Early Childhood (1873-1884)
Wilella Cather (rhymes with gather) was born on December 7, 1873, in the home of her short, stalwart, maternal grandmother, Rachel Boak, in Back Creek Valley (near Gore), on the northwest tip of Virginia. The oldest of seven children, Willa was named for an aunt who died of diphtheria. She hated her given, or Christian, name and as soon as she had some say about the matter, friends and family knew her as "Willie." She called herself "William" as an adolescent, and she signed her early college papers "William Cather, Jr." Throughout her life — even among family — she insisted that she had been born in 1876.
Willa's father, Charles, was tall and fair, with the manners of a southern gentleman. As a young man, he'd studied law for a couple of years and, because of his helpful nature, neighbors often asked for his help in settling disputes. Willa's mother, Jennie, was the dominant parent, and, according to biographer E. K. Brown, when necessary, she disciplined her children with a rawhide whip; in later years, none of them seemed to resent the whippings and even declared them beneficial. Mrs. Cather, however, gave her children the freedom to do almost anything they wished, so long as they obeyed household rules.
When Willa was about a year old, her parents moved a mile or so to her grandfather William Cather's farm, Willow Shade, named for the multitude of willow trees surrounding the house. The soil at Willow Shade was too poor for farming, so most of the family's income came from raising sheep. Willa enjoyed going with her father to drive in the sheep, just as she equally enjoyed being read to by Grandmother Boak, who lived with the family.
In 1877, Grandfather William and his wife, Caroline, left Virginia and moved to Webster County, Nebraska, where they bought a farm. Six years later, Charles moved his family to join them; Charles' brother George lived on a farm not far away. At first Willa felt as if she were being uprooted from everything familiar to her and abandoned in the middle of nowhere. With no playmates, she often spent her days exploring the vast prairie on her pony, where she discovered German, Norwegian, Swedish, and Bohemian neighbors in their dugouts and sod houses.
In 1884, the family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, about seventeen miles away (in those days, the land was open range, and distance had to be estimated by tying a rope with a knot in it around a wagon wheel and counting the revolutions). In town, Willa befriended the town's two doctors, accompanied them on their rounds and learned as much as her eager mind could absorb about prairie medicine. Once, she even administered chloroform to a boy whose leg needed to be amputated. In the evenings, she read to Grandmother Boak from the English classics, the Bible, and Pilgrim's Progress.
As a child and adolescent on the Nebraska prairie, Willa Cather grew to know many people, some of whom would later figure prominently in her writing. One of these adults was William Ducker, an Englishman, who began tutoring her in Greek and Latin. The small laboratory in his home fascinated her and she often helped him with his experiments. Mr. Schindelmeisser drank heavily, gave Willa piano lessons, and became the model for Professor Wunsch in The Song of the Lark. Mr. and Mrs. Wiener, the Cathers' Jewish neighbors, introduced her to European literature and were immortalized as the Rosens in "Old Mrs. Harris."
Early Formal Education (1884-1890)
Going on eleven, Willa began school in Red Cloud and quickly became aware of how her speech differed from that of her classmates. She worked diligently to eliminate her southern accent. In addition, biographer Edith Lewis reports that "when the other children gave their names at roll call, she hastily improvised for herself the family name of Sibert [her own middle name]."
In June 1890, sixteen-year-old Cather graduated in a class of three from Red Cloud High School. The other two graduates were male and were expected, according to the reporter for the Red Cloud Chief, to go on to do great things. All three graduates gave speeches at their commencement, and this same reporter expressed surprise at the power and logic of Cather's speech — an example of her era's belief that rationality and logic were exclusively masculine qualities.
Advanced Education (1890-1895)
In the fall, intent on becoming a doctor, Cather enrolled in The Latin School, Lincoln, Nebraska's preparatory school for students who needed additional science, Latin, Greek, English, or math courses before admission to the university. She rented a small room (which she would later describe in minute detail in the Lincoln chapters of My Ántonia) and set to work. Her intense energy and concentration were a dramatic contrast to her parents and siblings, who had a southern, laid-back way about them.
