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date: 14 June 2024

Cather, Willafree

Cather, Willafree

  • Susan J. Rosowski


  • North American Literatures

Willa Cather is remarkable for the excellence, productivity, longevity, consistency, and experimentation of her writing, and also for the absence in her life of the angst familiar in other authors' biographies: alienation, madness, scandal, alcoholism. Instead, she was faithful to her home, her family, and her friends. Her experience encompassed rural Virginia, frontier Red Cloud and Lincoln, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Park Avenue in New York City, with side trips to Europe, the American Southwest, and Canada; she was a Nebraska cosmopolite. Unlike writers such as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived their lives as extensions of the stories they told, Cather was known for the privacy of her life as well as for the openness of her writing. She once said, in a letter to The Commonweal describing her own methods, that a novelist should present “the experiences and emotions of a group of people by the light of his own…whether his method is ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’ ” (On Writing, p. 13). Cather was a writer whose works were exceptionally infused with her own experiences, but at the same time she had the rare capacity for detachment and could make those experiences and emotions part of her characters' stories, not just her own.

Cather is strongly identified with place. Nebraska is the setting of six of her novels (though one is nominally located in Colorado), as well as of the majority of her short stories, but she also wrote of the Southwest and Quebec City. The common link is that these are all sites of exchanges, of the interplay of cultures and beliefs: in Virginia, of the North and the South; in Nebraska and Quebec, of the New World and the Old; in the Southwest, of Native Americans and Mexicans and Anglos. Cather sought within these changing worlds continuities broad enough to include our own.

A Virginia–Nebraska Childhood

Willa Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, Frederick County, Virginia, on 7 December 1873; though christened Wilella, she was called Willa even in the earliest family letters. She was born into a family of close ties and strong, independent, capable women. (Sidney Gore, her great-aunt, was a postmistress, teacher, and letter writer, and the namesake of Gore, Virginia.) The Shenandoah Valley, site of the Cather home, was split apart by feelings about slavery and states' rights; as a strategic crossroads between the North and the South, it was hotly contested in the Civil War. These divisions were mirrored in Cather's own extended family, some of whom fought for the Confederacy while others adhered to the Union.

In 1873, the same year Willa was born, the extended Cather family began to emigrate to Nebraska. Willa's uncle George and aunt Frances (Smith) Cather, newly wed, were the first settlers in a part of Webster County that came to be known officially as Catherton. Theirs was the classic pioneer experience: living first in dugouts, planting an orchard and digging a well, fighting grasshoppers, starting a school and church, establishing a post office. Friends and neighbors from Virginia, including Cather's grandparents, William and Caroline Cather, soon followed, giving the area the name of New Virginia. In 1883, Willa's parents, Charles and Virginia (Boak) Cather, emigrated with their four children (three others would be born in Nebraska), bringing with them the hired girl Margie Anderson and her brother, Willa's maternal grandmother, Rachel Boak, and two of her other grandchildren. Their neighbors included settlers from Germany, Scandinavia, Bohemia, and French Canada. This mixture of the familiar and the unknown helped to spark young Willa's imagination; the scenes and people she knew in these years would form the fabric of many of her works. As she said, “most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen” (Bohlke, p. 20).

The Charles Cather family lived in the country for nearly two years. In 1885, they moved into the frontier town of Red Cloud, which would appear in Cather's fiction as Hanover in O Pioneers!, Moonstone in The Song of the Lark, Black Hawk in My Ántonia, Sweet Water in A Lost Lady, Skyline in “Old Mrs. Harris,” and Haverford in Lucy Gayheart. There, for the next five years, Cather experienced the stability and diversity of small-town life, as well as the interconnectedness of farms, villages, and cities. Country people came to town to buy finished goods and sell their produce; the expanding railroads connected villages to cities. Eight passenger trains a day stopped in Red Cloud on the run between Chicago and Denver, bringing traveling theater and opera companies that opened up new imaginative worlds for young Willa.

There was a diversity of cultures and characters in the growing town. Willa's mother was a Southern belle; the Cather's neighbors included an educated European Jewish couple (later appearing as the Rosens in Old Mrs. Harris) who opened their fine library to her. The Miners (who appear as the Harlings in My Ántonia) were musical: Mrs. Miner's Norwegian father had played in Ole Bull's orchestra; and the Miners' hired girl, Anna Sadilek, the eldest daughter of Bohemian immigrants, inspired Ántonia herself.

Cather's journeys outward from Red Cloud began in 1890, when she enrolled in the second year of the preparatory school of the University of Nebraska. The rapidly growing university had opened its doors in 1871; when she was a freshman, there were three hundred to four hundred students, and three times that many when she graduated in 1895. The university was the site of interaction between American beginnings and Europe's rich past, between raw energy and cultural restraint. The dynamic chancellor, James Canfield, led a faculty that included the botanist Charles Bessey, Lieutenant (later General) John J. Pershing, and the linguist A. H. Edgren. The students included Dorothy Canfield, a best-selling novelist who also introduced the Montessori method into America; Alvin Johnson, founder of the New School for Social Research; Roscoe Pound, legal theorist and dean of Harvard Law School; Louise Pound, folklorist and philologist, and the first woman president of the Modern Language Association; and Frederick Clements and Edith Schwartz Clements, founders of modern ecology. Cather intended to study medicine; at the university she awakened to ideas, an experience she would give to Jim Burden in My Ántonia. One day she saw an essay she had written on Carlyle in both the Hesperian (the student literary magazine) and the Nebraska State Journal, sent in, unknown to her, by her rhetoric teacher. She later said she became a writer because of this prep-school essay.

