Cather, Willa Sibert

views updated Jun 08 2018

CATHER, Willa Sibert

Born 7 December 1873, Gore, Virginia; died 24 April 1947, NewYork, New York

Daughter of Charles F. and Virginia Boak Cather

Willa Cather, the first of seven children, was born to parents who owned a farm in the hilly country of northern Virginia. The family was dominated by Cather's mother, a vigorous woman, backed up by Cather's maternal grandmother, who made her home with them. Cather was to retain strong familial attachments all her life. In 1883 the family moved to the Nebraska frontier, and in 1884 to Red Cloud, a "bitter, dead little western town," where Cather lived for the next six years. Cather, educated at home until high school, later attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

From 1895 to 1906, Cather lived in Pittsburgh, working first as a journalist on the Pittsburgh Leader and then as the principal of a Pittsburgh high school. Here she formed a friendship with Isabelle McClung, which was to last until McClung's death. In 1906, Cather joined the staff of McClure's Magazine in New York City and for the next six years assisted S.S. McClure as managing editor, staff writer, and general factotum. In these years she also formed a lifelong relationship with Edith Lewis.

Between 1912 (the year she left McClure's) and 1922, Cather wrote five novels, all of which derive from her childhood memory of the people and lifestyle she had observed in Nebraska. These are O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Ántonia (1918), One of Ours (1922), and A Lost Lady (1923). The least distinguished of these—One of Ours—was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. A novel of World War I, it tells the story of Claude Wheeler, a young man who has spent a dreary life on a Nebraska farm and has a brief experience of beauty and fulfillment in France before he is killed in action.

In the years between 1922 and 1925, Cather seems to have suffered the kind of crisis bearing different names, according to one's circumstances, e.g., midlife crisis, anomie, a fall from grace, acedia, depression, alienation. Cather attributed it to the times, a plausible interpretation since her melancholy was similar to the spiritual dislocation experienced by so many Americans after World War I. The new America that under Warren Harding was returning to normalcy seemed to her a vulgar and drab wasteland. Her despondency may also have stemmed from events in her personal life. Around 1923, Isabelle McClung, recently married to the violinist Jan Hambourg, went to live permanently in France.

Cather's recovery seems to have been related to a spiritual rebirth, marked externally by joining the Episcopalian Church in 1922. The Professor's House (1925), My Mortal Enemy (1926), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), and Shadows on the Rock (1931)—the four great works of her highwater period—illustrate her feeling that religion is the best life has to offer humankind.

In the last 16 years of her life Cather wrote little. Deaths of loved ones, illness, housing difficulties, physical disabilities, the clouds of the Great Depression, and World War II all seem to have sapped her magnificent vitality. The more closely one looks at Cather's works in the context of her life, the more clearly one sees Cather was always writing about herself. "Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember," she said. This reserved woman, who went to unusual lengths to maintain privacy, was driven by an inexorable need to give form to and reveal, albeit indirectly, her inner self. Some of the power in her works surely comes from this tension—the romantic confessional temperament writing in the classical restrained mode.

Cather's most widely read novel is My Ántonia, a fact lamented by many Cather critics. Ántonia is a daughter in an immigrant family struggling to survive on a farm on the Nebraska plains of the 1890s. Needing money, Ántonia enters domestic service and is seduced and abandoned by the son of her employer. Left with her child, she returns to the farm. By the end of the novel, Ántonia has triumphed. Married to the mild-tempered Anton Cuzak, she reigns, among a brood of children, over a prospering farm. The story is told by Jim Burden, Ántonia's childhood friend. Now a weary middle-aged man, returning to Nebraska on a visit, he has experienced little joy from his successful law practice or his marriage.

Jim sees Ántonia on many levels—as a childhood friend and fulfilled woman, as the apotheosis of the pioneer woman who conquered the land, as a personification of eternal values. To Jim, Ántonia symbolizes an America of the past, one in which there was heroism in everyday life. It seems safe to suggest here that Jim is Cather's alter ego.

