Cather, Willa (1873–1947)
Cather, Willa (1873–1947)
American novelist and short-story writer whose work celebrated the complexities of life in the New World—the American west, midwest, southwest, south, and occasionally the urban east and Canada. Name variations: Willa S., Willa Sibert, Willie, William, Wilella. Pronunciation: CATH-er (like rather). Born on December 7, 1873 (some sources cite 1876, but 1873 is documented), in Back Creek Valley (near Winchester), Virginia; died in New York City on April 24, 1947; eldest of seven children of Virginia (Boak) Cather and Charles Cather (land investments and insurance agent); University of Nebraska, Lincoln, B.A., 1895; never married; lived in partnership with Edith Lewis, 1908–47; no children.
honorary degrees at Nebraska, California, Columbia, Yale, Smith, Creighton, Michigan; Pulitzer Prize (1922); Prix Femina Americaine (1931); elected member of American Academy of Arts and Letters (1938), and National Institute of Arts and Letters (1944).
Family moved to Webster County, Nebraska (1883), then settled in Red Cloud (1884); became journalist and published early stories during undergraduate years in Lincoln, Nebraska (1891–95); moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1896) to become managing editor of Home Monthly magazine and newspaper columnist; lived with Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung Hambourg (1901–06); taught high school Latin and English, published volume of poems April Twilights (1903) and stories The Troll Garden (1905); moved to New York City as editor for McClure's Magazine (1906); published first novel Alexander's Bridge (1912); left editing to write fiction after successful "second first novel" O Pioneers! (1913).
Alexander's Bridge (1912), O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Antonia (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); short stories: The Troll Garden (1905), Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), Obscure Destinies (1932), The Old Beauty and Others (posthumously 1948); poems: April Twilights (1903), April Twilights and Other Poems (1923); essays: Not Under Forty (1936), Willa Cather on Writing (posthumously 1949).
In a 1908 letter to her friend, New England short-story writer Sarah Orne Jewett , Willa Cather quoted Samuel Goldsmith to describe her current state of mind. She felt like a panic-stricken rabbit, she said, pursued by horses and hounds and panting "for the place from which at first she flew." At 35, Cather had not yet produced a publishable novel. An executive and editor in the whirlwind atmosphere of the New York offices of McClure's Magazine, she hardly had time to write anything at all. Every day brought a rush of important people and exciting news, but working for Samuel S. McClure was like racing through life on a train, she told Jewett, never getting off to know the people or seeing in any detail the towns she passed through. This life seemed superficial and shallow, and Cather felt torn apart by a split personality—efficient and authoritative on the outside, harried and anxious within. Worse, with no time to concentrate on her own writing, Cather feared for her soul.
In a 1925 letter to another friend, Dorothy Canfield Fisher , the Vermont short-story writer and novelist, Cather still described herself as needing to race off, but now it was for a good reason. At last, her fiction came first, and she ran in order to write what she wanted. Now she was a "wild turkey," she told Fisher, a "crafty bird" who would light out for new territory the moment anyone discovered her home feeding ground. No matter how hard the critics might try, they would never be able to hold her to one subject or force her to repeat indefinitely the same story. She wanted to be free, she declared, free to experiment with her fiction, to dive in deep, to surprise.
What had transformed Cather from the scared rabbit to the wily bird were six novels, a volume of short stories, and a Pulitzer Prize. With them came fame, some fortune, a great deal of controversy, and numerous critics quite willing to tell Cather she must write only nostalgic novels about women in the American West. The uproar began in 1922 when Cather won the Pulitzer for One of Ours, the story of a young Nebraskan whose life ended heroically on a French battlefield in World War I. What could a woman know about men and war, the critics sputtered. Cather should write about women and eulogize the frontier, as she had with her great triad of triumphant heroines—Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers!, Thea Kronberg in The Song of the Lark, and Antonia Shimerda in My Antonia—and more recently with Marian Forester in The Lost Lady.
After one false start with the cosmopolitan Alexander's Bridge, Cather had in fact gone back to the "place from which at first she flew" for the early novels, to her own felt experience as an adolescent and young woman growing up on the Nebraska frontier. But when Cather turned to contemporary themes and less fortunate characters, like the sacrificial hero of One of Ours and the disaffected protagonist of The Professor's House, the critics balked. No woman could write about war, they said, or understand the lives of men. But the critics could no longer subdue Willa Cather, the "crafty bird" who had taken charge of her art. If she was still desperate for time and the space in which to do her work, Cather was no longer torn about what that work would be.
