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Willa Cather was a daughter of the American prairie, and one of the most important American novelists of the first half of the 20th century. Both a predecessor and contemporary of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, she is best known for O Pioneers! and My Antonia, both of which depict the simple ways and inherent struggles of the prairie lifestyle.
Born in 1873 in Back Creek, Virginia, Wilella Cather was named for a paternal aunt. Later in life, she would change her name to Willa and claim she was born in 1876. The family moved to Nebraska when Willa was around 8 or 9 (accounts vary) in order to pursue farming. Her family eventually settled in Red Cloud, where her father took up the insurance business and Willa, and her many siblings, attended school for the first time. But she was greatly impacted by life on the prairie, the interaction of the Native American and European-American cultures, the dramatic weather, and the stark, vast frontier.
One of Willa’s childhood friends was Annie Sadilek, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants. When Willa was a young girl, Annie’s father, Francis, committed suicide in an old barn. This event also had a significant effect on young Willa. She wrote about it in college, in what would become her first published work, a story called Peter. More famously, however, Annie would become the inspiration for the titular character of My Antonia.
Cather attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she studied journalism and received a degree in English. By then, she had discovered her love of writing. She moved to Pittsburgh and began writing articles for women’s magazines, poetry, and short stories. In this time, she also became a high school English teacher. Eventually, Willa was drawn to New York, to become part of the editorial staff at McClure’s Magazine, which published her short story, Paul’s Case. Soon she was writing biographies, and then McClure’s serialized her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, which drew acclaim from the New York Times and The Atlantic.
Now that her work had been so well-received, she began a trilogy of frontier stories, O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia. In these works, the landscape is as much a character as are the people Cather portrays. Her words are romantic and majestic, painting a picture for the reader that is unmistakable. And yet, she is equally devoted to her characters, breathing life into each one as she embraces their unique cultures and mannerisms. Not surprisingly, she often wrote about the immigrant families she visited during her childhood, and took pride in studying them so well that she could “get inside another person’s skin.” This made her characters instantly relatable to many.
Four years after My Antonia was published, she received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel One of Ours. The work was inspired by the death of her cousin, G. P. Cather, during World War I in France, and the letters he sent home.
Yet, for all this recognition, Cather was intensely private, and became even more so as she became more successful. She rarely gave interviews or made public appearances. She enjoyed visiting her family in Nebraska, and traveling to other locations, but preferred a quiet life in New York’s Greenwich Village with her companion, Edith Lewis, and later moving to Park Avenue. It seemed an odd choice for someone who had been so enamored of the American prairie, but for Cather it was a way to maintain the divide she craved between her public and private lives. In fact, at the time of her death from a cerebral hemorrhage, she was working on a novel, Avignon. In accordance with her wishes, Edith Lewis destroyed it, along with other personal papers.
Independent, private, observant, and creative, Willa Cather created a world for her readers from her own experiences and feelings. She brought to life the American plains, which could be both harsh and romantic, filled with promise and determination, much like her own story.