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Will(el)a (Siebert) Cather (1873-1947)

 

American novelist noted for her books about immigrants struggling to make a living in the Midwest during the late 1800s. Various critics have placed Cather among feminist writers, antifeminist writers, and even lesbian writers. She wrote 12 novels, the most popular of which include My Ántonia (1918), O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). In her works Cather created strong female characters, who had the courage and vision to face all obstacles in their difficult lives.

"She was a good artist, and all true art is provincial in the most realistic sense: of the very time and place of its making, out of human beings who are so particularly limited by their situation, whose faces and names are real and whose lives begin each one at an individual unique center. Indeed, Willa Cather was as provincial as Hawthorne or Flaubert or Turgenev, as little concerned with aesthetics and as much with morals as Tolstoy, as obstinately reserved as Melville. In fact she always reminds me of very good literary company, of the particularly admirable masters who formed her youthful tastes, her thinking and feeling." ( Katherine Anne Porter in Lesbian and Bisexual Fiction Writers, ed. by H. Bloom, 1997)

Willa Siebert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley (now Gore), near Winchester, Virginia. At the age of nine she moved with her family to a farm near Red Cloud, in the Nebraska settler country. There she grew up among the immigrants from Europe, most of them coming from Scandinavia, who were establishing homesteads on the Great Plains. Although Cather lived as an adult in Pittsburgh and New York City, the wide open spaces, bare "as a piece of sheet iron," and its people formed the background for half of her novels and many short stories depicting the frontier life on the American plains.

The new ranch was not a success, and in 1884 the family moved to the small railroad town of Red Cloud, where Cather's father opened an insurance business. Cather was educated at home, and later she attended Red Cloud High School. From an early age, Cather was troubled by her sexual identity. She preferred to dress in men's clothing and as a teenager she began signing her name "William Cather, Jr." or "Dr. Will." Cather was also active in community theater productions and often took male roles. At the age of fifteen she was in charge of the local newspaper for three months - her father had foreclosed a mortgage on the newspaper, and because he was not a journalist, he left the paper to Willa.

In 1890 Cather moved to Lincoln to escape the conservatism of the small town - she never married but in later life in New York she found a lifelong companion, Edith Lewis, who was employed in publishing and who became the copy editor, proofreader, and editor of Cather's works. She described  Cather as having "curling chestnut-brown hair, done high on her head, a fair sking; but the feature one noticed particularly was her eyes. They were dark blue eyes, with dark lashes; and I know no way of describing them except to say that they were the eyes of genius." In a letter to Louise Pound, a close college friend, Cather confessed that she thought it unfair that feminine friendships were "unnatural."

Cather studied at Latin School (1891-92), and the University of Nebraska, receiving her BA in 1895. While still an undergraduate she began publishing short stories; she also wrote a weekly column for the Nebraska State Journal. From 1899 Cather lived in Pittsburgh with Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a Pittsburgh judge. She spent 10 years there, first as a newspaper-woman and then as a high-school teacher of English and Latin. Cather worked as an editorial staff member for Home Monthly and telegraph editor and theatre critic for Daily Leader. In 1897-1901 she was Latin and English teacher at Central High School and then English teacher at Allegheny High School.

Cather's first short story came out in 1892 and by 1896 he had published nine stories. In 1903 she made her debut as a poet with April Twilights, her only volume of poetry. The Troll Garden (1905) includes her most anthologized story, 'Paul's Case: A Study in Temperament,' about a young aesthete, who chooses to die rather than abandon his fantasy world.

"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before." (from O Pioneers!, 1913)

McClung married in 1915, but Cather had already met Edith Lewis while traveling to New York during this period. At the age of 32, Cather moved to New York to to edit McClure's Magazine, and to live with Lewis, her companion of nearly four decades. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, came out in 1912, and was followed a year later by O Pioneers! – the title was borrowed from Whitman. Cather was 40 when the book appeared; it was the novel in which she felt she had "walked off on my own feet". This archetypal success story told of the daughter of Swedish immigrant farmers, Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, and grows up to make it a prosperous farm.

Cather resigned in 1912 from McClure's, began writing full-time, and traveled to the Southwest, returning there a few years later. The theme of a journey appeared in her novel, The Song of the Lark, which was partly set in Walnut Canyon, Arizona, and took the form of the opera singer Thea Kronberg's pursuit of artistic excellence. The title of the novel was, according to Cather, inspired by "a rather second-rate" painting in the Chicago Art Institute, that showed a peasant girl listening to a bird in a field.