A Lost Lady, set at the end of the era of transcontinental railroad expansion, is the story of Marion Forrester, the beautiful, young wife of Daniel Forrester, a dynamic railroad builder in the great days of the conquest of the West. As Daniel's health and fortunes fail, Marion's world is restricted to Sweet Water, a small railway-junction town. Because of her determination to return to a life style congenial to her, she accommodates herself to Ivy Peters, who becomes her business manager and her lover. Marion's designs work. She escapes Sweet Water and in the end seems to have found happiness as the wife of a wealthy old Englishman in Argentina. By the end of the novel, word of her death reaches Sweet Water.

On another level, A Lost Lady tells the story of Niel Herbert, the central observer. The nephew of Daniel's lawyer and friend, Niel has been fiercely committed to the Forrester family in adolescence and young manhood. The emotion of the novel stems from Niel's disillusionment with Marion and sadness about the passing of a greater era. With all the passion of idealistic youth, Niel cannot accept the fact that beautiful people adjust to the ugly and the sordid. Niel wants Marion to be a high priest of beauty. But Marion is a realist; she gets what she wants.

This slender book is surely one of the high points of American fiction. Cather's unaffected, powerful, and lucid style is the result of her untiring struggle for, as she formulated it herself, the correct and appropriate word, which makes possible "the gift of inner empathy."

In the course of The Professor's House, Godfrey St. Peter (the professor) experiences a central passage. The setting is Hamilton, a college town in Michigan, about 1923. In the good days, now in the past for Godfrey, he had written a highly acclaimed work, an eight-volume historical chronicle of the Spanish adventurers in North America. He had enjoyed his teaching, had been blessed with a happy family life, and responded gratefully to a variety of good fortune. One of the most rewarding episodes in his life was his friendship with his student Tom Outland, a young man endowed with unusual gifts of mind and character.

At the beginning of the novel Godfrey finds himself in a spiritual crisis. He is unable "to account for the fact that he now wanted to run away from everything he had intensely cared for." He cannot return to the past. Nor can he face the future—a future with a once-beloved wife, now increasingly worldly and opportunistic, with daughters blighted by money, with uncongenial sonsin-law, with students and colleagues fettered by the materialistic values of the age. Only death can liberate Godfrey from his plight. The climax occurs on the night that gas infiltrates the attic room in which he is sleeping. Aware of what is happening, he passively drifts off to sleep, but he is saved by Augusta, the German Catholic seamstress who functions as a dea ex machina.

Cather elliptically presents the change Godfrey undergoes. "He had let something go—and it was gone… ." His family, on a European holiday at the time, would probably not "realize that he was not the same man they had said goodbye to." He muses on Augusta and himself after his encounter with death. "Augusta was like the taste of bitter herbs; she was the bloomless side of life that he had always run away from.—Yet when he had to face it, he found that it wasn't altogether repugnant."

At the center of the novel lies Tom Outland's account of the discovery of the ruins of the cliff dwellers on the Blue Mesa in the southwest. Living in their towns, examining the artifacts, Tom has a revelation of a life hitherto undreamed of. How much to be admired were the cliff dwellers. Living in a communal society in the midst of secure, spectacularly beautiful, natural surroundings, they spent harmonious days creating exquisite objects of daily use and worshiping their gods in reverential ritual, and also peaceably procuring the necessities of life.

The Professor's House is commonly held to be Cather's autobiography, and apparently, through Godfrey, Cather wrote of what lay close to her heart. The novel may be looked at as a double autobiography—one in which Cather juxtaposed the young Willa as Tom Outland and the middle-aged Willa as Godfrey. Tom is very much like Jim Burden in My Ántonia and Niel Herbert in A Lost Lady.

