Willa Cather Biography


Early Years

Willa Cather was born in Back Creek Valley near Winchester, Virginia, on December 7, 1873. She was the first of seven children born to Charles F. and Mary Virginia Boak Cather. Her family had emigrated to the United States shortly after the Revolutionary War from Ireland by way of Wales. The combination of unsuccessful sheep farming and a family history of tuberculosis prompted the family to move nine years later to Nebraska. The family traveled west by train to homestead in Webster County. Her father moved the family from the homestead farm to the town of Red Cloud, where he pursued a career in insurance.

Education and Early Work

Although Red Cloud could claim only 2,500 inhabitants, Cather received a public education as well as the benefit of her German neighbor's extensive library. In addition, she took Latin and Greek lessons from an English immigrant and music lessons from a Norwegian woman.

Among her many interests as a young woman was science. Aspiring to be a doctor, Cather followed the town physician on his rounds and assisted him as necessary, going so far as to administer ether to a patient receiving an amputation.

In the early 1890s, she attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and graduated in 1895. As a student, Cather wrote stories, poems, plays, and drama and music criticism. Although medicine was her stated career goal, one of her teachers submitted a Cather essay on Thomas Carlyle to the local newspaper. The experience served as Cather's inauguration into the writing vocation.

In 1896, she was appointed managing editor of the Home Monthly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The following year, she went to work at the Pittsburgh Daily Leader. In 1901, she began teaching Latin and English at Allegheny High School in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, Cather boarded with the wealthy family of her close friend and rumored lover, Isabelle McClung. She would stay with the McClungs between her travels until 1915, when Isabelle married a concert violinist. For the remainder of her life, Cather shared a home with Edith Lewis. Speculation abounds as to the relationships between Cather and Lewis, but the intensely private Cather left no clues to substantiate or refute claims that Cather was a lesbian. In any event, Cather never married and never had children.

In 1902, Cather traveled to Europe. In 1903, she published her first book of poems, April Twilight. Critics largely dismissed the volume, and Cather subsequently abandoned the form to fiction. Having already published the short story "Peter" as a college student@ — a short story that would later be integrated into the celebrated novel My Ántonia@ — Cather continued to refine her fiction while teaching high school in Pittsburgh.

In 1905, she published the short-story collection, The Troll Garden, which features her celebrated and much-anthologized story "Paul's Case." She joined the staff at McClure's magazine in 1906, remaining with them until 1912, the year she published her first novel, Alexander's Bridge. The novel was recognized as an attempt to mimic the style and themes of novelist Henry James. The following year, she published O Pioneers!, which prompted critical recognition of Cather as a fiction writer of merit. The novel relates the story of Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of Swedish immigrants, who sacrifices her personal desires in order to save her parents' farm following their deaths. The novel also tells the story of Alexandra's brother Emil, who conducts an affair with a married woman, resulting in the deaths of Emil and his lover. Alexandra's hard work and dedication, on the other hand, result in her meeting and falling in love with an honorable man.

Cather the Novelist

In 1915, Cather published her third novel, The Song of the Lark, which relates the story of a Colorado woman who matures into a major opera star. Many critics consider this novel to be Cather's artistic manifesto in that the novel's protagonist, Thea Kronborg, chooses an artistic career over marriage.

In 1916, Cather traveled extensively throughout Wyoming and New Mexico. During this trip, she resolved to simplify her writing by stripping away unnecessary descriptions. She employed this resolution in her novel My Ántonia, which relates the story of a Czechoslovakian woman who endures scandal and unrequited love to find peace in rural Nebraska. Along with Death Comes for the Archbishop, My Ántonia is considered among Cather's finest fiction.

Cather's next novel, One of Ours, was awarded the 1922 Pulitzer Prize. She followed it with the novels A Lost Lady and The Professor's House, which critics claim reveal Cather's dislike of Jazz Age materialism and relaxed morality. This dislike is credited for Cather's turning to historical subject matter for her next novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Shadows on the Rock (1931), and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940).

By the time she died on April 24, 1947, from a cerebral hemorrhage, Willa Cather had published twelve novels, fifty-eight short stories, and several collections of essays. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Prix Femina Americain, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters gold medal. She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.