Willa Cather her life and work Plan: Introduction

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Willa Cather her life and work

Willa Cather her life and work
Chapter 1. Willa Cather – his life and work
1.1. Background and childhood hardship
1.2 Philosophy
Chapter 2. Early life and education
2.1 Stage comedy and vaudeville

In 1890, at the age of sixteen, Cather graduated from Red Cloud High School.[34] She moved to Lincoln, Nebraska to enroll at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In her first year, her essay on Thomas Carlyle was published in the Nebraska State Journal without her knowledge.[35][36] After this, she published columns for $1 apiece, saying that seeing her words printed on the page had "a kind of hypnotic effect", pushing her to continue writing.[36][37] After this experience, she became a regular contributor to the Journal. In addition to her work with the local paper, Cather served as the main editor of The Hesperian, the university's student newspaper, and became a writer for the Lincoln Courier.[38] While at the university, she learned mathematics from and was befriended by John J. Pershing, who later became General of the Armies and, like Cather, earned a Pulitzer Prize for his writing.[39][40] She changed her plans from studying science to become a physician, instead graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1895.[28]: 71 
Cather's time in Nebraska, still considered a frontier state, was a formative experience for her: She was moved by the dramatic environment and weather, the vastness of the prairie, and the various cultures of the immigrant[41] and Native American families in the area.[42][43]

Willa Sibert Cather (/ˈkæðər/;[1] born Wilella Sibert Cather; December 7, 1873[A] – April 24, 1947) was an American writer known for her novels of life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia. In 1923, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, a novel set during World War I.
Willa Cather and her family moved from Virginia to Webster County, Nebraska, when she was nine years old. The family later settled in the town of Red Cloud. Shortly after graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Cather moved to Pittsburgh for ten years, supporting herself as a magazine editor and high school English teacher. At the age of 33, she moved to New York City, her primary home for the rest of her life, though she also traveled widely and spent considerable time at her summer residence on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick. She spent the last 39 years of her life with her domestic partner, Edith Lewis, before being diagnosed with breast cancer and dying of a cerebral hemorrhage. She is buried beside Lewis in a Jaffrey, New Hampshire plot.
Cather achieved recognition as a novelist of the frontier and pioneer experience. She wrote of the spirit of those settlers moving into the western states, many of them European immigrants in the nineteenth century. Common themes in her work include nostalgia and exile. A sense of place is an important element in Cather's fiction: physical landscapes and domestic spaces are for Cather dynamic presences against which her characters struggle and find community.
Early life and education[edit]
Willa Cather Childhood Home, Red Cloud, Nebraska
Cather was born in 1873 on her maternal grandmother's farm in the Back Creek Valley near Winchester, Virginia.[17][18] Her father was Charles Fectigue Cather.[19] The Cather family originated in Wales,[20] the name deriving from Cadair Idris, a Gwynedd mountain.[21]: 3 Her mother was Mary Virginia Boak, a former school teacher.[22] By the time Cather turned twelve months old, the family had moved to Willow Shade, a Greek Revival-style home on 130 acres given to them by her paternal grandparents.[23]
Mary Cather had six more children after Willa: Roscoe, Douglass,[B] Jessica, James, John, and Elsie.[26]: 5–7 Cather was closer to her brothers than to her sisters whom, according to biographer Hermione Lee, she "seems not to have liked very much."[27]: 36 
At the urging of Charles Cather's parents, the family moved to Nebraska in 1883 when Willa was nine years old. The farmland appealed to Charles' father, and the family wished to escape the tuberculosis outbreaks that were rampant in Virginia.[27]: 30 Willa's father tried his hand at farming for eighteen months, then 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.[28]: 43 Some of Cather's earliest work was first published in the Red Cloud Chief, the city's local paper,[29] and Cather read widely, having made friends with a Jewish couple, the Wieners, who offered her free access to their extensive library in Red Cloud.[30] At the same time, she made house calls with the local physician and decided to become a surgeon.[31][32] For a short while, she signed her name as William,[33] but this was quickly abandoned for Willa instead.[17]
