Alexander’s Bridge; April Twilights; Back Creek Valley, Virginia; Isabelle McClung; Alfred Knopf; Sarah Orne Jewett; McClure’s Magazine; S.S. McClure; My Antonia; National Institute of Arts and Letters gold medal; the Nebraskan Divide; O Pioneers!; One of Ours; Pulitzer Prize; Red Cloud, Nebraska; Saphira and the Slave Girl; The Troll Garden; University of Nebraska
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Willa Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, on December 7, 1873. After pioneering west to Nebraska with her family, Cather grew up in a harsh land that would later come to provide many inspirations for her legendary tales. In 1896, she moved to Pittsburgh where she wrote and taught high school for ten years. She then moved to New York City to work for McClure’s Magazine from 1906 to 1912. In 1923, Cather received the Pulitzer Prize for her 1922 novel, One of Ours, a World War I story. She died on April 24, 1947, in her apartment in New York City.
The twentieth century writer Willa Sibert Cather was the first of seven children born to Charles and Mary Boak Cather on December 7, 1873, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia. For the first nine years of her life, Cather lived tranquilly on the farm that her father had inherited from his Irish grandfather, Jasper Cather. After a sheep barn burned down on the property in 1883, the Cathers decided to follow in their extended family’s lead and journey west, a decision that would ultimately form the dominant themes represented in Willa Cather’s writing.
For eighteen months, the Cathers lived on the Nebraskan Divide, a vast, empty grassland region in Webster County, Nebraska. “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,” Cather said of her arrival in the west. Soon though, she would take to exploring the countryside and socializing with the other settlers, most of who were European immigrants that would later manifest as characters in her novels. In 1884, Charles Cather, who had not become as fond of the Divide as little Willa, moved the entire Cather clan to the larger settlement of Red Cloud, Nebraska. Cather spent her teenage years roaming Red Cloud with friends, putting on plays and experimenting with science. Though she was a devout lover of art, Cather’s ambition upon graduating high school was to become a surgeon.
In 1890, at the age of sixteen, Cather enrolled at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, initially to study science. Cather’s objective changed though, after an early essay she had written was unknowingly published in the Nebraska State Journal. The accomplishment set Cather on a different path. Soon, she began to write for Lasso and Hesperian, two of the campus’s literary magazines, and had a regular drama criticism column in the Nebraska State Journal. Ever the experimenter, Cather also began to test her abilities in creative writing. At age eighteen, two of Cather’s fictional short stories, which both harshly chronicled pioneer life in Nebraska, were published in the Mahogany Tree, a small Boston magazine. While attending college, Cather reveled in the arts that were now available to her in Lincoln: the opera houses, the recitals, the dramas. In 1895, Cather, a recognized journalist in Nebraska, graduated from college and set out to establish herself as not only a reporter, but as a literary artist.
When an offer came in 1896 for Cather to become the editor for the Home Monthly, a small magazine in Pittsburgh, she happily accepted the position—and also the departure from the Nebraskan seclusion. In Pittsburgh, Cather was introduced to the splendors of a true city, attending concerts and recitals at the elegant Carnegie Hall and watching theater dramas starring renowned actors. As in Lincoln, Cather became a drama critic, working part-time for the Pittsburgh Leader. Being young and attractive in a new city brought many suitors to Cather, though she chose to remain single and devote herself to her art. “Cather’s decision to be first, last, and always a writer merely strengthened with the passage of time,” wrote biographer Philip Gerber. “In her thinking, marriage was incompatible with a career, at least for a woman at the turn of the twentieth century.”
In 1900, Cather forged a strong friendship with socialite Isabelle McClung, and moved into the McClung mansion located in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. From there, Cather’s social life grew hectic, attending plays, parties, and other weekly gatherings. She also quit her job as a journalist to concentrate on writing fiction “The reason I didn’t like my newspaper experience as the telegraph editor and drama critic on the Pittsburgh Daily Leader was because it gave me so little time for the things I wanted to do,” Cather said. Instead, to give herself more spare time, Cather became a Latin and English teacher at Allegheny High School. “I liked [teaching], I wasn’t much older than some of the students so we studied together.” Teaching enabled her to fund her first voyage to Europe with McClung in 1902. The expedition, like many of Cather’s globe-trotting trips, would come to greatly affect her writing and her outlook on the world. She found her trip to Europe to be a “homecoming,” a return to where the art she loved originated. Upon returning to Pittsburgh, she strove to publish her first book, a collection of poetry entitled April Twilights in 1903. Critics received Cather’s poems well and praised her verse. Years later though, Cather herself would renounce her poetic attempt, as she did many of her early writings, finding them heavily flawed.