Becoming a writer meant learning all she could of literature: its history and its production, as well as its relations to other arts. That meant reading voraciously, writing, reviewing, editing, publishing, and marketing, and Cather did them all. She contributed to or edited five periodicals, ranging from student publications to two city papers, including the Nebraska State Journal, Lincoln's largest newspaper. In her junior year, she became the regular drama critic for the Journal, publishing 170 articles, reviews, and essays, 94 in her senior year alone. Her weekly columns provided a forum for her wide-ranging mind, interested in local events, classic and popular literature, painting, theater, music, and the artists who created them. They gave her practice in creating a scene, selecting the telling detail, and assessing what created art and what fell short—all (in the words of pioneer Cather scholar Bernice Slote) “Improvisations toward a Credo.”

Pittsburgh: Making Her Way in the World

By the time she graduated in 1895, Cather had a reputation for talent, intellect, ambition, and opinion (she was known as the “meat-axe” critic). “[S]he is unquestionably destined to be among the foremost of American literary women,” wrote the popular poet Walt Mason in 1896 (Slote, p. 27). She was ready to leave the parish and go into the world to experience places and cultures she had only read about. Getting out wasn't easy, however, in a decade of hard times. The dark side of the settlement experience came in the midst of the severe drought and the national depression of the 1890s, and Cather felt the desperation of being trapped in the cornfields, as she later said. She returned briefly to Red Cloud (Siberia, she wrote), applied unsuccessfully for a teaching position at the university, and continued writing. Her break came in 1896, when she moved to Pittsburgh as editor of a new magazine, the Home Monthly, modeled on the successful Ladies Home Journal.

Cather's Pittsburgh years (1896–1906) were marked by the eclecticism of someone getting on in the world. She was responsible for editing, and often writing, “home and hearth” pap for the Home Monthly; within two months, she was also writing music and drama reviews for the Pittsburgh Daily Leader, Pennsylvania's biggest evening paper. Later she worked for the Leader as assistant “telegraph editor” and book and drama critic. She was briefly on the staff of the weekly Library; she spent some months in Washington, D.C., working as a translator in a government office and writing as a Washington correspondent for the Nebraska State Journal and the Index of Pittsburgh Life. Starting in 1901, her day job was teaching high school in Pittsburgh, while at night she kept involved in the city's vibrant social and cultural life, continuing as a columnist and music and drama critic for Lincoln and Pittsburgh papers.

It was through her theatergoing that Cather met Isabelle McClung in 1899. Cather and McClung had a mutual interest in the arts and complementary differences in background. McClung was the daughter of a prominent Presbyterian Pittsburgh family; her mother was from the wealthy Mellon family, and her father was a judge. She was interested in the arts and the Bohemian life (the counterculture of the day). Cather had artistic genius; Isabelle proved the guide into culture. Cather made her first trip abroad with Isabelle in 1902. She moved into the McClungs' large, gracious home, where she had an attic study for writing. Friendship with Isabelle McClung became an emotional center for Cather, as Nebraska became her creative center. She wrote all her books for Isabelle, she once said.

The year following their meeting yielded a burst of creative activity. Cather had published only a single, forgettable story in each of the preceding years, but in 1900 she published six, including Eric Hermannson's Soul, her first in a magazine of national circulation (Cosmopolitan). In it, an awakened yearning for art releases the soul of the immigrant Eric Hermannson from the austere strictures of fundamentalism, when beautiful, talented, world-weary Margaret Elliot arrives “in the wilds of Nebraska” with her brother, Wyllis, from the East.

Other stories of merit followed during Cather's Pittsburgh years, including A Wagner Matinee, The Sculptor's Funeral, and Paul's Case. Her themes include culture, class, and yearning for access to the world of art. Her first book, however, was a volume of poetry, April Twilights, published by a vanity press in 1903: bookishly imitative elegies, laments, and pastorals. Cather later said she should have bought all the copies and thrown them “in a tarn” (Woodress, p. 165). Her poetic impulse was authentic, however: she introduced her true first novel with the poem “Prairie Spring.”

Other events in 1903 were more important to Cather. While visiting in Lincoln, she met Edith Lewis, daughter of a banking family there. When Cather moved to New York to work for McClure's Magazine, she took a studio apartment in the house where Lewis was living, a “very sedate Bohemia,” as Lewis recalled it, populated by poor, hard-working writers and artists—the studio Cather recalled in “Coming, Aphrodite!” Lewis was an editorial proofreader at McClure's. In 1908, Cather and Lewis took an apartment at 82 Washington Place, and they lived together for thirty-nine years, until Cather's death. Lewis, a published poet, remained at McClure's as assistant managing editor after Cather left, then worked as an advertising writer for J. Walter Thompson. This relationship sustained Cather both personally—they traveled together and shared a summer cottage on Grand Manan Island—and professionally: they read proof together, and some of Cather's typescripts reveal Lewis's hand.

In 1903, through the recommendation of Will Owen Jones, managing editor of the Nebraska State Journal, Cather also met S. S. McClure, a magazine publisher legendary for discovering talent and notorious for creating chaos. McClure's Magazine excelled in first-rate fiction as well as in muckraking journalism that exposed corruption in politics and business. In writing to thank Jones, Cather described meeting with McClure in New York: she had returned to Pittsburgh feeling elated, as if her life were now more valuable than it had been. McClure promised to publish her stories in his magazine, then as a book; he would place anything he didn't use.