In 1890, at the age of sixteen, Cather graduated from Red Cloud High School.[34] She moved to Lincoln, Nebraska to enroll at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In her first year, her essay on Thomas Carlyle was published in the Nebraska State Journal without her knowledge.[35][36] After this, she published columns for $1 apiece, saying that seeing her words printed on the page had "a kind of hypnotic effect", pushing her to continue writing.[36][37] After this experience, she became a regular contributor to the Journal. In addition to her work with the local paper, Cather served as the main editor of The Hesperian, the university's student newspaper, and became a writer for the Lincoln Courier.[38] While at the university, she learned mathematics from and was befriended by John J. Pershing, who later became General of the Armies and, like Cather, earned a Pulitzer Prize for his writing.[39][40] She changed her plans from studying science to become a physician, instead graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1895.[28]: 71 
Cather's time in Nebraska, still considered a frontier state, was a formative experience for her: She was moved by the dramatic environment and weather, the vastness of the prairie, and the various cultures of the immigrant[41] and Native American families in the area.[42][43]
Life and career[edit]
In 1896, Cather was hired to write for a women's magazine, Home Monthly, and moved to Pittsburgh.[10][44] There, she wrote journalistic pieces, short stories, and poetry.[37] A year later, after the magazine was sold,[45] she became a telegraph editor and critic for the Pittsburgh Leader and frequently contributed poetry and short fiction to The Library, another local publication.[46] In Pittsburgh, she taught Latin, algebra, and English composition at Central High School for one year;[47] she then taught English and Latin at Allegheny High School, where she came to head the English department.[48][49]
Shortly after moving to Pittsburgh, Cather wrote short stories, including publishing "Tommy, the Unsentimental" in the Home Monthly,[50] about a Nebraskan girl with a masculine name who looks like a boy and saves her father's bank business. Janis P. Stout calls this story one of several Cather works that "demonstrate the speciousness of rigid gender roles and give favorable treatment to characters who undermine conventions."[51] Her first book, a collection of poetry called April Twilights, was published in 1903.[C] Shortly after this, in 1905, Cather's first collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, was published. It contained some of her most famous stories, including "A Wagner Matinee", "The Sculptor's Funeral", and "Paul's Case".[60]
After Cather was offered an editorial position at McClure's Magazine in 1906, she moved to New York City.[61] During her first year at McClure's, the newspaper published a critical series of articles of the religious leader Mary Baker Eddy, crediting freelance journalist Georgine Milmine as the author. Cather contributed to the series, but there has been some debate as to how much. Milmine had performed copious amounts of research, but she did not have the resources to produce a manuscript independently, and McClure's employed Cather and a few other editors including Burton J. Hendrick to assist her.[62] This biography was serialized in McClure's over the next eighteen months and then published in book form.[63] McClure's also serialized Cather's first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912). While most reviews were favorable,[64][65] such as The Atlantic calling the writing "deft and skillful",[66] Cather herself soon saw the novel as weak and shallow.[67]
Cather followed Alexander's Bridge with her three novels set in the Great Plains, which eventually became both popular and critical successes: O Pioneers! (1913),[68] The Song of the Lark (1915),[69] and My Ántonia (1918),[70] which are—taken together—sometimes referred to as her "Prairie Trilogy".[71][72] It is this succession of plains-based novels for which Cather was celebrated for her use of plainspoken language about ordinary people.[73][74] Sinclair Lewis, for example, praised her work for making Nebraska available to the wider world for the first time.[75] After writing The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald lamented that it was a failure in comparison to My Ántonia.[76]
As late as 1920, Cather became dissatisfied with the performance of her publisher, Houghton Mifflin, which devoted an advertising budget of only $300 to My Ántonia,[77] and refused to pay for all the illustrations she commissioned for the book from Władysław T. Benda.[70] What's more, the physical quality of the books was poor.[78] That year, she turned to the young publishing house, Alfred A. Knopf, which had a reputation for supporting its authors through advertising campaigns.[77] She also liked the look of its books and had been impressed with its edition of Green Mansions by William Henry Hudson.[77] She so enjoyed their style that all her Knopf books of the 1920s—save for one printing of her short story collection Youth and the Bright Medusa—matched in design on their second and subsequent printings.[79]
By this time, Cather was firmly established as a major American writer, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her World War I-based novel, One of Ours.[77] She followed this up with the popular Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1927, selling 86,500 copies in just two years,[80] and which has been included on the Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the twentieth century.[77] Two of her three other novels of the decade—A Lost Lady and The Professor's House—elevated her literary status dramatically. She was invited to give several hundred lectures to the public, earned significant royalties, and sold the movie rights to A Lost Lady. Her other novel of the decade, the 1926 My Mortal Enemy, received no widespread acclaim—and in fact, neither she nor her partner, Edith Lewis, made significant mention of it later in their lives.[81]
