Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

24. Willa Cather and Her Pulitzer Prize

In April 1923 Willa Cather (1873–1947) received word from Columbia University’s president and Alfred A. Knopf, her publisher, that she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her World War I novel, One of Ours (1922). It was a particularly important moment for this author who had done so much to inform the nation about Nebraska through her fiction. Her work introduced many people to frontier Nebraska and to the struggles and triumphs of its immigrant population.

An excellent stylist with a keen sense of history, Cather wrote a series of short stories and novels that won her international acclaim. She became the best-known Nebraska author both within and beyond the state and, with the Pulitzer, its most accomplished and recognized. When Sinclair Lewis, a nationally known writer, gave a lecture in Omaha in 1921, he boldly summarized the impact of Cather, “Willa Cather is greater than General Pershing; she is incomparably greater than William Jennings Bryan.” Lewis warmed to his audience, “She is Nebraska’s foremost citizen because through her stories she has made the outside world know Nebraska as no one else has done.” And her fame continued to grow.

Joseph Pulitzer, an innovative journalist, reformer, and publisher of the New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, died in 1904. His will set aside two million dollars to be administered by Columbia University to endow prize awards to be made each year for true writing excellence. The very first were announced in 1917, and they have been made each year ever since. Today the Pulitzer Prize is recognized as going to America’s very best in some twenty-one categories. Willa Cather was Nebraska’s first literary Pulitzer.

Cather was not alone in receiving the coveted prize. The 1923 Pulitzer

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