The oldest of seven children, Cather seems always to have been sure of her ambition, but she was also aware at an early age of inequities in class, race, and gender, and of oppression, disruption, and disaster: cultural shadows that underscore even the most hopeful of her novels. When Cather was born in the mountainous northwest corner of Virginia, the United States was still in the process of healing from the Civil War. Eight years had passed since Lee signed the treaty at Appomattox, but the area around Willow Shade, the Cather family home, had been the site of fierce fighting, and families like Cather's, wrenched apart during the war by divided loyalties, were just beginning to reunite. As sheep farmers, the Cathers also sought, like so many during the economic turmoil of the postwar years, to better their lot by heading West. Following a pattern typical of pioneer settlers, Cather's uncle and then her grandfather scouted out land and settled their families first, leaving behind Cather's mother and father, who took charge of Willow Shade until they too, in April 1883, were ready to try homesteading in Webster County, Nebraska.
Cather's family settled first on the Divide near the newly named settlement of Catherton, but by September 1884 they decided to move into the town of Red Cloud, where the children could attend school and Cather's father could open an office in the booming business of land investments. Cather lived in Red Cloud for only
six years, but those were important, formative years for the young writer. Red Cloud and its people served as the setting and provided models for several characters in her short stories and novels, including O Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, My Antonia, and Lucy Gayheart. Populated by settlers from New England, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, the Divide was also filled with French Canadians, Germans, Bohemians, Swedes, Danes, and Swiss. Cather spent her days attending school and playing with her peers, but she also rode her pony across the plains, listened for hours to stories in the kitchens of immigrant women, made house calls by buggy and practiced dissection with the local doctor, read all the literary masterpieces available in a small midwestern town, and absorbed the multiplicity of cultures and values her neighbors represented.
An excellent student, Cather also readied herself to attend the University of Nebraska, one of the early land-grant colleges in the United States, which admitted women as well as men. Cather studied Latin and Greek with a tutor and, after graduating from Red Cloud high school, attended the university's high school in Lincoln in order to matriculate as a regular student at the university. Cather quickly made her mark in Lincoln. Years before, she had already declared her ambition in "this man's world" of the 1880s and 1890s by cutting her hair short and signing her name, William Cather, M.D. In Lincoln, Cather found other young women serious about careers and issues related to the New Woman, and her writing drew immediate attention from professors. When her short stories began to appear in both local and college publications, Cather shifted from science to literature, and, during the depression of 1893, she began earning her own living as a columnist and critic for the Nebraska State Journal, Lincoln's leading daily newspaper. After graduating in 1895, Cather became associate editor of The Courier, which focused on social items and news of the state's General Federation of Women's Clubs. That job lasted only a few months, however, and Cather found herself back in Red Cloud. By January, she was ready to call Red Cloud Siberia and consider herself in exile. She applied for a teaching job at the university, although she knew they would not hire her because of her sex, and worked hard on the short fiction she hoped would spring her release.
That is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great.
—Willa Cather's epitaph and a line from My Antonia
Journalism, writing, and teaching are separate but related career directions. Cather achieved success in all of them. In August 1896, she left Nebraska for a job as interim editor for a new family magazine, the Home Monthly, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She filled its pages with her own stories, written under a variety of pseudonyms, and then in 1897 shifted to a job at the Pittsburgh Leader, a newspaper, all the while contributing columns to the Nebraska State Journal and The Courier. In 1900, Cather left the Leader to write fiction for The Library, but that publication soon folded, and she considered moving back to Nebraska. By December, however, she had taken on a temporary writing assignment in Washington, D.C., and in March 1901 she returned to Pittsburgh, took a position teaching English and Latin in a local high school, and moved into the comfortable home of Judge Samuel A. McClung at the invitation of his socialite daughter, Isabelle McClung , whom Cather had met several years before. Teaching, Cather thought, would give her time to write, and the McClung's Squirrel Hill home would provide an ideal setting. By 1903, Cather had traveled with Isabelle to Europe, accepted a job chairing the English department at another Pittsburgh high school, and published a volume of poems, April Twilights.
In 1903, Cather also met S.S. McClure, the magazine editor and book publisher, and Edith Lewis , the fellow Nebraskan with whom she would share a home for nearly 40 years. Cather also began to work on her first volume of short stories, The Troll Garden, to be published by McClure in 1905. In 1906, at McClure's insistence, Cather left Pittsburgh for New York City and teaching for journalism. The most famous muckraking magazine of its day, McClure's Magazine had just lost its entire editorial staff. She was to replace one of its best-known writers, Ida Tarbell . Cather began by reworking a controversial biography of Mary Baker Eddy , the founder of Christian Science. Within two years, with Edith Lewis as her assistant, Cather had taken over much of the daily work of the office and by 1910, when she was associate editor, S.S. McClure encouraged Cather to stop writing fiction altogether and devote herself to journalism.