In the spring, Ebenezer Hunt, her English professor, assigned the class a theme on Thomas Carlyle and was so impressed with Cather's essay that he arranged for it to be published, without her knowledge, in the local daily newspaper, the Nebraska State Journal. The day it appeared, the undergraduate publication, the Hesperian, also published the essay. Basking in the praises of her professor and the editor of the newspaper, Cather decided to forego becoming a doctor. She would major in the humanities and write.
Enrolling at the University of Nebraska, Cather signed up for more Greek and Latin classes, Shakespeare, nineteenth-century writers, German, math, and chemistry. She began to write fiction, acted in plays, worked on the Hesperian, and eventually became its managing editor. To the paper, she contributed numerous short stories, editorials, and criticism. Her early work was crude and usually overwritten, and, in later years, well-meaning individuals would suggest that Cather publish it, but she refused to do so, believing that it had no scholarly value.
In the summer of 1893, a hot wind swept over the state, destroying the entire corn crop in three days. Banks failed and people lost their farms. Many families who owed money to Charles Cather, who earned his living by making loans, couldn't pay and he had difficulty supporting his family. Willa's two younger brothers, Roscoe and Douglass, went to work as teachers to help out.
That year, Willa began writing literary and dramatic criticism for the Nebraska State Journal at a dollar a column. She enjoyed her life as a newspaper columnist, but it was taxing. She would spend days at the university, evenings at the theater, and the rest of the night at the Journal, arriving home at one or two o'clock in the morning. Later, Cather wrote for the weekly Lincoln Courier. In time, she developed a distinctive writing style — "meat-ax criticism," some called it — for it pulled no punches. If she didn't like a play, she would say so and tell why in no uncertain terms.
Upon graduation in 1895, she was unable to find a full-time job and asked a friend's father for help. When that hope faded, she returned to Red Cloud and continued to write, mostly short stories. The following year, she was offered the editorship of a new magazine, the Home Monthly, based in Pittsburgh. She accepted.
A Career in Journalism (1896-1912)
In Cather's junior year of college, she began growing her hair longer and putting the eccentricities of her early university days behind her. In Pittsburgh, she wore more feminine clothing, and, for the first time in her life, she found herself popular. She was invited to join women's clubs and to attend parties and picnics. She was especially impressed by the museums and concert halls and was happy to be writing prodigiously and earning enough money to support herself. She found it difficult, however, to write magazine copy about the joys of decorating a home and raising children.
When the Home Monthly was sold about a year later, Cather resigned and began working on the telegraph desk of the Pittsburgh Leader, writing dramatic and musical criticism; she sent the latter back to the Journal, in Lincoln. The Leader also ran several of her short stories, some under her own name and some under a pseudonym.
Cather's new lifestyle soon began wearing on her. Because many of her columns ran 3,000 to 4,000 words, she was often exhausted. In addition, she was living in cheap boarding houses and eating sparingly and inexpensively so she could send money home to her parents.
While spending a week in New York in 1899, she met Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent Pittsburgh judge; this meeting was the beginning of a deep friendship that would last a lifetime. Isabelle admired Cather, who was already a celebrity in town, and the two women shared many of the same interests — theater, music, and art. Not only did Isabelle encourage Cather to write, but, in 1901, she remodeled a third-floor sewing room in the family home as a study for her friend. Cather was delighted and moved into the McClung home.
Launching a short-lived career as a high school instructor, Cather began teaching Latin, algebra, and English at Pittsburgh's Central High School; the following year, she became a full-time English teacher. For a while, she also taught American literature at Allegheny High School.
In the summer of 1902, accompanied by Isabelle, Cather visited Europe for the first time. During their travels, she sent back newspaper articles for the Nebraska State Journal to help finance the trip.
