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From Cather Studies Volume 13


Fig. 1.2. Frances Willard and Gladys, her bicycle. Photograph from her book, How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle, Fleming H. Revell, 1895.

Willa Cather wrote about the places and people she knew: Nebraska, of course, in so many of her most iconic works; New York in My Mortal Enemy and “Coming, Aphrodite!”; Virginia in Sapphira and the Slave Girl; and New Mexico and Arizona in, among others, The Song of the Lark and Death Comes for the Archbishop. All of these locations serve as material referents and figurative settings in both Cather’s life and work, and all have received sustained critical attention. Often forgotten among these essential Cather locations has been Pittsburgh. One of the objectives of the Sixteenth International Willa Cather Seminar, held at Duquesne University in June 2017, was to explore Cather’s professional activities in Pittsburgh and the artistic, professional, and personal connections she made there. During the ten years Pittsburgh was her home (1896–1906), Cather worked as an editor, journalist, teacher, and freelance writer. She mixed with all sorts and formed friendships both ephemeral and lasting. She published extensively—not just hundreds of profiles and reviews, but also a collection of poetry, April Twilights, and more than thirty short stories, including several collected in The Troll Garden that are now considered masterpieces: “‘A Death in the Desert,’” “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” “A Wagner Matinee,” and “Paul’s Case” (Woodress 181).

These were years of personal growth and maturation. Having graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1895, in June 1896 she moved to Pittsburgh’s East End to edit The Home Monthly, a new magazine appealing to middle-class families within a hundred-mile radius of Pittsburgh. She was twenty-two years old, living independently for the first time in a large, industrial city, far from the divide in central Nebraska, and earning her living through writing. She also had greater access to cultural events such as concerts and operatic and theatrical performances than she had had in Lincoln, and she could now enjoy exhibits at a large art museum and several galleries and borrow books from a massive lending library (Selected Letters 37). During her first five years in Pittsburgh, she would write for the Pittsburgh Evening Leader and contribute to the Nebraska State Journal and the Lincoln Courier, the last of which she also served as guest editor (The World and the Parish 502).

In spring 1900, Isabelle McClung’s invitation to join her family in their new house at 1180 Murray Hill Avenue transformed Cather’s personal life. Leaving boardinghouse living behind, she enjoyed greater privacy (her own bath on the third floor), more appetizing fare, and propitious social connections, as well as savings on rent, some of which she sent home to Red Cloud (Woodress 125). With her switch from journalism to teaching high school, she also had more time to work on her own material. From a sewing room converted to her study on the McClungs’ third floor flowed a steady stream of stories and reviews that made their way to print, as well as occasional failures that didn’t—The Player Letters, a collection of open letters she addressed to well-known actors, and Fanny, a novel she later destroyed (138, 181–82). Years after she moved to New York in 1906, she would return to that sewing room to write during long sojourns in Pittsburgh.

Cather started her Pittsburgh life with a resigned, almost fatalistic acceptance of her new home; famously, she told a Lincoln friend, “There is no God but one God and Art is his revealer; that’s my creed and I’ll follow it to the end, to a hotter place than Pittsburgh if need be” (Selected Letters 39). Nevertheless, it is safe to say that as Cather came to know Pittsburgh, she also came to love the city and its people. She immersed herself in the city’s glowing social and artistic scenes, attending hundreds of musical, dramatic, and operatic performances at theaters such as the Grand Opera House, the Alvin, the Duquesne, and the Nixon, as well as the Carnegie Music Hall. She met celebrities in the dining rooms of the city’s grand hotels: Fridtjof Nansen at the Hotel Henry, Ethelbert Nevin at the Hotel Schenley, and Lizzie Hudson Collier, leading lady of the Grand Opera Stock Company, at the favorite residential hotel of actors, the Lincoln. Under the pseudonym “Sibert,” one of many she used at the time, she became a leading theatrical critic in Pittsburgh. While writing her articles and reviews, she rubbed elbows with the famous, including George Westinghouse, soon-to-be First Lady Ida McKinley, novelist Anthony Hope Hawkins, and a host of others; and she attended receptions for Andrew Carnegie and dined with artists such as William H. Low and Winslow Homer (Byrne and Snyder 73).

This desire to follow art would take her to New York and McClure’s in 1906, a move that would bring the heartbreak and angst of yet another uprooting. In a 6 June 1906 letter to her students at Allegheny High School, an honest and forthright communication with them, one can detect the ambivalence in her quandary—once again moving away from a landscape, culture, and community about which she had grown fond: “The changes in my plans which will prevent my [being with you next year] have been sudden and unforeseen. . . . One always has to choose between good things it seems” (Selected Letters 92). Even after moving to New York, her Pittsburgh years were far from over. Cather continued to visit the McClung house until 1916, often for months at a time, revising parts of O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark in her familiar writing room.

