There are few female authors that have had an impact on literature as great asthat of Willa Cather. Not only was she an exquisite author, but she brokethrough into writing during a time when few female authors were successful.
Herlife, which was directly influential to her writing, was of a simple nature.However, she was able to over come a drab, mundane life, and turn herexperiences into stories that would be enjoyed by many generations. WillaSiebert Cather was born in her maternal grandmother’s home in 1873 in thewestern region of Virginia (Robinson). Cather’s name was originally Willela(after her father’s younger sister who died as a child), but the family alwayscalled her “Willie.
” They did this because as a child Willa alteredher name in the family Bible and insisted that she was named after her uncleWilliam Sibert Boak (Woodress). In the spring of 1883, when Willa was nine, theCathers moved to a farm near Red Cloud, Nebraska. Cather described her thoughtsof this land to an interviewer. She said, “As we drove further and furtherout into the country , I felt a good deal as we had come to the end ofeverything.” (Cather quoted in Woodress). They came to Nebraska by trainbecause the journey by wagon would have been long and tiring. Cather’s firsthome in the state of Nebraska was with her Grandfather.
(Robinson). “Itsmost characteristic feature which she described faithfully in My Antonia was abasement kitchen and dining room.” (Robinson) However, a year later theCather’s left the farm to live in the town of Red Cloud, so the children couldattend school. Red Cloud was a town of 2,500 people. The people of Red Cloudplayed an important part in the life and work of Willa Cather. There were manypeople in the town who inspired her and “she sought interesting adultswherever she could find them.” (Woodress). Two of Red Cloud’s doctorsbecame friends with Willa, and sometimes let her come along on their calls.
Cather also medically experimented on animals with a set of medical instruments,this upset and disgusted some of the citizens of Red Cloud. (Robinson). In highschool Willa Cather had greatest ambition was to become a doctor, a professionin which few women excelled. Cather graduated from high-school in June of 1890,at the age of sixteen (Woodress). She was the only student of the three whograduated who intended to pursue college. She would enter the University ofNebraska at Lincoln the following September (Robinson). Cather was also inspiredby the actors and actresses who came to perform at the town’s Opera House. Thechildren of Red Cloud would put on their own shows where Willa seemed to be anadequate actress, but she always played a boy (Robinson).
This was a greatsurprise because at the time, many women did not perform. Rather younger boyswould play the female roles in a play. She expressed a vast dislike for skirtsand dresses (Woodress) and later when she attended the University of Nebraskashe continued to dress in a boyish manner (Daiches). She wore suspenders,starched shirts and insisted while in college to continue trying out for themale roles in college theater (Woodress).
Cather went to Lincoln with the intentof studying science. She was very interested in botany, astronomy and chemistry(Woodress). However, the event that changed her heart toward writing occurred inMarch of 1891. A professor of Cather’s assigned an essay to be written, and theprofessor was so impressed with Cather’s work that without telling her, he sentit to the Journal, the towns paper. He also sent it to a literary magazine forstudents called The Hesperian (Robinson). Cather opened the Sunday paper to findher essay in print and from that time on she forgot about medicine andconcentrated on writing (Woodress). Throughout her college years Cathercontinued to write for the Journal and took any chance to earn money writing forthe paper.
Even if that meant putting aside her school work to do it. In the twoyears she wrote for the Journal she produced over 300 pieces, many of which wereessays (Woodress). Cather became the Journal’s drama critic and she quickly madea name for herself.
“Her work showed a maturity and poise not expected inso young a critic, and her knowledge of drama and literature, continental andclassic, as well as English was extensive” (Robinson). During her last twosemesters at the University, Cather wrote over 100 pieces for the Journal.”A full time reviewer might not have produced much more than she did.”(Robinson).
In addition to her school work and writing for the paper, Catheralso did some practice teaching during her senior year. By the time Cathergraduated from the University in 1895, she had a great deal of experience in thewriting field (Woodress). Cather returned home to Red Cloud after graduation andbegan to write for the Courier, another local paper (Robinson). However, her bigbreak came when she was offered a job at Home Monthly, a magazine in Pittsburgh.
Cather was 22 when she left home to begin the start of her professional careeras a writer. In addition to writing stories for Home Monthly, Cather also helpedwith editing, writing editorials and also some nonfiction work. After a year ofwriting for Home Monthly, Cather was offered a job at the Pittsburgh Leader. Shetook the job, but continued to write for Home Monthly under another name. Atthis time Cather was at an age that marriage was typical of. However, she wastoo independent and out going to be taken in.
There is no proof that Cather evercame close to marriage. The men she loved the most were her father and brothers.”She simply had no need for heterosexual relationships, she was married toher art.” (Woodress). In her book, Willa Cather : The Emerging Voice,Sharon O’Brien discusses Cather’s sexuality. She dwells mainly on Cather’srelationship with her best friend Louise Pound and says, “That Willa Catherwas a lesbian should not be an unexamined assumption, however, but a conclusionreached after considering questions of definition, evidence andinterpretation.” Yet, after her affair with Pound ended, Cather found”more enduring and supportive relationships,” (O’Brien) with IsabelleMcClung and later with Edith Lewis, yet she never declared publicly that she wasin fact a lesbian.
Cather’s newspaper career ended in 1901. Her last years atthe Leader produced little work, and when she returned from a visit with herbrother she became a Latin teacher at Central High School in Pittsburgh. Shelater taught English and then transferred to Allegheny High School across theriver where she taught for three years (Woodress).
Cather did not have a naturalteaching talent, but her classes were not considered to be boring. In 1903,McClures began nagging Cather for her stories. McClure offered to publish herstories in book form. He told her that he wanted to publish everything she wrote(Robinson). After 5 years of teaching, Cather moved to New York to work fulltime at McClures (Woodress). At that time, McClure’s was considered the most”successful reforming magazine in America.” (Robinson).
Cather, whohad no interest in social work of the magazine was involved in the magazinebecause of its literary content. Cather was responsible for reading themanuscripts that came in and also editing articles sent in by semi- literatepeople who knew a lot about the copper mines in the West, but didn’t write well(Woodress). During the years that Cather helped to edit the magazine, she hadvery little time to write. During her time at McClures she worked in Boston,Europe and wrote McClure’s biography (Robinson).
Cather worked for McClures from1906 until 1912 and became the leading magazine editor of her day. Working atthe magazine changed her life, and the experience was important to her.”She had been a good editor, as she had been a good critic and a goodteacher. Now she wanted one thing only, to be a writer, a good one.
“(Robinson). She quit her job as editor in order to devote all her time towriting and in 1912 her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was published (Daichess).From that point on, Willa Cather became a great American author. Willa Catherdied in 1947 at the age of 70. Willa Cather’s primary inspiration was her hometown of Red Cloud. Many of her books won her literary awards, as well as theadmiration of authors of every generation.
It takes a great writer to take onthe many literary occupations that Cather took on. However, it takes an evengreater writer to raise each of those occupations to an art form. For thesereasons, and many more of which could never be described, are why Willa Catheris one of America’s finest writers.BibliographyDaiches, David. Willa Cather a Critical Introduction. Westport, Ct. :Greenwood Press, 1951.
O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather the Emerging Voice. NewYork : Oxford Up, 1987. Robinson, Phyillis C. Willa : The Life of Willa Cather.
New York: Doubleday, 1983. Schroeter, James, ed. Willa Cather and Her Critics.Ithica : Cornell UP, 1967. Woodress, James. Willa Cather Her Life and Art. NewYork : Pegasus, 1970