Even though she was a published poet, it was Cather’s short stories, written from her room in the Pittsburgh mansion that attracted the attention of a renowned, New York City magazine owner. After hearing about Cather from his cousin, S.S. McClure asked Cather to submit some stories to the now legendary McClure’s Magazine. Although pessimistic, Cather obliged. A week later she sat in McClure’s New York offices, going over the serial publication of her work in the magazine and also the collective publication of her short stories in a book. An excited Cather, assuming a novel was around the corner, returned to Pittsburgh with a fresh outlook on her own talent. Cather spent another two years teaching high school in Pittsburgh until her short story collection, The Troll Garden, was published. The book received moderate reviews—not the outstanding acclaim McClure and Cather had hoped for. The New York Times wrote, “The author has shown a great deal of deep feeling and real ability, but many of the stories are too ambitious, and seem to be more the work of promise than fulfillment.”
Disregarding the mediocre reviews of her book, McClure sensed a great talent in Cather and offered her an editing position at McClure’s in 1905. After calling Pittsburgh “home” for nearly ten years, thirty-three-year-old Cather accepted the opportunity and moved away from her group of close-knit friends to bustling New York City. One of Cather’s first assignments at McClure’s sent her to Boston to cover Mary Eddy Baker and the Christian Science movement. While in Boston, Cather befriended Sarah Orne Jewett, an older, accomplished writer known for vividly depicting the New England landscape in her stories. Although Jewett would die a year and a half after meeting Cather, she became a strong influence in Cather’s art. Jewett was Cather’s mentor and instilled in her many of the principles that drove Cather’s writing. “You must find your own quiet center of life and write from that…” Jewett wrote in a letter to Cather after being disappointed by her latest work. “To write and work on this level we must live on it—we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step.”
In only six years, Cather had become one of S.S. McClure’s most depended upon employees, even being asked to transcribe his autobiography in 1913. Cather’s gratitude and respect for McClure kept her in New York, even though the demands of working for a leading journalistic magazine often stifled her own creative attempts. The short stories she was able to pen while drowning in work at McClure’s were usually published, though it was a longer and greater manuscript that Cather dreamed of drafting. “Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience...” Jewett wrote to Cather. In 1911, haunted by Jewett’s guidance, Cather finally began to disentangle herself from the duties of her New York desk. In the fall, Cather took a leave of absence and traveled to Cherry Valley, New York with her dear Pittsburgh friend, Isabelle McClung. The calming and quiet atmosphere of pastoral New York proved to be just what Cather needed to write her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge.
In 1912, Alexander’s Bridge was serialized in McClure’s, under the title Alexander’s Masquerade, and was also published in book form by Houghton. The novel tells the story of Bartley Alexander, an engineer who is chosen to design the longest bridge in Canada. Due to a lack of funding, Alexander uses lighter building materials than he should to construct the bridge and consequently dies, along with seventy other workers, when the bridge collapses. Although the story is well-written, as Philip Gerber points out, it is devoid of an essence that makes it distinctly a Willa Cather novel. Her home in the west is forgotten about and instead, she focuses on her new travel grounds: London, Boston, Canada. “My first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was very like what painters call a studio picture…” Cather said of her work in 1931. “Like most young writers, I thought a book should be made out of ‘interesting materials,’ and at that same time I found the new more exciting than the familiar.”
Not long after the publication of Alexander’s Bridge, Cather took the giant leap; she quit her reliable employment at McClure’s and chanced her success as an artist. Although it was a difficult break and it took years to finish the articles promised to McClure’s, by the end of 1914 she was free agent. After visiting her hometown of Red Cloud, Cather returned to her room in the McClung Mansion in Pittsburgh to write her “second first-novel.” O Pioneers!, published in 1913, marks Cather’s triumphant return to the Nebraskan Divide that both plagued and pleased her as a child. The story chronicles Alexandra Bergson’s journey to the Divide and the life she makes there, living through many hardships on the vacant land. The story was well-received, especially among critics from the western states who lived Alexandra’s burdens. “Few American novels have impressed us so strongly as this [O Pioneers!],” The Nation reviewed in 1913. “The sureness of feeling and touch, the power without strain, which mark this book, lift it far above the ordinary product of contemporary novelists.”