Had it not been for the timely advice and support of Sarah Orne Jewett, Edith Lewis, and Isabelle McClung, Cather might never have written her great novels. Contrary to McClure's advice, Jewett encouraged Cather to leave journalism for fiction. Edith Lewis, as always, provided Cather with editorial and personal support, and Isabelle McClung once again supplied Cather with a place to write, this time a cottage in upstate New York. By the time O Pioneers! appeared to quiet, but appreciative, reviews in 1913, Cather was 40 years old. For the first time in her life, she had written what she wanted to write instead of what she thought others wanted. O Pioneers! was nothing like the stylish imitation of Henry James she had done for her first novel, Alexander's Bridge. It was also unlike the new genre of westerns, Owen Wister's The Virginian, for example, or Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage. O Pioneers! was about immigrants on the Great Plains. Its main character was a hard-working woman, not a gunslinger. In only a few short stories had Cather hinted at the direction she might take in O Pioneers!, but when she finished it, she knew she had found home ground. The writing of O Pioneers! was entirely spontaneous, she declared, "like taking a ride through a familiar country on a horse that knew the way, on a fine morning when you felt like riding."
It was a ride in a country Cather would return to time and again. Not Nebraska or the past, necessarily, but territory familiar to her imagination. According to her own judgment, Cather did that best in My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Contemporary critical taste would also include The Lost Lady and The Professor's House. Cather always strove, as she said of Sarah Orne Jewett, to write novels that seem to be "not stories at all, but life itself." Deceptively simple, with beautifully cadenced prose, her novels are also rich in their complexity, filled with timeless oppositions—male/female, hope/despair, ancient/modern, art/life, urban/rural, native/foreign, Old World/New World—that are resolved symbolically through the feminine principle and Cather's own artistic "gift of sympathy."
Cather explores themes of diversity, change, and division and celebrates continuity, permanence, and universal values. Her fiction often feels autobiographical, but Cather's method was to fuse personal experience with contemporary and historical research. My Antonia and The Lost Lady, both set in Nebraska, focus on people (Annie Pavelka Sedilak and Lyra Garber [Anderson]) and places (Red Cloud and Lincoln) Cather knew well. The Song of the Lark intermixes details from Cather's youth with the childhood of Olive Fremstad , the Metropolitan Opera star whose career the novel traces. Death Comes for the Archbishop, on the other hand, focuses on historical figures (Jean Baptiste Lamy and Joseph P. Machebeuf) and places (Santa Fe and Taos). The same is true of the symbolic "Tom Outland" section of The Professor's House, which portrays the discovery of Mesa Verde, and Shadows on the Rock, which records the settling of Quebec, Canada.
Whatever Cather's method, the clarity of her prose and her insights into people, times, and places are often breathtaking in their simplicity. "Art," she would say, "should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process." Great artists refine and distill until the composition of a work becomes "so simple that it seems inevitable." Art, Cather said elsewhere, is also "concrete and personal and rather childish … too terribly human to be very 'great,' perhaps." But as Stephen Tennant suggests in his introduction to Cather's essays on writing, Cather's own greatness "lies in the arrow-like flight of her faith in man ultimately—the eternal vision behind her work—juxtaposed to the homely, simple facts of life…. She understood the hearts of people—and wished always to understand them better."
On April 24, 1947, when Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage, she had soared far from the actual "place from which at first she flew." A professional writer of international renown, she had lived and worked for more than 40 years in New York City, first in Greenwich Village and then on the upper East Side, with journalist and advertising writer Edith Lewis. At Cather's request, she was buried near Mt. Monadnock in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire, a favorite vacation and writing retreat, where 25 years later Edith Lewis rejoined her.
Bennett, Mildred R. The World of Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.
Brown, E.K. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Cather, Willa. Not Under Forty. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1936.
——. Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. Foreword by Stephen Tennant. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976.
Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. NY: Pantheon Books, 1989.
O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1953.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992.
"Marian Seldes as Willa Cather" (95 min.), audio cassette of Merkin Concert Hall performance in New York City, 1996.
Susan A. Hallgarth , editor, National Council for Research on Women, and faculty, Empire State College/State University of New York (SUNY)