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Willa Cather | Biography

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Childhood

The author who would come to be known as Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia. As the first of seven children, Cather asserted her identity from a young age. She renamed herself Willa (after having been baptized as Wilella after an aunt) in honor of her uncle William Cather, who had died fighting in the Civil War (1861–65). Cather spent the first years of her life on her paternal grandparents' Virginia farm, moving with her family to Nebraska when she was nine. Cather first found the vast, flat landscape of Nebraska alienating. She recalled feeling as if her personality had been stripped away. Soon enough she came to love the prairie and the immigrants who worked to settle it. Eventually her father moved the family to a small house in the town of Red Cloud, where he established a loan and real estate business.

Cather had a bold personality and challenged social norms from a young age. Her habit was to sign her name William Cather, MD, as she aspired to become a surgeon. She wore her hair very short and also favored pants over dresses. Her favorite hobbies were reading and theater. She acted in a number of town productions. It was at her neighbor's house that she met and admired the hired girl, Annie Sadilek, later Anna Pavelka, who inspired the character Ántonia Shimerda, from her most famous novel, My Ántonia.

University Years and Journalism Career

Although she had planned to study medicine, when Cather enrolled in the University of Nebraska in 1891, she quickly changed her major to humanities after an essay she wrote was submitted by her professor to the Nebraska State Journal and published. Cather earned a reputation as an unforgiving critic from her reviews of theater performances, published in Lincoln newspapers. In a pattern that was to characterize her practice for most of her career, Cather's journalism work funded her real passion―fiction writing.

A job took Cather to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she became the editor of Home Monthly, a women's magazine she found uninspiring but which gave her the opportunity to publish many of her own stories. In Pittsburgh she met Isabelle McClung, who became her closest friend. She moved into the McClung family home in 1901 after resigning her job and lived there for the next six years. During this time, she taught English, honed her fiction writing, and made valuable contacts in the publishing and literary world. She befriended American Irish publisher S.S. McClure, who offered to publish some of her short stories. The Troll Garden, her first collection, was published in 1905.

The following year McClure offered Cather the job of editor at McClure's Magazine, known for exposing corruption in business but also known for publishing some of the best fiction of the day. Cather moved to New York City, living with a friend from Lincoln named Edith Lewis (she would live with Lewis for 40 years, until her own death). She made even more connections, including American novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, who became her literary mentor and encouraged Cather to find her own voice as an author rather than imitate the writers she admired. Cather later credited this advice with her choice to return to her childhood memories of Nebraska for material.

Cather the Author

In 1911 Cather took a leave of absence from McClure's to focus on her writing, and, in fact, she never returned. In 1912 McClure's published her first novel as a serial, Alexander's Masquerade, and a short story, "The Bohemian Girl." The novel O Pioneers! (1913) was the first in what is known as her prairie trilogy. The trilogy also includes The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Ántonia (1918), her best known novel. Cather's early novels sold modestly, and she was obliged to continue writing articles and short stories to support herself. In 1916 Cather was shocked by the sudden marriage of Isabelle McClung to a violinist. It was a heartbreak from which Cather may never have recovered. Although many speculate Cather was a lesbian, she never addressed her sexual orientation openly. Because Cather burned letters and, upon her death, asked some of her correspondents to burn letters, her relationships with McClung and Lewis ambiguous.

In 1916 Cather visited Red Cloud, spending time with Anna Pavelka, now a mother. By the time Cather returned to New York, she had already formed the idea for My Ántonia, and Cather's masterpiece was published two years later.

Later Years

Cather traveled extensively in Europe and America. Her visit to Mesa Verde National Park inspired her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), set in the southwestern desert. In a time in which the national park system was just being created to preserve America's great wilderness landscapes, Cather's iconic portrayals of the prairies and deserts of the American frontier can be seen as another form of conservation. After the publication of One of Ours in 1922, a novel inspired by the loss of her cousin in World War I (1914–18), Cather was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and achieved enough popularity as a writer to finally be financially secure. Nevertheless the war and later economic depression greatly affected Cather, who grew disillusioned, finding comfort in writing about the world and values of her youth, even finding inspiration in pioneers of other ages. Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), set in the Virginia of Cather's family, was her last novel. After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, Cather died on April 24, 1947, a mostly reclusive but famous author.
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