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Cather, Willa (Sibert)

CATHER, Willa (Sibert)

Nationality: American. Born: Wilella Back Creek Valley, near the city of Winchester, Virginia, 7 December 1873; moved with her family to a farm near Red Cloud, Nebraska, 1883. Education: Red Cloud High School, graduated 1890; Latin School, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1890-91; University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1891-95, A.B. 1895. Career: Columnist, Lincoln State Journal, 1893-95; lived briefly in Red Cloud, 1896; editor, Home Monthly, Pittsburgh, 1896-97; telegraph editor and drama critic, Pittsburgh DailyLeader, 1896-1900; contributor, the Library, Pittsburgh, 1900; Latin and English teacher, Central High School, Pittsburgh, 1901-03; English teacher, Allegheny High School, Pittsburgh, 1903-06; managing editor, McClure's magazine, New York, 1906-11; full-time writer from 1912. Awards: Pulitzer prize, 1923; American Academy Howells medal, 1930; American Academy Howells gold medal, 1944; Prix Femina Americaine, 1932. Litt.D.: University of Nebraska, 1917; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1922; Columbia University, New York, 1928; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1929; Princeton University, New Jersey, 1931. D.L.: Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, 1928. LL.D.: University of California, Berkeley, 1931. L.H.D.: Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1933. Member: American Academy. Died: 24 April 1947.

Publications

Collections

Early Novels and Stories (Library of America), edited by SharonO'Brien. 1987.

The Short Stories, edited by Hermoine Lee. 1989.

Great Short Works of Cather, edited by Robert K. Miller. 1989.

Later Novels (Library of America), edited by Sharon O'Brien. 1990.

Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (Library of America), edited by Sharon O'Brien. 1992.

The Willa Cather Reader. 1997.

Short Stories

The Troll Garden. 1905; variorum edition, edited by JamesWoodress, 1983.

Youth and the Bright Medusa. 1920.

The Fear That Walks by Noonday. 1931.

Obscure Destinies. 1932.

Novels and Stories. 13 vols., 1937-41.

The Old Beauty and Others. 1948.

Early Stories, edited by Mildred R. Bennett. 1957.

Collected Short Fiction 1892-1912, edited by Virginia Faulkner. 1965.

Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Uncollected Fiction 1915-1929, edited by Bernice Slote. 1973.

Novels

Alexander's Bridge. 1912; as Alexander's Bridges, 1912.

O Pioneers! 1913.

The Song of the Lark. 1915.

My Ántonia. 1918.

One of Ours. 1922.

A Lost Lady. 1923.

The Professor's House. 1925.

My Mortal Enemy. 1926.

Death Comes for the Archbishop. 1927.

Shadows on the Rock. 1931.

Lucy Gayheart. 1935.

Sapphira and the Slave Girl. 1940.

Poetry

April Twilights. 1903.

April Twilights and Other Poems. 1923; revised edition, 1933; edited by Bernice Slote, 1962; revised edition, 1968.

Other

The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy, and the History of Christian Science, by Georgine Milmine (ghostwritten by Cather). 1909.

My Autobiography, by S.S. McClure (ghostwritten by Cather). 1914.

Not Under Forty. 1936.

On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. 1949.

Writings from Cather's Campus Years, edited by James R. Shively. 1950.

Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey, edited by George N. Kates. 1956.

The Kingdom of Art: Cather's First Principles and Critical Principles 1893-1896, edited by Bernice Slote. 1967.

The World and the Parish: Cather's Articles and Reviews 1893-1902, edited by William M. Curtin. 2 vols., 1970.

Editor, The Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett. 2 vols., 1925.

*

Bibliography:

Cather: A Bibliography by Joan Crane, 1982.

Critical Studies:

Cather: A Critical Introduction by David Daiches, 1951; Cather: A Critical Biography by E.K. Brown, completed by Leon Edel, 1953; The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Cather's Search for Value by John H. Randall III, 1960; The World of Cather by Mildred R. Bennett, 1961; Cather's Gift of Sympathy by Edward and Lillian Bloom, 1962; Cather by Dorothy Van Ghent, 1964; Cather and Her Critics edited by James Schroeter 1967; Cather: Her Life and Art, 1970, and Cather: A Literary Life, 1987, both by James Woodress; Cather by Dorothy McFarland Tuck, 1972; Cather: A Pictorial Memoir by Bernice Slote, 1973, and The Art of Cather edited by Slote and Virginia Faulkner, 1974; Five Essays on Cather, 1974, and Critical Essays on Cather, 1984, both edited by John J. Murphy; Cather's Imagination by David Stouck, 1975; Cather by Philip L. Gerber, 1975; Chrysalis: Cather in Pittsburgh 1896-1906 by Kathleen D. Byrne and Richard C. Snyder, 1982; Willa: The Life of Cather by Phyllis C. Robinson, 1983; Cather's Short Fiction, 1984, and Cather: A Reference Guide, 1986, both by Marilyn Arnold; The Voyage Perilous: Cather's Romanticism by Susan Rosowski, 1986; Cather: The Emerging Voice by Sharon O'Brien, 1986; Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches and Letters edited by L. Brent Bohlke, 1987; Cather: Life as Art by Jamie Ambrose, 1987; Cather in France: In Search of the Last Language by Robert J. Nelson, 1988; Cather: A Life Saved Up by Hermoine Lee, 1989, as Cather: Double Lives, 1990; Cather by Susie Thomas, 1989; Cather: A Study of the Short Fiction by Loretta Wasserman, 1991; Isolation and Masquerade: Willa Cather's Women by Frances W. Kaye, 1993; Willa Cather: Landscape and Exile by Laura Winters, 1993; My Antonia: The Road Home by John J. Murphy, 1995; Redefining the American Dream: The Novels of Willa Cather by Sally Peltier Harvey, 1995; Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire by Guy Reynolds, 1996; The Imaginative Claims of the Artist in Willa Cather's Fiction: Possession Granted by a Different Lease by Demaree C. Peck, 1996; Willa Cather: A Life Saved Up by Hermione Lee, 1997.