In 1903, Cather published a collection of poems, April Twilights, and followed it with a collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, in 1905. In 1906, she moved to New York as a staffer for McClure's Magazine and, in 1908, became the magazine's managing editor. She had ambivalent feelings about her work at McClure's. She was thrilled to be working with manuscripts written by some of the world's finest writers — such luminaries as Mark Twain, Kipling, and Conan Doyle — but McClure's was increasingly turning to nonfiction, and Cather grew impatient with editing amateurishly written articles on subjects about which she had little interest.
One of these poorly written pieces was a manuscript about Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science religion. The manuscript was riddled with factual errors and so badly organized that Cather knew she would have to completely rewrite it. To do this, she had to rent an apartment in Boston to use as a home base while she traveled around New England checking facts.
In Boston, Cather met Sarah Orne Jewett, a writer from Maine, who would become a major influence in Cather's life. Jewett advised Cather to give up journalism and concentrate on writing fiction, but it wasn't until after the publication of Alexander's Bridge in 1912 that Cather was confident enough to leave her job at McClure's and begin writing full-time. She was later critical of Alexander's Bridge, calling it imitative and contrived, and perhaps this is one reason why, with her next novel, she followed Jewett's suggestion and drew on her own background and experiences. The result, O Pioneers! (1913), became Cather's first novel about life on the Nebraska prairie.
In 1908, Cather took a small apartment with Edith Lewis (whom she'd first met in Lincoln in 1903) on Washington Place in New York City. Five years later, the two women moved into an attractive seven-room apartment at 5 Bank Street, in Greenwich Village, where they would reside for fifteen years. These would be Cather's happiest and most productive years.
The Creative Years (1912-1927)
Cather's brother Douglass had taken a job with the Santa Fe Railroad, was stationed in Winslow, Arizona, and, in 1912, Cather visited him. From March to June, she traveled through the Southwest, soaking up the legends and history of its Spanish and Indians peoples, and she would draw on these experiences in The Professor's House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).
For as long as her family remained in Nebraska, Cather returned to Red Cloud for frequent visits. She loved the prairie and often thought about giving up writing and settling down on a quarter section of land, but always when she was in Nebraska, a sense of loneliness and isolation overwhelmed her and she fled back east.
In 1916, Isabelle McClung married violinist Jan Hambourg. The marriage was as a painful, almost devastating shock to Cather, who disliked change; she felt that she was losing her best friend. In the summer of 1917, the Hambourgs invited her to visit them at the Shattuck Inn in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and Cather stayed there throughout the summer and fall. Working on My Ántonia, the quiet and closeness of nature inspired her, and for many years she continued to work in Jaffrey from mid-September until late November.
Cather's early years as a full-time writer were plagued by money worries. Sales from her first three novels were meager — My Ántonia earned less than $1700 during the first two years after its publication. In 1920, she met Alfred Knopf, who had recently started a publishing company and was deeply committed to publishing quality books. She switched her publishing affiliation to Knopf, giving him the manuscript of Youth and the Bright Medusa, a collection of short stories. With Knopf as her publisher, not only did she begin to become better known, but she finally achieved financial security: The 1923 royalties from Youth and the Bright Medusa and One of Ours amounted to more than $19,000.
As she became more famous, Cather developed an obsession with privacy, giving few interviews and making few public appearances. There are several possible explanations for this public shyness, all of which no doubt were contributing factors: She believed the artist and the person are separate entities, and she was determined to keep her personal life as private as possible and never to be hurt by criticism as she had been at the university; in addition, interviews and public appearances took time away from her work. It was necessary to give a certain number of lectures, readings, and interviews, join literary clubs, and attend literary lunches. These things had nothing to do with literature, she felt, and she cringed at the thought that she might be committed to opinions that she'd told to some reporter a decade before. Before she died, she stated in her will that she never wanted her works to be made into movies or anthologized or published in cheap reprint editions. She also asked that her letters be destroyed.
