Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873, in rural Virginia. At the age of nine, she moved with her family to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she spent the remainder of her childhood. After graduating from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1895, she moved to Pittsburgh to begin a career in journalism. In all, Cather spent five years in the Pittsburgh newspaper and magazine trade, working at Home Monthly and the Pittsburgh Leader. Between 1901 and 1906 she taught high school English and Latin in Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh area. During this period, she began to publish her first short stories. These early successes led to a position in New York City with McClure’s, a magazine that often featured investigative journalism, where Cather served as an editor for six years.
In 1912 Cather published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, which received a lukewarm reception. The next year, Cather caught the attention of the literary world with the appearance of O Pioneers!, exploring and celebrating frontier life in the American West. In 1918 she made her most lasting contribution to her status as one of the most celebrated post–Civil War American authors with the publication of My Ántonia. Like many of Cather’s novels, My Ántonia fictionalizes recollections of her youth in rural Nebraska.
Though the narrative of My Ántonia is fictional, there are many similarities between Cather’s life and that of the novel’s protagonist. As Cather did, Jim Burden moves from Virginia to Nebraska as a child to live with grandparents; the town of Black Hawk, to which Jim and his grandparents move, is a fictionalized version of the Red Cloud of Cather’s youth. Also as Cather did, Jim attends the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and eventually moves from Nebraska to New York.
If certain of the situations in the novel derive from Cather’s recollections of her youth, however, the novel’s high stature in American literature results from Cather’s ability as a writer. Her sensitivity to the prairie landscape and her elegantly uncomplicated prose style have earned her a spot among America’s finest novelists, and My Ántonia continues to stand as the most lasting hallmark of her skill. My Ántonia is generally considered a modernist novel. In the early twentieth century, many authors were concerned with the alienation from society that resulted from ongoing processes of mechanization and industrialization. These writers responded to what they perceived as an increased fragmentation of the world by creating narratives and stories that were themselves fragmented. Cather participates in this tradition both by creating a novel whose plot does not have a highly structured form and by idealizing a preindustrial life far from the noise and speed of the city.
Cather was most prolific during the 1920s, when she published many of her finest works. After being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours in 1922, she also enjoyed popular successes with The Professor’s House in 1925, My Mortal Enemy in 1926, and Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1927. In her final two decades, Cather continued to write short stories and novels, albeit with less frequency and refinement. Nevertheless, she enjoyed an extraordinary amount of attention and critical esteem in her lifetime. In 1930 she won the Howells Medal for Fiction, and in 1944 she was awarded the gold medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Willa Cather died on April 24, 1947, in New York City, where she lived for thirty-nine years with her companion, Edith Lewis. Her reputation equalled that of any published American female novelist of her day, and critical and popular attention to her work continues to expand. Many -critics place her firmly among such lauded -American authors as -William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, and there are those who would argue that hers is the single finest craft of her generation.
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