Willa Cather Biography

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Willa Cather was born in 1873 to William and Virginia Cather. At the age of nine, she moved to the Nebraska prairie, near the Divide, where her grandfather had already moved some years before. Later, her family moved to the town of Red Cloud. When she first saw the wide Nebraska prairie, Cather hated it. She felt as if there was no end to the land, and that there was no sign of human activity anywhere. However, she enjoyed listening to stories told by her immigrant neighbors on the Divide. Many were Swedish, Bohemian, German, and Danish, among others. These stories would provide Cather material for her best novels.

Cather also enjoyed learning and school very much; she was one of the top students in her graduating class at Red Cloud High School. That she graduated at all was considered a big accomplishment at that time, for the number of kids who actually attended school was very small. It was even more rare for a woman to graduate high school. Cather had always been different from her family members and peers ever since she was a child. She favored men's activities and even planned to go into medicine once at college. Cather even called herself "William Cather, Jr.," disliked dresses and skirts, and showed strong abilities in learning, reading, and writing early on in her academic career.

When she graduated from high school, she was enthusiastic and eager about starting her college career. Fellow classmates at college recalled that she carried herself with a masculine air, both in voice and body. Although she rejected the traditional women's sphere, Cather did form strong relationships with several women that lasted her entire life: Dorothy Canfield, Louise Pound, Edith Lewis, and Isabelle McClung. Cather's friendship with McClung was one of the closest and fondest relationships of her life; they took frequent trips together and shared many similar interests in the arts and in traveling.

In 1906, Cather was hired as an editor for the hugely popular and successful McClure's Magazine. She soon tired of reading and writing journalism, choosing to focus on writing fiction, which she loved. She had already published her first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1911). Cather's trip to Arizona in 1912 inspired and motivated her to quit journalism and to write fiction novels. The desert landscape had a profound effect on Cather. She would later describe her feelings for the desert in her novels The Song of the Lark (1915) and The Professor's House (1925).

Cather's world shattered when her dear friend Isabelle McClung married Jan Hambourg, a short time after Isabelle's father, Mr. McClung's died. Cather was saddened and depressed after Isabelle left to marry Jan. She turned to her novels for comfort. She wrote a number of novels, including O Pioneers! (1913), My Antonia (1918), One of Ours (1922), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Cather became famous through the success of her novels, especially One of Ours, which won her a Pulitzer Prize. She disliked the publicity that came along with fame, and valued her privacy, avoiding public appearances. Cather died in 1947, and was buried in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, a place where she vacationed in her later years. Willa Cather, through her novels, left a legacy of the unbreakable and irrepressible spirit of the American pioneers.


Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988.

Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.

O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

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