Despite her success, she was the subject of much criticism, particularly surrounding One of Ours. Her close friend, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, saw the novel as a betrayal of the realities of war, not understanding how to "bridge the gap between [Cather's] idealized war vision ... and my own stark impressions of war as lived."[82] Similarly, Ernest Hemingway took issue with her portrayal of war, writing in a 1923 letter: "Wasn’t [the novel’s] last scene in the lines wonderful? Do you know where it came from? The battle scene in Birth of a Nation. I identified episode after episode, Catherized. Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere."[83]
A bust of Cather by Paul Swan in the Nebraska Hall of Fame
By the 1930s, an increasingly large share of critics began to dismiss her as overly romantic and nostalgic, unable to grapple with contemporary issues:[84] Granville Hicks, for instance, charged Cather with escaping into an idealized past to avoid confronting them.[85][86] And it was particularly in the context of the hardships of the Great Depression in which her work was seen as lacking social relevance.[87] Similarly, critics—and Cather herself[88]—were disappointed when her novel A Lost Lady was made into a film; the film had little resemblance to the novel.[89][90]
Cather's lifelong conservative politics,[91][D] appealing to critics such as Mencken, Randolph Bourne, and Carl Van Doren, soured her reputation with younger, often left-leaning critics like Hicks and Edmund Wilson.[96][97] Despite this critical opposition to her work, Cather remained a popular writer whose novels and short story collections continued to sell well; in 1931 Shadows on the Rock was the most widely read novel in the United States, and Lucy Gayheart became a bestseller in 1935.[18]
While Cather made her last trip to Red Cloud in 1931 for a family gathering after her mother's death, she stayed in touch with her Red Cloud friends and sent money to Annie Pavelka and other families during the Depression years.[27]: 327 In 1932, Cather published Obscure Destinies, her final collection of short fiction, which contained "Neighbour Rosicky", one of her most highly regarded stories. That same summer, she moved into a new apartment on Park Avenue with Edith Lewis, and during a visit on Grand Manan, she probably began working on her next novel, Lucy Gayheart.[98][E]
Cather suffered two devastating losses in 1938.[117][118][119] In June, her favorite brother, Douglass, died of a heart attack. Cather was too grief-stricken to attend the funeral.[28]: 478 Four months later, Isabelle McClung died. Cather and McClung had lived together when Cather first arrived in Pittsburgh, and while McClung eventually married and moved with her husband to Toronto,[120] the two women remained devoted friends.[121][122][F] Cather wrote that Isabelle was the person for whom she wrote all her books.[125]
Final years[edit]
During the summer of 1940, Cather and Lewis went to Grand Manan for the last time, and Cather finished her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, a book much darker in tone and subject matter than her previous works.[28]: 483 [126] While Sapphira is understood by readers as lacking a moral sense and failing to evoke empathy,[127] the novel was a great critical and commercial success, with an advance printing of 25,000 copies.[80] It was then adopted by the Book of the Month Club,[128] which bought more than 200,000 copies.[129] Her final story, "The Best Years",[130] intended as a gift for her brother,[131] was retrospective. It contained images or "keepsakes" from each of her twelve published novels and the short stories in Obscure Destinies.[132]
Although an inflamed tendon in her hand hampered her writing, Cather managed to finish a substantial part of a novel set in Avignon, France. She had titled it Hard Punishments and placed it in the 14th century during the reign of Antipope Benedict XIV.[27]: 371 She was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1943.[133] The same year, she executed a will that prohibited the publication of her letters and dramatization of her works.[124] In 1944, she received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a prestigious award given for an author's total accomplishments.[134]
Cather was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 1945 and underwent a mastectomy on January 14, 1946.[135]: 294–295 Probably by early 1947, her cancer metastasized to her liver, becoming stage IV cancer.[135]: 296 About a year later, on April 24, 1947, Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 73, in her home at 570 Park Avenue in Manhattan.[136][137] After Cather's death, Edith Lewis destroyed the manuscript of Hard Punishments, according to Cather's instructions.[138] She is buried at the southwest corner of the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey, New Hampshire,[139] alongside Edith Lewis[140][141]—a place she first visited when joining Isabelle McClung and her husband, violinist Jan Hambourg,[142] at the Shattuck Inn, where she routinely visited later in life owing to its seclusion.
