Willa Sibert Cather 1873-1947
In her life and work, Willa Cather is remembered as a pioneer much like the women, artists, and immigrants she chronicled in her fiction. Determined to have her voice heard, Cather ignored conventional notions of a woman's place in society, living an independent life and remaining true to her artistic vision. Her descriptive skill, insight into human character, and precise prose style have earned her a place among the great writers of America.
Cather spent the first 10 years of her life in Back Creek, Virginia, where her father made a living raising sheep on his father's farm. In 1883, the family relocated to Nebraska, where her grandparents had already established a new farm. In 1884, her father moved the family to the prairie town of Red Cloud, where Cather spent the rest of her childhood. Although the town was small -- her high school graduating class had only three students -- it left an indelible mark on Cather's imagination. The open prairies and the immigrant people who settled there are featured in no fewer than seven of her books.
In 1891, Cather entered the University of Nebraska. During her first year, a professor submitted her essay on Thomas Carlyle for publication in a Lincoln newspaper. Cather later recalled that seeing her name in print had a "hypnotic effect." Following graduation, she accepted a job in Pittsburgh, editing the Home Monthly, a women's magazine. During the next few years, she contributed reviews, poems, and short stories to a number of newspapers and journals. Her big break came in 1903, when a former colleague arranged for her to meet with McClure's magazine publisher S.S. McClure, who agreed to publish her short stories and collect them in her first book, The Troll Garden. In 1906, she accepted an editorial position at McClure's in New York, where she would live for the rest of her life.
By 1913 she was able to quit her editing job and support herself solely through writing. Her early works chronicle the lives of Midwestern farmers and immigrants, including O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918). Her mid-career novels, such as A Lost Lady (1923) and The Professor's House (1925), present sensitive protagonists struggling with what Cather regarded as the increasing crassness of modern life. As her career progressed, Cather turned her attention from plot and physical description to spiritual and artistic concerns. Her later work -- Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), perhaps her most admired work, and Shadows on the Rock (1931) -- reflects her quest for meaning in the modern world, portraying early Catholic pioneers in New Mexico and proselytizers in Quebec. Over the course of her career, Cather received numerous awards, including the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours. She enjoyed success with both reviewers and the reading public.
Throughout her life, Cather remained close to her family. She was grief-stricken at her parents' deaths -- her father's in 1928 and her mother's in 1931. Outside her family, she enjoyed a number of close friendships, the longest and most intense with Isabelle McClung, a wealthy Pittsburgh socialite who became Cather's reader and muse, and with Edith Lewis, a fellow Nebraskan with whom Cather lived until her death on April 24, 1947, from a cerebral hemorrhage.
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