With the release of O Pioneers!, a renovated Cather was born, one with a distinctive voice and a knack for melding words into beautiful images. Cather finally found a subject, her childhood home, that she deemed worthy of literary prose. At the time though, Cather was known for factual journalism, not the artistry she is revered for today and felt pressured to release another novel soon. It took two years to complete The Song of the Lark, much longer than she anticipated due to traveling, sickness, and the start of World War I. Cather, the early twentieth century’s equivalent to a “jetsetter,” divided her time while writing the novel between her home in New York, her writing room in Pittsburgh (her favorite place to write), the American Southwest, and Nebraska. “Next to writing I love best to prowl around the Western Country, seeing little towns and how the people live in them,” Cather said. “I love the West so much.”
The year 1915 brought unplanned disruptions and setbacks into Cather’s life that made her unable to focus on her career. While Cather was visiting in Pittsburgh, Isabelle McClung’s father passed away and the McClung mansion, too big and empty, was to be sold. The selling of Cather’s second home brought an end to a twenty-year chapter in Pittsburgh, full of friends, love, and safety. Not long after, an even more distressing blow struck Cather. Her most beloved friend, Isabelle, was engaged to be married. Cather felt that she was losing too many friends and homes at once and escaped to the west and the landscape she loved so. When she returned, she began writing what is arguably her finest work.
In 1918, Cather, now forty-five years old, published her fourth novel, My Antonia, based on Red Cloud and an immigrant girl she knew there, Annie Pavelka. The story is told through the eyes of Jim Burden, a legal consultant in New York. Through Jim, the reader learns about the outstanding element of the story—a strong, powerful woman named Antonia Shimerda.
At the time of its release, the praise for My Antonia was great. Essayist Randolph Bourne wrote in 1918, “Here at last is an American novel, redolent of the Western prairie, that our most irritated and exacting preconceptions can be content with… Miss Cather, I think, in this book has taken herself out of the rank of provincial writers and given us something we can fairly class with the modern literary art of the world over that is earnestly and richly interpreting the spirit of youth.” Through the years, this view of the novel has only been reinforced. James Woodress wrote in 1987, “Everything went right in this work… Antonia Shimerda is the mother of races. She is the most heroic figure of all, both the Madonna of the Wheat Fields and the symbol of the American westering myth.” Cather, a harsh self-critic, could not even deny the accomplishment of her work. She wrote to a friend in 1938, “The best thing I’ve done is My Antonia. I feel I’ve made a contribution to American letters with that book.”
The end of 1918 also brought the end of World War I and a jubilant time for Cather. She had officially arrived on the literary scene with My Antonia. She began drafting her next novel, a story inspired by the death of one of her cousins in the war. One of Ours, not published until 1922, sets the sad tone and wasteland setting for Cather’s novels of the 1920’s. The first half of One of Ourstells of the life of Claude Wheeler, an unmotivated and drifting Nebraskan farm boy—a place and topic of Cather’s expertise.
Released during the postwar era of disillusionment, One of Ours received varying reviews. Critic Claude Bovary wrote in 1922, “Despairing, possibly, of the novel afflicted with too protrusive a point of view, she has managed to write one with none at all; she has recorded without creating; she has described without evocation.” Similarly, Philip Gerber claimed One of Ours is “not one of her best.” Even though it is widely regarded as a shortcoming compared to Cather’s other achievements, the novel won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize. In defense of the book, James Woodress wrote, “[One of Ours] is an excellent work despite the chorus of hostile criticism that greeted its appearance. It holds up well after two-thirds of a century and after three more wars seems even more significant than it did in 1922.” According to Cather herself, “…One of Ours has more value to it in than any of the others. I don’t think it has as few faults as My Antonia or A Lost Lady, but any story of youth, struggle, and defeat can’t be as smooth in outline and perfect as just a portrait.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) the criticism, One of Ours became a bestseller for Cather’s publisher, Alfred Knopf. Cather went on to publish four more novels before the 1920’s were over, establishing herself as a celebrity with a loyal fan base. Cather’s novels written during this time period are heavily reflective of her growing unhappiness with American culture. They are reminiscent of the past, almost obsessive, with a time that seemed sweeter and humbler to Cather. “A careful study of her later so-called ‘Nebraska novels’ reveals Cather’s growing disaffection with a world in which thoughtless and greedy men raped the land for profit,” wrote Mary R. Ryder. “For Cather, the world ‘broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.’” A Lost Lady (1923), The Professor’s House (1925), and DeathComes for the Archbishop (1927) are further explorations into Cather’s estrangement from the modern era.
