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Cather was an important American author of the early twentieth century. She is best known for novels that present evocative, realistic portrayals of pioneer life and that celebrate the courageous endurance of the early Midwestern settlers and the natural beauty of the prairie landscape. Her works often focus on sensitive, alienated individuals and examine their varying degrees of success in resolving conflict.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Settling in the Midwest
Cather was born in Virginia in 1873, and she spent the first decade of her life on her family’s farm in Back Creek Valley. In 1884, the Cathers moved to the Great Plains, joining the ethnically diverse group of settlers in Webster County, Nebraska. The family settled in Red Cloud, where Cather began to attend school on a regular basis.
Red Cloud was a farm-to-market town of twenty-five hundred people and a division point on the Burlington Railroad. Although it was a raw, new town, there was a good deal of intellectual nourishment there. The Weiner couple around the corner were educated Europeans who spoke French and German, and encouraged Cather to read in their well-stocked library. Cather also studied
Latin and Greek with William Drucker, an Englishman who clerked in his brother’s store. Another neighbor was Julia Miner, who had been born in Oslo, the daughter of an oboist in the Royal Norwegian Symphony. She played the piano expertly to her young neighbor’s perennial delight. Cather also took part in amateur theatricals and attended performances of road companies that played in the Red Cloud opera house.
The time she spent living in Nebraska would be a profound influence on her writing. Nebraska would be a dominant subject in her writing and the setting for all or significant parts of six of her twelve novels and many of her short stories.
Working as a Journalist
At the age of sixteen-and-a-half, Cather finished high school along with two other students in the second class to graduate. After delivering a commencement oration on ”Superstition versus Investigation,” a ringing defense of experimental science, she left for Lincoln and the University of Nebraska, where she excelled in studies of language and literature. During her junior year, she assumed the editorship of the college literary journal, in which she published many of her own short stories; by the time she was graduated from the university, she was working as a full-time reporter and critic for the Nebraska State Journal. Shortly after graduation, she moved to Pittsburgh to serve as editor of a short-lived women’s magazine called the Home Monthly. Cather published her first book, April Twilights, an undistinguished volume of poetry, in 1903. While she continued to write and publish short stories, she made her living as a journalist and teacher until she moved to New York City in 1906 to assume the managing editorship of the influential McClure’s magazine.
Cather’s affiliation with McClure’s proved to be pivotal in her life and career: her work for the magazine brought her national recognition, and it was S. S. McClure, the publisher of McClure’s, who arranged for the release of The Troll Garden (1905), her first volume of short stories.
Devoted to Fiction
While on assignment in Boston in 1908, Cather met Sarah Orne Jewett, an author whose work she greatly admired; after reading Cather’s fiction, Jewett encouraged her to abandon journalism. ”I cannot help saying what I think,” Jewett wrote to Cather, ”about your writing and its being hindered by such incessant, important, responsible work as you have in your hands now.” Jewett further advised Cather to ”find [her] own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world.” Cather was profoundly influenced by these admonitions, and shortly afterward she relinquished her responsibilities at McClure’s in order to devote all of her time to writing fiction.
When Cather left McClure’s in the fall of 1911, she and her Pittsburgh friend Isabelle McClung rented a house in Cherry Valley, New York. The quiet and seclusion produced a great burst of creative energy, one result of which was a story called ”Alexandra,” which later became part of O Pioneers/(1913), her first successful novel. Cather had found her ”quiet centre of life” in childhood memories of the Nebraska prairie, using them and other incidents from her life to create a series of remarkably successful novels.
Until her death in 1947, Cather maintained residences in New York City but frequently traveled to the American West and to Europe, developing a deep emotional attachment to France. From her years at McClure’s until her death at age seventy-three, she lived with her close friend Edith Lewis.
Works in Literary Context
Cather stressed the importance of creativity, imagination, and the many forms of love in transcending adversity. As such, her vision has been described as romantic, yet her unadorned and vivid prose style reflects the influence of nineteenth-century realist author Gustave Flaubert. Another strong influence was Henry James, whom Cather considered ”the perfect writer.” Cather displayed a passionate idealism and a disdain for materialistic aspirations.
A Sense of Place
Cather was a writer whose work was deeply rooted in a sense of place and at the same time universal in its treatment of theme and character. The corner of earth that she is best known for depicting is the Nebraska where she lived as an adolescent and where she was educated. Cather combined a regional knowledge of Nebraska with an artistic expertise reminiscent of the nineteenth-century literary masters to portray the lives of Old World immigrants on the American Midwestern frontier in a manner that was at once realistic and nobly heroic. For her, the homesteading German, Danish, Bohemian, and Scandinavian settlers of that region were the embodiment of the artistic and cultural tradition she cherished. In her Nebraskan novels, courage and idealism are juxtaposed with modern materialistic values.
