The Willa Cather Archive
cather.unl.edu

Life


Willa Cather

A Brief Biographical Sketch

by Amy Ahearn

Born in Back Creek, Virginia on December 7, 1873, Willa Cather moved with her family to Catherton, Nebraska in 1883. The following year the family relocated to nearby Red Cloud, the same town that has been made famous by her writing. The nine-year-old had trouble adjusting to her new life on the prairie: the all-encompassing land surrounded her, making her feel an "erasure of personality." After a year, Cather had developed a fierce passion for the land, something that would remain at the core of her writing. By 1890, immigrants in Nebraska made up forty-three percent of the state population. Cather found herself surrounded by foreign languages and customs. Drawn together in their homesickness, Cather felt a certain kinship to the immigrant women of the Plains. [1] It was to this land and these people that her mind returned when she began writing novels.

Cather attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, graduating in 1895. While a student, she became a theater critic and columnist for the Nebraska State Journal and the Lincoln Courier. Her 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. During her tenure, she met Sarah Orne Jewett who encouraged the writer to develop her own voice with her own materials. [2] In 1913, Cather delivered, publishing O Pioneers!, a novel which celebrates the pioneering spirit of Swedish farmers on the plains of Nebraska. She followed this with The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Ántonia (1918), both novels epic treatments of heroic immigrant women. [3]

Cather had a long writing career, over which she became nationally acclaimed and internationally respected. She is most remembered for My Ántonia, A Lost Lady (1923) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). [4] My Ántonia and A Lost Lady are structured around central female characters, Ántonia, a Bohemian immigrant, and Marian Forrester, wife of a prestigious townsman. In the end, these women become emblematic of the past — Ántonia represents the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of childhood which the narrator wants to recapture. [5] Likewise, Mrs. Forrester signals the end of the past: her husband, aging and helpless, recalls the age of the railroad pioneers, the men of big business dreams, now defunct. Marian, however, changes to accommodate the new order, thereby surviving. [6] Cather evoked not only the Nebraska plains but also the history and topography of the southwest. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, she recounted the story of French Catholic missionaries settling New Mexico and Colorado. This novel was an instant critical success, earning the reputation of an "American classic." [7]

Cather received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours. [8] She was given honorary degrees from Yale, Princeton and Berkeley, and was awarded the Prix Femina Américain by the French for her depiction of French culture within North America. Her writing earned her the cover of Time Magazine as well as the gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. [9] Cather wrote, "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." [10] Her ability to tap into these fundamental human stories keeps readers passionately engaged with her fiction.

Works Cited

 1.  James Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1987) ch. 1-3, specifically, pp. 21-38. For immigration statistics, see Robert W. Cherny, "Willa Cather's Nebraska," Approaches to Teaching Cather's My Ántonia, ed. Susan J. Rosowski (New York: Modern Language Association, 1989) 31-36. See also Hermione Lee, Willa Cather: Double Lives (New York: Vintage, 1989) 24-38 (Go back.)
 2.  Woodress, Willa ch. 4-6 and 9. In particular, see pp. 103, 112, 199, 201-205. See also Mildred R. Bennett, The World of Willa Cather (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1989 [1951]) 180-95. (Go back.)
 3.  Woodress, Willa ch. 11-13, particularly pp. 233, 253, 289. For the Modern Langauge Association scholarly editions of her work, see Susan J. Rosowski and Charles Mignon, eds., O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992). See also Charles Mignon, ed., My Ántonia by Willa Cather (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994).  (Go back.)
 4.  Woodress, Willa 293, 351, 391. (Go back.)
 5.  Woodress, Willa 293-301. See also James Woodress, "Historical Essay," My Ántonia, ed. Mignon 361-93. (Go back.)
 6.  Woodress, Willa 348. For the MLA scholarly edition, see Charles Mignon, Frederick Link, and Kari Ronning, eds., A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997). (Go back.)
 7.  Woodress, Willa 409-10. See also the forthcoming John Murphy, ed., Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999). (Go back.)
 8.  Woodress, Willa 334. (Go back.)
 9.  For Cather's honors, see Woodress, Willa 420, 423-424, 498. See also Bennett 202-203. (Go back.)
 10.  Willa Cather, O Pioneers!, ed. Susan J. Rosowski and Charles Mignon (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992). (Go back.)