Willa Cather

Willa Cather is now considered a great American novelist. However, she was once thought of as just a regionally famous writer. Her works mostly focus on settings in the turn-of-the-century American West and the pioneering people who created lives there. She is credited with making western American settings interesting for readers in general, and she has been praised for her ability to delve deeply into the internal lives of her characters while keeping her writing easily accessible. Her most famous works include O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Ántonia (1918), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). 

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Contents
Table of contents

    Willa Cather: Biography

    Willa Cather's life experiences inspired her writing career. Her childhood moving to the prairie sparked a lifelong interest in that landscape and the experiences of immigrants and pioneers. Early involvement in writing for local publications helped Cather get her foot in the door for a successful writing career.

    Early Life

    Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873, in Back Creek, Virginia. Her family—Willa, her parents, and her six siblings—moved to Catherton, Nebraska in 1883. They only stayed in Catherton for a short while, moving to another Nebraska town, Red Cloud, in 1884.

    At nine years old, moving from the woods of Virginia to the prairie of Nebraska was a huge change for Cather. Despite initially finding the new landscape oppressive, Cather soon fell in love with it. Her passion for the American plains would inspire many of the settings for her works.

    Cather received an education in the schools local to her, beginning in a tiny, single-room schoolhouse in Catherton and then continuing in the larger school in Red Cloud. From a young age, she loved music, performance, and art. In 1890, Willa Cather graduated from Red Cloud high school, part of a graduating class of 3. She generally was seen as very intelligent, though odd. For a while, she was interested in medicine, a profession not typically open to women at the time. In her graduation speech, she spoke in response to the critical comments she had gotten about her scientific interests.

    Willa Cather, a small prairie farm, StudySmarterLiving in Nebraska inspired Cather's lifelong interest in the prairie and pioneersPixabay

    After graduating high school, Willa Cather attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. While there, she wrote for the Nebraska State Journal and the Lincoln Courier, where her writing career began. Cather graduated from university in 1895.

    Adult Life and Career

    Because she wrote for several publications during university, Willa Cather was able to secure a job working for a magazine in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after graduating. Soon after, Cather was offered a position at the very influential McClure's Magazine in New York. This job in particular launched Cather into a successful writing career. Her time editing the magazine allowed her to meet many renowned authors who were active at the time. It also ensured that she was up-to-date with what was happening in the literary world. In addition, many of her works were published in McClure's.

    While working at McClure's, Willa Cather also formed a close relationship with Edith Lewis. The two knew each other from school in Lincoln, Nebraska. They soon began renting an apartment together and supported one another's writing and editorial careers. Cather spent the rest of her life with Lewis. Though there is some debate, many scholars believe theirs was also a romantic relationship.

    By 1912, Willa Cather left her job at the magazine and focus on her own writing. This decision was followed by a quick succession of Cather's most famous works, O Pioneers! in 1913, The Song of the Lark in 1915, and My Ántonia in 1918.

    Willa Cather enjoyed success and acclaim during her long writing career. She drew from her childhood experiences living in the American west among pioneers from all around the world. Many of her books directly explore this plains pioneer lifestyle, including Alexander's Bridge (1912), O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and A Lost Lady (1923). Several of her books, including Death Comes for the Archbishop, received great critical praise upon publication, and Cather was well known internationally.

    Willa Cather's writing shows an in-depth understanding of her character's internal thoughts and individual relationships with their environment. Most scholars consider Cather a peer of other American Modernists such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Edith Wharton.

    Modernism: a literary movement popular between the early 1900s and the early 1940s that rejected the more straightforward storytelling of its predecessors. Modernism instead strove to portray the changes in society and the popular mind following World War One.

    However, some think that her writing is too clear and concise to be compared to other great Modernists. What do you think?

    By the 1930s, however, many considered Willa Cather's focus on pioneers and the prairie outdated. Despite this criticism, she continued to write about the topics she was interested in. Cather's last novel was Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940).

    Willa Cather received several awards and recognitions. Some of them include:

    • The Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours

    • Honorary degrees from Yale, Princeton (the first given to a woman), and Berkeley

    • The Prix Femina Américain for her depiction of French culture in North America.

    • The cover of Time Magazine

    • The gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters1

    Death

    Willa Cather had been suffering for several years from a deep sadness rooted in the Second World War and the deaths of many of her family and friends. On April 24, 1947, Willa Cather died from a cerebral hemorrhage.

    Willa Cather's tombstone is engraved with a quote from book 1, chapter 2 of My Ántonia:

    that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”1

    Before she died, Cather asked Edith Lewis to destroy some of her writings when she died. Lewis did as Cather requested, destroying many letters and an unfinished novel manuscript.

    Willa Cather: Books

    Willa Cather is the author of 12 novels, several short stories, and a book of poetry. Her novels often feature hardy, pioneering characters and turn-of-the-century American west settings. Three of the most famous novels are featured below.

    O Pioneers! (1913)

    The Bergsons, a family of Swedish-American immigrants, live in turn-of-the-century Nebraska. Alexandra Bergson inherited her father’s farm. Though many immigrants are deciding to leave the prairie behind at this time, Alexandra is determined to build a successful farm on the land her father left her. This was Cather’s second published novel.

