Biography of Willa Cather

Willa Cather
Cather in 1912.
Cather in 1912.
BornWilella Sibert Cather
(1873-12-07)December 7, 1873
Gore, Virginia, U.S.
DiedApril 24, 1947(1947-04-24) (aged 73)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.

Willa Sibert Cather (/ˈkæðər/; December 7, 1873 – April 24, 1947) was an American writer who achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918). In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours (1922), a novel set during World War I.

Cather graduated from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She lived and worked in Pittsburgh for ten years, supporting herself as a magazine editor and high school English teacher. At the age of 33 she moved to New York City, her primary home for the rest of her life, though she also traveled widely and spent considerable time at her summer residence on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick.


        Early life and education

        One-and-a-half-story house with gable roof and small front porch; surrounded by picket fence Willa Cather House, Red Cloud, Nebraska

        Cather was born Wilella Sibert Cather in 1873 on her maternal grandmother's 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. Cather's family originated in Wales, the family name deriving from Cadair Idris, a mountain in Gwynedd.:13 Her mother was Mary Virginia Boak (died 1931), a former school teacher. Within a year of Cather's birth, the family moved to Willow Shade, a Greek Revival-style home on 130 acres given to them by her paternal grandparents.

        At the urging of Charles Cather's parents, the family moved to Nebraska in 1883 when Willa was nine years old. The rich, flat farmland appealed to Charles' father, and the family wished to escape the tuberculosis outbreaks that were rampant in Virginia. Willa's father tried his hand at farming for eighteen months; then he moved the family into the town of Red Cloud, where he opened a real estate and insurance business, and the children attended school for the first time.:43 Some of the earliest work produced by Cather was first published in the Red Cloud Chief, the city's local paper. Cather's time in the western state, still on the frontier, was a deeply formative experience for her. She was intensely moved by the dramatic environment and weather, the vastness of the Nebraska prairie, and the various cultures of the European-American, immigrant and Native American families in the area. Like Jim Burden in My Antonia, the young Willa Cather saw the Nebraska frontier as a "place where there was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the materials out of which countries were made ... Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out".

        Mary Cather had six more children after Willa: Roscoe, Douglass, Jessica, James, John, and Elsie.:5–7 Cather was closer to her brothers than to her sisters whom, according to biographer Hermione Lee, she "seems not to have liked very much.":36 Cather read widely, having made friends with a Jewish couple, the Weiners, who offered her free access to their extensive library. She made house calls with the local physician, Dr. Robert Damerell, and decided to become a doctor.

        After Cather's essay on Thomas Carlyle was published in the Nebraska State Journal during her freshman year at the University of Nebraska,:72–3 she became a regular contributor to the Journal. In addition to her work with the local paper, Cather also served as the managing editor of The Hesperian, the University of Nebraska's student newspaper, and associated at the Lincoln Courier. She changed her plans to major in science and become a physician, instead graduating with a B.A. in English in 1894.


        In 1896, Cather moved to Pittsburgh after being hired to write for the Home Monthly, a women's magazine patterned after the successful Ladies' Home Journal.:114 A year later, she became a telegraph editor and drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader and frequently contributed poetry and short fiction to The Library, another local publication. In Pittsburgh, she taught Latin, algebra, and English composition:150 at Central High School for one year; she then taught English and Latin at Allegheny High School, where she became the head of the English department.

        During her first year in Pittsburgh, Cather also wrote a number of short stories, including "Tommy, the Unsentimental," about a Nebraskan girl with a boy's name, who looks like a boy and saves her father's bank business. Janis P. Stout calls this story one of several Cather works that "demonstrate the speciousness of rigid gender roles and give favorable treatment to characters who undermine conventions."

        "The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers ... I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep."

        — Willa Cather, My Antonia

        Cather's first collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, was published in 1905 by McClure, Phillips, and Company. It contains several of Cather's best-known stories—"A Wagner Matinee," "The Sculptor's Funeral," and "Paul's Case."

