Willa Sibert Cather

Willa Sibert Cather

[kath-er or, often, kath-]
Cather, Willa Sibert, 1873-1947, American novelist and short-story writer, b. Winchester, Va., considered one of the great American writers of the 20th cent. When she was nine her family moved to the Nebraska prairie frontier. She graduated from the Univ. of Nebraska in 1895 and worked as a journalist and as a teacher in Pittsburgh. In 1904 she went to New York City. The publication of The Troll Garden (1905), her first collection of short stories, led to her appointment to the editorial staff of McClure's Magazine. She eventually became managing editor and saved the magazine from financial disaster. After the publication of Alexander's Bridge in 1912, she left McClure's and devoted herself to creative writing. For many years she lived quietly in New York City's Greenwich Village. The first of her novels to deal with her major theme is O Pioneers! (1913), a celebration of the strength and courage of the frontier settlers. Other novels with this theme are My Ántonia (1918), One of Ours (1922; Pulitzer Prize), and A Lost Lady (1923). The Song of the Lark (1915) focuses on another of Cather's major preoccupations—the need of artists to free themselves from inhibiting influences, particularly that of a rural or small-town background; the tales collected in Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920) and the novel Lucy Gayheart (1935) also treat this theme. With success and increasing age Cather became convinced that the beliefs and way of life she valued were disappearing. This disillusionment is poignantly evident in her novel The Professor's House (1925). She subsequently turned to North America's far past for her material: to colonial New Mexico in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), widely regarded as her masterpiece, and to 17th-century Quebec for Shadows on the Rock (1931), in both novels blending history with religious reverence and loving characterizations. The volumes My Mortal Enemy (1926) and The Old Beauty and Others (1948) present her highly skilled shorter fiction. Her intense interest in the craft of fiction is shown in the essays in Not Under Forty (1936) and On Writing (1949). Cather herself was a master of that craft, her novels and stories written in a pellucid style of great charm and stateliness.

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, 1873April 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.

Early life

Willa Cather was born in 1873 on a small farm in the Back Creek valley near Winchester, Virginia. Her father was Charles Fectigue Cather (d. 1928), whose family had lived on land in the valley for six generations. Her mother was born Mary Virginia Boak (d. 1931). Mary had six more children after Willa: Roscoe, Douglass, Jessica, James, John, and Elsie. In 1883, Cather moved with her family to Catherton in Webster County, Nebraska. The following year the family relocated to Red Cloud, the county seat. Cather spent the rest of her childhood in the town which she later made famous by her writing career. Willa Cather insisted on attending college, so her family borrowed money for her to enroll at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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.

Writing career

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 received both national and state honors. In 1973, the United States Postal Service honored Willa Cather by using her image on a postage stamp. In 1981 the US Mint created the Willa Cather medallion, a half-ounce gold coin.

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.

Personal life

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.

In her later life, Cather spent summers on Grand Manan Island, in New Brunswick, Canada, in the Bay of Fundy, where she owned a cottage in Whale Cove.

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.


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