Personal life[edit]
Willa Cather in the Mesa Verde wilds, c. 1915
Scholars disagree about Cather's sexual identity. Some believe it impossible or anachronistic to determine whether she had same-sex attraction,[145][146] while others disagree.[147][148][149] Researcher Deborah Carlin suggests that denial of Cather being a lesbian is rooted in treating same-sex desire "as an insult to Cather and her reputation", rather than a neutral historical perspective.[150] Melissa Homestead has argued that Cather was attracted to Edith Lewis, and in so doing, asked: "What kind of evidence is needed to establish this as a lesbian relationship? Photographs of the two of them in bed together? She was an integral part of Cather’s life, creatively and personally."[17] Beyond her own relationships with women, Cather's reliance on male characters has been used to support the idea of her same-sex attraction.[151][G] Harold Bloom calls her "erotically evasive in her art" due to prevailing "societal taboos."[155]
In any event, throughout Cather's adult life, her closest relationships were with women. These included her college friend Louise Pound; the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, with whom Cather traveled to Europe and at whose Toronto home she stayed for prolonged visits;[156] the opera singer Olive Fremstad;[157] and most notably, the editor Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived the last 39 years of her life.[158]
Cather's relationship with Lewis began in the early 1900s. They lived together in a series of apartments in New York City from 1908 until Cather's death in 1947. From 1913 to 1927, Cather and Lewis lived at No. 5 Bank Street in Greenwich Village.[159] They moved when the apartment was scheduled for demolition during the construction of the Broadway–Seventh Avenue New York City Subway line (now the 1, ​2, and ​3 trains).[160][161] While Lewis was selected as the literary trustee for Cather's estate,[53] she was not merely a secretary for Cather's documents but an integral part of Cather's creative process.[162]
Beginning in 1922, Cather spent summers on the island of Grand Manan in New Brunswick, where she bought a cottage in Whale Cove on the Bay of Fundy. This is where her short story, "Before Breakfast", is set.[18][163] 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.[28]: 415 In 1940, she stopped visiting Grand Manan after Canada's entrance to World War II, as travel was considerably more difficult; she also began a long recuperation from gallbladder surgery in 1942 that restricted travel.[164][135]: 266–268 
A resolutely private person, Cather destroyed many drafts, personal papers, and letters, asking others to do the same.[165] While many complied, some did not.[166] Her will restricted the ability of scholars to quote from the personal papers that remain.[124] But 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 after the death of Cather's nephew and second literary executor, Charles Cather. Willa Cather's correspondence revealed the complexity of her character and inner world.[167] The letters do not disclose any intimate details about Cather's personal life, but they do "make clear that [her] primary emotional attachments were to women."[168] The Willa Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln works to digitize her complete body of writing, including private correspondence and published work. As of 2021, about 2,100 letters have been made freely available to the public, in addition to transcription of her own published writing.[169][170]
Writing influences[edit]
