Willa Cather

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Willa Cather
Willa Cather ca. 1912 wearing necklace from Sarah Orne Jewett.jpg
Cather in 1912.
BornWilella Sibert Cather
(1873-12-07)December 7, 1873
Gore, Virginia, near Winchester, Virginia, United States
DiedApril 24, 1947(1947-04-24) (aged 73)
New York City, United States
OccupationNovelist
NationalityAmerican
Period1905–1947
 
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Willa Cather
Willa Cather ca. 1912 wearing necklace from Sarah Orne Jewett.jpg
Cather in 1912.
BornWilella Sibert Cather
(1873-12-07)December 7, 1873
Gore, Virginia, near Winchester, Virginia, United States
DiedApril 24, 1947(1947-04-24) (aged 73)
New York City, United States
OccupationNovelist
NationalityAmerican
Period1905–1947

Willa Sibert Cather (/ˈkæðər/;[1] December 7, 1873[2] – April 24, 1947) was an American author who achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, in works such as O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours (1922), a novel set during World War I. Cather grew up in Nebraska and graduated from the University of Nebraska. She lived and worked in Pittsburgh for ten years,[3] then at the age of 33 she moved to New York, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Early life and education[edit]

She was born Wilella Sibert Cather in 1873 on her maternal grandmother's farm in the Back Creek Valley near Winchester, Virginia (see Willa Cather Birthplace). Her father was Charles Fectigue Cather (d. 1928), whose family had lived on land in the valley for six generations. Cather's family originated in Wales. The family name is derived from Cadair Idris, a mountain range in northwestern Wales.[4] Her mother was Mary Virginia Boak (d. 1931), a former school teacher. Within a year of Cather's birth, the family moved to Willow Shade, a Greek Revival-style home on 130 acres given to them by her paternal grandparents.

One-and-a-half-story house with gable roof and small front porch; surrounded by picket fence
Willa Cather House, Red Cloud, Nebraska

The Cathers moved to Nebraska in 1883, joining Charles' parents, when Willa was nine years old. Her father tried his hand at farming for eighteen months; then he moved the family into the town of Red Cloud, where he opened a real estate and insurance business, and the children attended school for the first time.[5] Cather's time in the western state, still on the frontier, was a deeply formative experience for her. She was intensely moved by the dramatic environment and weather, and the various cultures of the European-American, immigrant and Native American families in the area.

Mary Cather had six more children after Willa: Roscoe, Douglass, Jessica, James, John, and Elsie.[6] Cather was closer to her brothers than to her sisters whom, according to biographer Hermione Lee, she "seems not to have liked very much."[7]

Cather had planned to major in science at the University of Nebraska and to become a physician. After her essay on Thomas Carlyle was published in the Nebraska State Journal during her freshman year,[8] she became a regular contributor to the Journal. She changed her major and graduated in 1894 with a B.A. in English.

Career[edit]

In 1896, Cather moved to Pittsburgh after being hired to write for the Home Monthly,[9] a women's magazine patterned after the successful Ladies' Home Journal.[10] A year later, she became a telegraph editor and drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader and frequently contributed poetry and short fiction to The Library, another local publication. In Pittsburgh, she taught Latin, algebra, and English composition[11] at Central High School for one year; she then taught English and Latin at Allegheny High School, where she became the head of the English department.

"The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers...I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep."
— Willa Cather, My Antonia[12]

Cather's first collection of short stories, The Troll Garden was published in 1905 by McClure, Phillips, and Company. It contains several of Cather's best-known stories—"A Wagner Matinee", "The Sculptor's Funeral", and "Paul's Case".

In 1906 Cather moved to New York City after receiving an offer of a position on the editorial staff of McClure's Magazine. During her first year at McClure's, she wrote a critical biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. While Georgina Milmine's name appears as a co-author both in the serial and the book publications, Cather was the principal writer of the biography. She performed copious amounts of research, but she did not have the resources to produce a publishable manuscript on her own.[13] "Mary Baker G. Eddy: The Story of Her Life and the History of Christian Science" was published in McClure's in fourteen installments over the next eighteen months, and then in book form as The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science (1909).

