A Longer Biographical Sketch | Willa Cather Archive
longer biographical sketch
Willa Cather, remembered for her portrayals of pioneer life in Nebraska, earned a reputation for inspiring her landscape fiction. Sensitive to the gestures and phrases of the people who inhabited her spaces, she brought the American regions to life through her loving portrayals of people within local cultures. ella cather ella believed that artist materials should come from impressions formed before adolescence.  Drawing on her childhood in Nebraska, Cather brought the beauty and vastness of the western plains to the national consciousness. She was able to evoke this sense of place for other regions as well, including the Southwest, Virginia, France, and Quebec.
born willella cather on december 7, 1873 (she would later respond to “willa”), she spent the first nine years of her life in back creek, virginia, before moving with her family to catherton, nebraska in april 1883. In 1885 the family resettled in Red Cloud, the town that has become synonymous with the Cather name.  leaving the virginia mountain range behind for the wide open prairies of the plains had a formative effect on cather. She described the move in an interview: “I was small and homesick and alone…so the field and I did it together and by the end of the first fall the field of shaggy grass had taken hold of me with a passion I’ve never had before.” I have been able to shake myself off. It has been the happiness and the curse of my life.” In addition to the scenery of her new home, Cather was captivated by the customs and languages of Webster County’s diverse immigrant population. she felt a particular kinship with the older immigrant women and spent countless hours visiting them and listening to their stories. This exposure to Old World culture figures heavily in Cather’s writing and her choice of characters. 
In September 1890, Cather moved to Lincoln to continue her education at the University of Nebraska, initially planning to study science and medicine. she had had a childhood dream of becoming a doctor and had become something of an apprentice to the local red cloud doctor.  during an initial year of preparatory studies, cather wrote an essay in english on thomas carlyle that her teacher sent to the lincoln newspaper for publication. Later, Cather recalled that seeing her name printed on her had a “hypnotic effect” on her: her aspirations changed; she would become a writer.  Her college activities are geared toward this goal: the young writer became editorial director of the school newspaper, short story writer, theater critic, and columnist for the Nebraska state newspaper, as well as the Lincoln Courier. Reviews of her earned her a reputation as a “meat hatchet critic,” who, with a sharp eye and an even sharper pen, intimidated the national highway companies. while she produced four columns a week, she was still a full-time student. 
Cather’s classmates remembered her as one of the most colorful personalities on campus: smart, outspoken, talented, even tomboyish in her opinions and dress.  This strong personality of hers would come in handy for her first career in journalism, a career that would take her away from Nebraska. In June 1896, a year after graduating from college, Ella Cather Ella accepted a job as managing editor of Home Monthly, a women’s magazine published in Pittsburgh. While she almost single-handedly produced this magazine, she also wrote theater reviews for the Pittsburgh Leader and Nebraska State Journal.  Her intense interest in music, theater, and writing continued as she observed the Pittsburgh art scene. Ella Cather met another theater lover, Isabelle McClung, who quickly became her best friend. McClung encouraged the writer’s creative streak: When Cather took time off from journalism to foster her penchant for fiction, she found comfortable lodgings in the spacious McClung family home.  Between 1901 and 1906, Ella Cather took a break from journalism to teach English at local high schools. During this time, she published April Twilights (1903), a book of verse, and The Garden of Trolls (1905), a collection of short stories. 
His short stories caught the attention of s. s. mcclure, editor of the most famous scandal magazine. He published “The Case of Paul” and “The Sculptor’s Funeral” in McClure’s magazine and organized the publication of Garden of Trolls in 1905. In 1906, he invited Cather to join his personal magazine . once again, cather took up her work in periodicals, this time enjoying the prestige of editing the country’s most widely circulated general monthly.  cather ghost wrote several articles for the magazine, including the year-long series the life of mary baker g. eddy and the history of christian science and the autobiography of the s. s. mcclure. She continued to publish short stories and poems, but the demands of her job as editor-in-chief absorbed most of her time and energy. McClure felt that Cather’s real genius was in the magazine business: she considered her to be the best magazine executive she knew. Cather, however, remained dissatisfied in the position. her friend and mentor sarah orne jewett encouraged the writer to leave the hectic pace of the office to pursue her craft. In 1911, Cather followed her advice and stepped down as editor of the magazine. she was about to turn thirty-eight years old and was about to embark on a full-time fiction writing career. 
