Willa Cather There are few female authors that have had an impact on literature as great as that of Willa Cather. Not only was she an exquisite author, but she broke through into writing during a time when few female authors were successful. Her life, 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 her experiences into stories that would be enjoyed by many generations. Willa Siebert Cather was born in her maternal grandmother’s home in 1873 in the western region of Virginia (Robinson). Cather’s name was originally Willela (after her father’s younger sister who died as a child), but the family always called her “Willie.” They did this because as a child Willa altered her name in the family Bible and insisted that she was named after her uncle William Sibert Boak (Woodress).
In the spring of 1883, when Willa was nine, the Cathers moved to a farm near Red Cloud, Nebraska. Cather described her thoughts of this land to an interviewer. She said, “As we drove further and further out into the country , I felt a good deal as we had come to the end of everything.” (Cather quoted in Woodress). They came to Nebraska by train because the journey by wagon would have been long and tiring. Cather’s first home in the state of Nebraska was with her Grandfather.
(Robinson). “Its most characteristic feature which she described faithfully in My Antonia was a basement kitchen and dining room.” (Robinson) However, a year later the Cather’s left the farm to live in the town of Red Cloud, so the children could attend school. Red Cloud was a town of 2,500 people. The people of Red Cloud played an important part in the life and work of Willa Cather. There were many people in the town who inspired her and “she sought interesting adults wherever she could find them.” (Woodress). Two of Red Cloud’s doctors became 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 high school Willa Cather had greatest ambition was to become a doctor, a profession in 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 who graduated who intended to pursue college. She would enter the University of Nebraska at Lincoln the following September (Robinson). Cather was also inspired by the actors and actresses who came to perform at the town’s Opera House.
The children of Red Cloud would put on their own shows where Willa seemed to be an adequate actress, but she always played a boy (Robinson). This was a great surprise because at the time, many women did not perform. Rather younger boys would play the female roles in a play. She expressed a vast dislike for skirts and dresses (Woodress) and later when she attended the University of Nebraska she continued to dress in a boyish manner (Daiches). She wore suspenders, starched shirts and insisted while in college to continue trying out for the male roles in college theater (Woodress).
Cather went to Lincoln with the intent of studying science. She was very interested in botany, astronomy and chemistry (Woodress). However, the event that changed her heart toward writing occurred in March of 1891. A professor of Cather’s assigned an essay to be written, and the professor was so impressed with Cather’s work that without telling her, he sent it to the Journal, the towns paper. He also sent it to a literary magazine for students called The Hesperian (Robinson).
Cather opened the Sunday paper to find her essay in print and from that time on she forgot about medicine and concentrated on writing (Woodress). Throughout her college years Cather continued to write for the Journal and took any chance to earn money writing for the paper. Even if that meant putting aside her school work to do it. In the two years she wrote for the Journal she produced over 300 pieces, many of which were essays (Woodress). Cather became the Journal’s drama critic and she quickly made a name for herself.
“Her work showed a maturity and poise not expected in so young a critic, and her knowledge of drama and literature, continental and classic, as well as English was extensive” (Robinson). During her last two semesters 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, Cather also did some practice teaching during her senior year. By the time Cather graduated from the University in 1895, she had a great deal of experience in the writing field (Woodress).
Cather returned home to Red Cloud after graduation and began to write for the Courier, another local paper (Robinson). However, her big break 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 career as a writer. In addition to writing stories for Home Monthly, Cather also helped with editing, writing editorials and also some nonfiction work. After a year of writing for Home Monthly, Cather was offered a job at the Pittsburgh Leader.
She took the job, but continued to write for Home Monthly under another name. At this time Cather was at an age that marriage was typical of. However, she was too independent and out going to be taken in. There is no proof that Cather ever came 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 to her art.” (Woodress). In her book, Willa Cather : The Emerging Voice, Sharon O’Brien discusses Cather’s sexuality. She dwells mainly on Cather’s relationship with her best friend Louise Pound and says, “That Willa Cather was a lesbian should not be an unexamined assumption, however, but a conclusion reached after considering questions of definition, evidence and interpretation.” Yet, after her affair with Pound ended, Cather found “more enduring and supportive relationships,” (O’Brien) with Isabelle McClung and later with Edith Lewis, yet she never declared publicly that she was in fact a lesbian. Cather’s newspaper career ended in 1901. Her last years at the Leader produced little work, and when she returned from a visit with her brother she became a Latin teacher at Central High School in Pittsburgh.
She later taught English and then transferred to Allegheny High School across the river where she taught for three years (Woodress). Cather did not have a natural teaching talent, but her classes were not considered to be boring. In 1903, McClures began nagging Cather for her stories. McClure offered to publish her stories 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 full time at McClures (Woodress). At that time, McClure’s was considered the most “successful reforming magazine in America.” (Robinson). Cather, who had no interest in social work of the magazine was involved in the magazine because of its literary content. Cather was responsible for reading the manuscripts that came in and also editing articles sent in by semi- literate people 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 had very little time to write.
During her time at McClures she worked in Boston, Europe and wrote McClure’s biography (Robinson). Cather worked for McClures from 1906 until 1912 and became the leading magazine editor of her day. Working at the 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 good teacher. 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 to writing and in 1912 her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was published (Daichess).
From that point on, Willa Cather became a great American author. Willa Cather died in 1947 at the age of 70. Willa Cather’s primary inspiration was her home town of Red Cloud. Many of her books won her literary awards, as well as the admiration of authors of every generation. It takes a great writer to take on the many literary occupations that Cather took on.
However, it takes an even greater writer to raise each of those occupations to an art form. For these reasons, and many more of which could never be described, are why Willa Cather is one of America’s finest writers. Bibliography Daiches, David. Willa Cather a Critical Introduction. Westport, Ct.
: Greenwood Press, 1951. O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather the Emerging Voice. New York : 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. New York : Pegasus, 1970.