Cather, Willa Sibert

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Cather, Willa Sibert

Willa Sibert Cather (sī´bərt kăŧħ´ər), 1873–1947, American novelist and short-story writer, b. Winchester, Va., considered one of the great American writers of the 20th cent. When she was nine her family moved to the Nebraska prairie frontier. She graduated from the Univ. of Nebraska in 1895 and worked as a journalist and as a teacher in Pittsburgh. In 1904 she went to New York City. The publication of The Troll Garden (1905), her first collection of short stories, led to her appointment to the editorial staff of McClure's Magazine. She eventually became managing editor and saved the magazine from financial disaster. After the publication of Alexander's Bridge in 1912, she left McClure's and devoted herself to creative writing. For many years she lived quietly in New York City's Greenwich Village. The first of her novels to deal with her major theme is O Pioneers! (1913), a celebration of the strength and courage of the frontier settlers. Other novels with this theme are My Ántonia (1918), One of Ours (1922; Pulitzer Prize), and A Lost Lady (1923). The Song of the Lark (1915) focuses on another of Cather's major preoccupations—the need of artists to free themselves from inhibiting influences, particularly that of a rural or small-town background; the tales collected in Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920) and the novel Lucy Gayheart (1935) also treat this theme. With success and increasing age Cather became convinced that the beliefs and way of life she valued were disappearing. This disillusionment is poignantly evident in her novel The Professor's House (1925). She subsequently turned to North America's far past for her material: to colonial New Mexico in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), widely regarded as her masterpiece, and to 17th-century Quebec for Shadows on the Rock (1931), in both novels blending history with religious reverence and loving characterizations. The volumes My Mortal Enemy (1926) and The Old Beauty and Others (1948) present her highly skilled shorter fiction. Her intense interest in the craft of fiction is shown in the essays in Not Under Forty (1936) and On Writing (1949). Cather herself was a master of that craft, her novels and stories written in a pellucid style of great charm and stateliness.

See selected letters ed. by A. Jewell and J. Stout (2013); E. K. Brown and L. Edel, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (1980); S. O'Brien, Willa Cather: the Emerging Voice (1987); J. Woodres, Willa Cather: A Literary Life (1989).

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