American Women Fiction Writers, 1900-1960 - Vol. 1

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview
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WILLA CATHER

1873-1947

WILLA CATHER was born in Gore, Virginia, on December 7, 1873. She was the first of seven children of Charles Fectigue and Mary Virgina Boak Cather.From stories of both sides of the Civil War recounted by relatives, Cather developed a lifelong distrust of causes, preferring to put her faith in individuals. Her family moved to Nebraska when she was nine years old, the last part of the journey being made in a farm wagon. Cather recounts her first impression of the prairie in the words of Jim Burden in My Ántonia: "There seemed nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. . . not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made."

She received a B.A. from the University of Nebraska in 1895 and accepted the editorship of a new magazine, Home Monthly, in Pittsburgh.She never again lived in Nebraska, although she returned to visit her parents. She went on to become drama critic and telegraph editor for the Pittsburgh Daily Reader and then for five years was a high school English teacher. During the latter period, her first books were published: a volume of poetry, April Twilights, and a collection of stories, The Troll Garden. On the strength of these, in 1906 she was hired as managing editor for McClure's Magazine in New York.There she would remain until 1912, when her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, was published.

It was O Pioneers! ( 1913) that brought Cather her first success. Based on her childhood memories of Nebraska, the book was written in the evocative, "unfurnished" prose that became her trademark. She returned to Nebraska in My Ántonia ( 1918), which was hailed by critics as a work of greatness. Her next novel was a departure: One of Ours ( 1922) was a bitter story of World War I that won Cather a Pulitzer Prize and best-seller status, although it received mixed reviews. Critics were more enthusiastic about A Lost Lady ( 1923), which continued in the vein of My Ántonia. Her next novels were set in the Southwest, a bleak landscape that suited the depression she felt throughout the 1920s. This phase culminated in Death Comes for the Archbishop ( 1927), based on the story of the first bishop of New Mexico.Her next book was also historically based: Shadows on the Rock ( 1931) was a tale of 17th-century Quebec.Her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl ( 1940), was set in pre-Civil War Virginia.

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