McClure's serialized Cather's first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912). Most reviews were favorable. The New York Times praised "the dramatic situations and the clever conversations,"[14] and the Atlantic called the writing "deft and skillful."[15]

Cather followed Alexander's Bridge with her Prairie Trilogy: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918). These works became both popular and critical successes. Cather was celebrated by national critics such as H.L. Mencken for writing in plainspoken language about ordinary people. Sinclair Lewis praised her work for making "the outside world know Nebraska as no one else has done."[16]

Through the 1910s and 1920s, Cather was firmly established as a major American writer, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for her novel One of Ours. By the 1930s, however, critics began to dismiss her as a "romantic, nostalgic writer who could not cope with the present."[17] Critics such as Granville Hicks charged Cather with failing to confront "contemporary life as it is"[18] and escaping into an idealized past. During the hardships of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, her work was seen as lacking social relevance.[18]

Cather's conservative politics and the same subject matter that appealed to Mencken, Randolph Bourne, and Carl Van Doren soured her reputation with younger, often left-leaning critics such as Hicks and Edmund Wilson.[19] Discouraged by the negative criticism of her work, Cather became reclusive. She burned letters and forbade anyone to publish her letters.[20]

Personal life[edit]

As a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s, Cather sometimes used the masculine nickname "William" and wore masculine clothing.[21] A photograph in the University of Nebraska archives depicts Cather dressed like a young man and with "her hair shingled, at a time when females wore their hair fashionably long."[22]

Throughout Cather's adult life, her most significant friendships were with women. These included her college friend Louise Pound; the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, with whom Cather traveled to Europe; the opera singer Olive Fremstad; the pianist Yaltah Menuhin;[23] and most notably, the editor Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived the last 39 years of her life. Cather's sexual identity remains a point of contention among scholars. While many argue for Cather as a lesbian and interpret her work through a lens of queer theory, a highly vocal contingent of Cather scholars adamantly oppose such considerations.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie in Webster County, Nebraska

The scholar Janet Sharistanian has written, "Cather did not label herself a lesbian nor would she wish us to do so, and we do not know whether her relationships with women were sexual. In any case, it is anachronistic to assume that if Cather's historical context had been different, she would have chosen to write overtly about homoerotic love."[24]

Cather's relationship with Edith Lewis began in the early 1900s. The two women lived together in a series of apartments in New York City from 1908 until the writer's death in 1947. From 1913 to 1927, Cather and Lewis lived at No. 5 Bank Street in Greenwich Village. They moved when the apartment was scheduled for demolition during the construction of the Seventh Avenue subway line.[25] Cather selected Lewis as the literary trustee for her estate.[26]

Although she was born into a Baptist family, Cather began attending Episcopal services in 1906, and she joined the Episcopal Church in 1922.[27]

Beginning in 1922, Cather spent summers on Grand Manan Island, in New Brunswick, Canada. She bought a cottage in Whale Cove, on the Bay of Fundy.[28] It was the only house she ever owned.[29] She valued the seclusion of the island, and did not mind that her cottage had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. Anyone wishing to reach her could do so by telegraph or mail.[30] She stopped going to Grand Manan Island when Canada entered World War II, since travel was more difficult, and Cather was experiencing a long recuperation from gall bladder surgery.[31]

A resolutely private person, Cather had destroyed many old drafts, personal papers, and letters. Her will restricted the ability of scholars to quote from the personal papers that remain. However, in April 2013, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather—a collection of 566 letters Cather wrote to friends, family, and literary acquaintances such as Thornton Wilder and F. Scott Fitzgerald—was published, two years following the death of Cather's nephew and second literary executor, Charles Cather. The letters do not reveal any intimate details about Cather's personal life, but they do "make clear that [her] primary emotional attachments were to women."[32]

Writing influences[edit]

Cather admired Henry James as a "mighty master of language and keen student of human actions and motives."[33] She generally preferred past literary masters to contemporary writers. Some particular favorites were Dickens, Thackeray, Emerson, Hawthorne, Balzac, Flaubert, and Tolstoy.

While Cather enjoyed the novels of George Eliot, the Brontës, and Jane Austen, she regarded most women writers with disdain, judging them overly sentimental and mawkish.[34] Cather's biographer James Woodress notes that Cather "so completely ... embraced masculine values that when she wrote about women writers, she sounded like a patronizing man."[34] One contemporary exception was Sarah Orne Jewett, who became Cather's friend and mentor. Jewett advised Cather to use female narrators in her fiction, but Cather preferred to write from a male point of view.[35] Jewett also encouraged Cather to write about subjects that had "teased the mind" for years.[36] Chief among these subjects were the people and experiences Cather remembered from her years in Nebraska. She dedicated O Pioneers!, the first novel in her Prairie Trilogy, to Jewett. Cather also admired the work of Katherine Mansfield, praising Mansfield's ability "to throw a luminous streak out onto the shadowy realm of personal relationships".[37]