    Willa Cather, an abandoned barn, StudySmarterAlexandra Bergson refuses to give up on her prairie farm like many other immigrants in her community did.Pixabay

    The Song of the Lark (1915)

    Willa Cather’s third published novel, The Song of the Lark, is about a young woman growing to be a successful artist. It is set during the turn of the century in the American West. She follows her passion for music, eventually building a successful career as a singer.

    Soprano singer Olive Fremstad was an inspiration for the main character of The Song of the Lark.2

    My Ántonia (1918)

    This novel explores the lives of two orphans who end up living in the American West as pioneers. The things they experience in their childhoods have deep and lasting effects on them. The impacts of their childhoods echo throughout their lives, profoundly affecting how their lives turn out.

    Willa Cather: Short Stories

    Willa Cather also wrote and published several short stories. These include “The Troll Garden” (1905), “Youth and the Bright Medusa” (1920), “Obscure Destinies” (1932), “Neighbour Rosicky” (1932), and “The Old Beauty and Others” (1948). Additionally, two collections of her short fiction—Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892–1912 (1965) and Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915–1929 (1972)—were published decades after her death.

    Willa Cather: Themes

    Willa Cather tackles three common themes across her writing: nostalgia, pioneering, and the relationship between people and the land.

    Nostalgia

    Nostalgia is a theme that Willa Cather often explores. Cather illustrates nostalgia's stronghold over people in works such as My Ántonia. She explores the idea that nostalgic memories can become all-encompassing, even sometimes overshadowing a person’s current life.

    Pioneering

    Pioneering and homesickness are also typical of Cather’s writing. Many of her characters are facing disconnection from their original home. This removal from one’s home brings its own challenges and excitements, which Will Cather addresses in such books as O Pioneers! and My Àntonia. This topic is close to Cather's heart because she moved from Virginia to Nebraska as a young child. This gave her a first-hand experience of pioneering a life in a new land, and also allowed her to see many others in her community doing the same.

    The Relationship Between People and Land

    Willa Cather also often addresses the relationship between the land and the people who inhabit it. The land is often depicted as strong and enduring; sometimes it is dangerous and frightening, sometimes it is beautiful and inspiring. Cather often explores the close bond that develops between people and the place that they live. This theme is very prominent in O Pioneers!, in which Willa Cather depicts western pioneers who are determined to build a new life in a landscape they initially find hostile. Cather herself initially found the American prairie frightening and stark when she moved there as a child. However, before long, she came to have a passionate love for the western landscape.

    Willa Cather, an empty landscape, StudySmarterThe land and people's relationship to it was a lifelong interest for CatherPixabay

    Willa Cather: Quotes

    The following quote is from Willa Cather's novel O Pioneers!. Like many of Cather's works, this book addresses the relationship between people and the land. This quote illustrates the power that Cather perceives in land, and also gives a sense of the land's permanence in comparison to the lives and influences of people. The land is both a dangerous and beloved thing in O Pioneers!. It presents many dangers to the pioneers setting out to cross it and settle far away from their original homes, but it also comes to be a source of beauty and a way of life.

    We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.” (O Pioneers!, Part V, chapter 3)

    A sense of nostalgia is quite common in Willa Cather's writing. In the following quote from My Ántonia, Cather gives a glimpse into this particular emotion. This quote expresses the feeling that some nostalgic memories can be more precious to a person than anything else in life. In this book, strong nostalgic memories are formed in the minds of two adopted children who grow up in the American West.

    In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.” (My Ántonia, Book V, chapter 1)

    In The Song of the Lark, a talented young woman comes into her own as a singer. She was in born in the American West and follows her passion for singing. As she grows as a person and an artist, she begins a successful career in music. The following quote describes her feelings about the importance and meaning of art, a running theme throughout the novel.

    What was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself — life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?" (The Song of the Lark, Part IV, chapter 3)

    Willa Cather - Key Takeaways

    • Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873, in Back Creek, Virginia.
    • In her childhood, Cather's family moved to the American prairie. This inspired the settings and pioneering nature of the characters in many of Cather's works.
    • Cather's most famous works include O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Ántonia (1918), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).
    • Common themes in Cather's works include nostalgia, pioneering, and the relationship between people and the land.
    • Willa Cather died on April 24, 1947.

    1Robert Thacker, "Willa Cather's Biography." The National Willa Cather Center.

    2"The Song of the Lark." The National Willa Cather Center.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Willa Cather

    Why is Willa Cather important?

    Willa Cather is considered an influential American novelist. Her works are important pieces of Modernist literature. 

    When was Willa Cather born?

    Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873.

    How did Willa Cather die?

    Willa Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage. 

    What books did Willa Cather write?

    Willa Cather wrote many books, the most famous of which include O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Ántonia (1918), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). 

    Where did Willa Cather live?

    Willa Cather was born in Virginia, but moved as a young child to Nebraska. After graduating University, she lived and worked in Pennsylvania and New York.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    To what state did Willa Cather and her family move?

    Which of the following are common themes in Willa Cather's works?

    Which of the following are some of Willa Cather's most famous novels?

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