McClure published Cather's first volume of fiction, The Troll Garden, in March 1905. The seven stories deal with the yearning to enter the seductive and dangerous world of art. Three stories are in a sense exorcisms of issues Cather was confronting in her own life. The body of a great sculptor is returned to his home town on the plains, where the uncomprehending townspeople ridicule him (The Sculptor's Funeral). A woman who had left the East to homestead in Nebraska returns to Boston, where her nephew takes her to a concert that reawakens her passion for art, a passion that must be frustrated again: “For her, just outside the door of the concert hall, lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs…the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door” (A Wagner Matinee). In Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament, a Pittsburgh high school boy seeks to escape working-class life by stealing money to go to New York, briefly entering the glamorous world he had imagined; he commits suicide rather than return to his old life.

New York City and McClure's Magazine

When Cather joined McClure's staff in 1906, she moved to New York City, her home for the rest of her life. She entered the charged world of what her biographer James Woodress calls “a supernova in the journalistic firmament”; Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker, all working for McClure at the same time, gave the magazine “a brilliance perhaps unsurpassed in American magazine history” (Woodress, pp. 185, 184). Cather's first big assignment was a controversial series on Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science Church, to check the facts and rewrite a flawed manuscript by Georgine Milmine. She went to Boston, where she worked under imminent deadlines for much of 1907 and 1908; Mary Baker G. Eddy: The Story of Her Life and the History of Christian Science appeared in fourteen installments from January 1907 to June 1908. Increasingly, Cather took over administrative responsibilities at the magazine, serving from 1908 to 1911 as managing editor. McClure valued Cather as an editor (she ghost-wrote his Autobiography, published in 1914), but the political and reformist aspect of the magazine was not particularly congenial to her, and though her position gave her access to the literary and artistic life of New York and London, she had little time for her own work. She published only seven stories between 1904 and 1911.

However, while in Boston, Cather met Annie Fields, widow of the publisher James T. Fields, and through her, Sarah Orne Jewett, whose book of stories, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), Cather admired. In a critically important exchange of letters in December 1908, Jewett assessed Cather's equipment as a writer: “Your Nebraska life,—a child's Virginia, and now an intimate knowledge of what we are pleased to call ‘the Bohemia’ of newspaper and magazine office life.” She advised her on how to find her self and her subject: “To work in silence and with all one's heart, that is the writer's lot; he is the only artist who must be a solitary and yet needs the widest outlook on the world.” “You must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world…in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up.” “You can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it.” In her response, Cather described her fears and her ambitions; this is one of the most revealing and important letters of Cather's life. Cather felt dispossessed of herself, like a trapeze performer putting all her energy into catching the bar lest she fall into the net, or like a rabbit being chased. She had been rereading Jewett's story Martha's Lady, which made her feel humble and desolate—and made her want to begin again.

Cather left McClure's for a six-month vacation in late September of 1911, never to return to full-time staff work. In rapid succession, she wrote her first novels (“there were two,” she later said). Alexander's Bridge, serialized as Alexander's Masquerade in McClure's (February–April 1912), was published by Houghton Mifflin later in 1912. This story of a bridge-building engineer is an updated approach to the tragic hero. The pattern was conventional, Cather later remarked, but the impressions she tried to communicate were genuine. Like Cather, Alexander's inner feelings are at odds with his public success. The narrative follows his restless movement between Boston and London, and between Winifred, his cultivated wife, and Hilda Burgoyne, the actress whom he had loved in his youth. In the end, when Alexander is called to inspect his cantilevered bridge, pushed beyond its limits, he realizes that “the whole structure has to come down.” Before he can rebuild, the bridge collapses, and going down with it, he drowns.

Cather was returning to her Nebraska roots even before she wrote O Pioneers!, the second of her two “first novels.” The short stories The Joy of Nelly Deane (1911) and The Bohemian Girl (August 1912) show both the beauty and the narrowness of life in the small plains towns she had excoriated in earlier stories. Two other stories, The White Mulberry Tree and Alexandra, suddenly came together in what Cather described to her friend Elizabeth Sergeant as “a sudden inner explosion and enlightenment. She had experienced it before only in the conception of a poem. Now she would hope always for similar experience in creating a novel, for the explosion seemed to bring with it the inevitable shape that is not plotted but designs itself” (Sergeant, p. 116).

O Pioneers!

The country would be the hero, or heroine, of Cather's new book, and she had taken her themes from the long grass, as Anton Dvorák had in the New World Symphony (Sergeant, p. 92). Introduced with the poem “Prairie Spring,” O Pioneers! (1913), Cather's first Nebraska novel, begins: “One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.” The opening scene introduces her country—the Divide, a strip of high land between the Republican and the Little Blue rivers. On this landscape appear the characters whose lives will play out in two intertwined stories of youth. Alexandra Bergson, the far-seeing eldest child of an immigrant Swedish family, who after her father's death assumes responsibility for the family, learns to love the wild land into which they have come; she transforms it into one of the most prosperous farms on the Divide, but with prosperity comes loneliness. Alexandra's youngest brother, Emil, falls in love with Marie, the young wife of a Bohemian neighbor; their passion ends unhappily when Marie's husband, Frank, kills them as they lie under the mulberry tree. In the end, the country gives rise to new life: “Fortunate country…to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth” (p. 274). These are the human stories repeated endlessly.

O Pioneers! marked something new not just in Cather's work but in American literature. “This was the first time I walked off on my own feet—everything before was half real and half an imitation of writers whom I admired. In this one I hit the home pasture and found that I was Yance Sorgeson and not Henry James,” wrote Cather (Woodress, p. 240). She was referring not to her Nebraska material (she had written much Nebraska fiction before this time) but to her principle of design, the interrelatedness. The book's themes—yearning desire, attachment to place, ecstatic fulfillment in connection to something big, the loneliness and loss inevitable in human lives, and solace in the ongoing life of nature—as well as an interest in how individual lives unfold in a particular time and place and a belief in great truths underlying existence permeate all Cather's best works.