        In 1906 Cather moved to New York City after being offered a position on the editorial staff of McClure's Magazine, a periodical connected with the publisher of The Troll Garden the year before. During her first year at McClure's, she wrote a critical biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, although Georgine Milmine, a freelance researcher, was named as the sole author. Milmine had performed copious amounts of research, but she did not have the resources to produce a manuscript on her own.:194 "Mary Baker G. Eddy: The Story of Her Life and the History of Christian Science" was published in McClure's in fourteen installments over the next eighteen months, and then in book form as The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science (1909).

        McClure's serialized Cather's first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912). Most reviews were favorable. The New York Times praised "the dramatic situations and the clever conversations,":225 and The Atlantic called the writing "deft and skillful."

        Cather followed Alexander's Bridge with her Prairie Trilogy: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918). These works became both popular and critical successes. Cather was celebrated by national critics such as H. L. Mencken for writing in plainspoken language about ordinary people. Sinclair Lewis praised her work for making "the outside world know Nebraska as no one else has done."


        By 1920 Cather was unhappy with the performance of her publisher Houghton Mifflin who she felt did a poor job of advertising her books--My Ántonia only received an advertising budget of $300. Cather then turned to the young publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf which had a reputation for supporting their authors through advertising campaigns. She also liked the look of their books (and been impressed with their edition of Green Mansions by William Henry Hudson. Cather visited their office and found Blanche Knopf working the switchboard over the lunch hour. Since Cather was still under contract with Houghton Mifflin for her novels, Knopf published her short story collection, Youth and the Bright Medusa and advertised the collection in the New Republic. She would publish sixteen books with Knopf.

        Cather was firmly established as a major American writer, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours. Cather followed that up with Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1928. Death Comes for the Archbishop was included on the Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the twentieth century as well as Time's one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.


        By the 1930s, however, critics began to dismiss her as a "romantic, nostalgic writer who could not cope with the present." Critics such as Granville Hicks charged Cather with failing to confront "contemporary life as it is" and escaping into an idealized past. During the hardships of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, her work was seen as lacking social relevance.

        Cather's conservative politics and the same subject matter that appealed to Mencken, Randolph Bourne, and Carl Van Doren soured her reputation with younger, often left-leaning critics such as Hicks and Edmund Wilson. Discouraged by the negative criticism of her work, Cather became defensive. She destroyed some of her correspondence and included a provision in her will that forbade the publication of her letters.

        Despite this critical opposition to her work, Cather remained a popular writer whose novels and short story collections continued to sell well. In 1931 Shadows on the Rock was the most widely read novel in the US, and Lucy Gayheart became a bestseller in 1935.

        Personal life

        As a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s, Cather sometimes used the masculine nickname "William" and wore masculine clothing. A photograph in the University of Nebraska archives depicts Cather dressed like a young man and with "her hair shingled, at a time when females wore their hair fashionably long.":38

        Cather's sexual identity remains a point of contention among scholars. While many argue for Cather as a lesbian and interpret her work through a lens of queer theory, a highly vocal contingent of Cather scholars adamantly oppose such considerations. For example, scholar Janet Sharistanian has written, "Cather did not label herself a lesbian nor would she wish us to do so, and we do not know whether her relationships with women were sexual. In any case, it is anachronistic to assume that if Cather's historical context had been different, she would have chosen to write overtly about homoerotic love."

        Isabelle McClung, an unidentified man, and Willa Cather aboard the SS Westernland, 1902

        Throughout Cather's adult life, her most significant friendships were with women. These included her college friend Louise Pound; the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, with whom Cather traveled to Europe and at whose Toronto home she stayed for prolonged visits; the opera singer Olive Fremstad; the pianist Yaltah Menuhin; and most notably, the editor Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived the last 39 years of her life.

        Willa Cather Memorial Prairie in Webster County, Nebraska

        Cather's relationship with Lewis began in the early 1900s. The two women lived together in a series of apartments in New York City from 1908 until the writer's death in 1947. From 1913 to 1927, Cather and Lewis lived at No. 5 Bank Street in Greenwich Village. They moved when the apartment was scheduled for demolition during the construction of the Broadway–Seventh Avenue New York City Subway line (now the 1, ​2, and ​3 trains). Cather selected Lewis as the literary trustee for her estate.

        Although she was born into a Baptist family, Cather began attending Episcopal services in 1906, and she joined the Episcopal Church in 1922.