in early 1912, cather’s first novel, alexander’s bridge, appeared serially in mcclure’s as alexander’s masque. She later dismissed the work as an imitation of Edith Wharton and Henry James, rather than her own material.  The following year she published O Pioneers!, the story celebrating immigrant farmers and their quest to farm the prairies. Ella Cather placed hers “hairy grass country” at the center of the novel, allowing the shape of the land to provide the book’s structure. She had taken Jewett’s advice to heart, writing about the land and the people she knew best, and she dedicated this “second first novel” to the memory of her friend. critics were enthusiastic about the novel and recognized a new voice in American letters.  In her next book, Cather turned to her past again, this time telling the story of a young Swedish immigrant and her quest to cultivate her artistic talents. Before writing The Song of the Lark (1915), she met Olive Fremstad, a Wagnerian soprano, who inspired her to create Thea Kronborg in artist form. The resulting story of Thea Kronborg’s development as an opera singer melded Cather’s childhood with the success of Fremstad. 
cather continued in her autobiographical framework while writing my Ántonia (1918), her best-loved novel. He placed his childhood friend Annie Pavelka at the center of the story, renaming her “Ántonia”  Although the story is told through the eyes of Jim, a boy, his experiences are borrowed from Cather’s in particular. her move from virginia to nebraska. Jim’s first reaction to the landscape certainly parallels the author’s: “there was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the stuff countries are made of…I had the feeling that the the The world was left behind, that we had exceeded the limit and were outside the jurisdiction of man… between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, erased”. with the immensity of the landscape, feeling one with his surroundings: “I was something that lay under the sun and I felt it, like pumpkins, and I didn’t want to be anything else. I was completely happy. Maybe we feel that way when we die and we become part of something whole, be it sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. Either way, that’s happiness, dissolving into something whole and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.” [ 19] Jim’s attachment to the land parallels his relationship with Ántonia, his bohemian neighbor and playmate. when she leaves nebraska, she leaves behind Ántonia, her childhood, her family, the land: Ántonia comes to represent the west; Jim’s memories of her replace her lost youth of hers.
critics unanimously praised the novel. h. Yo Mencken wrote: “No romance novel ever written in America, by a man or a woman, is half as beautiful as my Ántonia.”  Randolph Bourne of the Dial classified Cather as a member of the global modern literary movement.  The author herself felt a special connection to this story, recognizing it as the best thing she had ever done. As she confided to her childhood friend Carrie Miner Sherwood, “I feel like I’ve made a contribution to American letters with that book.” her grave says: “that is happiness; to dissolve into something whole and great. ” 
Desiring a publisher who would further her artistic concerns, Cather changed her alliances in 1921 from Houghton-Mifflin to Alfred Knopf. knopf gave cather the freedom to be uncompromising in her work; she fostered her national reputation and ensured her financial success.  During the 1920s, Cather was at the height of her artistic career. Psychologically, however, Cather’s mood had changed. Compared to her epic novels of the 1910s, Cather’s postwar novels seem permeated with disillusionment and despondency.  After publishing Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), a collection of artist-focused short stories, she wrote Goodfellas (1922), a World War I story based on the life of her cousin. g of her p. Taken at the end of the novel, a mother gratefully reflects that her son died as a soldier, still believing that “the cause was glorious”, a belief she could not have held if she had survived the war. Although many critics criticized him, dozens of former soldiers wrote him letters of appreciation, thanking him for capturing how they felt during the war. Her efforts secured her the Pulitzer Prize for this novel.  A Lost Lady (1923) followed, for which Cather drew on her memory of Lyra Garber, the beautiful wife of a prominent banker in Red Cloud. once again, innocence brushes against the realities of the world: young niel herbert first adores mrs. Forrester, then scorns her in disappointment when she betrays her ideals. in the end he remembers her memory, content for the part it played “in bringing him back to life”, and also for its power “to suggest things far more beautiful than herself, as the perfume of a single flower can evoke all the sweetness of Spring.” In A Lost Lady, Cather employed her philosophy of the “démueble novel,” counting by suggestion rather than minute detail. Most critics applauded the power of her artistry in this novel, although a handful of her complained about the immorality of the adulterous heroine. 
The same theme of disappointment also runs strongly in The Professor’s House (1925). godofredo street peter, achieving success in middle age, finds himself discouraged, withdrawn, almost estranged from his wife and daughters. As his wife prepares a new house for him, the professor feels that he cannot leave his old home. As his despondency deepens, he turns to the memory of his former student Tom Outland, in whom he recalls the promise of youth cut short by death in World War I. The purposelessness of Tom’s death underscores the professor’s postwar malaise, indeed, of the modernist world. the teacher will always feel loneliness, alienation, the feeling of not always being at home; in short, he concludes, he will learn to live without delight. The novel reflects Cather’s own sense of alienation within the modern world. 
