Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873 in Back Creek Valley (a small farming community close to the Blue Ridge Mountains) in Virginia. She was the eldest child of Charles Cather, a deputy Sheriff, and Mary Virginia Boak Cather. The family came to Pennsylvania from Ireland in the 1750's.
In 1883 the Cather family moved to join Willa's grandparents William and Caroline and her uncle George in Webster County, Nebraska. At the time her family included Willa's two brothers, a sister, and her grandmother. Ayear later they moved to Red Cloud, a nearby railroad town, where her father opened a loan and insurance office. The family never became rich or influential, and Willa attributed their lack of financial success to her father, whom she claimed placed intellectual and spiritual matters over the commercial. Her mother was a vain woman, mostly concerned with fashion and trying to turn Willa into "a lady", in spite of the fact that Willa defied the norms for girls and cut her hair short and wore trousers. While living in the town Willa met Annie Sadilek, whom she later used for the Antonia character in My Antonia. Many of Willa's characters are inspired by people she met in her youth. Another notable example is Olive Fremstad, an opera singer, who inspired the character Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark.
Willa graduated from Red Cloud High School in 1890. She soon moved to the state capitol in Lincoln in order to study for entrance at the University of Nebraska. At this time Willa was actually interested in studying medicine. In Red Cloud she had spent time with and learned from a local doctor, and she dreamed of becoming a physician. But, when one of Willa's stories for a writing class got published, she discovered a passion for writing had been fermenting within her. In college, Willa spent time editing the school magazine and publishing articles and play reviews in the local papers. In 1892 she published her short story "Peter" in a Boston magazine, a story that later became part of her novel My Antonia. After graduating in 1895, she returned to Red Cloud until she was offered a position editing Home Monthly in Pittsburgh.
While editing the magazine, she wrote short stories to fill its pages. Between 1901 and 1906, Willa worked as a high school English teacher. During this time she wrote the stories that would be published in her first collection, called the Troll Garden (1905). These stories brought her to the attention of S.S. McClure, owner of one of the most widely read magazines of the day. In 1906 Cather moved to New York to join McClure's Magazine, initially as a member of the staff and ultimately as its managing editor. During this time she met Sara Orne Jewett, a woman from Maine who inspired her to later write about Nebraska. In 1912, after five years with McClure's, she left the magazine to have time for her own writing. After the publication of Alexander's Bridge, also in 1912, Cather visited the Southwest where she was fascinated by the Anasazi cliff dwellings.
In 1913 O Pioneers was published and in 1917 she wrote My Antonia while living in New Hampshire. By 1923 she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her One of Ours, and in this year her modernist book A Lost Lady was published. At the time her novels focused on the destruction of provincial life and the death of the pioneering tradition.
Perhaps overwhelmed by so much success, Cather suffered a period of despair reflected in the darker tones of the novels written during this period. Despite her problems, she wrote some of her greatest novels during this period, such as The Professor's House (1925), My Mortal Enemy (1926), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).
Willa Cather’s fiction is infused with many of her deeply-held beliefs and values. Among these values are a reverence for art, for history, and for the “pomp and circumstance” of organized Catholic and Episcopalian religion. Cather also felt strongly that peoples and civilizations who live in harmony with their natural environments are, and should be, sources of inspiration. She decried materialism and the advent of modern mass culture, which she believed blunted human intellectual achievement and polluted public taste.
From early on in her career, Cather received not only with widespread popular success, but also astonishing critical success. This pattern began to change in the 1930s with the advent of Marxist Criticism. Marxist critics suggested that Cather did not understand or show concern for modern social issues, and they made fun of the romanticism which infused her stories. Whether or not Cather was affected by such criticism, these years were made more difficult by the death of her mother, brothers and her good friend Isabelle McClung.
Cather maintained an active writing career, publishing novels and short stories for many years until her death on April 24, 1947. At the time of her death, she ordered her letters burned. Though thousands of letters escaped destruction, Cather's will prevents their publication. Willa Cather was buried in New Hampshire; in Red Cloud, the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Foundation was created to honor her memory.
Study Guides on Works by Willa Cather
A Lost Lady is primarily a transcendent of realism, arriving shortly before The Great Gatsby which shares many of its characteristics. A characteristic of this type of novel is that the society is in transition from an old culture to a new, a...
First published in 1918, My Antonia is a modernist novel. Modernism was a literary movement that began at the very end of the nineteenth century and continued until the end of the 1930s. It reached its peak during the 1920s, and it was...
The story of O Pioneers! begins in the dedication and poem which precede the work. Cather dedicates O Pioneers! "To the memory of Sarah Orne Jewett, in whose beautiful and delicate work there is perfection that endures." Cather met Jewett in 1908,...
The Professor’s House was published in 1925, but had been in the works since Cather’s 1915 trip to Mesa Verde National Park in Montezuma County, Colorado. The park is widely recognized as the home of some of the world's best-preserved cliff...