        Beginning in 1922, Cather spent summers on Grand Manan Island, in New Brunswick, where she bought a cottage in Whale Cove, on the Bay of Fundy and where her penultimate short story, "Before Breakfast," is set. It was the only house she ever owned.:23 She valued the seclusion of the island, and did not mind that her cottage had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. Anyone wishing to reach her could do so by telegraph or mail.:415 She stopped going to Grand Manan Island when Canada entered World War II (1939), since travel was more difficult, tourist amenities were scarcer, and a favorite island doctor had died. Cather was experiencing a long recuperation from gall bladder surgery.:496

        A resolutely private person, Cather had destroyed many old drafts, personal papers, and letters. Her will restricted the ability of scholars to quote from the personal papers that remain. However, in April 2013, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather—a collection of 566 letters Cather wrote to friends, family, and literary acquaintances such as Thornton Wilder and F. Scott Fitzgerald—was published, two years after the death of Cather's nephew and second literary executor, Charles Cather. Willa Cather's correspondence revealed complexity of her character and inner world. The letters do not disclose any intimate details about Cather's personal life, but they do "make clear that [her] primary emotional attachments were to women."

        Writing influences

        Cather admired Henry James as a "mighty master of language and keen student of human actions and motives." She generally preferred past literary masters to contemporary writers. Some particular favorites were Dickens, Thackeray, Emerson, Hawthorne, Balzac, Flaubert, and Tolstoy.

        While Cather enjoyed the novels of George Eliot, the Brontës, and Jane Austen, she regarded most women writers with disdain, judging them overly sentimental and mawkish.:110 Cather's biographer James Woodress notes that Cather "so completely ... embraced masculine values that when she wrote about women writers, she sounded like a patronizing man.":110 One contemporary exception was Sarah Orne Jewett, who became Cather's friend and mentor. Jewett advised Cather to use female narrators in her fiction, but Cather preferred to write from a male point of view.:214 Jewett also encouraged Cather to write about subjects that had "teased the mind" for years. Chief among these subjects were the people and experiences Cather remembered from her years in Nebraska. She dedicated O Pioneers!, the first novel in her Prairie Trilogy, to Jewett. Cather also admired the work of Katherine Mansfield, praising Mansfield's ability "to throw a luminous streak out onto the shadowy realm of personal relationships."

        Cather's high regard for the immigrant families forging lives and enduring hardships on the Nebraska plains shaped a good deal of her fiction. As a child, she visited immigrant families in her area and raced home in "the most unreasonable state of excitement," feeling that she "had got inside another person's skin." Following a trip to Red Cloud in 1916 to visit her family, Cather decided to write a novel based on the events in the life of her childhood friend Annie Sadilek Pavelka, a Bohemian girl who became the model for the title character in My Ántonia.:289 Cather was likewise fascinated by the French-Canadian pioneers from Quebec who had settled in the Red Cloud area while she was a girl.

        During a brief stopover in Quebec with Edith Lewis in 1927, Cather was inspired to write a novel set in that French-Canadian city. Lewis recalled: "From the first moment that she looked down from the windows of the [Chateau] Frontenac [Hotel] on the pointed roofs and Norman outlines of the town of Quebec, Willa Cather was not merely stirred and charmed—she was overwhelmed by the flood of memories, recognition, surmise it called up; by the sense of its extraordinary French character, isolated and kept intact through hundreds of years, as if by a miracle, on this great un-French continent.":414–15 Cather finished her novel Shadows on the Rock, a historical novel set in 17th-century Quebec, in 1931; it was later included in Life Magazine's list of the 100 outstanding books of 1924–1944. The French influence is found in many other Cather works, including Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and her final, unfinished novel set in Avignon.

        Literary style and themes

        Willa Cather in the Mesa Verde wilds, ca. 1915.

