’s urban fiction and her work for McClure’s.

Stout, Janis P. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. A deconstructionist analysis of Cather’s work, viewed in the context of crumbling modernism and the emerging “new woman.”

Thomas, Susie. Willa Cather. Savage, Md.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1990. This feminist study, which draws extensively on Cather’s unpublished letters, focuses on the particular contributions Cather made as a woman writing about America and analyzes how her cultural awareness influenced the development of her style. The volume includes a short biography and chapters on Cather’s major novels and works of short fiction.

Wasserman, Loretta. Willa Cather: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Focuses on selected short stories that the author feels are the most challenging and lend themselves to different critical approaches. Includes interviews with Cather, one of Cather’s essays on the craft of writing, samples of current criticism, a chronology, and a select bibliography.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990. Definitive biography extends previous studies of Cather with fuller accounts of Cather’s life and includes new and expanded critical responses to her work, taking feminist criticism into account. In preparing the volume, Woodress was able to use the papers of Cather scholar Bernice Slote. Includes photographs of Cather as well as of people and places important to her.

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