After Judge McClung died in November 1915, the two oldest children, Isabelle and Alfred, decided to sell the house. In a letter to her Aunt Franc, Cather expresses her sorrow upon leaving Pittsburgh:

This kind and hospitable home which has been a home to me for fifteen years will probably be sold, as it is too large an establishment for Isabelle and her brother to keep up alone. . . . It is very hard to see dear and familiar things pass out of one’s life. I shall never feel so safe and happy in any other house, I fear. My own apartment in New York was never home in the same sense. (“Willa Cather to Frances Smith Cather”)
When the engagement of Isabelle and Jan Hambourg was announced in January 1916, Cather finally left Pittsburgh for good. She was then forty-two years old and had spent nearly two decades living in and visiting the Steel City. She would not stop there again.

This volume begins to explore the myriad ways that Willa Cather’s writing career was shaped during these crucial years. In “Becoming Miss Cather from Pittsburgh,” Ann Romines opens with the notion that Cather’s growing professionalism is analogous to Pittsburgh’s transition from late-nineteenth-century industrialism to twentieth-century modernity. As Romines points out, in Pittsburgh, Cather “found the landscape that was her first love—the wooded hills and rivers of Virginia—and the enticements of absorbing work in a modern city” (4). Romines observes that much of Cather’s writing (personal as well as professional) deals with homesickness and a desire to return to the familiar: she was “coming to realize [that] distance meant loss” (12).

The three authors of Part 1 of the volume,“East Meets West,” enrich our understanding of the sophisticated politics of Cather’s early works while transcending the standard platitudes. In “Bicycles and Freedom in Red Cloud and Pittsburgh,” Daryl Palmer suggests that in “Tommy, the Unsentimental,” a story published in the August 1896 Home Monthly, Cather reinvented Red Cloud. Palmer finds Cather celebrating an unprecedented kind of code for the New Woman in the American West, where she can flaunt her bicycle riding, “experiment with gender, and resist social expectations” (34) while she “race[s] imaginatively between Red Cloud and Pittsburgh, between East and West, feminine and masculine” (40). In an equally vivid analysis of the disparities between East and West (this time writ large, beyond the territorial bounds of the United States), Michael Gorman in “Where Pagodas Rise on Every Hill: Romance as Resistance in ‘A Son of the Celestial’” argues that this little-studied six-page story challenges “anti-Chinese sentiments voiced by nativists in the United States” (65) at the time of the renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Specifically, Gorman argues that Cather saw America’s “cultural anxiety” not rooted in “Chinese laborers,” as in the fiction of Norris and London, but in “individuals who pronounce Western civilization and religion (i.e., Christianity) [to be] superior to Eastern aesthetics and systems of belief” (65). In “The Boxer Rebellion, Pittsburgh’s Missionary Crisis, and ‘The Conversion of Sum Loo,’” Timothy Bintrim reads a second Chinese story as a satirical response to Pittsburgh’s concern for its beleaguered missionaries in north China during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. By questioning Rudyard Kipling’s claim that East and West shall never meet, these essays find that several early stories, ostensibly set in Nebraska and San Francisco, explore beliefs Cather brought to Pittsburgh from Red Cloud.

Part 2 of the volume,“Class Action: Retrying ‘Paul’s Case,’” brings three new approaches to the study of Cather’s most famous story and her best-known work set in Pittsburgh. Mary Ruth Ryder’s “Growing Pains: The City behind Cather’s Pittsburgh Classroom” shows how “Paul’s Case” and “The Professor’s Commencement” (also set in Pittsburgh) reveal Cather’s “concerns about the changes in education at the time, with commercial studies displacing the liberal arts” and “the troubling effects on her students of rapid cultural change and a consequent shift in values” (112). Drawing upon a number of new archival sources, Ryder details the many ways in which the geography of the city during Cather’s five-year teaching career mapped sociological and ethnic boundaries, which in turn forced various educational reforms. Charmion Gustke’s essay,“Big Steel and Class Consciousness in ‘Paul’s Case,’” utilizes Marxist theory to argue that Pittsburgh in the late nineteenth century “embodied the conflicts of capitalism” characterized by unequal distribution of wealth and class divisions. Three Pittsburgh landmarks referenced in the story—Central High School, the Carnegie Music Hall, and the Hotel Schenley—serve as “cultural signifiers” of a specific “class consciousness,” one that drives Paul to “resist the demands of labor.” His ultimate demise, Gustke argues, shows Cather expressing how this form of resistance is an “inevitable yet futile response to the inequities of a class-based society” (133). In “‘The Most Exciting Attractions Are between Two Opposites That Never Meet’: Willa Cather and Andy Warhol,” Todd Richardson works the magic of his title—positing a number of “critical confluences” between these two artists who spent crucial parts of their lives in Pittsburgh. While acknowledging vast differences in their views on artistic representation, Richardson argues that the two share a kinship based on geography, nonheteronormativity, and their respective relationships to commercial art and modernity.