One of the greatest and most alluring aspects of Cather’s novels is the vivid landscapes that open up to the reader in black and white. “I seem to be the sort of person who is really a reporter in fiction,” Cather said in 1925. “I can only write about what I have seen and felt and been close to. I must write things as they are.” For Cather, the things she had seen and cared about were endless western prairie lands, monolithic plateaus of the southwest. Mary R. Ryder calls Cather’s work “ecofiction,” a blending of fictional plot with real world concerns of the natural environment. “…even the earliest of Cather’s works illustrated her appreciation of and respect for the land, as well as her understanding of its spiritual dimensions,” wrote Ryder. “Cather’s focus is on the interconnectedness of humans and their natural environment.” Cather’s reverence and depiction of the American environment has been her enduring trademark, her legacy.
As the 1930’s rolled in, critics found a drastic decline in the quality of Cather’s work. Approaching her sixties, it was becoming more difficult for Cather to spin a web of Nebraska charm in her novels. Critics were unimpressed with the romanticism of her 1931 novel, Shadows on the Rock. Granville Hicks, an outspoken critic of Cather, wrote in an essay in 1933, “The case against Willa Cather is, quite simply, that she made the wrong choice… she frankly abandoned her efforts and surrendered to the longing for the safe and romantic past.” Cather published two more novels in the 1930’s, neither matching the brilliance of her previous novels. The year of 1938 proved to be another challenging year in Cather’s life. The two people she was the closest to—her brother Douglass and her long-time friend Isabelle McClung—died in June and October respectively. In Cather’s letters to friends, she expresses her sorrow, claiming she could not go on without Douglass and Isabelle; they were the “two people she loved best.”
Cather’s last novel, Saphira and the Slave Girl, was published in 1940 to complete a set of a dozen books. Her ability to write in her later years was impaired due to a tendon in her right hand that was inflamed and made writing longhand very difficult. Depression and fear of the world’s demise also added to her writing block. World War II had begun and the global destruction gave Cather an immense anxiety. She began to take a very bleak and sorrowful outlook on the world, not even caring if she were to be a part of it anymore. In 1944, a streak of cheerfulness came when she was awarded the gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a prestigious honor given every ten years to an individual of great literary achievement.
In the remaining years of her life, Cather did not leave her New York apartment often and only communicated with her dearest friends. Her final outing was to see a concert, devouring the arts even until the end. In 1947, Willa Cather died at home of a massive cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 73. She was buried in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, with a line from My Antonia etched upon her tombstone: “…that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”
- Alexander’s Bridge. New York: Houghton, 1912.
- O Pioneers!. New York: Houghton, 1913.
- The Song of the Lark. New York: Houghton, 1915.
- My Antonia. New York: Houghton, 1918
- One of Ours. New York: Knopf, 1922.
- A Lost Lady. New York: Knopf, 1923.
- The Professor’s House. New York: Knopf, 1925
- Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Knopf, 1927.
- Shadows on the Rock. New York: Knopf, 1931.
- The Troll Garden. New York: McClure, Philips & Co., 1905.
- Youth and the Bright Medusa. New York: Knopf, 1920.
- April Twilights. Boston: Badger, 1903.
- Auchincloss, Louis. Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.
- Bohlke, Brent L. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
- Bourne, Randolph. “Morals and Arts from the West.” The Dial. Vol. LXV, No. 779. 14 Dec. 1918: 556-57.
- Brown, E.K. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. New York: Knopf, 1967.
- Gerber, Philip. Willa Cather, Revised Edition. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.
- Hicks, Granville. “The Case Against Willa Cather.” English Journal. 22.9 (1933): 703-10.
- Lowry, Patricia. “Places: In Search of Willa Cather’s East End Haunts.”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 8 Dec. 2008: Art & Architecture.
- “Promising Stories.” New York Times 6 May 1905: BR303.
- “A review of O Pioneers!.”The Nation 4 Sept. 1919: 210-11.
- Ryder, Mary R. “Willa Cather as Nature Writer: A Cry in the Wilderness.”Such News of the Land: U.S. Women Nature Writers. Eds. Thomas S. Edwards and Elizabeth A. De Wolfe. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2001. 75-84.
- “Willa Cather, 1873-1947.” Gale Literary Databases-Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 28 Oct. 2005. 7 Feb. 2012.
- The Willa Cather Archive. 2009. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 22 Jun. 2009. <http://cather.unl.edu/>.
- Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Willa Cather's early career included an editorial job at the Pittsburgh magazine Home Monthly and a job teaching English at Central High School, which she held while publishing her first two books.