Myra Driscoll, the protagonist of My Mortal Enemy is the beloved heir apparent of a wealthy and powerful Roman Catholic uncle until she marries Oswald Henshawe against her uncle's wishes. A fierce and unrelenting man, her uncle rejects and disinherits her. She gradually realizes how much she resembles her uncle: "I can feel his savagery strengthen inside of me." In spite of Oswald's gentle devotion, and the fact that his life, even his business affairs, have suffered from Myra's tormented temperament, she begins to feel he is her mortal enemy. And also that she herself has been her own mortal enemy. "Violent natures like hers sometimes turn against themselves and all their idolatries." Unreconciled to her fate, this magnificent, bitter woman meets a grim, lonely death at the end of the novel.

Cather's most mysterious work derives its impact from what remains unsaid, from the depths that seem constantly to be assaulting the cool surface. Religion, Myra comes to believe, "is different from everything else; because in religion seeking is finding." Through a variety of images, Cather suggests that Myra's sin was to have sought and found false gods, the most deceitful of which is romantic love. By rejecting the Roman Catholicism of her childhood and the position she was born to, she has lost herself. Cather does full justice to the compelling lure of eros, which continues to exert its power over Myra and Nellie Birdseye, the narrator of the story.

Death Comes for the Archbishop—based on the lives of Bishop Jean Baptiste L'Amy (1814-88) and his vicar, Father Joseph Machebeut—is the chronicle of two French priests who are assigned to set up an apostolic vicariate in the territory of New Mexico, a work that could be accomplished only by long, arduous travels and devotion to their commitment. Father Jean-Marie Latour, later archbishop of Santa Fé, is patrician, intellectual, and introverted. He is loved and admired for his quiet courage, for his courtesy, and for the respect with which he listens to the Indians' tales of their old religion. His vicar, Father Joseph Vaillant, practical, companionable, is unswerving in his faith in God's providence, in his zeal to convert people to Christianity.

United in their love of France and their common purpose, they succeed in organizing the new diocese of Sante Fé despite the apathy of the Indians, the opposition of the Spanish priests, and the adversities that are the lot of all pioneers. The symbol of their success lies in the building of the cathedral.

Technically, Death Comes for the Archbishop is perhaps best viewed as a picaresque novel, though the journeys made here are in the service of God. The framework gave Cather scope to communicate what she found compelling—biographies of many characters, recapitulation of miracles and saints' legends, transmission of old documents, depiction of rituals and beliefs of the Roman Catholic church, description of landscapes and interiors. The unity of the novel derives from the characters of Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant, and the religious drama being enacted. It is a richly sympathetic creation of a golden world in which all ideals are realized.

The particular nature of her achievement is viewed thus by Louis Auchincloss: "But the real common denominator is the glory of the southwest landscape described in a lyric prose that is the summit of the author's achievement. There is nothing more vivid in American fiction that this series of brilliant pictures of an arid, glowing country."

It is Cather's lot to be America's least comprehended major novelist. Wallace Stevens said about her that "we have nothing better than she is." But the particularity of her genius is elusive, and comments about Cather's work often focus on its less central aspects.

On Cather's style, there is little dissent—her prose is of the highest quality, variously described as classical, restrained, wonderfully transparent. Cather wrote language of a kind that is not indigenous to American letters, yet the nature of her genius was such that the prose sounds impeccably American.

Cather's lyrical and profound evocations of nature in its many forms are not surpassed in American letters, and she is one of the few American writers who can take her place among the great European writers who have gloriously pictured the natural world.

Cather has, as could not be otherwise, been recognized as a religious writer. It was Henry Steele Commager who wrote: "And all her novels and stories … were animated by a single great theme, as they were graced by a single felicitous style. The theme was that of the supremacy of moral and spiritual over material values, the ever recurrent but inexhaustible theme of gaining the whole world and losing one's soul." Cather may have been a mystic who saw this world as a prism of God.

Many critics of the 1920s considered her to be the best American writer of her day. Cather's rank is more qualified today, but the tide has started to turn, and Cather's work is apparently to be revived with vigor and enthusiasm, as the majority of her works have been reprinted throughout the 1990s. When her work receives its just desserts, Cather will take her rightful place as one of America's great writers.

