About the Author
American novelist noted for her novels about immigrants struggling to make a living in the Midwest during the late 1800s. Various critics have placed Cather among feminist writers, antifeminist writers, and even lesbian writers. She authored 12 novels, the most popular of which include My Antonia (1918), O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). In her works Cather created strong female characters, who had the courage and vision to face all obstacles in their difficult lives.
Willa Cather was born in Back Creek Valley (now Gore), near Winchester, Virginia. At the age of nine she moved with her family to a farm near Red Clour, in the Nebraska settler country. There she grew up among the immigrants from Europe, most of them coming from Scandinavia, who were establishing homesteads on the Great Plains. This milieu, wide opren spaces with its people forms the background for half of Cather's novels and many short stories depicting the frontier life on the American plains.
The new ranch was not a success, and in 1884 the family moved to the small railroad town of Red Cloud, where Cather's father opened an insurance business. Cather was educated at home, and later she attended Red Cloud High School. From an early age, Cather was troubled by her sexual identity. She preferred to dress in men's clothing and as a teenages she began signing her name "William Cather, Jr." and later Dr. Will." Cather also was active in community theater productions and often took male roles.
In 1890 Cather moved to Lincoln to escape the conservatism of the small town - she never married but in later life in New York she found lifelong companion, Edith Lewis. In a letter to Louise Pound, a close college friend, Cather confessed that she thought it unfair that feminine friendships were `unnatural'. Cather studied at Latin School (1891-92), and the University of Nebraska (1891-95). While still an undergraduate she began publishing short stories and she also wrote a weekly column for the Nebraska State Journal.
After receiving her Cather A.B. in 1895 lived in Pittsburg with Isabelle McClung. She spent 10 years there, first as a newspaper woman and then as a high-school teacher of English and Latin. Cather worked as an editorial staff member for Home Monthly and telegraph editor and theatre critic for Daily Leader. In 1897-1901 she was Latin and English teacher at Central High School and then English teacher at Allegheny High School. In 1903 Cather made her debut as a writer with April Twilights, her only volume of poetry.
McClung married in 1915, but Cather had already met Edith Lewis while traveling to New York during this period. At the age of 32 Cather moved to New York to live with Lewis and to edit McClure's Magazine. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, appeared in 1912, and was followed a year later O Pioneers!. Cather was 40 when the book appeared. It was an archetypal success story of a daughter of Swedish immigrant farmers, Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. Cather resigned in 1912 from McClure's, began writing full-time, and traveled to the Southwest, returning there a few years later. The theme of a journey appeared in her novel, The Song of the Lark, which was partly set in Walnut Canyon, Arizona, and took the form of the opera singer Thea Kronberg's pursuit of artistic excellence.
My Antonia, another story of Nebraska, celebrated the land and the immigrant pioneers, and linked the enduring figure of Antonia to the lifeforce itself. The book consists of the loosely-structured memories of Jim Burden, who recounts tales of his Nebraska farm upbringing, and especially of the beautiful immigrant girl from Bohemia, Antonia Shimerda, whom he loves with a pure innocence. My Antonia is among Cather's finest work, but later critics have also pointed out that though Cather did not deal specifically with lesbianism, normal sex stands barred from her fictional world and her male characters often have female attitudes and interests. Jim Burden grows up in the novel with an intuitive fear of sex and only in fantasy he allows a half-nude woman to smother him with kisses. The original of Antonia was Annie Sadilek Pavelka, whom Cather had met in childhood and with whom he maintained a lifelong frienship.
In 1922 Cather won the Pulizer Prize for her novel One of Ours, which depicted a boy from the Western plains, who leaves home to fight in World War I and is killed during in France. Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to critic Edmund Wilson, expressed disdain at Cather's having received the prize, remarking that she must have drawn the battlefield scene from the film Birth of a Nation.
In the years following WW I Cather became gravely distressed by the loss of spiritual values that accompanied the growth of materialism and technology in the 20th-century. Her jugment of contemporary society was seen in A Lost Lady (1923), depicting the conflict between heroic builders of the West and cruel men of the present, and The Professor's House (1925), presenting a conflict between the middle-aged disillusion of Professor St Peter with his memories of his favorite student, who had discovered ancient Indian civilization in New Mexico.
Cather's twelve novels and short fiction fall into three groups: tales influenced by Henry James, works dealing with immigrant life in the West, and historical novels, such as Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). The novel is based on the lives of Bishop Jean Babtiste L'Amy and his vicar Father Joseph Machebeauf, who organize the new Roman Catholic diocese of New Mexico. The novel focused on Bishop Jean Latour's and vicar Father Joseph Vaillant's inner conflicts, their relationship with the land and the tension between Old World values and life in the New World. Also Cather's own world view was changing. She joined the Episcopalian Churc and demonstrated her growing distate for the modern values.
Cather published little in her last years. She developed a close friendship with Yehudi Menuhin and his sisters. In Not Under Forty (1936) Cather recorded her own debt as writer to Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), who wrote about life in New England. Cather's last novel, Sapphira and the Slave (1940), looks at the relationships between African-American women, and mothers and daughters. It is her only novel which was set in the Virginia of her grandmother. Cather died on April 24, 1947.
Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.