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Willa Cather

Willa Cather Willa Cather[1†]

Willa Sibert Cather (December 7, 1873 – April 24, 1947) was an American writer known for her novels of life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia[1†][2†]. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours, set during World War I[1†]. Born in Virginia, Cather moved with her family to Nebraska when she was nine years old[1†]. This move would greatly influence her writing, as she grew up among the immigrants from Europe—Swedes, Bohemians, Russians, and Germans—who were breaking the land on the Great Plains[1†][2†].

Cather’s work is characterized by its focus on the spirit and courage of the frontier settlers, many of whom were European immigrants in the nineteenth century[1†]. Her writing often includes themes of nostalgia and exile, and a strong sense of place is a key element in her fiction[1†].

Early Years and Education

Willa Sibert Cather was born on December 7, 1873, on her maternal grandmother’s farm in the Back Creek Valley near Winchester, Virginia[1†][3†]. Her father was Charles Fectigue Cather, and her mother was Mary Virginia Boak, a former school teacher[1†][3†]. The Cather family originated in Wales, the name deriving from Cadair Idris, a Gwynedd mountain[1†].

When Cather was nine years old, the family moved to Nebraska, a decision influenced by her paternal grandparents. The farmland appealed to Charles’ father, and the family wished to escape the tuberculosis outbreaks that were rampant in Virginia[1†][3†]. Initially, Cather had trouble adjusting to her new life on the prairie, but after a year, she developed a fierce passion for the land, something that would remain at the core of her writing[1†][4†].

In Nebraska, the family first tried farming for eighteen months before moving into the town of Red Cloud, where her father opened a real estate and insurance business[1†]. Here, Cather attended school for the first time[1†]. She was homeschooled at first, but later went to elementary and secondary school in Red Cloud[1†][4†]. A neighbor taught her Latin, and Cather read English classics aloud to her grandmother[1†][5†].

Cather was educated mainly by her mother, but she had enough knowledge of English literature and Latin to do excellent work at the University of Nebraska[1†][3†][5†]. After graduation in 1895, she moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and found employment as an editor, drama critic, and high school teacher[1†][3†].

Career Development and Achievements

After graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1895, Cather moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania[6†][7†]. She initially found employment as an editor, drama critic, and high school teacher[6†][3†]. She worked for Home Monthly, a publication concerned with domestic matters, and soon became the copy editor, as well as the editor of music and dance for the Pittsburgh Leader[6†][7†].

Cather’s experience in journalism and criticism took her first to Pittsburgh and then to New York, where she served as managing editor for McClure’s Magazine[6†]. After building up its declining circulation, she left in 1912 to devote herself wholly to writing novels[6†][2†].

Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge (1912), was a factitious story of cosmopolitan life[6†][2†]. Under the influence of Sarah Orne Jewett’s regionalism, however, she turned to her familiar Nebraska material[6†][2†]. With O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), which has frequently been adjudged her finest achievement, she found her characteristic themes—the spirit and courage of the frontier settlers, many of them European immigrants in the nineteenth century[6†][1†][2†].

In 1923, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, a novel set during World War I[6†][1†][2†]. One of Ours and A Lost Lady (1923) mourned the passing of the pioneer spirit[6†][2†]. In her earlier Song of the Lark (1915), as well as in the tales assembled in Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), including the much-anthologized “Paul’s Case,” and Lucy Gayheart (1935), Cather reflected the other side of her experience—the struggle of a talent to emerge from the constricting life of the prairies and the stifling effects of small-town life[6†][2†].

First Publication of Her Main Works

Willa Cather’s literary career began with the publication of her first book, a collection of poetry titled “April Twilights,” in 1903[1†]. This was followed by her first collection of short stories, “The Troll Garden,” in 1905[1†][8†]. The collection contained some of her most famous stories, including “A Wagner Matinee,” “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” and "Paul’s Case"[1†].

Here are some of her main works, along with the year of first publication:

Each of these works contributed to Cather’s reputation as a novelist of the frontier and pioneer experience. Her evocative portrayal of life on the Great Plains and the spirit of the settlers moving into the western states, many of them European immigrants in the nineteenth century, is a common theme in her work[1†][2†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Willa Cather’s work is characterized by a deep sense of nostalgia and a profound connection to the past[10†]. Her novels often explore the human spirit’s resilience in the face of change, and she is known for her graceful rendering of place and character[10†]. Cather’s writing style is versatile, ranging from plain and direct to supple and lush, and she often uses archetypes, realistic details, metaphors, and symbols[10†][11†]. Her primary aim seems to be to elicit an emotional response from the reader, rather than an intellectual one[10†][11†].