Other Works:

April Twilights (1903). The Troll Garden (1905). Alexander's Bridge (1912). My Autobiography: S. S. McClure (ghost written by Cather, 1914). Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920). April Twilights, and Other Poems (1923). Obscure Destinies (1932). Lucy Gayheart (1935). Not Under Forty (1936). The Novels and Stories (1937-41). Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940). The Old Beauty, and Others (1948). On Writing (1949). Writings from Willa Cather's Campus Years (edited by J. Shively, 1950). Willa Cather in Europe; Her Own Story of the First Journey (edited by G. N. Kates, 1956). Early Stories (edited by M. R. Bennett, 1957). Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 (edited by M. R. Bennett, 1965). The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893 to 1896 (edited by B. Slote, 1966). The World and the Parish. Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902 (edited by W. M. Curtin, 1970). Uncle Valentine, and Other Stories (edited by B. Slote, 1973). Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters (1986, 1990). The Willa Cather Reader (1997).


Auchincloss, L., Pioneers and Caretakers, A Study of Nine American Women Writers (1965). Bennett, M., The World of Willa Cather (1961). Bloom, H., ed., Willa Cather (1999). Bloom, E. A., and L. D. Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy (1964). Dennis, H. M., ed., Willa Cather and European Cultural Influences (1996). Downs, M. C., Becoming Modern: Willa Cather's Journalism (1999). Durham, M., History, Women and Cultural Transmission in the Work of Willa Cather (dissertation, 1991). Edel, L., Willa Cather: The Paradox of Success (1960). Faulkner, C., Putting Down the Rebellion: The Narrative Repression of Class in Willa Cather's Fiction (disseration, 1993). Funda, E. I., "'Every Word Counted for Twenty': Storytelling and Intimacy in Willa Cather's Fiction" (dissertation, 1994). Giannone, R., Music in Willa Cather's Fiction (1968). Hacker, J. L. H., "Building a Cathedral of Alienation: A Study of Despair in Willa Cather's Fiction" (dissertation, 1997). Heilbrun, C. G., Women's Lives: The View from the Threshold (1999). Kvasnicka, M., "Education in the Parish, Preparation for the World: The Educational Tradition in the Life and Works of Willa Cather" (dissertation, 1997). Lewis, E., Willa Cather Living (1953). Lindemann, M. Willa Cather: Queering America (1999). McDonald, J., The Incommunicable Past: Willa Cather's Pastoral Modes and the Southern Literary Imagination (dissertation, 1994). McDonald, J., The Stuff of Our Forebears: Willa Cather's Southern Heritage (1998). McFarland, D. T., Willa Cather (1972). McLendon, M. J., "That Indefinable Something":

The Role of Passion and Desire in the Works of Willa Cather (dissertation, 1993). Murphy, J. J., ed., Five Essays on Willa Cather (1974). O'Brien, S., ed., New Essays on Cather's My Antonia (1999). O'Connor, M. A., Willa Cather: The Critical Reception (in preparation). Randall, J. H., III, The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather's Search for Value (1960). Rapin, R., Willa Cather (1930). Reynolds, G., Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire (1996). Schroeter, J., ed., Willa Cather and Her Critics (1967). Sergeant, E. S., Willa Cather: A Memoir (1963). Slote, B., "Willa Cather" in Sixteen Modern American Authors (1974). Slote, B., and V. Faulkner, eds., The Art of Willa Cather (1974). Stouck, D., Willa Cather's Imagination (1975). Urgo, J. R., Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration (1995). Winters, L., Giving the Land a Voice: The Demands of Multiple Landscapes in Five Cather Novels (dissertation, 1990). Woodress, J., Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (1970). Wooten, S. M., Willa Cather: Writer of the Prairie (1998). Wurzel, N., "Gender and Myth: Willa Cather's Affirmative Modernism" (dissertation, 1993).

Reference Works:

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia (1987). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).