        Although Cather began her writing career as a journalist, she made a distinction between journalism, which she saw as being primarily informative, and literature, which she saw as an art form. Cather's work is often marked by its nostalgic tone, her subject matter and themes drawn from memories of her early years on the American plains. Some critics have charged Cather with being out of touch with her times and failing to use more experimental techniques, such as stream of consciousness, in her writing. However, others have pointed out that Cather could follow no other literary path but her own:

        She had formed and matured her ideas on art before she wrote a novel. She had no more reason to follow Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, whose work she respected, than they did to follow her. Her style solves the problems in which she was interested. She wanted to stand midway between the journalists whose omniscient objectivity accumulate more fact than any character could notice and the psychological novelist whose use of subjective point of view stories distorts objective reality. She developed her theory on a middle ground, selecting facts from experience on the basis of feeling and then presenting the experience in a lucid, objective style. Cather's style is not the accumulative cataloguing of the journalists, nor the fragmentary atomism of psychological associations.

        In a 1920 essay on Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken apologized for having suggested that Cather was a talented but inconsequential imitator of Edith Wharton. He praised her for abandoning New England as a locale for the "Middle West of the great immigrations." Mencken describes My Antonia as a sudden leap forward by Cather. "Here was a novel planned with the utmost skill, and executed in truly admirable fashion." he wrote. "Here, unless I err gravely, was the best piece of fiction ever done by a woman in America."

        The English novelist A. S. Byatt observes that with each work Cather reinvented the novel form "to look at a new human world." Byatt identifies some of Cather's major themes as "the rising and setting of the sun, the brevity of life, the relation between dailiness and the rupture of dailiness, the moment when 'desire shall fail'." Particularly in her frontier novels, Cather wrote of "life's terrors ... and its beauties". Like the exiled characters of Henry James, an author who had a great influence on Cather, most of Cather's major characters live as exiled immigrants, "people trying to make their way in circumstances strange to them". Joseph Urgo in Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration says Cather felt a connection between the immigrants' "sense of homelessness and exile" and her own feelings of exile when she lived on the frontier. Susan Rosowski wrote that Cather was "the first to give immigrants heroic stature in serious American literature."

        Later years

        Cather made her last trip to Red Cloud in 1931 for a family gathering following the death of her mother. She continued to stay in touch with her Red Cloud friends and she sent money to Annie Pavelka and other country families during the Depression years.:327

        1973 U.S. commemorative stamp honoring Cather.

        In 1932, Cather published Obscure Destinies, her final collection of short fiction, which contained "Neighbour Rosicky", one of her most highly regarded stories. Cather and Edith Lewis moved into a new apartment on Park Avenue, and Cather began work on her next novel, Lucy Gayheart, a book that revealed "its author's darkening vision as she began her seventh decade.":449

        Cather suffered two devastating losses in 1938. In June, her favorite brother, Douglass, died of a heart attack. Cather was too grief-stricken to attend the funeral.:478 Several months later, Isabelle McClung died. Cather and McClung had lived together when Cather first arrived in Pittsburgh, and while McClung eventually married and moved with her husband to Toronto, the two women remained devoted friends.:139 Cather wrote friends that Isabelle was the one for whom all her books had been written.:479

        Cather grew increasingly discouraged as the United States moved closer to involvement in World War II. When the French army surrendered to Nazi Germany, Cather wrote in her diary: "There seems to be no future at all for people of my generation.":184 During the summer of 1940, Cather and Lewis went to Grand Manan for the last time, and Cather finished what was to be her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, a novel much darker in tone and subject matter than her previous works.:483 Sapphira lacks a moral sense and is not a character who evokes empathy. However, the novel was a great critical and commercial success, with an advance printing of 25,000 copies. It was then adopted by the Book of the Month Club, which bought more than 200,000 copies.:488

        Although an inflamed tendon in her hand hampered her writing, Cather managed to finish a good part of a novel set in Avignon, France. However, Edith Lewis destroyed the manuscript, according to Cather's instructions, when Cather died. Cather's remaining papers reveal that Cather had titled the unfinished manuscript Hard Punishments and set it in the 14th century during the papal reign of Antipope Benedict XIV.:371 She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943. In 1944, Cather received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an award given once a decade for an author's total accomplishments.:498 Though Cather suffered from no specific medical problems in her last years, those closest to her felt that her health was deteriorating.:502

        On April 24, 1947, Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 73 in her home at 570 Park Avenue in Manhattan.:504

        Cather was buried in the Old Burying Ground, behind the Jaffrey Center Meeting House in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Her grave site, which she shares with Edith Lewis, is at the southwest corner of the graveyard. She had first visited Jaffrey in 1917 when she joined Isabelle McClung and her husband, violinist Jan Hambourg, staying at the Shattuck Inn, where she came late in life for the seclusion necessary for her writing. The inscription on her tombstone reads:


        December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947





        " ... that is happiness; to be dissolved

        into something complete and great."