Cather published My Mortal Enemy (1926) before producing his greatest artistic achievement, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). With the same power that she had used to summon the landscape of the plains, Cather embodied the beauty and history of the American Southwest. Based on the life of Archbishop Lamy, a French Catholic missionary to New Mexico in the 1850s, Cather created Bishop Latour, the man who ministers to the Mexicans, Navajos, Hopi, and Americans in his diocese. cather took great care in presenting him: his writing was well documented and his attention to design detail made this the best produced book of his career. critics immediately hailed it as “an American classic,” a book of perfection. Catherine reflected that writing the novel had been such an enjoyable process for her that she was sad to say goodbye to her characters when she finished. The American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Howells Medal for this achievement. 
Cather wrote another historical novel, Shadows on the Rock (1931), this time centering on 17th-century French Quebec. Although the death of her father and her mother’s stroke delayed the progress of this book, Ella Cather felt that writing this novel gave her a sense of refuge during a tumultuous emotional period.  At the time, Ella Cather was reaping the rewards of a long and successful career: She received honorary degrees from Yale, Princeton, and Berkeley, in addition to those she had already received from the Universities of Nebraska and Michigan. With the publication of Shadows, Ella Cather graced the cover of Time magazine, and the French awarded her the Prix Femina Américain. The book enjoyed great sales, becoming the most popular book of 1932.  In the same year, he published Dark Fates, the collection of short stories that included “Old Mrs. Harris” and “Neighbor Rosicky.” . 
The pace of her writing slowed dramatically during the 1930s. Cather published Lucy Gayheart in 1935 and Sapphira and the Slave Girl in 1940, her last full-length novel based on her family’s history in Virginia.  she spent two years revising her collected works for a handwritten edition published by houghton mifflin, the first volume of which appeared in 1937.  having become a national icon in the 1930s, cather became a favorite target . from Marxist critics who said that she was out of touch with contemporary social problems. Granville Hicks claimed that Cather offered her readers “supine romanticism” rather than substance.  In addition to these criticisms, Cather had to deal with the death of her mother, her brothers Douglass and Roscoe, and her friend Isabelle McClung, the person for whom she said she wrote all of her books. .  The outbreak of World War II occupied her attention and problems with her right hand affected her ability to write.  Still, there were some bright spots in recent years. She received the Gold Medal for Fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1944, an honor that marked a decade of achievement. three years later, on april 24, 1947, cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage at her new york residence. 
Fifty years after her death, readers are still drawn to the beauty and depth of Cather’s art. Fluid enough to appeal to the casual reader and nuanced enough to appeal to the literary scholar, Cather’s writing appeals to many walks of life. Her faithful portrayal of immigrant cultures has attracted readers outside of the United States, and her work has been translated into countless languages, including Japanese, German, Russian, French, Czech, Polish, and Swedish. Scholastically, Cather has not always held a prominent place in the American literary canon. she for many years was relegated to the status of a regional writer. In the last twenty years, however, there has been an “explosion of scholarly interest in Cather,” interest that has brought the writer from marginalization to canonical status. In her eagerness to expand the canon, feminist critics “recovered” her writing by recalling the strong heroines of ¡oh pioneeras!, El canto de la alondra and mi Ántonia. Similarly, Cather has been vindicated by old-school traditionalists: She is currently the only American writer to be included in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1990) list of “Great Books of the Western World.” 
meanwhile, basic questions remain about cather’s life: the writer tried to destroy all her letters before her death, burning a rich correspondence that would have delighted any investigator. Thousands of her letters escaped destruction, but are protected from reproduction or citation by Cather’s will. The biography of James Woodress (Willa Cather: A Literary Life), the primary source for this account, offers a comprehensive synthesis of Cather’s life, drawn from family records, letters, critical reviews, and recollections from friends and family. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant and Edith Lewis offer more personal accounts of her friend in Willa Cather: A Memoir and Willa Cather Living, respectively. Cather’s sexual orientation became a topic of research in the 1980s, with Sharon O’brien considering the possibility of lesbianism in Cather’s life (see Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice). Other critics have examined the broader cultural themes that serve as a backdrop to Cather’s writing. Guy Reynolds discusses issues of race and empire in Willa Cather in Context, while Susan J. Rosowski examines the romantic literary tradition from which Cather wrote (see The Perilous Journey: The Romanticism of Willa Cather).  deborah carlin and merrill skaggs investigate her latest novels in cather, canon, and the policy of reading and after the world split in two.  painstaking efforts have been made to recapture cather’s youth and journalism, thanks to bernice slote (the realm of art) and william curtin (the world and the parish).
Cather’s more serious readers will appreciate Wallace Stevens’ judgment towards the end of her life: “We don’t get any better than her. She tries so hard to hide her sophistication that it’s easy to overlook her quality.”  It is along these lines of appreciating cather’s sophistication that current scholarship continues to develop.