Despite the occasional review faulting O Pioneers! for its “slow-moving” plot (Frederick Taber Cooper) or misplacing its setting (a London reviewer praised its vivid pictures of “wild, lonely Canadian life”), critics who understood it celebrated its genius and described qualities that would remain consistent in Cather's writing. O Pioneers! “is touched with genius. It is worthy of being recognized as the most vital, subtle and artistic piece of the year's fiction.” “One feels thru this narrative the spirit of the author, and comes to trust oneself completely in her hands. It is a spirit, an attitude toward life, that in its large and simple honesty has a kind of nobleness. Life, the course of events, as traced by such a mind, loses the taint of commonplace and becomes invested with dignity” (O'Connor, pp. 49, 47). “This book provides an opportunity for the American Academy of Arts and Letters to justify its existence…one of the functions of an academy…is the discovery and recognition of genius,” Floyd Dell wrote (p. 47).

Meanwhile, Cather was securing the conditions she needed to write. Long the editor of others' writing, she now had in Ferris Greenslet at Houghton Mifflin an interested and refined editor of her own. When in 1912 she and Lewis moved to number 5 Bank Street in Greenwich Village, she felt they had the ideal apartment, spacious and quiet, with their maid of four years to keep order in their lives. Freed of her full-time responsibilities at McClure's Magazine, Cather continued freelance work for the magazine, editing and writing to supplement her royalties. She settled into a working routine of writing two to three hours in the morning; she always wrote a first draft by hand and typed a second and sometimes additional drafts, revising each time. Equally important for her, Cather was living at the heart of the cultural as well as the publishing world. As her days combined writing and concerts and friends, her years combined “home” in New York with yearly visits “home” to Nebraska, and travels in the United States and abroad.

The Song of the Lark

Cather had “hit the home pasture” with O Pioneers!, for the first time writing in her own voice as an artist, spontaneously, without arranging or inventing. It is characteristic that she next explored what it meant to find one's voice and come into one's own as an artist. She would write “Of Artist's Youth” (her original title), about a talented young girl's fight to escape commonness and succeed in the true sense of delivering herself completely to her art. The Song of the Lark (1915) is a Künstlerroman, a novel of an artist's development that reverses the genre's typical gender roles. For the details of her character's career, Cather drew loosely upon the opera singer Olive Fremstad, whose friendship she had enjoyed. For the emotional life of her heroine, however, Cather drew upon her own life. Thea Kronborg passes her childhood in Moonstone, Colorado, so precisely based on Red Cloud that a visitor today can follow a character's movements through the actual town; she moves into the world—for lessons in Chicago, for an awakening to herself as an artist in Panther Canyon, Arizona, and to New York City, where she comes into full possession of her powers. Thea Kronborg fights her way to the top, thereby (as Cather wrote in her 1932 preface) succeeding in delivering herself completely to her art; yet as she does so, her personal life pales.

This was a period of exceptional public ferment and change. In 1913, the Armory Show introduced Postimpressionism and Cubism to New York; in 1914, World War I began in Europe, with the United States entering the war in 1917. There were personal changes, too. In 1915, Judge McClung died and Isabelle and her brother sold the house that Cather had visited frequently even after moving to New York; and, most devastatingly for Cather, in 1916 Isabelle married the musician Jan Hambourg. She saw, however, that Isabelle was happy.

My Ántonia

For her most beloved novel, Cather again drew upon her memories of growing up in Nebraska, this time by remembering an actual woman—Anna Sadilek, the oldest daughter of an immigrant Bohemian family. She created a narrator, Jim Burden, to whom she gave her own experiences of arriving from Virginia by train, living in the country and then moving to town, going to the university and from there to New York, and returning to visit Ántonia, now married and mother of ten children. Some of the scenes are among the most famous in American literature: the West, symbolized by a plow, magnified briefly against the setting sun, or children emerging from a fruit cave in an explosion of life. The book, like its title character, is one to “leave images in the mind that did not fade” (p. 342). Yet there is no flinching from the hardships and the dark possibilities of pioneering: the threat of starvation in first hard winter the Shimerdas live in a dugout; Ántonia's vulnerability to rape by her employer, Wick Cutter; her disgrace after following the railroad man she loved to Denver, then returning unwed and pregnant; the darker pasts of settlers such as Peter and Pavel, exiles from Russia, who in their homeland were groomsmen who threw a bride and groom to wolves in order to save themselves; the tramp who commits suicide by throwing himself into a threshing machine.

Cather included lessons on reading her novel in the novel itself. She addressed how to draw upon lived experiences and actual people through a conversation between friends in the introduction. Throughout the novel, characters tell their stories in conversations with others, who may comprehend the stories only as their own experiences grow. Cather had found in conversation a way to write about the people and places she loved without causing them pain.

Ferris Greenslet recalled reading My Ántonia as “the most thrilling shock of recognition of the real thing of any manuscript” he ever read (Woodress, p. 300). H. L. Mencken had noted Cather's steady advance and wrote that My Ántonia was “a sudden leap—a novel, indeed, that is not only the best done by Miss Cather herself, but also one of the best that any American has ever done, East or West, early or late” (O'Connor, pp. 88–89). Reviewers recognized that she belonged among the moderns. Randolph Bourne said of My Ántonia that Cather “has taken herself out of the rank of provincial writers and given us something we can fairly class with the modern literary art the world over that is earnestly and richly interpreting the spirit of youth” (Woodress, p. 301). “The most extraordinary thing about My Ántonia is the author's surrender of the usual methods of fiction in telling her story.” She was giving aesthetic reality to America's remote, even exotic heartland: Mencken said, “I know of no novel that makes the remote folks of the western prairies more real than My Ántonia makes them, and I know of none that makes them seem better worth knowing.…There is no other American author…whose future promises so much” (O'Connor, pp. 88–89).