Cather’s high regard for the immigrant families forging lives and enduring hardships on the Nebraska plains shaped a good deal of her fiction. As a child, she visited immigrant families in her area and raced home in "the most unreasonable state of excitement," feeling that she "had got inside another person's skin."[38] Following a trip to Red Cloud in 1916 to visit her family, Cather decided to write a novel based on the events in the life of her childhood friend Annie Sadilek Pavelka, a Bohemian girl who became the model for the title character in My Antonia.[39] Cather was likewise fascinated by the French-Canadian pioneers from Quebec who had settled in the Red Cloud area while she was a girl.[40] During a brief stopover in Quebec with Edith Lewis in 1927, Cather was inspired to write a novel set in that French-Canadian city. Lewis recalled: "From the first moment that she looked down from the windows of the [Chateau] Frontenac [Hotel] on the pointed roofs and Norman outlines of the town of Quebec, Willa Cather was not merely stirred and charmed—she was overwhelmed by the flood of memories, recognition, surmise it called up; by the sense of its extraordinary French character, isolated and kept intact through hundreds of years, as if by a miracle, on this great un-French continent".[41] Cather finished her novel Shadows on the Rock, an historical novel set in 17th-century Quebec, in 1931. The French influence is found in many other Cather works, including Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and her final, unfinished novel set in Avignon.

Later years[edit]

Cather made her last trip to Red Cloud in 1931 for a family gathering following the death of her mother. She continued to stay in touch with her Red Cloud friends and she sent money to Annie Pavelka and other country families during the Depression years.[42]

In 1932, Cather published Obscure Destinies, her final collection of short fiction, which contained one of her most highly regarded stories, "Neighbour Rosicky." Cather and Edith Lewis moved into a new apartment on Park Avenue, and Cather began work on her next novel, Lucy Gayheart, a book that revealed "its author's darkening vision as she began her seventh decade".[43]

Cather suffered two devastating losses in 1938. In June, her favorite brother, Douglass, died of a heart attack. Cather was too grief-stricken to attend the funeral.[44] Several months later, Isabelle McClung died. Cather and McClung had lived together when Cather first arrived in New York, and while McClung eventually married, the two women remained devoted friends.[45] Cather wrote friends that Isabelle was the one for whom all her books had been written.[46]

Cather grew increasingly discouraged as the United States moved closer to involvement in World War II. When the French army surrendered to Nazi Germany, Cather wrote in her diary: "There seems to be no future at all for people of my generation".[47] During the summer of 1940, Cather and Lewis went to Grand Manan for the last time, and Cather finished what was to be her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, a novel much darker in tone and subject matter than her previous works.[48] Sapphira lacks a moral sense and is not a character who evokes empathy. However, the novel was a great critical and commercial success, with an advance printing of 25,000 copies. It was then adopted by the Book of the Month Club, which bought more than 200,000 copies.[49]

Although an inflamed tendon in her hand hampered her writing, Cather managed to finish a good part of a novel set in Avignon, France. However, Edith Lewis destroyed the manuscript, according to Cather’s instructions, when Cather died. Cather's remaining papers reveal that Cather had titled the unfinished manuscript Hard Punishments and set it in the 14th century during the papal reign of Antipope Benedict XIV.[50] In 1944, Cather received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, an award given once a decade for an author's total accomplishments.[51] Though Cather suffered from no specific medical problems in her last years, those closest to her felt that her health was deteriorating.[52] On April 24, 1947, Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 73.[53]

Cather was buried on a hillside in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, a town she had first visited with Isabelle McClung. The inscription on her tombstone reads:

WILLA CATHER
December 7, 1873 – April 24, 1947
THE TRUTH AND CHARITY OF HER GREAT

SPIRIT WILL LIVE ON IN THE WORK
WHICH IS HER ENDURING GIFT TO HER
COUNTRY AND ALL ITS PEOPLE.
"...that is happiness; to be dissolved
into something complete and great."
From My Antonia

Legacy and honors[edit]

An American Arts Commemorative Series medallion depicting Cather

Bibliography[edit]

Nonfiction[edit]

Novels[edit]

Collections[edit]

This does not include recent collections of early stories which were originally published in periodicals.[57] [58]

Documentary[edit]

