Chapter 7: Early 20th C. American Lit
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| A Brief Biography |
Source: Nebraska State Historical Society
A prolific writer of a dozen books and sixty short stories, Willa Cather is an excellent stylist and structuralist. Her novels and stories chronicle the frontier experience, the plight of the artist during the age of industrialism and progress, and the alienation and initiation of the young. Her description of desert scenes, of the mesas, and of farms are like impessionistic landscape paintings.
April Twilights (poetry), 1903, 1923; The Troll Garden (stories), 1905; Alexander's Bridge, 1912; The Song of the Lark, 1915; My Antonia, 1918; Youth and the Bright Medusa (stories), 1920; One of Ours, 1922; A Lost Lady, 1923; The Professor's House, 1925; My Mortal Enemy, 1926; Death Comes for the Archbishop, 1927; Shadows on the Rock, 1931; Obscure Destinies (stories), 1932; Lucy Gayheart, 1935; Not Under Forty (essays retitled Literary Excursions in the Autograph Edition of Cather's collected works, 1937-41), 1936; Sapphira and the Slave Girl, 1940; The Old Beauty and Others, 1948; Willa Cather on Writing, 1949; Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: 1915-1929, 1973; Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters, 1986.
Alexander's Bridge. Quirk, Tom. and Link, Frederick M. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2007.
Shadows on the Rock. Rosowski, Susan J.; Murphy, John J.; Stouck, David, and others. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2005.
Youth and the Bright Medusa. Madigan, Mark J. essay and notes. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2009.
Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Romines, Ann. essay and notes. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2009.
| Top | Selected Bibliography 2000-Present
Barillas, William. The Midwestern Pastoral: Place and Landscape in Literature of the American Heartland. Athens: Ohio UP, 2006.
Goldeberg, Jonathan. Willa Cather and Others. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.
Freitag, Florian. The Farm Novel in North America: Genre and Nation in the United States, English Canada, and French Canada, 1845-1945. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2013.
Griffith, Jean C. The Color of Democracy in Women's Regional Writing. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2009.
Halverson, Cathryn. Playing House in the American West: Western Women's Life Narrative, 1839-1987. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2013.
Hoover, Sharon, and others. eds. Willa Cather Remembered. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
Kephart, Christine E. The Catherian Cathedral: Gothic Cathedral Iconography in Willa Cather's Fiction. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2012.
Lewis, Nghana T. Entitled to the Pedestal: Place, Race, and Progress in White Southern Women's Writing, 1920-1945. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2007.
Love, Heather. Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007.
Marks, Lucy. Seeking Life Whole: Willa Cather and the Brewsters. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2009.
Perriman, Wendy K. Willa Cather and the Dance: 'A Most Satisfying Elegance'. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2009.
Petrie, Paul R. Conscience and Purpose: Fiction and Social Consciousness in Howells, Jewett, Chesnutt, and Cather. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2005.
Pizer, Donald. American Naturalism and the Jews: Garland, Norris, Dreiser, Wharton, and Cather. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2008.
Porter, David. On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2008.
Skaggs, Merrill M. Axes: Willa Cather and William Faulkner. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2007.
Stout, Janis P. ed. A Calendar of the Letters of Willa Cather. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
- - -. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2000.
Thompson, Stephanie L. Influencing America's Tastes: Realism in the Works of Warton, Cather and Hurst. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2002.
Trout, Steven. Memorial Fictions: Willa Cather and the First World War. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2002.
Williams, Deborah L. Not in Sisterhood: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Zona Gale, and the Politics of Female Authorship. NY: Palgrave, 2001.