Changing Publishers: Alfred A. Knopf

Although her relationship with her editor, Ferris Greenslet, remained cordial, Cather was increasingly unhappy with Houghton Mifflin as her publisher. With almost three decades of experience in the literary marketplace, she now had definite ideas about books as embodiments of visual as well as literary art, about design as creating a reading field, and about promotion as introducing a book to its readers. In My Ántonia, she had wanted square type, wide margins, rough cream-colored paper stock, and line drawings integrated into the text—features that would evoke a childlike play of imagination, a warmth of memory, a sense of sunlight and open space. But she had to fight every step of the way. As for promotion, “The firm didn't believe it could make much money on her; so they were careful not to lose very much either” (Woodress, p. 306).

At this point, Alfred Knopf entered Cather's life. After graduating from Columbia in 1912, at age twenty-three he founded his publishing house as a daring experiment in 1915. In Knopf, Cather found a publisher whose attention to design and manufacturing style gave all his Borzoi Press's titles a distinctive look; he was a passionate advocate of American literature, provided an international reach for his list with a program of literature in translation, and recognized Cather's genius.

Knopf offered to reprint The Troll Garden, and Cather took a break in 1920 from writing the book she was calling “Claude” to write “Coming, Aphrodite!,” which became the lead story for her new collection. With its mix of old and new stories, a new, inspired title, beautiful design, and astute marketing (including a limited issue signed by Cather), Knopf's Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920) made as much for Cather in six months as My Ántonia had made for her in its entire first year at Houghton Mifflin. She wrote Greenslet, saying she was giving “Claude” to Knopf. He would remain her publisher for the rest of her life and would safeguard her legacy throughout his own. Edith Lewis has written:

Next to writing her novels, Willa Cather's choice of Alfred Knopf as a publisher influenced her career, I think, more than any action she ever took…he gave her great encouragement and absolute liberty to write exactly as she chose—protected her in every way he could from outside pressures and interruptions—and made evident, not only to her but to the world in general, his great admiration and belief in her. Life was simply no longer a battle—she no longer had to feel apologetic or on the defensive.

(pp. 115–116)

Changing Worlds, 1922–1923

The world broke in two about 1922, Cather was to write in a preface to a volume of essays provocatively titled Not Under Forty (1936). T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses were published that year, announcing a modernist sensibility of historical discontinuity, alienation, loss, and despair. The modern was saying that we create the world in perceiving it; meanwhile, in the real world Benito Mussolini was forming a fascist government in Italy and the Ku Klux Klan was gaining power in the United States. Cather responded with two books, One of Ours and A Lost Lady.

One of Ours appeared in 1922, Cather's first novel with Knopf, and her first major commercial success. For her plot Cather drew upon the life of her cousin G. P. Cather, who seemed destined for failure—unhappy in business, farming, school, and marriage—and then joined the American Expeditionary Forces and died in France. Cather's character Claude Wheeler yearns for something splendid, struggles to escape the commonplace, in France he embraces an Old World culture and finds himself before his death.

One of Ours was announced by a thoughtful review in The New York Times by Cather's friend from her university years, Dorothy Canfield Fisher. It became a best-seller, and Cather received royalties of nineteen thousand dollars in a year. “And for the rest of her life [she] had no money problems. The book stimulated sales of her other titles, and it brought her the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. In many ways it was a turning point in her career” (Woodress, p. 334). Critics were not as kind as the public, however. Though Cather maintained that she had not written a war novel, reviewers attacked her for presuming to do just that. Mencken wrote that her war scenes occurred “on a Hollywood movie-lot,” and Ernest Hemingway described its last battle scene as coming from D. W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation: “I identified episode after episode, Catherized. Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere” (Woodress, p. 333).

Perhaps in reaction, in late 1922 Cather went to Red Cloud for six weeks to be home for her parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary and Christmas. While there, she joined the Episcopal Church with her parents (her family were Baptists in her childhood), and she wrote to friends of her intense pleasure in being home “to watch the human stories go on and on among her farm friends, to see how the lives she knew so well were turning out” (Woodress, p. 337). Back in New York, she and Knopf mounted a counteroffensive by appealing to her readers directly, circumventing reviewers.

In April 1923, The New Republic published Cather's essay The Novel Démeublé (meaning “stripped of furnishings”), which would become a touchstone for understanding Cather's writing. It is, in effect, her tutorial, describing her principles and methods and claiming “her” readers, the ones who care about what endures. Realism does not consist in cataloguing objects, explaining processes, and describing physical sensations; instead, realism is a writer's attitude toward his or her material, the “candour with which he accepts, rather than chooses, his theme” (On Writing, p. 37). Cather called for simplification in presentation and style; the writer should suggest, for “Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it…that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself” (pp. 41–42).

Before its book publication, A Lost Lady (1923) was serialized in Century, with the first of three installments appearing in April. Following the third serial installment in June, Knopf advertised that the first edition of its first printing was “the largest edition I have ever printed of any book, and I have already ordered a second printing of 6000 copies,” and on 1 September an advertisement stated that 32,000 copies were printed before first publication.