Cather admired Henry James's use of language and characterization.[171] While Cather enjoyed the novels of several women—including George Eliot,[172] the Brontës, and Jane Austen—she regarded most women writers with disdain, judging them overly sentimental.[28]: 110 One contemporary exception was Sarah Orne Jewett, who became Cather's friend and mentor.[H] Jewett advised Cather of several things: to use female narrators in her fiction (even though Cather preferred using male perspectives),[177][178] to write about her "own country" (O Pioneers! was dedicated in large part to Jewett),[179][180][181] and to write fiction that explicitly represented romantic attraction between women.[182][183][184][I] Cather was also influenced by the work of Katherine Mansfield,[97] praising in an essay Mansfield's ability "to throw a luminous streak out onto the shadowy realm of personal relationships."[186]
Cather's high regard for the immigrant families forging lives and enduring hardships on the Nebraska plains shaped much of her fiction. The Burlington Depot in Red Cloud brought in many strange and wonderful people to her small town. As a child, she visited immigrant families in her area and returned home in "the most unreasonable state of excitement," feeling that she "had got inside another person's skin."[21]: 169–170 After a trip to Red Cloud in 1916, 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 Ántonia.[70][187][188] Cather was likewise fascinated by the French-Canadian pioneers from Quebec who had settled in the Red Cloud area while she was a girl.[189][190]
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."[28]: 414–15 Cather finished her novel Shadows on the Rock, a historical novel set in 17th-century Quebec, in 1931;[191] it was later included in Life magazine's list of the 100 outstanding books of 1924–1944.[192] 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, Hard Punishments.[189]
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Although Cather began her writing career as a journalist, she made a distinction between journalism, which she saw as being primarily informative, and literature, which she saw as an art form.[193]: 27 Cather's work is often marked by—and criticized for[194]—its nostalgic tone[97][195][196] and themes drawn from memories of her early years on the American plains.[197][198] Consequently, a sense of place is integral to her work: notions of land,[199] the frontier,[J] pioneering and relationships with western landscapes are recurrent.[201][202][203] Even when her heroines were placed in an urban environment, the influence of place was critical, and the way that power was displayed through room layout and furniture is evident in her novels like My Mortal Enemy.[204] Though she hardly confined herself to writing exclusively about the Midwest, Cather is virtually inseparable from the Midwestern identity that she actively cultivated (even though she was not a “native” Midwesterner).[205] While Cather is said to have significantly altered her literary approach in each of her novels,[206][207] this stance is not universal; some critics have charged Cather with being out of touch with her times and failing to use more experimental techniques in her writing, such as stream of consciousness.[193]: 36 [208][209] At the same time, others have sought to place Cather alongside modernists by either pointing to the extreme effects of her apparently simple Romanticism[210] or acknowledging her own "middle ground":
Remembered for her depictions of pioneer life in Nebraska, Willa Cather established a reputation for giving breath to the landscape of her fiction. Sensitive to the mannerisms and phrases of the people who inhabited her spaces, she brought American regions to life through her loving portrayals of individuals within local cultures. Cather believed that the artist's materials must come from impressions formed before adolescence. [1] Drawing from her childhood in Nebraska, Cather brought to national consciousness the beauty and vastness of the western plains. She was able to evoke this sense of place for other regions as well, including the Southwest, Virginia, France, and Quebec.