Part 3 of the volume,“Friendships, Literary and Musical,” traces some of Cather’s biographical associations with other Pittsburgh artists and musicians. Diane Prenatt delves into the ways Cather’s experiences as a translator during her years in Pittsburgh may have influenced her practice of writing fiction. Specifically, Prenatt argues that Cather’s friendship with George and Helen Seibel “played an essential role during her formative years in Pittsburgh” and that their French soirées suggest a social situation associated with “orality” (187). For Cather, translation serves “as a recurring trope for transformation,” one utilized in much of her fiction. John H. Flannigan elucidates an important and lasting friendship Cather had with Ethel Herr Litchfield, a relationship which had hitherto received scant attention from Cather’s biographers. The two music connoisseurs drew on one another both professionally and personally during their lifetimes, argues Flannigan, who summons fresh archival materials to mark how they shared a lifelong, spiritual kinship. Kimberly Vanderlaan makes a compelling case that Ethelbert Nevin, a great musical friend of Cather’s, was likely the model for her fictional professors Godfrey St. Peter, in The Professor’s House, and Emerson Graves, in “The Professor’s Commencement.” Drawing on allusions to Emersonian philosophy and other nineteenth-century artists and works, Vanderlaan further argues that Cather in both pieces “directs us to a reading steeped in the principles of Romanticism.” The failed Romanticism that each academic embodies, according to Vanderlaan, makes for “a fitting tribute to her friend, Ethelbert Nevin” (231).

In Part 4, our contributors adopt new approaches to some of Cather’s later stories, with a focus on how fin-de-siècle Pittsburgh contextually shaped that fiction. Kelsey Squire assesses the impact of industrialization and naturalism on Cather’s stories published in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, with a primary focus on “The Willing Muse,” which Cather wrote in Pittsburgh. Squire builds on the accepted scholarly notion that Cather was an effective marketer of her own work by illustrating the ways in which Cather’s writing “participates in social conversations that surrounded industrialization, labor, productivity, and leisure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century” (238). In “Venetian Window: Pittsburgh Glass and Modernist Community in ‘Double Birthday,’” Joseph Murphy reconsiders how the story’s “dialectical structure,” as illustrated through its central symbol, the Venetian window in the Engelhardt’s family home, “serves as an entryway to Cather’s depiction of modernist consciousness” (256). Described but never seen, the illustrated window, notes Murphy, “never comes fully into focus.” The late Angela Conrad assesses how two Pittsburgh stories, “Paul’s Case” and “Double Birthday,” reflect Cather’s understanding of alchemy on a symbolic level—and how that mystical process is tied to her portrayal of the strata of social class—both in Pittsburgh at the turn of the century and in these stories separated by two decades. Unlike Paul, young Albert Engelhardt recognizes that “his cultural and spiritual refinement outweighed the advantages of being wealthy” and thereby succeeds in his transformation (295).

Our volume’s epilogue, written by senior Cather scholar John J. Murphy and delivered as the closing to the Sixteenth International Seminar, provides readers with a retrospective—detailing some of the reasons Cather’s fiction ranks alongside the canonical greats. Through personal anecdotes drawn from a long and productive career of teaching, editing, and experiencing Cather, Murphy discusses a range of literary devices and stylistic choices that help us to understand why so many of us seek out Cather’s fiction as guideposts about how to live, how to grow, and how to love in all the ways that make us human.

What we hope readers of this volume recognize is the importance the city of Pittsburgh played in Willa Cather’s life and work. Her disembarking in the Steel City, on 26 June 1896, is auspicious not just for its significance in the realm of American letters, but also for its coincidence with cultural shifts closing out the nineteenth century and ushering in the twentieth. Like the narrator of “Uncle Valentine,” who came to the suburb of Greenacre as an orphan, but was eagerly adopted, Cather came to Pittsburgh “at a lovely time, in a bygone period of American life; just at the incoming of this [the twentieth] century which has made all the world so different” (3). As Pittsburgh provided and developed many of the raw materials used to manufacture modern America, this volume begins the work of excavating a deep and rich vein of scholarly ore—from which we hope significant products and connections will continue to be built.

We conclude this introduction by offering thanks to the contributors of the volume, to those who answered our call to review individual essays, to the Willa Cather Foundation, the University of Nebraska Press, and the Cather Project at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Additionally, we are grateful to the host institution of the conference, Duquesne University, as well as the sponsoring institutions: Saint Francis University, California University of Pennsylvania, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and Penn State–Greater Allegheny. We feature a photograph of the Smithfield Street Bridge on this book’s cover to highlight the enduring strength and resilience of the structure (which was a part of Cather’s cityscape as much as it is ours) and to remind us all of the analogous enduring beauty that is reflected in Cather’s fiction.


Byrne, Kathleen D., and Richard C. Snyder. Chrysalis: Willa Cather in Pittsburgh, 1896–1906. Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1982.
Cather, Willa. #0343: Willa Cather to Frances Smith Cather, [December 25] 1915. The Complete Letters of Willa Cather, edited by the Willa Cather Archive team, Willa Cather Archive, 2018,
------.The Selected Letters of Willa Cather. Edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, Knopf, 2013.
------.Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Fiction 1915–1929.Edited by Bernice Slote, U of Nebraska P, 1975.
------.The World and the Parish: Willa Cather’s Articles and Reviews 1893– 1902. Edited by William M. Curtin, U of Nebraska P, 1970. 2 vols.
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. U of Nebraska P, 1987.