A Lost Lady was an enormous success upon publication and since, meeting critical and popular acclaim. Whereas One of Ours follows Claude Wheeler's struggle to escape the insularity, self-importance, and ignorance of an America that had broken with the Old World, A Lost Lady's very design is that of a world broken in two. It is the story of the Old West told through the life of Marian Forrester, married to Captain Forrester, a railroad pioneer twenty-five years older than she. She is seen through the eyes of Niel Herbert, a boy who at first idealizes her, then turns from her in bitter disappointment. The two parts are perfectly balanced: the first set long ago when great things were expected, and the second after the financial panic when “a generation of shrewd young men, trained to petty economies by hard times” (p. 102) takes over. Captain Forrester loses his fortune, falls ill, and dies; without the protection of her husband and the railroad aristocracy, Mrs. Forrester becomes the “lost lady” of the title. With the power to live strong in her, unwilling to immolate herself with her husband, she betrays the ideals of Niel Herbert, and he turns away bitterly. In the coda, he comes to be glad that she had a hand in breaking him in to life, achieving a hard-won maturity of understanding and compassion.

Cather had arrived. The commercial success of One of Ours was followed in 1923 by its receiving the Pulitzer Prize and by critical acclaim for A Lost Lady Celebrity status was conferred on her by interviewers, students, friends, and institutions, all making demands on her time. The one thing everyone seemed bent on was preventing her from working, Cather wrote; then she did what Fitzgerald wished he had done: she set about ensuring conditions that enabled her to continue to write. She hired a secretary who would remain with her the rest of Cather's life to turn away intrusions on her time and attention. She and Lewis began plans to build a cottage on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, where they had first summered in 1922; they found congenial both its setting and its people's respect for privacy.

Cather also began taking steps to protect her writing from exploitation, insofar as possible. Warner Brothers had bought the film rights to A Lost Lady. The results were dismal. The 1924 silent version, featuring Irene Rich and George Fawcett, was followed in 1934 by a freely adapted sound production conceived and promoted as a vehicle for its stars, Barbara Stanwyck, Frank Morgan, and Ricardo Cortez. The film's setting is a fashionable suburb of Chicago, Marian Forrester's lover Frank Ellinger is a World War I pilot, and Marian returns to her elderly husband after his heart attack. Having rejected the standard romantic plot, Cather saw her novel converted into melodrama, predictable and, worse, boring. Outraged, she drew up legal strictures in her will against any future adaptations of her work in any form then known or to be developed.

Cather explored questions of art's place in culture and feeling's relation to form in a series of essays, interviews, and talks in the early 1920s. She returned to her early mentor by preparing an edition of Sarah Orne Jewett's stories, selecting those that especially appealed to her and that she thought would endure. Cather's introduction explained the qualities of literary art that she valued in Jewett's work and her own: design “so happy, so right, that it seems inevitable”; “a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique”; the “gift of sympathy,” which is a writer's great gift, “the fine thing in him that alone can make his work fine. He fades away into the land and people of his heart, he dies of love only to be born again.” Like Cather, “Miss Jewett wrote of the people who grew out of the soil and the life of the country near her heart, not about exceptional individuals at war with their environment.” Her introductions to other writers' works give similar insight into Cather's ideas about art. Writing of The Fortunate Mistress, Cather faulted Daniel Defoe for not creating atmosphere and for his lack of imagination; she praised Gertrude Hall's The Wagnerian Romances for creating an emotional effect, translating the spirit of the music into words. In Wounds in the Rain, Stephen Crane, she said, showed how to handle detail for its emotional effect. Cather's essay on Katherine Mansfield praises the way “She communicates vastly more than she actually writes.…It is this overtone, which is too fine for the printing press and comes through without it, that makes one know that this writer had something of the gift which is one of the rarest things in writing, and quite the most precious” (On Writing, pp. 110–111).

In addition to writing, Cather was on the lecture circuit, speaking on the modern novel and taking on issues of commercialism and art. A 21 December 1924 interview with Rose Feld of The New York Times on book reading and book publication is revealing. Publishers (who are business men), she said, recognize a demand among a prosperous middle class who buy books to take the edge off boredom. These are the books published for a cinema public—quite a different thing from the fine books written for fine readers, those with mentality, spirituality, and character “that can bring an ardor and an honesty to a masterpiece and make it over until it becomes a personal possession” (Bohlke, p. 69). America has fostered industrial progress but lacks the discrimination of the French. “It's our prosperity, our judging success in terms of dollars,” that produces comfort but not art. Unlike Americans, French minds “have been formed by rubbing up cruelly with the inescapable realities of life.…The Frenchman doesn't talk nonsense about art, about self-expression; he is too greatly occupied with building the things that make his home” (pp. 70–71).

The Professor's House; My Mortal Enemy; Death Comes for the Archbishop

The questions of culture that sustains, of art that lasts, and of the modern novel as literary art became the subjects of Cather's next novels. Having established her reputation with five Nebraska novels, she moved on to other settings and materials. In three years—the most sustained and productive period of her life—Cather wrote three books, each radically different in style, exploring the modern novel's narrative form: different versions of the house of fiction.

“The moving was over and done,” begins The Professor's House (1925). Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a writer-historian, has realized international success with his seven-volume Spanish Adventurers in North America. Recognition and prize money have enabled the St. Peters to build a new house, but he retains a study in the dismantled rented house where they had brought up their daughters. Book I, The Family, re-creates the cluttered style of the modern commercial novel. Focusing on jealousies among members of a family consumed with buying, building, and decorating houses, it builds a claustrophobic atmosphere until, stifled, St. Peter responds by recalling his former student, Tom Outland. Book II, Tom Outland's Story, is the narrative equivalent of an open window; its spare, uncluttered style recalls Tom's account of discovering ancient cliff dwellings in the American Southwest and learning about the society that had inhabited them, and then living alone on the mesa one summer, in possession. Finally, Book III, The Professor, shows St. Peter alone in his attic study, losing consciousness when the flame of his gas stove burns out, and awakening to a meditation on the earth itself—the home—to which each living form returns.

