Willa Cather, the oldest of seven children, was born on December 7, 1873. She lived in Virginia until age nine, when her family moved to Nebraska. The shift from the mountains of Virginia to the plains of Nebraska affected Cather strongly, as did the immigrant population she encountered in Red Cloud, the second Nebraska town in which her family lived. Cather attended the University of Nebraska, where she was a star student. Although she initially wanted to be a doctor, she soon decided to concentrate on the classics. During college, Cather discovered her talent for writing and quickly entered the world of journalism. By the time she was twenty, she had a column in the Nebraska State Journal, and during her junior year, she became the paper’s drama critic. After graduation, she took a job in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as managing editor for Home Monthly, a women’s magazine. About a year later, she became a drama critic for a Pittsburgh newspaper called the Leader.
Beginning in 1901, Cather did a five-year stint as a high school English teacher, a job she hoped would give her plenty of time for her own writing. In 1903, she published a book of poetry called April Twilights. After she met S. S. McClure, editor of McClure’s Magazine, McClure offered her a job as an editor at the magazine, which was famous for its muckraking journalism. She accepted and moved to New York. Cather’s biography of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy was published serially in McClure’s, and in 1909, it was published as a book. The biography infuriated Christian Scientists, who attempted to buy every copy in an effort to contain the damage.
In 1913, Cather followed the advice of her mentor, writer Sarah Orne Jewett, and left the magazine to focus on writing full-time. Cather considered her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge (1912), derivative of Henry James’s and Edith Wharton’s fiction. She found her true voice in O Pioneers! (1913), a novel set on the prairie. In 1918, Cather published My Ántonia, the story of a boy named Jim who, like Cather, moves to Nebraska from Virginia. The novel received rave reviews, and its popularity persists today. Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours (1922). In her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Cather explored the life of a French Catholic missionary in the southwestern United States.
Cather’s other works include the novels The Song of the Lark (1915), The Professor’s House (1922), A Lost Lady (1923), My Mortal Enemy (1926), Shadows on the Rock (1931), Lucy Gayheart (1935), and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) and the short-story collections Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920) and Obscure Destinies (1932). Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1947.
Although Cather is most often associated with the prairie, her adult life was cosmopolitan. She lived in a number of big cities, including New York. Most modern scholars agree that she was a lesbian. She wrote her books for her friend Isabelle McClung, with whom she lived and traveled in her twenties. For forty years, Cather lived with Edith Lewis, an advertising woman who also hailed from Nebraska. Many details of Cather’s personal life are unknown, however, because both she and Lewis destroyed their letters.
In recent years, critical interest in Cather has increased dramatically. Once dismissed as a folksy Midwestern writer, Cather’s reputation has undergone a transformation. Feminist scholars, among others, find much to interest them in such novels as O, Pioneers! and My Antonia, and Cather’s work is increasingly taught in high schools and colleges.
“Paul’s Case,” one of Cather’s most frequently anthologized short stories, was originally published in McClure’s. It later appeared in Cather’s first short-story collection, The Troll Garden (1905). It was written and is set in Pittsburgh, where men such as J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie were making vast fortunes during the early 1900s. These “iron kings” and steel magnates are the giants who employ Paul’s neighbors and who fire Paul’s imagination. Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh, where Paul works as an usher, is named for steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie’s name and influence loom large over the story, because it is at the Hall that Paul first finds a means of escaping his unhappy life.
Cather claimed that her teaching experiences inspired “Paul’s Case.” Her career as a young journalist also seems to inform the story, as Cather spoke of the intoxicating effect of seeing her name in print for the first time. Her instant addiction to the world of journalism and the arts is mirrored in Paul, who is hypnotized by theater and music.