My Ántonia, another story of Nebraska, celebrated the land and the immigrant pioneers, and linked the enduring figure of Ŕntonia to the life-force itself. The book consists of the loosely-structured memories of Jim Burden, who recounts tales of his Nebraska farm upbringing, and especially of the beautiful immigrant girl from Bohemia, Ántonia Shimerda, whom he loves with a pure innocence.

"No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia," wrote H.L. Mencken. Later critics have pointed out that though Cather did not deal specifically with lesbianism, normal sex stands barred from her fictional world and her male characters often have female attitudes and interests. Jim Burden grows up in the novel with an intuitive fear of sex, and only in fantasy does he allow a half-nude woman to smother him with kisses. In her essay 'The Novel Démeublé' 1922) she said of her artistic principle that "whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there – that, one might say, is created". The original of Ántonia was Annie Sadilek Pavelka, whom Cather had met in childhood and with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship: "Of the people who interested me most as a child was the Bohemian hired girl of one of our neighbors, who was so good to me... Annie fascinated me and and I always had it in mind to write a story about her." (from Lesbian and Bisexual Fiction Writers)

During her two-month visit to Paris in 1920, Cather stayed at the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire.  Some of its residents had included Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, and Oscar Wilde. In 1922 Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel One of Ours. It depicted a boy, Claude Wheeler, from the Western plains, who leaves home to fight in World War I and is killed in France. The character of Claude, seeking meaning in his life, was partly based on Cather's cousin. More often than not, she was vague about the origins of her characters, saying once that a "story is made out of an emotion or an excitement, and is not made out of the legs and arms and faces of one’s friends or acquaintances."

Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to the critic Edmund Wilson, expressed disdain at Cather's having received the Pulitzer Prize, remarking that she must have drawn the battlefield scene from the film Birth of a Nation. The romantized far West made frequent appearaces in her work through the late 1920s, but Cather herself scorned cowboy romances. Speaking of The Professor's House she said that "I could have written ["Tom Outland's Story"] like a Zane Grey novel, but I would have died of boredom doing it."

In the years following WW I Cather became gravely distressed by the loss of spiritual values that accompanied the growth of materialism and technology in the 20th-century. The places she had written about had changed and pioneering ideals were no longer valid. Also censorship restricted her freedom of expression: one of her stories, 'Coming, Aphrodite,' was first published in bowdlerized version under the title 'Coming, Eden Bower!' in the magazine Smart Set. Her judgment of contemporary society was seen in A Lost Lady  (1923), depicting the conflict between heroic builders of the West and cruel men of the present, and The Professor's House (1925), presenting a conflict between the middle-aged disillusion of Professor St Peter with his memories of his favorite student, who had discovered ancient Indian civilization in New Mexico.

Cather's twelve novels and short fiction fall into three groups: tales influenced by Henry James, works dealing with immigrant life in the West, and historical novels, such as Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). This novel is based on the lives of Bishop Jean Babtiste L'Amy and his vicar Father Joseph Machebeauf, who organize the new Roman Catholic diocese of New Mexico. The story focuses on Bishop Jean Latour's and vicar Father Joseph Vaillant's inner conflicts, their relationship with the land and the tension between Old World values and life in the New World. At the time of its publication, Cather's own world-view was changing. She joined the Episcopalian Church and demonstrated her growing distaste for modern values. "Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness," Cather wrote already in The Song of the Lark. "The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is."

Cather developed a close friendship with Yehudi Menuhin and his sisters. At the time she met them, Yehudi was fourteen. The children called her Aunt Willa. In Not Under Forty (1936) Cather recorded her own debt as writer to Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), who wrote about life in New England. Cather's last novel, Sapphira and the Slave (1940), looks at the relationships between African-American women, and mothers and daughters. It is her only prose work which was set in the Virginia of her grandmother. Cather died on April 24, 1947. She published little in her last years. To protect her privacy from biographers and others, she destroyed most of her letters. AfterAlfred E. Green's adaptation of A Lost Lady (1934) she also refused to allow movie adaptations of her work.

