Willa Cather (1873-1947) Red Cloud, Nebraska
Willa Cather was born December 7, 1873, in Black Creek Valley (Gore) Virginia, where she remained until the age of nine when she moved with her family to Webster County, Nebraska. Having passed her earliest years amid a settled landscape and established traditions, Cather compared coming to Nebraska to being "thrown onto a land as bare as a piece of sheet iron" (1913; Willa Cather in Person, ed. L. Brent Bohlke, 10). She later reflected that two experiences of that move shaped her within: being gripped with a passion for that "shaggy grass country" that was "the happiness and the curse of my life" (1921: WCIP, 32), and visiting immigrant neighbors, particularly the old women who told her stories of the home country.
After eighteen months on a ranch, her family moved into Red Cloud, a "scrappy western town" rich with possibility for a child with an eager mind (see "Old Mrs. Harris"). Cather remained there until in 1890, she entered the University of Nebraska as a second year preparatory student. Her earliest published fiction dates from this time, offering grim stories of immigrant loneliness in a new country; as important, while a student she began her journalistic career, working as a drama critic for the Lincoln Journal.
Following her graduation in 1895, Cather moved to Pittsburgh, where she worked in journalism, taught high school, took the first of many trips to Europe, and in 1905 published "The Troll Garden," her earliest collection of short stories. In 1906 she moved to New York, to work as editor, then managing editor of "McClure's Magazine." While on assignment for "McClure's," Cather met Sarah Orne Jewett, who understood her aspirations in art and encouraged her to withdraw from journalism and "to find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to the world" (1908).
Cather's first novels (there were two, she said), followed: the Jamesian "Alexander's Bridge" -- and then "O Pioneers!". In a copy for a friend, Cather wrote of "O Pioneers!", "This was the first time I walked off on my own feet -- everything before was half real and half an imitation of writers whom I admired. In this one I hit the home pasture.
During the next decade, Cather mined that home pasture. Under various names, Webster County and Red Cloud reappeared in "The Song of the Lark" (1915), "My Antonia" (1918), "One of Ours" (1922), and "A Lost Lady" (1923). Gradually, however, Cather's dismay over the results of "progress" in her Nebraska locale combined with her desire for artistic freedom to experiment with other locales and themes. In 1925 she explained that she did not want to become too identified with the West, for "using one setting all the time is very like planting a field with corn season after season. I believe in rotation of crops. If the public ties me down to the cornfield too much I'm afraid I'll leave that scene entirely." And leave she did, to write novels set in Michigan, the American Southwest, and Quebec. Cather's themes, too, changed during this period, as she turned from the passion of individuals aspiring to greatness and began writing of compassion of ordinary people who, confronting mortality, seek comfort in the human family.
In the end, Cather returned to her earliest memories to write again of Nebraska and, in her last book, of Virginia. But unlike the sunny themes of her early novels drawn from childhood memories, "Lucy Gayheart" and "Sapphira and the Slave Girl" are Gothic stories in which dark passions break through the apparent calm of everyday lives. For during her final years Cather felt the horror of events leading to another world war, the pain over deaths of family and friends, and the frustration from an inflammation of her hand that meant an inability to write. But she also maintained old friendships and enjoyed new ones, most importantly with the Menuhin children; and she continued to write, publishing short stories (e.g. "The Best Years") and working on an Avignon novel that remained unfinished at the time of her death. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947.
Cather's life is remarkable for the faith that she kept -- to her family; her friends (she lived with Edith Lewis for thirty-eight years); her first editor, Ferris Greenslet, at Houghton Mifflin; her publisher, Alfred Knopf, to whom she went following "My Antonia" and with whom she remained the rest of her life; and most of all to her art. As her biographer James Woodress has written, she lived "a literary life," with "a single-minded dedication to the pursuit of art" (Willa Cather: A Literary Life, xvi).
Awards came to Cather during her life time -- honorary degrees from numerous universities, the Pulitzer Prize for "One of Ours," a medal by the American Academy for "Death Comes for the Archbishop," and the gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters for a writer's lifetime achievement. Following her death, her reputation has grown steadily and, in the last fifteen years, exploded with activity, with over a hundred articles and several books appearing each year on her. In 1990 "A Lost Lady" was included among the Encyclopedia Britannica's "Great Books of the Western World," and Cather is now widely recognized as a major American writer, and our country's foremost woman writer. But more telling than such accolades, Willa Cather's novels have never gone out of print, for her popular following has remained strong. So the explosion of critical recognition means only that the experts have realized what her readers have known all along -- that Willa Cather's novels and stories, in such apparently simple style, provide companionship for a lifetime.