Cather was the subject of the 2005 PBS documentary Willa Cather: The Road is All.[59]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Willa Cather" in The American Heritage Dictionary.
  2. ^ Woodress, James Leslie. Willa Cather: A Literary Life, Omaha, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1987, p. 516. Cather's birth date is confirmed by a birth certificate and a January 22, 1874 letter of her father's referring to her. While working at McClure's Magazine, Cather claimed to be born in 1875. After 1920, she claimed 1876 as her birth year. That is the date carved into her gravestone at Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
  3. ^ "Journalist and Teacher, Writer and Poet, 1895–1912". Willa Cather Foundation website. Retrieved 2013-04-22.
  4. ^ Woodress, James, p. 13.
  5. ^ Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987, p. 43.
  6. ^ Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1953, pp. 5–7.
  7. ^ Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1989, p. 36.
  8. ^ Woodress, James, pp. 72–3.
  9. ^ Lowry, Patricia (December 8, 2008). "Places: In search of Willa Cather's East End haunts". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved July 20, 2010. 
  10. ^ Woodress, James, p. 114.
  11. ^ Woodress, James, p. 150.
  12. ^ Crane, My Antonia p. 57
  13. ^ Woodress, James, p. 194.
  14. ^ Woodress, James, p. 225
  15. ^ Atlantic. November 1912, p. 683
  16. ^ Omaha World-Herald, April 9, 1921.
  17. ^ O'Brien, Sharon. "Being Noncanonical: The Case Against Willa Cather". Cathy N. Davidson (ed.), Reading in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
  18. ^ a b O'Brien, p. 246
  19. ^ Decker, James M. (April 2003). "Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism". Modern Language Review. 
  20. ^ Scott, Washington State University .
  21. ^ O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford, 1987. pp. 96–113.
  22. ^ Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record, p. 38. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1953
  23. ^ Rolfe, Lionel. (2004). The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin & Willa Cather. American Legends/California Classics Books, 168 pp. ISBN 1-879395-46-0.
  24. ^ Sharistanian, Janet. Introduction to My Ántonia, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, p. xiii.
  25. ^ Bunyan, Patrick. All Around the Town: Amazing Manhattan Facts and Curiosities, p. 66. New York: Fordham University Press, 1999
  26. ^ "Cather's Life: Chronology", The Willa Cather Archive, University of Nebraska, accessed March 21, 2007
  27. ^ Acocella, Joan. Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, p. 4.
  28. ^ Ahern, Amy, "Willa Cather: Longer Biographical Sketch", The Willa Cather Archive, University of Nebraska, accessed March 21, 2007
  29. ^ Woodress, James, p. 323.
  30. ^ Woodress, p. 415.
  31. ^ Woodress, p. 496
  32. ^ Schuessler, Jennifer. "O Revelations! Letters, Once Banned, Flesh Out Willa Cather." The New York Times. March 22, 2013, A1.
  33. ^ Curtin, William M., ed. The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893–1902. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1970, p. 248.
  34. ^ a b Woodress, James, p. 110.
  35. ^ Woodress, James, p. 214.
  36. ^ Cather, Willa. Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1988, p. 48
  37. ^ Cather, Willa. Not Under Forty. New York: knopf, 1936, p. 135.
  38. ^ Bennet, Mildred. The World of Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961, pp. 169–70.
  39. ^ Woodress, p. 289
  40. ^ Danker, Kathleen. "The Influence of Willa Cather's French-Canadian Neighbors in Nebraska in Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock." Great Plains Quarterly, Winter 2000, p. 34.
  41. ^ Woodress, pp. 414–415
  42. ^ Lee, Hermione, p. 327.
  43. ^ Woodress, p. 449
  44. ^ Woodress, p. 478
  45. ^ Woodress, p. 139
  46. ^ Woodress, p. 479
  47. ^ Lewis, p. 184
  48. ^ Woodress, p. 483
  49. ^ Woodress, p. 488
  50. ^ Lee, Hermione, p. 371.
  51. ^ Woodress, p. 498
  52. ^ Wwoodress p. 502
  53. ^ Woodress, p. 504
  54. ^ Nebraska State Historical Society
  55. ^ "U.S. Issues Two More Gold Medallions in Artists Series". The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA: Knight Ridder). November 4, 1984. p. R13. 
  56. ^ Zehring, Marilyn. "Summer Sundays at Library begin with Cather". Columbus Telegram. 2009-06-14. Retrieved January 25, 2011.
  57. ^ "Cather's Life: Chronology". The Willa Cather Archive. Archived from the original on July 1, 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-13. 
  58. ^ "Cather's Writings: Short Fiction". The Willa Cather Archive. Archived from the original on July 2, 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-13. 
  59. ^ "Willa Cather: The Road is All". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 17, 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

Primary sources

Archival sources

External links[edit]