Cather’s work ethic, as revealed in her life and in the characterization of the professor in “The Professor’s House,” is another notable aspect of her writing[10†]. She was a prolific writer, especially as a young woman, and had been publishing short stories for more than twenty years before she published her first novel[10†].

Cather’s attitude toward social change, as revealed in her novels, is complex and multifaceted. It can be seen as nostalgic, accepting, resistant, or ambivalent, and it varies from one work to another[10†]. For instance, her 1915 novel “The Song of the Lark” was inspired by the landscape surrounding Flagstaff, Arizona[10†][12†], suggesting a deep connection to the physical environment and a resistance to the encroachment of modernity.

Despite some criticism in the 1930s for neglecting contemporary social issues[10†], Cather’s reputation as a great artist and one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century has only grown over time[10†]. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the novel “One of Ours” in 1923[10†], and she received several other awards and honors throughout her career[10†].

In conclusion, Willa Cather’s work provides a complex and brilliant depiction of life on the Great Plains and remains an important part of American literary history[10†].

Personal Life

Willa Cather’s personal life was marked by her close relationships and the influence they had on her writing. She lived for 38 years in a domestic partnership with Edith Lewis, a professional editor, in New York City[13†][14†]. Lewis’s editorial skills likely contributed to Cather’s elegant prose style, as the two of them reviewed her novels together before publication[13†].

Cather also had a significant relationship with Isabelle McClung, whom she referred to as her "great love"[13†][15†]. Given the social climate of the time, it’s unclear if Cather and Lewis were viewed as anything more than roommates[13†][15†].

In her later years, Cather was diagnosed with breast cancer[13†][14†]. She passed away due to a cerebral hemorrhage[13†][14†]. Lewis is buried beside her in a Jaffrey, New Hampshire plot[13†][14†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Willa Cather’s legacy is marked by her unique portrayal of the settlers and frontier life on the American plains[2†][1†]. Her novels, such as “O Pioneers!”, “The Song of the Lark”, and “My Ántonia”, are celebrated for their vivid depiction of the spirit of the pioneers, many of whom were European immigrants in the nineteenth century[2†][1†].

Cather’s work often explores themes of nostalgia and exile, and her narratives are deeply rooted in the physical landscapes and domestic spaces of the Great Plains[2†][1†]. These dynamic presences form the backdrop against which her characters struggle and find community[2†][1†].

In the realm of literary modernism, Cather is recognized as a visionary, her pen a beacon of innovation and insight[2†][16†]. Despite often being relegated to the margins, her work is far from regional or feminine[2†][16†]. It transcends these labels to offer a universal exploration of human courage, spirit, and resilience[2†][16†].

Cather’s influence extends beyond her death in 1947[2†][17†]. Scholarship regarding her personal life, particularly her relationship with Edith Lewis, began to emerge in the late 1980s[2†][17†]. This has added another layer to our understanding of Cather, not just as a writer, but as a person[2†][17†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - Willa Cather [website] - link
  2. Britannica - Willa Cather (1873-1947) was an American novelist noted for her portrayals of the settlers and frontier life on the American plains.: American author [website] - link
  3. Encyclopedia of World Biography - Willa Cather Biography [website] - link
  4. Nebraska U - Cather's Life · Willa Cather Memorials: How UNL Remembers Her [website] - link
  5. Britannica Kids - Willa Cather [website] - link
  6. Willa Cather Archive - Willa Cather: A Brief Biographical Sketch [website] - link
  7. Poem Analysis - Biography of Willa Cather [website] - link
  8. Book Series In Order - Willa Cather [website] - link
  9. Willa Cather Archive - Bibliography of Publications in Book Form [website] - link
  10. eNotes - Willa Cather Analysis [website] - link
  11. eNotes - My Antonia Analysis [website] - link
  12. The National Endowment for the Humanities - Willa Cather in the Desert: Where She Learned What Truly Mattered and Found [website] - link
  13. Publishers Weekly - 10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Willa Cather [website] - link
  14. Wikiwand - Willa Cather - Wikiwand [website] - link
  15. Republican-American - Cather biography a good start for novices curious about the legendary author [website] - link
  16. University of Alabama Press - Willa Cather, A Visionary Practitioner of Literary Modernism [website] - link
  17. Legacy Project Chicago - Willa Cather [website] - link
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