* * *

Although Willa Cather largely abandoned short fiction after she began writing novels, she launched her career as a writer of stories, and the last thing she completed before she died was a story. All told, she wrote 58 stories between 1892 and 1945, and in terms of total wordage, about one-third of her entire literary corpus is short fiction. She regarded her stories, however, as the lesser part of her work, and for her in fact the short story was her apprenticeship. Of the 45 stories she published through 1912 when her first novel appeared, only four of them was she willing to reprint later in her career. The rest she wanted forgotten; she would have destroyed all traces of them if she could have.

Cather was born in Back Creek, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, the oldest of seven children; when she was nine years old her parents migrated to Nebraska, where she spent the next 13 years. First they farmed, then moved into Red Cloud, the town immortalized in both Cather's stories and novels. Her literary career began as a freshman at the University of Nebraska when she wrote a story for an English class. It so impressed her professor that he sent it off to be published in a Boston magazine. This story was "Peter," which ultimately became an important episode in My Àntonia.

For the next two decades Cather published only stories and poems. The early stories are amateurish and range widely in setting, subject, and style. She wrote a story of ancient Egypt, a romantic tale laid in eighteenth-century Virginia, a ghost story in a football setting, fairy tales, and stories of grim realism. Some of these tales are imitative of Henry James, the writer she most admired. But gradually her narrative powers grew, and she began placing her work in national magazines. By 1905 she was able to publish her first volume of fiction, The Troll Garden, a collection of seven stories about art and artists, a subject that preoccupied her off and on throughout her life. Among these tales are "Paul's Case" and "The Sculptor's Funeral," the latter being an attack on aesthetic sterility and smugness in a Kansas village.

The Troll Garden climaxed a decade that Cather spent in Pittsburgh editing a home magazine, writing drama and music criticism for a newspaper, and teaching high school English. In 1906 she moved on to New York to become an editor of McClure's Magazine, but her writing suffered because of the pressure of editorial duties. In the next six years she managed to publish only nine stories, some of which had been written before she moved to New York, but the quality is increasingly high. McClure's, Harpers, The Century, and Colliers published them, and several ("The Enchanted Bluff," "The Joy of Nelly Dean," and "The Bohemian Girl," look ahead to subjects and themes Cather would use in her celebrated Nebraska novels.

After 1912 when her first novel appeared, Cather put most of her energy into the novel, and in the next 33 years she wrote only 13 more stories. Some of these, however, are of equal quality with her long fiction. In 1920 she put together another collection of stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa, again stories about artists. She reprinted four tales from The Troll Garden and added four more recently written. Two of them, "A Gold Slipper" and "The Diamond Mine," are excellent tales reflecting Cather's great interest in opera. A third, "Coming, Aphrodite," pits an avant-garde artist against an opera singer in an abortive romance.

During the 1910s and 1920s Cather wrote eight novels, but her novels often contain interest for students of the short story. The story of Pavel and Peter and the bridal couple thrown to the wolves in My Àntonia is a self-contained episode. "Tom Outland's Story" in The Professor's House is a long story that has been separately anthologized. Inserted in the middle of the novel, it is one of Cather's best fictions and evokes memorably the Southwest and the ancient cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde. My Mortal Enemy is actually nouvelle length, although it was published separately as a novel. Death Comes for the Archbishop contains a number of inset stories that can be read separately.

After the death of her parents and a final visit to Red Cloud for a reunion with her brothers and sisters, Cather revisited the subject of her Nebraska novels and stories. The result was Obscure Destinies, one of her most distinguished books. It contains three stories, "Neighbour Rosicky," "Old Mrs. Harris," and "Two Friends." "Old Mrs. Harris," in the view of many Cather scholars, is the finest piece of short fiction Cather wrote. Three generations of Cather women provide prototypes for the characters. The title character is Cather's grandmother, Boak, who accompanied her daughter's family to Nebraska; Victoria Templeton is Cather's mother, a Southern lady transplanted to the prairie; and Vickie is Cather herself as teenager. A fictionalized Red Cloud is the setting, and prominent characters are the Rosens, modeled on Cather's Jewish neighbors, and the Wieners, whose library and European culture gave young Willa an early glimpse of the Old World. When Blanche Knopf read the story in manuscript, she wrote that it seemed to her one of the great stories of all time. "Two Friends" is a lesser tale, but it evokes memorably Red Cloud and two of its businessmen, as the narrator, Cather's adolescent self, listens to them talk on summer evenings outside the general store.

Between 1915 and 1929 Cather published six stories that she never reprinted. Two of them, "Double Birthday" and "Uncle Valentine," are well worth preserving. Both are Pittsburgh stories that draw on Cather's memory of friends from her years in Pennsylvania. "Uncle Valentine" is especially interesting, as the title character is suggested by the composer Ethelbert Nevin, whom Cather knew and admired and whose untimely death she mourned. A final trio of Cather's stories, The Old Beauty and Others, was published posthumously by her literary executors. The title story is one that Cather put aside when the Woman's Home Companion rejected it, but the other two were written at the end of her life. "The Best Years" is vintage Cather and evokes poignantly her memories of her family and Red Cloud during her youth. "Before Breakfast" is an old-age story that takes an affirmative view of life and is the only tale she wrote set on Grand Manan Island off the coast of New Brunswick where she had a summer cottage.

—James Woodress

See the essays on "Neighbour Rosicky" and "Paul's Case."

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