The Professor's House is the most personal of Cather's novels, Lewis (p. 137) wrote, referring not to autobiographical details but to the feeling of having realized youthful dreams and, in midlife, contemplating a future without delight. Like her protagonist, Cather was in her fifties; beginning with Alexander's Bridge, she too had seven volumes published; her fourth, My Ántonia, evoked intense interest in her “experiment,” and her latest books had brought her “a certain international reputation and what were called rewards,” among them the Pulitzer Prize.

Cather next took her readers inside the sentimental love plot in My Mortal Enemy (1926), her sparest example of the unfurnished novel. The novel opens with the story of Myra Driscoll and Oswald Henshawe, who staked all on love by eloping in spite of certain disinheritance by her wealthy uncle. “But they've been happy?” the young narrator, Nellie Birdseye asks. “Oh, as happy as most people, I suppose,” she is told (pp. 24–25). Thus launched, My Mortal Enemy pushes the narrative of romantic love beyond its usual ending to tell of Myra and Oswald as they grow older and fall on hard times; then Myra, dying, asks the fundamental questions about what sustains and what destroys.

My Mortal Enemy, Cather's most radical example of the novel démeublé, was followed immediately by Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), not a novel at all but a narrative, written in the manner of a legend, without accent, as she said: “a kind of discipline in these days, when the ‘situation’ is made to count for so much in writing” (On Writing, p. 9). Inspired by her own travels in the American Southwest, the book is, John J. Murphy writes,

more than any other Cather narrative a product of research, the fusion of an astounding array of sources that would be disparate if not combined within its text. Included are sources in U.S. military and political history; Roman Catholic Church history, tradition, and liturgy; Mexican and Indian myth, legend, and history; biblical scriptures; Southwestern flora and geography; accounts of Spanish conquest and exploration of the Americas; philosophy and theology; French history and geography; architecture; and others.

(p. 381)

Cather traces the journeys of Father Jean Latour from France to the Southwest, eventually to become archbishop of Santa Fe, and those of Father Joseph Vaillant, his vicar. She had felt “something fearless and fine and very, very well-bred” in Archbishop Lamy, Latour's prototype: “What I felt curious about was the daily life of such a man in a crude frontier society” (On Writing, p. 7). The episodic narrative consists of their encounters with the people—Mexican, European-American, and Native American—and the cultures and faiths embodied in their stories. The daily life of an individual provided a means for Cather to write once again of a place and time as a site of exchange, and to tell the age-old story of a search for continuities in a changing world.

Cather extended her range in history and geography with Shadows on the Rock (1931), which won the Prix Femina Américain in 1933. The rock—here, the rock on which Quebec City was built—is a recurring image in Cather's writing, beginning with “The Enchanted Bluff” in 1909. As Cather explained in a letter published in the Saturday Review of Literature, “To me the rock of Quebec is not only a stronghold on which many strange figures have for a little time cast a shadow in the sun; it is the curious endurance of a kind of culture, narrow but definite” (On Writing, p. 15). It is a coming-of-age story about Cécile Auclair and her apothecary-father, Euclide, as they try to re-create their old life in France out in the Canadian wilderness, and come to realize that they have made a new life in the New World. It is the quietest of Cather's novels, and arguably her most direct response to a modernist confrontation with isolation, the threat of annihilation. The colony of Quebec, cut off from the Old World by annihilating ocean, and from the rest of Canada by endless suffocating forest, maintains the continuities of its life, sustained by its faith in a well-ordered universe, the teachings of the Catholic Church, and the domestic rituals brought from France. Its sketches are subdued and seem slight: impressions of ships appearing and disappearing, weather changing, characters coming and going, visiting Auclair's shop and gathering around firesides. The whole evokes questions of what makes art, and faith, and life itself.

Coming Home: The Final Years

“I had the sense of coming home to myself,” Jim Burden reflects at the conclusion of My Ántonia. Like her narrator, Cather returned to early memories for her three final books: memories of Nebraska, and delving deeper still, of Virginia.

Obscure Destinies (1932) comprises three stories, reiterations of Cather's earlier Nebraska stories. For the first, “Neighbour Rosicky,” Cather turned once again to Anna Sadelik and John Pavelka, her real-life models for My Ántonia, now a generation older and renamed Anton and Mary Rosicky. When, in the story's opening sentence, Dr. Burleigh tells neighbor Rosicky he has a bad heart, Rosicky protests, “So? No, I guess my heart was always pretty good” (p. 7). Thus launched, the story unfolds in a series of scenes and inset stories demonstrating the power of such a heart as it meets with poverty, a succession of other cultures, and at last, marriage and family and kinship with the land. It concludes with Dr. Burleigh's pausing by the graveyard where Anton Rosicky is buried, reflecting upon the beauty of that place and that life.

For “Old Mrs. Harris,” Cather again used her own family as models, as she had in The Song of the Lark. Now, rather than focusing on a girl's trajectory toward success, Cather encompassed three generations of women within the Templeton family, transplanted from the South to the western community of Skyline. Each feels the isolation that exists within family and community: the girl, Vicky, seeks to escape by going away to college; the mother, Victoria, feels herself trapped by yet another pregnancy; and the grandmother, Mrs. Harris, who alone understands the others, knows that she is dying. Only when the others are old will they begin to understand and say, “But now I know” (p. 157).

If Rosicky understands life, and the Templeton women come to understand it better, the friends of the last story, “Two Friends,” never do. Their friendship with each other, which meant so much to the young narrator, is broken over a political disagreement. Each dies alone, unreconciled, and the narrator confronts the randomness of life: “the feeling of something broken that could so easily have been mended…of a truth that was accidentally distorted—one of the truths we want to keep” (p. 191).