A Student Project by Ana Laura MenaWilla Cather: "When a writer once begins to work with his own material he realizes that, no matter what his literary excursions may have been, he has been working with it from the beginning by living it." (Lewis 77)
Willa Cather, who was named after William Lee Boak (her mother’s brother who served in the Civil War) was born on December 7, 1873, in Black Creek Valley, near Gore, Virginia to Charles Fectigue Cather and Mary Virginia Boak. Charles Cather “was a sensitive young man and quiet in nature as the Black countryside” while Mary Boak’s “sparkling vitality presented a striking contrast both to her environment and to her husband.” (Brown 11) Willa was the eldest of six other siblings: Roscoe, Douglass, Jessica, James, John, and Elsie. During those Virginian years, Cather was not sent to school—her education was her grandmother’s reading aloud and the life and talk that went on around her (Lewis 12). Later, in April 1883 the Cathers decided to move to Webster Country, Nebraska and join the grandparents William and Caroline Cather because the Virginian land was becoming very poor for farming. Although Cather continued not attending school, “she read many of the English classics a loud to her two grandmothers and learned to read Latin at the same time.” (Lewis 14)
For two years, the Cathers lived in Webster County and then moved by the spring of 1885 to Red Cloud. It was in Red Cloud that Cather began to go to school. It was at school too, that she first adopted the middle name, which appears in the early editions of her books. When the other children gave their names at roll call she hastily improvised for herself the family name Sibert (Lewis 19). During her adolescence, Cather was determined to escape the traditional role women were assigned. “In 1886, when James was born, Mrs. Cather was too ill to tend Willa’s curls, so Willa marched to the barber and had her hair cut like a boy’s.” (Brown 16) Cather baptized herself “William Cather, Jr. and dressed much as a boy until her second year in university." (O’Brien 11)
In 1890, Cather went to Lincoln to attend the University of Nebraska for five years. At the university, she was active in clubs, plays, and the campus publications, especially the Hesperian. For quite some time, Willa was determined to become a doctor. She possessed a high interest in science and astronomy, but it was when she began to write themes for her English classes that her interests took a sharp turn. “She wavered between the classical and the scientific course, and finally decided to enter both.” (Lewis 28). English Composition and English Literature became her primary studies and from about 1893 to 1897, Willa Cather began writing play reviews, features, and a column for the Nebraska State Journal at a dollar a column to help at home for 1893 had been a hard year in Nebraska. There had been a succession of crop failures throughout the state.
After graduating, Cather began working in Pittsburgh’s The Home Monthly but by the end of the year, Cather resigned and joined the staff of a daily newspaper The Pittsburgh Leader where she worked for three to four years reviewing plays. She also contributed to the Courier, a Lincoln weekly, with her weekly article The Passing Show (Lewis 45-46). It was in these years when another element had come into Cather’s life, which was to leave a lasting influence in her works: Music. “Musical forms influenced her compositions, and how her style, her beauty of cadence and rhythm, were the result of a sort of a transposed musical feeling.” (Lewis 48) In books as The Song of the Lark, Lucy Gayheart, and Youth and the Bright Medusa music is the chief subject. About 1900, after a winter freelancing in Washington D.C., she taught in the Pittsburgh and Alleghany high schools for over five years. Moreover, it was in Pittsburgh where she wrote most of the short stories of The Troll Garden (1905) and the poems of April Twilights (1903).
In 1906 Willa Cather took a position as editor on McClure’s Magazine in New York and worked there for six years. “New York was the world, indeed, and what she had waited for.” (Slote & Woods 45) During the McClure years, Cather wrote “The Enchanted Bluff,” (1909) “The Bohemian Girl,” (1911) and in 1912 she completed a short novel, which was published serially in McClure’s under the title Alexander’s Masquerade (later titled Alexander’s Bridge). Furthermore, early in 1912, a visit to her brother Douglass in Arizona contributed to Cather’s novel The Song of the Lark.(1915) “It was a book she took great pleasure in writing.” (Lewis 93) Nearly half of her short stories between 1892 and 1912 are set in Nebraska. Both the stories “The Enchanted Bluff,” “Paul’s Case,” and other of Eastern cities “often have similar themes of growth, or destruction, of personalities.” (Slote & Woods 50) Later in 1913, Houghton Mifflin published O Pioneers! “It marked a definite change in her career.” (Lewis 84) The press gave favorable reviews. But it wasn’t the financial rewards, which were very small, or the acclaim given by the critics that influenced her to continue writing. "She had found in herself the infallible guide by which, as she wrote later 'our feet find the road home on a dark night.'" (Lewis 85) By now, Willa Cather had changed from editor to novelist.