For further reading: Willa Cather and Modern Cultures by Guy J Reynolds and Melissa J. Homestead (2011); Willa Cather: A Biography by Milton Meltzer (2008); Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism by Joan Acocella (2000); Willa Cather: Queering America by Marilee Lindemann (1999); The Stuff of Our Forebears by Joyce McDonald (1998); Cather Studies, ed. by Susan J. Rosowski (1996); Willa Cather by E. Wagenknecht (1994); A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Willa Cather, ed. by Everett Emerson (1994); A Life Saved Up by Hermione Lee (1989); Willa Cather: A Literary Life by J. Woodress (1987); Willa Cather in Person by Brent L. Bohlke et al (1987); Willa Cather by Sharon O'Brien (1987); Willa Cather by Philip Gerber (1975, rev. ed. 1995); The Landscape and the Looking Glass by J.H. Randall (1960): Willa Cather and Her Critics ed. by J. Schroeter (1967); Willa Cather: A Critical Biography by E.K. Brown (1953) - Note: "One of the most charming places in New York," wrote Willa Cather about Greenwich Village, where she lived like Tom Paine, James Fenimore Cooper, William Jennings Bryant, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, E.E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, Floyd Dell, Marianne Moore, Eugene O'Neill, and many other writers and artists, especially radical or experimental. In the 1910s "the house of genius" near Washington Square Park had as inhabitants Cather, Dreiser, O.Henry, and Crane.

Selected works:

  • April Twilights, 1903
  • The Troll Garden, 1905
  • Alexander's Bridge, 1912
  • Training for the Ballet: Making American Dancers, 1913
  • O Pioneers!, 1913
    - TV film 1991, prod. by Huntington Theatre Company, dir. Kirk Browning & Kevin Kuhlke, starring Mary McDonnell as Alexandra Bergson; TV film 1992, dir. featuring Jessica Lange, David Strathairn, Tom Aldredge, Reed Diamond, Anne Heche
  • The Song of the Lark, 1915
    - TV film 2001, prod. Alt Films, dir. Karen Arthur, teleplay by Joseph Maurer, featuring Alison Elliott, Maximilian Schell, Tony Goldwyn, Robert Floyd, Linda Carlson
  • My Ántonia, 1918 (with illustrations by W. T. Benda)
    - Antonia-ystäväni (suom. Leena Karro, 1940)
    - TV film 1995, prod. Gideon Productions, dir. Joseph Sargent, teleplay by Victoria Riskin, featuring Jason Robards, Eva Marie Saint, Neil Patrick Harris, Jan Triska, Norbert Weisser
  • Youth and the Bright Medusa, 1920
  • One of Ours, 1922
  • A Lost Lady, 1923
    - films: 1924, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. Harry Beaumont, adaptation by Dorothy Farnum, cast: Irene Rich, Matt More, June Marlowe, John Roche, Victor Potel, George Fawcett; 1934, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, dir. Alfred E. Green, screenplay by Gene Markey, featuring Barbara Stanwyck, Frank Morgan, Ricardo Cortez, Lyle Talbot
  • The Professor's House, 1925
    - Professorin talo (suom. Alex Matson, 1950)
  • My Mortal Enemy, 1926
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop, 1927
    - Kuolema noutaa arkkipiispan (suom. Sirkka-Liisa Norko-Turja, 1956)
  • Shadows on the Rock, 1931 (Prix Femina Américaine 1933)
  • Obscure Destinies, 1932
  • Lucy Gayheart, 1935
  • Not Under Forty, 1936
  • Sapphira and the Slave Girl, 1940
  • The Novels and Stories of Willa Cather, 1937-41 (13 vols.)
  • Obscure Destinies & Literary Cncounters, 1938
  • The Old Beauty, and Others, 1948
  • On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art, 1949 (foreword by Stephen Tennant)
  • Writings from Willa Cather's Campus Years, 1950 (edited by James R. Shively)
  • Five Stories, 1956 (with an article by George N. Kates on Miss Cather’s last, unfinished, and unpublished Avignon story)
  • Willa Cather in Europe: Her Own Story of the First Journey, 1956 (with an introd. and incidental notes by George N. Kates)
  • Early Stories, 1957 (selected and with commentary by Mildred R. Bennett)
  • Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912, 1965 (introd. by Mildred R. Bennett)
  • The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896, 1967 (selected and edited, with two essays and a commentary, by Bernice Slote)
  • Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912, 1970 (edited by Virginia Faulkner, introd. by Mildred R. Bennett)
  • The World and the Parish: Articles and Reviews 1893-1902, 1970
  • Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-1925, 1973
  • Uncle Valentine and Other Stories:  Willa Cather’s Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-1929, 1973 (edited with an introd. by Bernice Slote)
  • Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters, 1986 (selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke)
  • Great Short Works of Willa Cather, 1989 (edited by Robert K. Miller)
  • Coming, Aphrodite! and Other Stories, 1999 (edited and with notes by Margaret Anne O’Connor, with an introduction by Cynthia Griffin Wolff)
  • The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, 2013 (edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout)


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