Cather received honorary degrees from Columbia, Yale, the University of California, the University of Michigan, and Princeton (she was the first woman ever to receive an honorary degree from Princeton). She won the gold medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and One of Ours won the Pulitzer Prize.
Last Years (1927-1947)
In the fall of 1927, the apartment building on Bank Street was scheduled to be torn down, so Cather and Lewis took up what they thought would be temporary residence at the Grosvenor Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Because of a string of Cather family crises, however, they were to live at the Grosvenor for five years.
The first crisis came in March 1928, with the death of Cather's father, to whom she'd been very close. In December, her mother, who was living with Douglass in California, had a paralytic stroke and was placed in a Pasadena sanatorium. For two and a half years, Cather worried as her mother grew increasingly feeble. Mrs. Cather died during the summer of 1931, a month after Shadows on the Rock was published, while Cather was living on Grand Manan Island. With both parents gone, so died, in a sense, the Red Cloud home. Charles and Jennie Cather were the strong ties that bound the family together, the magnet that kept the siblings returning to Nebraska year after year. That Christmas, Cather made her final visit to Red Cloud. She opened up the old home and stayed there with a former family housekeeper while visiting old friends and family for the last time. The loss of her parents and the breaking up of the Red Cloud home dredged up enough bittersweet memories of her childhood and family to produce two more books: a short story collection, Obscure Destinies (1932), and a novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940).
In 1932, Cather and Lewis moved into an apartment on Park Avenue. People criticized her for forsaking her roots, abandoning the immigrants and country folks who peopled her fiction, and even her friend Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant wondered if either Neighbour Rosicky or Old Mrs. Harris, two well-known characters from Cather's short stories, could have gotten past the Park Avenue doorman. But the real reason for Cather's move was seclusion: Her work was being constantly interrupted by the telephone, which she had begun turning off during her working hours, and by people dropping in. She did not have the cold indifference of the self-made woman that Sergeant suggested. In fact, during the Great Depression, she serialized Lucy Gayheart for money to help old friends back in Nebraska buy seed and make mortgage payments. She also contributed to a secret fund for the impoverished S. S. McClure, her former boss.
While working on Lucy Gayheart, Cather developed a painful inflammation of the tendons in her right wrist. This ailment would plague her for the rest of her life. For months at a time, she would wear a steel and leather brace, which made signing her own name difficult and writing almost impossible.
Throughout most of 1935, Cather cared for Isabelle (McClung) Hambourg, who had become seriously ill with kidney disease. Cather made all of the arrangements to settle Isabelle into a hospital and visited her daily for weeks. When Isabelle died in October 1938, Cather said that she believed all novelists wrote for only one person; for her, this person had been Isabelle.
In April 1938, Cather returned to Willow Shade, in Virginia. She found the countryside drastically changed. The new owner of the farm had cut down the willow trees and destroyed the high box hedges that Cather had loved as a child. The house had so deteriorated that she couldn't bring herself to go inside. These changes, however, lit a fire in her, and she used the energy to complete Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), her only novel set in Virginia, based in part on her family history.
During Cather's last years, when she was able to do little creative writing, she took more and more pleasure in corresponding with her readers, dictating letters to her secretary. During World War II, Cather and Lewis couldn't go to Grand Manan because most of the workmen on the island were either in the service or working in other industries, and transportation to and from the island became difficult. Thus she set to work on a novel about ancient Avignon. She'd visited the south of France several times, and Avignon had made a major impression on her. After her death, the manuscript was destroyed in accordance with her wishes. She wrote her last story, "The Best Years," for her brother Roscoe, but upon finishing it and preparing to send it to him, she received a telegram informing her of his death.
Although Cather suffered from many ailments in the latter part of her life, she was never an invalid. She rarely let her illnesses depress her, and her mind remained sharp. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947, and was buried in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Engraved on her headstone are these lines from My Ántonia: ". . . that is happiness; to be dissolved in something complete and great."