In the New York apartment at 5 Bank Street, which she shared with Edith Lewis from 1913-1927, Cather worked well. From 1915-1920 Houghton Mifflin published eight stories of artists and city life (Slote & Woods 58). My Antonia falls under these eight stories. “It is now considered the classic Cather novel” but it received less attention because it appeared in the days of World War I (Slote & Woods 60). Edith Lewis writes, “it seemed to many people to have no form. It had no love story; Henry James and Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s novels were much preferred reading.” (107) By 1920 Willa Cather changed Houghton Mifflin for Alfred Knopf as publisher. Knopf issued the last thirteen of her books. The first volume, a collection of short stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), was followed by One of Ours in 1922 (Slote & Woods 61). In 1923 it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
The next ten years meant rich achievements for Willa Cather. Some thought A Lost Lady (1923) was her best work, while others chose Death Comes From the Archbishop (1927), “a brilliant tapestry woven of legend and history in the Southwest.” (Brown 63) Between them came The Professor’s House (1925), My Mortal Enemy (1925), and Shadows on the Rock (1931). “When Cather said that life had given her most of what she wanted, she wasn’t thinking of public honors. She received honorary degrees from the University of Nebraska (1917), the University of Michigan (1924), Creighton (1928), Columbia (1928), Yale (1929), the University of California (1931), Princeton (1931), and Smith (1933).” (Slote & Woods 71) Cather was the first woman to be given a degree in Princeton. Other honors included the Howells Medal for fiction (1931); being named one of the “Twelve Greatest American Women” by Good Housekeeping (1931); and the Prix Femina Americain, awarded in 1933 for her achievement in Shadows on the Rock (Slote & Woods 71).
During these years, Cather and Edith Lewis began vacationing on Grand Manan, New Brunswick. Grand Manan helped when her family began to dissolve. Her father died in 1928 and her mother in 1931. A few years after, the death of her favorite brothers, Douglass and Roscoe, “lessened her literary production in the later years.” (Lewis 166) Willa Cather would go back to Virginia to “bring her own past more clearly into the light.” (Slote & Woods 73) Meanwhile, she sketched the story of herself and her mother and grandmother in “Old Mrs. Harris.” In 1933, Cather was diagnosed with a serious inflammation of the sheath of the tendon. Even if for months she had to wear a steel and leather brace, this didn’t prevent her from writing. She wrote Lucy Gayheart (1935), Saphhira and the Slave Girl (1940), and the stories collected in The Old Beauty and Others (1948). Aside from this great trial, her health became more and more fragile. In this later period “her correspondence became a sustenance in her life.” (Lewis 186) She tried to answer all the flood of letters, “which poured in to her from half the countries of the world.” (Lewis 187) Later in 1942, Willa Cather went into the Presbyterian Hospital for a gallbladder operation. Although she recovered from this operation, Cather never got back her true health. On May 19, 1944, “Willa Cather received the Gold Medal for Fiction of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Three years later, on April 24, 1947, Willa Cather died at her apartment in New York City.” (Slote & Woods 76) Lewis writes, “she was never more herself than on the last morning of her life; her spirit was as high, her grasp of reality as firm as always.” (197).
Brown, Maron Marsha, and Ruth Crone. Willa Cather: The Woman and Her Works. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1953.
O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: the emerging voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Slote, Bernice, and Lucia Woods. Willa Cather: A Pictorial Memoir. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973.
1. Cather writes as an early-twentieth-century regionalist in "Neighbour Rosicky." How does this story reflect the themes and point of view of earlier regionalist writers Jewett and Freeman?
2. Like Garland's "Under the Lion's Paw," "Neighbour Rosicky " is set in the West. Compare and contrast the influence of place in these stories. What mitigating vision does Cather offer and how does it contrast with Garland's forces of economic despair?
"Old Mrs. Harris"
1. (a) In your reading of the story, who is the most important character? In your reading, who is the most reliable narrator? Who is the "hero"? Who is the most sympathetically presented character?
(b) Cather used "Three Women" as the title of this story when she published it in a magazine, but "Old Mrs. Harris" when it appeared in a collection. What is the difference in emphasis? Which title do you prefer and why?
(c) Describe the Templeton marriage. Whose fault is it that this family's life is less than perfect? Does the story attempt to place blame on husband or wife?
(d) How does this story treat the issue of "motherhood"?
(e) How is the southern background of the Templeton family important to the story?
(f) Discuss the economic and social structure of Skyline, Colorado. Who's on top? On the bottom? Why? Who is inside the structure and who is outside? Where do the Templetons fit? The Rosens?
MLA Style Citation of this Web Page
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 7: Willa Cather." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:
http://www.paulreuben.website/pal/chap7/cather.html (provide page date or date of your login).
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