Born Wilella Cather on December 7, 1873 (she would later answer to "Willa"), she spent the first nine years of her life in Back Creek, Virginia, before moving with her family to Catherton, Nebraska in April of 1883. In 1885 the family resettled in Red Cloud, the town that has become synonymous with Cather's name. [2] Leaving behind the mountainous ridge of Virginia for the wide open prairies of the Plains had a formative effect on Cather. She described the move in an interview: "I was little and homesick and lonely . . . So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn the shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life." [3] She directed this passion for the country into her writing, drawing upon her Nebraska experiences for seven of her books. In addition to the landscape of her new home, Cather was captivated by the customs and languages of the diverse immigrant population of Webster County. She felt a particular kinship with the older immigrant women and spent countless hours visiting them and listening to their stories. This exposure to Old World culture figures heavily within Cather's writings and choice of characters. [4]
In September 1890, Cather moved to Lincoln to continue her education at the University of Nebraska, initially planning to study science and medicine. She had had a childhood dream of becoming a physician and had become something of an apprentice to the local Red Cloud doctor. [5] During an initial year of preparatory studies, Cather wrote an English essay on Thomas Carlyle that her professor submitted to the Lincoln newspaper for publication. Later Cather recalled that seeing her name in print had a "hypnotic effect" on her—her aspirations changed; she would become a writer. [6] Her college activities point to this goal: the young writer became managing editor of the school newspaper, the author of short stories, and a theater critic and columnist for the Nebraska State Journal as well as for the Lincoln Courier. Her reviews earned her the reputation of a "meat-ax critic," who, with a sharp eye and even sharper pen, intimidated the national road companies. While she was producing four columns per week, she was still a full-time student. [7]
Cather's classmates remembered her as one of the most colorful personalities on campus: intelligent, outspoken, talented, even mannish in her opinions and dress. [8] This strong personality would suit her well for her first career in journalism, a career that would take her away from Nebraska. In June of 1896, one year after graduating from the University, Cather accepted a job as managing editor for the Home Monthly, a women's magazine published in Pittsburgh. While she was turning out this magazine almost single-handedly, she also wrote theater reviews for the Pittsburgh Leader and the Nebraska State Journal. [9] Her intense interest in music, drama, and writing continued as she took in the Pittsburgh arts scene. Cather met a fellow theater lover, Isabelle McClung, who quickly became her closest friend. McClung encouraged the writer's creative streak: when Cather took some time away from journalism to foster her fictional bent, she found comfortable lodging in the spacious McClung family home. [10] Between 1901 and 1906, Cather took a break from journalism to teach English in local high schools. During this time, she published April Twilights (1903), a book of verse, and The Troll Garden (1905), a collection of short stories. [11]
Her short stories caught the eye of S. S. McClure, editor of the most famous muckraking journal. He published "Paul's Case" and "The Sculptor's Funeral" in McClure's Magazine and arranged for the publication of The Troll Garden in 1905. In 1906, he invited Cather to join his magazine staff. Once again, Cather returned to her work in periodicals, this time enjoying the prestige of editing the most widely circulated general monthly in the nation. [12] Cather ghostwrote a number of pieces for the magazine, including the year-long series The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science and The Autobiography of S. S. McClure. She continued to publish short stories and poems, but the demands of her job as managing editor took up most of her time and energy. McClure felt Cather's true genius lay in magazine business: he considered her the best magazine executive that he knew. Cather, however, remained unfulfilled in the position. Her friend and mentor Sarah Orne Jewett encouraged the writer to leave the hectic pace of the office to develop her craft. By 1911, Cather acted on the advice, leaving her managing position at the magazine. She was just shy of her thirty-eighth birthday and about to embark on a full-time writing career in fiction. [13]
In early 1912, Cather's first novel, Alexander's Bridge, appeared serially in McClure's as Alexander's Masquerade. Later she dismissed the work as imitative of Edith Wharton and Henry James, rather than her own material. [14] The following year she published O Pioneers!, the story that celebrates the immigrant farmers and their quest to cultivate the prairies. Cather placed her "shaggy grass country" at the center of the novel, allowing the form of the land to provide the structure of the book. She had taken Jewett's advice to heart, writing about the land and people she knew best, and dedicated this "second first novel" to the memory of her friend. Reviewers were enthusiastic about the novel, recognizing a new voice in American letters. [15] In her next book, Cather drew upon her past again, this time telling the story of a young Swedish immigrant and her quest to cultivate her artistic talent. Before writing The Song of the Lark (1915), she met Olive Fremstad, a Wagnerian soprano, who inspired her to create Thea Kronborg in the form of an artist. The resulting story of Thea Kronborg's development as an opera singer fused Cather's childhood with Fremstad's success. [16]
Cather continued in her autobiographical frame as she wrote My Ántonia (1918), her best loved novel. She placed her childhood friend Annie Pavelka at the center of the story, renaming her "Ántonia." [17] Although the story is told through the eyes of Jim, a young boy, his experiences are taken from Cather's, particularly his move from Virginia to Nebraska. Jim's first reaction to the landscape undoubtedly parallels the author's: "There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. . . . I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. . . . Between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out." [18] Eventually Jim becomes entranced with the vastness of the landscape, feeling himself one with his surroundings: "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 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." [19] Jim's attachment to the land parallels his relationship with Ántonia, his Bohemian neighbor and playmate. When he leaves Nebraska, he leaves behind Ántonia, his childhood, his family, the land: Ántonia comes to represent the West; Jim's memories of her stand in for his lost youth.
