See E. K. Brown and L. Edel, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (1980); S. O'Brien, Willa Cather: the Emerging Voice (1987); J. Woodres, Willa Cather: A Literary Life (1989).
Willa Sibert Cather (December 7, 1873 – April 24, 1947) was an American author who grew up in Nebraska. She is best known for her depictions of frontier life on the Great Plains in novels such as O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and Death Comes for the Archbishop.
While in college, Cather became a regular contributor to the Nebraska State Journal. Cather then moved to Pittsburgh, where she taught high school English and worked for Home Monthly. After receiving a job offer from McClure's Magazine, she moved to New York City for her career. McClure's Magazine serialized her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, a work heavily influenced by her admiration for the style of Henry James.
Cather was born into a Baptist family, but in 1922 she was formally received into the Episcopal Church. After moving to New York, she had begun to attend Sunday services in the Episcopal Church as early as 1906.
Cather moved to New York City in 1906 to join the editorial staff of McClure's and in 1908 was promoted to managing editor. As a journalist, she co-authored a critical biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. It was serialized in McClure's in 1907-8 and published the next year as a book. Christian Scientists were outraged and tried to buy every copy. The work was reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press in 1993.
In New York Cather met a variety of authors. Sarah Orne Jewett advised her to rely less on the influence of Henry James and more on her own experiences in Nebraska. For her novels Cather returned to the prairie for inspiration and also drew on her experiences in France. These works became both popular and critical successes.
In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, published in 1922. This work had been inspired by reading her cousin G.P. Cather's wartime letters home to his mother. He was the first officer from Nebraska killed in World War I. Those letters are now held in the George Cather Ray Collection at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries
Cather was celebrated by critics like H.L. Mencken for writing in plainspoken language about ordinary people. When novelist Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he paid homage to her by saying that Cather should have won the honor.
Later critics tended to favor more experimental authors. In times of political activism some attacked Cather, a political conservative, for writing about conditions of ordinary people, rather than working to change them.
Cather was elected to the Nebraska Hall of Fame. In 1986, Cather was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Her alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, named residence halls after both Cather and her college friend Louise Pound. Pound had a lifelong career as professor of English at the university and was the first woman president of the Modern Language Association.
As a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s, Cather sometimes used the masculine nickname "William" and wore masculine clothes. A photograph in the University of Nebraska archives depicts Cather, "her hair shingled, at a time when long hair was fashionable, and dressed boyishly."
Throughout Cather's adult life, her most significant relationships were with women. These included her college friend Louise Pound; the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, with whom Cather traveled to Europe; opera singer Olive Fremstad; and most notably, the editor Edith Lewis.
Cather's romance with Lewis began in the early 1900s. The two women lived together in a series of apartments in New York City from 1912 until the writer's death in 1947. From 1913 to 1927, Cather and Lewis had lived at No. 5 Bank Street in Greenwich Village. They had to move as the apartment was to be taken down during construction of the Seventh Avenue subway line. Lewis served as the literary trustee for the Cather estate.
Cather is buried in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
A resolutely private person, Cather destroyed many old drafts, personal papers, and letters. Her will restricted the ability of scholars to quote from those personal papers that remain. Since the 1980s, feminist and other academic writers have explored Cather's sexual orientation and the influence of her female friendships on her work.
Cather received many honorary degrees, beginning with a doctorate from the University of Nebraska in 1917. She also received degrees from University of Michigan, Columbia, Yale, California at Berkely, Princeton, (the first to receive an honorary degree)and Smith College.
This does not include recent collections of early stories which were originally published in periodicals.