In Lucy Gayheart (1935), set in 1901–1902, Lucy, an embodiment of life and beauty, leaves the Nebraska town of Haverford on the Platte River to study music in Chicago. Lacking Thea Kronborg's focus, Lucy falls in love with the baritone Clement Sebastian, an aging singer who breathes in her youth. When Sebastian drowns, she breaks down and flees back to Haverford, where she discovers that life, not Sebastian, was her lover. But before she can return to her life in Chicago, she accidentally drowns in the Platte. The third section shows the effect the memory of Lucy has on Harry Gordon, the Haverford banker who had not loved her more than his own pride. His memory of her remains, but only so long as those who knew Lucy live. Then there will be nothing left but her impression in a concrete sidewalk, “three light footprints, running away” (p. 231).

Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), Cather's last book, deepens this return with its Virginia setting, harking back not only to her own past but also to that of her grandparents. Based on family history and set in pre–Civil War Virginia, the story explores the intricate webs of race relations, the complications of characters, and the corrupting nature of slave ownership in the person of Sapphira, who plots to ruin a young slave girl of whom her husband is fond. Sapphira's daughter, Mrs. Blake (based, like Mrs. Harris, on Cather's maternal grandmother, Rachel Boak), helps the girl, Nancy, escape to the North. An epilogue, set twenty-five years later, retells Cather's own memory of the return of Nancy to visit her mother, Sapphira's devoted maid, and the ends of the stories set in motion so long ago.

Cather planned one more collection of short stories, which did not appear until after her death in 1947; it was published as The Old Beauty and Others (1948). The title character of “The Old Beauty” clings to the old, prewar order of things, looking disdainfully at the 1920s, the time in which the story is set; her companion, Cherry Beamish, a former music-hall star, is more amused and tolerant of the ways of youth. Lady Longstreet's death follows an apparently minor run-in with a car driven by two modern, trouser-wearing young women, and it seems to mark the end of an era, with both its grandeur and its faults. Cather's narrator holds the flaws and virtues of both times in a sympathetic balance. “The Best Years” returns to the Nebraska setting in a story of a young teacher and the woman who is her mentor; the focus is less on the death of young Leslie than on her close family life and the memories she leaves to them and Miss Knightley. “Before Breakfast,” Cather's only story set on a fictionalized Grand Manan Island, follows the meditations of disillusioned Henry Grenfell on aging and the isolation of families; he feels withdrawn from his family—indeed, from his own life—until he accidentally witnesses a young girl plunging into the chill of the ocean for a morning swim. The courage he sees, even in so small a thing, helps to reconnect him to life.

Willa Cather's reputation, always solid among readers and other writers, in the last quarter of the twentieth century underwent a sea change among academics, who have gone from dismissing her as a minor regionalist to granting her canonical status. She has been interpreted in the light of various literary traditions (romantic, realist, naturalist, modern, elegiac, or pastoral), and appropriated by “isms” concerned with her feminism, gender, aestheticism, and colonialism. Unlike Fitzgerald, identified solely with the Jazz Age, Cather provides an opportunity for exploring issues as they have emerged: women and gender in the 1970s and 1980s, or the environment in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century. She wrote with an ecological sensibility of interconnectedness, a sense of the integrity, complexity, and unity of the whole, whether in the natural or human community. Thus, because communities are never static, her premise is of change: emigration, aging, progress and degradation, modernity and tradition. She wrote about stories that keep repeating themselves, deeply rooted in a specificity of place; she understood that everlasting stories are reenacted in individual lives. Critics trying to “get at” her secret, as Niel Herbert attempted with Mrs. Forrester, have been frustrated by her contradictions. She evades classification and unsettles facile, reductive interpretations. The effect of reading her work is an opening of mind, a sense of expansiveness, and an engagement with life, grappling with its complexities.


  • The Troll Garden (1905)
  • O Pioneers! (1913; reprinted 1992)
  • The Song of the Lark (1915)
  • My Ántonia (1918; reprinted 1994)
  • One of Ours (1922)
  • A Lost Lady (1923; reprinted 1997)
  • The Professor's House (1925; reprinted 2002)
  • My Mortal Enemy (1926)
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
  • Shadows on the Rock (1931)
  • Obscure Destinies (1932; reprinted 1998)
  • Lucy Gayheart (1935)
  • Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)
  • The Old Beauty and Others (1948)
  • On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art (1988)

Further Reading

  • Bohlke, L. Brent, ed. Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Lincoln, Nebr., 1986. The most authentic source for Cather's own voice about her writing.
  • Crane, Joan. Willa Cather: A Bibliography. Lincoln, Nebr., 1982. A reliable guide through Cather rare editions, as well as for readers tracing changes through Cather's texts.
  • Jewett, Sarah Orne. Letters to Willa Cather. Ms., Houghton Library, Harvard University. A firsthand glimpse into Cather's world, especially important for providing insight into the mentor who changed her life.
  • Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. New York, 1953. A thoroughly respectful, and yet deeply intimate, account of Cather's life written by her companion of thirty-eight years.
  • Murphy, John J., ed. Explanatory Notes. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather. Lincoln, Nebr., 1999. An example of the historical, explanatory, and textual materials supplied with the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition, published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
  • O'Connor, Margaret Anne, ed. Willa Cather: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge, Mass., 2001. A reliable guide to Cather's contemporary reception. Insightful for criticism as well as reception.
  • Sergeant, Elizabeth. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Philadelphia, 1953. Valuable as a writer's remembrance of Cather as she came into her own.
  • Slote, Bernice, ed. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893–1896. Lincoln, Nebr., 1966. A ground-breaking study of Cather's early journalism, documenting the period in which Cather worked out principles of her art.
  • Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln, Nebr., 1987. The standard biography.