Cather’s work is not confined to Nebraska, however. Another large area of her interest is the Southwest, which she discovered and fell in love with when she was thirty-eight and used as the setting for Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), the novel she thought her best, and significant parts of two other novels. Her interest in the Southwest, which includes the people and their culture as well as the land, turned her attention to the history of that region and to history in general. As a result, three of her last four novels are historical reconstructions of the Southwest, Quebec, and Virginia (her native state), and she was at work on a fourth historical novel to be set in medieval France when she died in 1947.
Disillusionment and Longing for the Past
Like many artists after World War I, Cather was disillusioned by the social and political order of the world. With the publication of One of Ours (1922), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize, an underlying mood of hopelessness entered into her novels, as well as a motif stressing the need to escape from contemporary life. Granville Hicks stated that ”once [Cather] had created symbols of triumph …, but now she concerned herself with symbols of defeat.” This pattern appears in such novels as A Lost Lady (1923), which chronicles the gradual process of moral degradation in the protagonist Marian Forrester as well as the social decline in America following World War I, and The Professor’s House (1925), which contrasts the disillusionment of Professor Godfrey St. Peter over his family’s materialism with his reminiscences about an idealistic former student who had died in the war.
A despairing tone is absent in Death Comes for the Archbishop—an episodic novel fictionalizing the life and achievements of Archbishop Lamy in mid-nineteenth-century New Mexico—and Shadows on the Rock (1931)— a tale set in seventeenth-century Quebec—partly because Cather’s desire to retreat from the modern world led her, late in her career, to write novels about historic figures to whom she could once again attribute heroic virtues. While some critics have condemned Cather’s retreat into the past, others have praised her insight and rejection of what she perceived as a materialistic society. Edward and Lillian Bloom have asserted that ”looking backward to the fixed values of a satisfying past, [Cather] reaffirmed the moral standards she cherished, thus ultimately deny ing they could be destroyed by temporary upheavals.”
Works in Critical Context
Although she began as a short-story writer, critics have long acknowledged that it is Cather’s novels that constitute her major contribution to literature. Alexander’s Bridge (1912), her first novel, was criticized as highly derivative, both in its form and its sophisticated subject matter, due to the author’s desire to write in the manner of Henry James. In subsequent works, however, she began to win praise from critics as she returned to the Nebraska background that had provided her with the settings and characters for many of her early stories.
Her critical reputation began to slip later in her life, but she has survived a long period of relative critical neglect by academics. Her fiction has now assured her a place in the American canon as a major novelist unqualified by such tags as “female,” “Western,” or even “twentieth-century.” Some recent commentators have detected political overtones in much of the negative criticism that accompanied the appearance of Cather’s last novels. They argue that Cather’s blunt condemnation of materialism in such works as ALostLady (1923) and The Professor’s House (1925) was interpreted as an endorsement of socialism in the politically sensitive decades of the 1930s and 1940s. For this reason they believe that these books may not have been assessed fairly by critics at the time of their publication, and they are now beginning to reexamine them. Cather’s willingness to experiment with new forms, her technical mastery, and the superb prose style evident in these works have generally led recent critics to take a more positive view of them than that held by Cather’s contemporaries. Thus, Cather’s unique stylistic and thematic contribution to American letters and her importance as an early modernist writer are now widely recognized.
Cather’s second novel, O Pioneers!(1913), established her reputation as a major novelist. The reviewer for the Nation wrote effusively about O Pioneers!, ”Few American novels of recent years have impressed us so strongly as this.” Other reviewers praised her for her skilled treatment of epic themes. Ferris Greenslet, Cather’s editor at Houghton Mifflin, appeared to be right when he had told his colleagues that the novel ought to . . . definitely establish the author as a novelist of the first rank.”
One of Ours
Cather’s novel about World War I, One of Ours, was based on the life of her cousin who was killed in France in 1918 during the Argonne Forest offensive. When this novel, which took Cather four years to write, appeared in 1922, the critical reception was mixed. H. L. Mencken, who had been a great admirer of Cather’s earlier novels, wrote that the appearance of John Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers the year before had changed forever the war novel and, at one blast, had disposed of oceans of romance and blather.” Any subsequent war novel would inevitably be compared to it, and in this comparison he found Cather’s novel wanting. By the time One of Ours came out, postwar disillusionment had already set in, and any subsequent war novel in which the protagonist dies believing he is saving the world for democracy was doomed to critical disapprobation. Despite some critics considering One of Ours a disappointment, the novel was a best-seller and also won the Pulitzer Prize.
- Bennett, Mildred R. The World of Willa Cather, revised edition. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
- Bloom, Edward and Lillian. Willa Cather’s Gift of Sympathy. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962.
- Brown, E. K. and Leon Edel. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. New York: Knopf, 1953.
- Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
- Shepley, Elizabeth Sergeant. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Philadelphia, Pa.: Lippincott, 1953.
- O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
- Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
- Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1990.
- Gerber, Philip L. Willa Cather. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Stouck, David. Willa Cather’s Imagination. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.
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