Willa Cather (1873-1947)
Born in Virginia in 1873, Willa Cather and her family moved to Nebraska when she was nine. At first homesick for the lush hills and trees of Virginia, Cather grew to love the people and vast landscape of the American Midwest. She came to appreciate the values of the immigrants from Europe who worked the land and raised families on the Great Plains. Her father and mother bought a house in the village of Red Cloud. The home still stands and is visited by readers of her books. Cather and her siblings played with other children--she was a tomboy who, when not playing and going to school, loved to read. The pioneer people she met and the stories they told her are reflected in her books. Graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1895, she was a well published drama critic while still in college. In 1896, Cather moved to Pittsburgh to be an editor of a women's magazine. An excellent editor, her writing attracted the attention of S.S. McClure who recruited her to edit " McClure's" She moved to New York City in 1906 and lived there ( with a summer home in New Hampshire) for the rest of her life, travelling back to Red Cloud almost every summer to see relatives and exploring the Southwest and eastern Canada. She also went to Europe at least one time.
Cather's first published work in 1903 was a collection of poetry, but as she came to understand, her skills lay in prose. That same year, she published a collection of short fiction while still working at "McClure's." Finally in 1908, at the urging of the noted writer Sarah Orne Jewett, Cather left her editing job and devoted all her time and efforts at writing novels and stories. In 1913, she published "O Pioneers!" The book focuses on the determined daughter of a Swedish immigrant and her struggles to keep her family together in a harsh environment. Her most famous book, "My Antonia" was published in 1918. The main character, Antonia Shimerda, is an immigrant farm girl, who after much struggle, finds happiness with her large family on a Nebraska farm. These books extoll the virtues of the pioneers and a longing for a time that Cather understood was gone from American life. Cather valued the pioneer spirit and wrote about it again in "Death Comes for the Archbishop", a novel she published in 1927. Over time Cather became more and more critical of the modern world with its emphasis on commerce and greed. Her later novels reflect this criticism, especially her 1925 novel "The Professor's House." Her final novel, "Sapphira and the Slave Girl" ( 1940) is the story of a young girl's life as a slave in Virginia during the Civil War.
Cather was her own person and over the years developed a clear, forthright style, a nostalgia for the past that was both unromantic and original. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss her as just a regional writer with a longing for the past. She was a complex person, who had well developed artistic principles. Her many books attest to her complexity and to her artistic vision. She died of a stroke in 1947 and is buried near her summer home in the hills of New Hampshire. Her longtime companion , Edith Lewis, who wrote a book about Cather in 1953, is buried beside her.