Today is the 148th birthday of the author Willa Cather. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Willa Cather
FULL NAME: Wilella Siber Cather
DATE OF BIRTH: 7-Dec-1873
PLACE OF BIRTH: Back Creek Valley, VA
DATE OF DEATH: 24-Apr-1947
PLACE OF DEATH: New York City
CAUSE OF DEATH: Cerebral Hemorrhage
REMAINS: Buried, Old Burying Ground, Jaffrey Center, NH
FATHER: Charles Cather (deputy sheriff, d. 1928)
BROTHER: Mary Virginia Boak Cather (d. 1931)
BROTHER: Roscoe Cather (b. 1877, d. 1945)
BROTHER: Douglass Cather (b. 1880, d. 1938)
SISTER: Jessica Cather (b. 1881)
BROTHER: James Cather (b. 1888)
SISTER: Elsie Cather (b. 1890)
BROTHER: John Cather (b. 1892)
GIRLFRIEND: Louise Pound (at the University of Nebraska)
GIRLFRIEND: Isabelle McClung (traveled to Europe with her, 1902)
GIRLFRIEND: Edith Lewis (cohabited 1908 onward)
American Academy of Arts and Letters (1938)
National Institute of Arts and Letters (1929)
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1923 for One of Ours
National Women’s Hall of Fame (1988)
BEST KNOWN FOR: Willa Sibert Cather was an American writer known for her novels of life on the Great Plains, including O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia.
Cather was born in 1873 on her maternal grandmother’s farm in the Back Creek Valley near Winchester, Virginia. Her father was Charles Fectigue Cather. The Cather family originated in Wales, the name deriving from Cadair Idris, a Gwynedd mountain. Her mother was Mary Virginia Boak, a former school teacher. By the time Cather turned twelve months old, the family had moved to Willow Shade, a Greek Revival-style home on 130 acres given to them by her paternal grandparents.
Mary Cather had six more children after Willa: Roscoe, Douglass, Jessica, James, John, and Elsie. Cather was closer to her brothers than to her sisters whom, according to biographer Hermione Lee, she “seems not to have liked very much.”
At the urging of Charles Cather’s parents, the family moved to Nebraska in 1883 when Willa was nine years old. The farmland appealed to Charles’ father, and the family wished to escape the tuberculosis outbreaks that were rampant in Virginia. Willa’s father tried his hand at farming for eighteen months, then moved the family into the town of Red Cloud, where he opened a real estate and insurance business, and the children attended school for the first time. Some of Cather’s earliest work was first published in the Red Cloud Chief, the city’s local paper, and Cather read widely, having made friends with a Jewish couple, the Wieners, who offered her free access to their extensive library in Red Cloud. At the same time, she made house calls with the local physician and decided to become a surgeon. For a short while, she signed her name as William, but this was quickly abandoned for Willa instead.
Cather moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1890 to enroll at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In her first year, her essay on Thomas Carlyle was published in the Nebraska State Journal without her knowledge. After this, she published columns for $1 apiece, saying that seeing her words printed on the page had “a kind of hypnotic effect,” pushing her to continue writing. Following this experience, she became a regular contributor to the Journal. In addition to her work with the local paper, Cather served as the main editor of The Hesperian, the university’s student newspaper, and became a writer for the Lincoln Courier. While at the university, she learned mathematics from and was befriended by John J. Pershing, who later became General of the Armies and, like Cather, earned a Pulitzer Prize for his writing. She changed her plans from studying science to become a physician, instead graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1895.
Cather’s time in Nebraska, still considered a frontier state, was a formative experience for her: She was moved by the dramatic environment and weather, the vastness of the prairie, and the various cultures of the immigrant and Native American families in the area.
Scholars disagree about Cather’s sexual identity. Some believe it impossible or anachronistic to determine whether she had same-sex attraction, while others disagree. Researcher Deborah Carlin suggests that denial of Cather being a lesbian is rooted in treating same-sex desire “as an insult to Cather and her reputation,” rather than a neutral historical perspective. Melissa Homestead has argued that Cather was attracted to Edith Lewis, and in so doing, asked: “What kind of evidence is needed to establish this as a lesbian relationship? Photographs of the two of them in bed together? She was an integral part of Cather’s life, creatively and personally.” Beyond her own relationships with women, Cather’s reliance on male characters has been used to support the idea of her same-sex attraction. In any event, throughout Cather’s adult life, her closest relationships were with women. These included her college friend Louise Pound; the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, with whom Cather traveled to Europe and at whose Toronto home she stayed for prolonged visits; the opera singer Olive Fremstad; and most notably, the editor Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived the last 39 years of her life. Cather’s relationship with Lewis began in the early 1900s. They lived together in a series of apartments in New York City from 1908 until Cather’s death in 1947. From 1913 to 1927, Cather and Lewis lived at No. 5 Bank Street in Greenwich Village. They moved when the apartment was scheduled for demolition during the construction of the Broadway–Seventh Avenue New York City Subway line (now the 1, 2, and 3 trains). While Lewis was selected as the literary trustee for Cather’s estate, she was not merely a secretary for Cather’s documents but an integral part of Cather’s creative process.
Beginning in 1922, Cather spent summers on the island of Grand Manan in New Brunswick, where she bought a cottage in Whale Cove on the Bay of Fundy. This is where her short story, “Before Breakfast,” is set. She valued the seclusion of the island and did not mind that her cottage had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. Anyone wishing to reach her could do so by telegraph or mail. In 1940, she stopped visiting Grand Manan following Canada’s entrance to World War II, as travel was considerably more difficult; she also began a long recuperation from gallbladder surgery in 1942 that restricted travel. A resolutely private person, Cather had destroyed many old drafts, personal papers, and letters, asking others to do the same. While many complied, some did not. Her will restricted the ability of scholars to quote from the personal papers that remain. But in April 2013, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather—a collection of 566 letters Cather wrote to friends, family, and literary acquaintances such as Thornton Wilder and F. Scott Fitzgerald—was published, two years after the death of Cather’s nephew and second literary executor, Charles Cather. Willa Cather’s correspondence revealed the complexity of her character and inner world. The letters do not disclose any intimate details about Cather’s personal life, but they do “make clear that [her] primary emotional attachments were to women.” The Willa Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln works to digitize her complete body of writing, including private correspondence and published work. As of 2021, about 2,100 letters have been made freely available to the public, in addition to transcription of her own published writing.
Alexander’s Bridge (1912)
O Pioneers! (1913)
The Song of the Lark (1915)
My Ántonia (1918)
One of Ours (1922)
A Lost Lady (1923)
The Professor’s House (1925)
My Mortal Enemy (1926)
Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
Shadows on the Rock (1931)
Lucy Gayheart (1935)
Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)
The Troll Garden (1905)
Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920)
Obscure Destinies (1932)
Neighbour Rosicky (1932)
The Old Beauty and Others (1948)
Willa Cather’s Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912 (1965)
Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather’s Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-1929 (1972)
April Twilights (1903)
April Twilights and Other Poems (1923)
Appears on postage stamps:
USA, Scott #1487 (8 cents, issued 20-Sep-1973)