Critics unanimously praised the novel. H. L. Mencken wrote, "No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia." [20] Randolph Bourne of the Dial ranked Cather as a member of the worldwide modern literary movement. [21] The author herself felt a special connection to this story, recognizing it as the best thing she had ever done. As she confided to her childhood friend Carrie Miner Sherwood, "I feel I've made a contribution to American letters with that book." [22] It seems fitting that Cather rests underneath the beauty of this writing: The headstone marking her grave reads: "That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great." [23]
Desiring a publisher who would promote her artistic concerns, Cather switched her alliances in 1921 from Houghton-Mifflin to Alfred Knopf. Knopf allowed Cather the freedom to be uncompromising in her work; he fostered her national reputation and ensured her financial success. [24] During the 1920s, Cather was at the height of her artistic career. Psychologically, however, Cather's mood had changed. In comparison to her epic novels of the 1910s, Cather's post-war novels seem pervaded by disillusionment and despondency. [25] After publishing Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), a collection of short stories centered on artists, she wrote One of Ours (1922), a World War I story based on the life of her cousin G. P. Cather. At the end of the novel, a mother reflects gratefully that her son died as a soldier, still believing "the cause was glorious" — a belief he could not have possibly sustained had he survived the war. Although many critics panned it, scores of former soldiers wrote her letters of appreciation, thanking her for capturing just how they felt during the war. Her efforts secured her the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. [26] A Lost Lady followed (1923), for which Cather drew upon her memory of Lyra Garber, the beautiful wife of a prominent banker in Red Cloud. Once again, innocence brushes up against the realities of the world: the young Niel Herbert first adores Mrs. Forrester, then scorns her in disillusionment when she betrays his ideals. In the end he recalls her memory, glad for the part she played "in breaking him to life," and also for her power "of suggesting things much lovelier than herself, as the perfume of a single flower may call up the whole sweetness of spring." In A Lost Lady, Cather employed her philosophy of the "novel démueblé," telling by suggestion rather than by minute details. Most critics applauded the power of her artistry in this novel, although a handful complained about the immorality of the adulterous heroine. [27]
The same theme of disillusionment runs heavily throughout The Professor's House (1925) as well. Godfrey St. Peter, reaching success at middle age, finds himself dispirited, withdrawn, almost estranged from his wife and daughters. As his wife prepares a new house for him, the Professor feels he cannot leave his old home. As his despondency deepens, he turns to the memory of his former student Tom Outland, in whom he recalls the promise of youth cut short by death in World War I. The purposelessness of Tom's death underscores the post-war malaise of the Professor — indeed, of the modernist world. The Professor will always feel solitude, alienation, the sense of always being not-at-home — in short, he concludes, he will learn to live without delight. The novel reflects Cather's own sense of alienation within the modern world. [28]
Cather published My Mortal Enemy (1926) before producing her greatest artistic achievement, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). With the same power she had used to invoke the landscape of the Plains, Cather represented the beauty and the history of the southwest United States. Drawing from the life of Archbishop Lamy, Catholic French missionary to New Mexico in the 1850s, Cather created Bishop Latour, the man who ministers to the Mexican, Navajo, Hopi, and American people of his diocese. Cather took pains with her presentation: her writing was well researched and her attention to the details of layout made this the most handsomely produced book of her career. Critics immediately hailed it as "an American classic," a book of perfection. Cather reflected that writing the novel had been such an enjoyable process for her, she was sad to say goodbye to her characters when she finished. The American Academy of Arts and Letters bestowed the Howells Medal on her for this accomplishment. [29]