        From My Antonia

        Legacy and honors

        An American Arts Commemorative Series medallion depicting Cather
        • 1955, The Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation (now the Willa Cather Foundation) was founded to support the study of her life and work, and to maintain many sites in her hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska.
        • 1962, Cather was elected to the Nebraska Hall of Fame.
        • 1973, the U.S. Postal Service honored Willa Cather by issuing a stamp bearing her image.
        • 1981, the U.S. Mint created the Willa Cather half-ounce gold medallion.
        • 1986, Cather was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.
        • 1988, Cather was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
        • 1992, part of the 1992 film Nitrate Kisses focuses on the story of Cather, who destroyed many personal letters and papers before her death; the film argues that Cather was covering up evidence of lesbianism. (Note, however, that such claims have been disputed by other scholars of Cather's life and career.)
        • 2000, Cather was named a member of the inaugural class of Virginia Women in History.
        • 2006, Willa Cather Foundation received a National Endowment of the Humanities grant "to develop its work, which includes maintaining a slice of Nebraskan prairie as "Catherland," curating the Cather childhood home, holding Cather conferences, and publishing a Cather newsletter."
        • 2011, Cather was inducted into the New York Writers Hall of Fame.

        In addition, Composer Garth Baxter has written a number of songs on Willa Cather’s poetry:

        • Willa, Volume 3 of From the Heart: Three American Women , a song cycle for voice and guitar, sets the poems The Tavern, The Hawthorn Tree, L’Envoi and Spanish Johnny. Published by Columbia Music

        Company, 1992.

        • Grandmother, think not I forget for Soprano and piano, and for soprano and guitar is adapted from Ms. Cather’s poem, Grandmither, think not I forget. Published by Doberman Yppan and Les Productions,

        D’Oz. 2017, 2006.

        • April Twilight for voice, flute and piano, also available for voice, flute and guitar. This work uses Ms. Cather’s poem Dedicatory. Published by Doberman Yppan, 2018.
        • Willa, Volume 3 of From the Heart: Three American Women [The Tavern, The Hawthorn Tree, L’Envoi and Spanish Johnny] were included in the recording Katherine Keem Sings Songs and Arias by Garth Baxter, Centaur Records.
        • Grandmother, think not I forget, for voice and guitar was included in the album Katherine Keem Sings Songs and Arias by Garth Baxter.
        • Grandmother, think not I forget, for voice and piano was on the album ASK THE MOON, Navona Records.
        • April Twilight for soprano, flute and piano was included in the album ASK THE MOON, Navona Records.



        • Willa Cather and Georgine Milmine, The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science (1909, reprinted U of Nebraska Press, 1993)
        • Not Under Forty (1936, essays)
        • On Writing (1949, reprint U Nebraska Press, 1988, .mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output .citation q{quotes:"\"""\"""'""'"}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-free a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-registration a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .citation .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration{color:#555}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription span,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration span{border-bottom:1px dotted;cursor:help}.mw-parser-output .cs1-ws-icon a{background:url("//")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output code.cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:inherit;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:block;font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-maint{display:block;color:#33aa33;margin-left:0.3em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration,.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-right{padding-right:0.2em}ISBN 978-0-8032-6332-1 )


        • Alexander's Bridge (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)

        Essays and articles

        • On the Art of Fiction (1920), The Borzoi


        • April Twilights (1903, poetry)
        • The Troll Garden (1905, short stories)
        • Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920, short stories)
        • Obscure Destinies (1932, three stories)
        • Not Under Forty (1936, essays)
        • The Old Beauty and Others (1948, three stories)
        • Willa Cather: On Writing (1949, essays)
        • Five Stories (1956, published by the Estate of Willa Cather)
        • The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (published 2013)

        This does not include recent collections of early stories which were originally published in periodicals.


        Cather was the subject of the 2005 PBS documentary Willa Cather: The Road Is All.

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