Willa Sibert Cather

views updated May 29 2018

Willa Sibert Cather

The American author Willa Sibert Cather (1873-1947) is distinguished for her strong and sensitive evocations of prairie life in the twilight years of the midwestern frontier. Her poetic sensibility was in sharp contrast to the naturalistic and Freudian-influenced literary movements of her time.

Willa Cather was born in Winchester, Va., but at the age of 9 moved to Nebraska, where her father had bought a farm. Her immediate response to the stark grandeur of the prairie and her involvement in the life of the Bohemian and Scandinavian immigrants provided her with both the material and an unadorned manner of expression for her novels. Although she was educated largely by her mother, her knowledge of English literature and Latin was sufficient for her to do excellent work at the University of Nebraska. Leaving the prairie for the first time in 1900, she moved to Pittsburgh and found employment as editor, drama critic, and high school teacher.

In 1903 Cather published a collection of poems, April Twilights, and in 1905 a collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, neither of which indicated her considerable talent. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912), the story of an engineer's love for two women, lacked emotional involvement.

In her poignant story of the prairie, O Pioneers! (1913), Cather at last discovered her subject matter. This tale of Alexandra Bergson, daughter of Swedish settlers, whose devotion to the land and to her tragically fated younger brother precludes her own chance for happiness, is a major novel and an important source for Cather's subsequent work. In Song of the Lark (1915) she presents the story of a young woman's attempt at artistic accomplishment in the constricting environment of small-town life. My Antonia (1918), generally considered her finest novel, is based on a successful city lawyer's reflections on his prairie boyhood and his love for Antonia Shimerda, a warm, vibrant Bohemian girl.

Cather's next novel, One of Ours (1922), about a man who goes to war in order to escape his midwestern farm environment, won the Pulitzer Prize. A Lost Lady (1923) depicts the conflict of a cultivated and sensitive young woman with the crass materialism of the post-pioneer period, and The Professor's House (1925) is a study of the problems of youth and middle age. These three novels differ from Cather's earlier studies of prairie life in that the midwestern atmosphere is used as a force in opposition to the artistic aspiration and intellectual development of the gifted inhabitants.

With the passing of the frontier and its ugly transformation into "Gopher Prairie," Cather permanently left the Midwest, both literally and as a thematic vehicle for her novels. She lived intermittently in New York and Europe until the late 1920s. Then she discovered the Southwest desert, which came to serve as an emotional substitute for the prairie. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), which describes the dedicated missionaries in Mexico during the 1850s, and Shadows on the Rock (1931), a vivid re-creation of French-Catholic life in 17th-century Quebec, represent Cather's interest in Roman Catholicism and her attempt to find a historical metaphor for the qualities of heroism and endurance that she had observed in actuality.

Willa Cather's devotion to the land and her respect for those rooted to it imbue her work with a mystical quality. Man and nature are viewed as dual protagonists in a somber cosmic drama. Despite her love for the prairie, she did not permit sentimentally and nostalgia to cloud the clarity of her vision. She presented the intellectual stagnation, moral callousness, and small-minded bigotry that existed side by side with the heroism of frontier life. "Miss Cather's novels portray the results of the pioneer's defeat, both in the thwarted pettiness to which he is condemned by material failure," observed Lionel Trilling, "and in the callous insensitivity of his material success."

In her last years Cather devoted herself to literary criticism. Not under Forty (1936) contains an eloquent expression of her philosophy of writing.

Further Reading

The authorized biography of Willa Cather is Edward K. Brown and Leon Edel, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (1953). The best book-length critical study is David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction (1951). More recent studies are John H. Randall, The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather's Search for Value (1960), and Edward A. and Lillian D. Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy (1962). James Schroeter edited an excellent collection of essays, Willa Cather and Her Critics (1967). For briefer analyses of her work see the relevant sections in Rebecca West, The Strange Necessity (1928); Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (1942); Edward Wagenknecht, Cavalcade of the American Novel (1952); and Maxwell Geismar, The Last of the Provincials (1947). □

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Willa Sibert Cather

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