Cather wrote another historical novel, Shadows on the Rock (1931), this time centering on seventeenth-century French Quebec. Although her father's death and her mother's stroke slowed progress on this book, Cather felt that writing this novel gave her a sense of refuge during a tumultuous emotional period. [30] By this time, Cather was reaping the rewards of a long and successful career: she received honorary degrees from Yale, Princeton and Berkeley, in addition to the ones she had already received from the Universities of Nebraska and of Michigan. With the publication of Shadows, Cather appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, and the French awarded her the Prix Femina Américain. The book enjoyed high sales, becoming the most popular book of 1932. [31] In the same year, she brought out Obscure Destinies, the collection of short stories including "Old Mrs. Harris" and "Neighbour Rosicky." [32]
The pace of her writing slowed tremendously during the 1930s. Cather published Lucy Gayheart in 1935 and Sapphira and the Slave Girl in 1940, her last completed novel drawing from her family history in Virginia. [33] She spent two years revising her collected works for an Autograph edition put out by Houghton Mifflin, the first volume of which appeared in 1937. [34] Having risen as a national icon by the 1930s, Cather became one of the favorite targets of Marxist critics who said that she was out of touch with contemporary social issues. Granville Hicks claimed that Cather offered her readers "supine romanticism" instead of substance. [35] In addition to these criticisms, Cather had to deal with the deaths of her mother, her brothers Douglass and Roscoe, and her friend Isabelle McClung, the person for whom she said she had written all of her books. [36] The outbreak of World War II occupied her attention, and problems with her right hand impaired her ability to write. [37] Still, there were some bright spots in these final years. She received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1944, an honor that marked a decade of achievement. Three years later on April 24, 1947, Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage in her New York residence. [38]
Fifty years after her death, readers are still drawn to the beauty and depth of Cather's art. Seamless enough to draw in the casual reader and nuanced enough to entice the literary scholar, Cather's writing appeals to many walks of life. Her faithful portrayal of immigrant cultures has attracted readers outside the United States, and her work has been translated into countless languages, including Japanese, German, Russian, French, Czech, Polish, and Swedish. Scholastically, Cather has not always held a prominent place in the American literary canon. For many years she was relegated to the status of a regional writer. Within the last twenty years, however, there has been an "explosion of academic interest in Cather," interest that has moved the writer from marginalized to canonical status. In their efforts to expand the canon, feminist critics "recovered" her writing as they remembered the strong heroines of O Pioneers!The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia. Likewise, Cather has been reclaimed by old-school traditionalists: currently, she is the only American woman writer included in the Encyclopedia Britannica's list of "Great Books of the Western World" (1990). [39]
Meanwhile, basic questions about Cather's life remain: the writer tried to destroy all of her letters before her death, burning a rich correspondence that would have delighted any researcher. Thousands of her letters escaped destruction, but they are protected from reproduction or quotation by Cather's will. James Woodress's biography (Willa Cather: A Literary Life), the primary source for this account, provides a comprehensive synthesis of Cather's life, gleaned from family records, letters, critical reviews, and recollections of friends and family. Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant and Edith Lewis offer more personal accounts of their friend in Willa Cather: A Memoir and Willa Cather Living, respectively. Cather's sexual orientation became a subject of inquiry in the 1980s, with Sharon O'Brien considering the possibility of lesbianism in Cather's life (see Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice). Other critics have examined the larger cultural issues that serve as a backdrop to Cather's writing. Guy Reynolds looks at issues of race and empire in Willa Cather in Context, while Susan J. Rosowski examines the romantic literary tradition out of which Cather wrote (see The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism). [40] Deborah Carlin and Merrill Skaggs investigate her later novels in Cather, Canon, and the Politics of Reading and After the World Broke in Two. [41] Painstaking efforts have gone toward recovering Cather's juvenilia and journalism, thanks to Bernice Slote (The Kingdom of Art) and William Curtin (The World and the Parish).
Most serious readers of Cather will appreciate the judgment of her made by Wallace Stevens toward the end of her life: "We have nothing better than she is. She takes so much pains to conceal her sophistication that it is easy to miss her quality." [42] It is in this vein of appreciating Cather's sophistication that current scholarship continues to develop.

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