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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Willa Cather

Willa Cather was 38 in 1912 when her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, appeared and 67 when her thirteenth and last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, was published in 1940. Today she is compared with the most widely acclaimed American novelists of the twentieth century—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner—all of whom were a full generation younger than she. She grew to maturity at the end of the nineteenth century and became an eloquent spokeswoman for the values that shaped her to a twentieth-century world so different from the one into which she was born. Her new subject for American readers in the teens was the life of immigrant populations and transplanted Americans living on the high prairies of Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado, but her subtle prose style and careful handling of narrative grew from her admiration for the work of American, British, and European writers such as Hawthorne, Flaubert, Stevenson, and James.

A recurring situation in much of Cather’s best fiction is one that ties her work to a characteristic American experience—that of starting over. Willa Cather herself was born in the Upper Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia, near Winchester, the oldest of seven children of Charles and Virginia Cather. When she was nine, her parents moved west to join her paternal grandparents on the open plains of Nebraska, taking a large and varied household with them. At first the newcomers lived on the grandfather’s farm in the Catherton precinct of Webster County, an area so populated with southerners that its school was called the New Virginia School. Within two years, however, Charles Cather moved the large household into the town of Red Cloud, where he opened a real estate office.

Red Cloud was no stereotypical isolated country town; a main spur of the Burlington railroad passed through Red Cloud, and the Cathers saw performances in the local opera house of the most popular plays of the day produced by major traveling companies. Just as her months in the country had introduced her to the immigrant farmers from Sweden, France, and Bohemia, in Red Cloud Willa Cather discovered a cast of small-town characters rich in cultural diversity. Settlers in this small western town were from Europe, the American South, New England, northeastern cities, and the farms surrounding Red Cloud.

A tomboy who fought the restrictions placed on “young ladies” in the American version of the Victorian era in which she grew up, Cather began signing her name on school papers as “William Cather, M.D.” when she was 15. Her closely cropped hair and masculine dress made her stand out when she left home to prepare to enter the new state university in Lincoln. By the time she graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1895, she had modified her appearance and behavior to be more in keeping with the “New Women” of the 1890s that she encountered there. Her recent biographer Sharon O’Brien finds her early rebellion against conventional behavior in dress and demeanor a sign of the assertiveness that gave Cather the confidence she needed to succeed in a culture that was so repressive to women who did not accept their culturally assigned roles.

While in college, Cather began writing reviews for campus and Lincoln newspapers that led to her first job in Pittsburgh as an editor of a ladies’ magazine. There she taught high school English and Latin for a few years before joining McClure’s Magazine in New York City after publishing her first collection of short stories in 1905. For the next forty years, she would live and write in New York, but rarely would that city appear in her fiction. Instead, the memories of her early years in Virginia and Nebraska, her trips to the American Southwest, New England, Europe, and Canada tantalized her mind. Midway through her career as a novelist, she broadened her attention from the worlds of her personal past to include the history of the settlement of North America in novels such as Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock, which treat European immigration to New Mexico and Quebec.

Cather left no diaries, journals, or autobiography behind her when she died. Nor did she permit the publication or quotation of the many letters she wrote to friends that help biographers to explain the relationship she had to the subjects of her work. Yet clearly she found much of the power of her lifelong subjects from her own experience. Several recent biographers and critics see evidence of a lesbianism in Cather’s life that she never openly proclaimed. Her strongest ties were clearly to women—her friend and traveling companion Isabelle McClung with whom Cather roomed during her years of high school teaching in Pittsburgh, her mentor Sarah Orne Jewett whom she met while working as a journalist for McClure’s Magazine, and Edith Lewis with whom Cather lived for almost forty years in New York. With no definitive evidence of Cather’s sexual preference available, biographer James Woodress sees her as conscientiously avoiding binding romantic entanglements with either the men or the women in her life in order to devote all her energies to her writing.

Margaret Anne O’Connor
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
Coming Aphrodite (1921)

Other Works
April Twilights (poetry) (1903)  [n.b., 1923]
The Troll Garden (stories) (1905)
Alexander's Bridge (1912)
O Pioneers! (1913)
The Song of the Lark (1915)
Uncle Valentine and Other Stories (1915 - 1929)
My Antonia (1918)
Youth and the Bright Medusa (stories) (1920)
One of Ours (1922)
A Lost Lady (1923)
The Professor's House (1925)
My Mortal Enemy (1926)
Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
Shadows on the Rock (1931)
Obscure Destinies (stories) (1932)
Lucy Gayheart (1935)
Not Under Forty (1936)
Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)
The Old Beauty and Others (1948)
Willa Cather on Writing (1949)

Cultural Objects
Sound fileWhy does Wagner affect Aunt Georgiana so profoundly?

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Harvard's Willa Cather Center
Provides information about Center activities, a selection of Cather quotations, and a biography.

Perspectives in American Literature
Primary and secondary bibliographies, links to stories available online, and suggested directions for research.

The Willa Cather Archive
University of Nebraska's archive site providing a biography, bibliography, and many full-text Cather works.

Willa Cather
A biography punctuated by photographs.

Willa Cather Site
Offers "an introduction to the life and writings of Willa Cather" with a hypertext chronology.

Secondary Sources

Marilyn Arnold, Willa Cather: A Reference Guide, 1986

Edward K. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, 1953

Joan Crane, Willa Cather: A Bibliography, 1982

Hermione Lee, Willa Cather: Double Lives, 1989

Sharon O'Brien, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice, 1987

Conrad E. Ostwalt, After Eden: The Secularization of American Space in the Fiction of Willa Cather and Theodore Dreiser, 2000

Susan J. Rosowski, The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism, 1986

James Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, 1987