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Willa Cather, 1915. Photoprint by Hollinger. Prints & Photographs Division

Remembering Pulitzer-Prize Winning Novelist Willa Cather on Her 150th Birthday

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This is a guest post by Barbara Bair, Specialist of Literature, Culture and the Arts in the Library’s Manuscripts Division.

2023 marks the 150th anniversary of author Willa Cather’s December birth and the centenary of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Literature awarded for her World War I novel, “One of Ours” (1922). A Willa Cather statue representing the state of Nebraska joined the sculpture collections of the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall and U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center in June—see the statue by Littleton Alston and its story here. This October, Cather’s 1918 novel “My Ántonia was highlighted by C-SPAN as one of the “Books that Shaped America” in partnership with the Library of Congress (and in a follow-up to the Library’s 2013 exhibit of the same name). A short biography of Cather was also recently released (“Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather” by Benjamin Taylor) in November of this year.

Cather clearly still matters to readers. An author who wrote against the grain of her own cultural moment, when Modernist experimentation and playfulness were in vogue, Cather stuck to her own style: steadfast, even plain language that plumbed the particulars of American cultures that were often quite different from one another.

Born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia on December 7, 1873, Cather moved to rural Nebraska with her family when she was nine years old. After living on a farm in Webster County for a year, she came of age in the town of Red Cloud, which today hosts the National Willa Cather Center and Cather historic sites.

Cather developed a lifelong appreciation for music from attending the local Red Cloud opera house as well as a love for reading and books from erudite locals who loaned her favorites from their private libraries and introduced her to ancient and European languages. She learned too—just as her semi-autobiographical protagonist Jim Burden does in “My Ántonia”from meeting immigrant settlers who were homesteading on the Great Plains and who came from various backgrounds and heritages. She witnessed their hard work and close earthy relation to the soil; observed their religious practices and beliefs; and listened closely to folk tales, dialects and turns of speech. All these she later utilized in her fiction.

Cather’s love of landscape was also greatly tuned and fostered on the plains, and she became one of the greatest authors of the natural world.  However cultivated or pastoral, the land itself—or the radiance of the sun in its rising and its setting—is often the primary hero of a Cather story. Nature is a source of metaphor or epiphany for Cather’s characters in many of her works, such as in “One of Ours,” when the hero Claude and his friend Ernest walk along the banks of Lovely Creek and behold a glorious sunlit “bittersweet vine that wound about a dogwood and covered it with scarlet berries.” It is something the two young men behold together onto themselves, “hidden away in the cleft of a ravine” beyond the eyes of others.

In her own youth, Cather cropped her hair short and referred to herself as Willie or William. She held hopes for a medical career when she headed off from Red Cloud to the University of Nebraska, but soon turned instead to writing and editing. She became the literary editor of The Hesperian student magazine from 1892 to 1893; published her first short story, “Peter,” in a Boston weekly in 1892; and served as yearbook editor. She worked as a columnist for the Nebraska State Journal. After graduation, she moved to Pittsburgh to edit the Home Monthly (1896-1897). She taught high school while living with the family of her close friend Isabelle McClung, with whom she first traveled to England and France in 1902. She published her first collection of poems, “April Twilights,” in 1903 (later revised in new edition in 1923), and her first collection of short stories, “The Troll Garden,” in 1905, with McClure’s.  All was the groundwork for the successful career that followed, during which she increasingly devoted herself to her writing.

Willa Cather to Margaret Lee Crofts, Dec. 31, n.d. Crofts Papers, Manuscript Division.

Cather took a job in New York as an editor with McClure’s, where she joined the woman who would become her lifelong domestic partner, Edith Lewis (1882-1972). Lewis was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and was a Smith College graduate (1902). She was an editor for McClure’s Magazine and Every Week Magazine and later became a successful advertising copywriter, Cather’s literary executor, and author of “Willa Cather Living” (1953). The two rented an apartment on Bank Street in New York’s Greenwich Village for years, and later relocated to the Park Avenue residence where they lived at the time of Cather’s 1947 death. They traveled over the years to scenes that Cather would use in her books—to the American Southwest and Virginia—and also found havens for Cather to work on her writing on Grand Manan Island and at the Shattuck Inn in New Hampshire. The two are buried together in the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire, which serves as their own shared memorial. The gravestone includes a quote from one of the most beloved passages of “My Ántonia,” in which the fictional narrator Jim Burden realizes “that is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

While Cather is most famous for her books championing Great Plains settler colonialism and the inner ambitions and talents of female heroines, she selected many different locales and geographic regions as settings of her semi-historical novels and made men as well as women central protagonists. She wrote not just of the Midwest, but the Shenandoah Valley, French Canada, urban areas and the Hispanic Southwest, and in the process made a sense of place a major hallmark of her writing. The America she presented to her readers was both regionally and ethnically diverse, largely within Euro-American boundaries of heritage. She featured immigrant and colonial stories, and stories of everyday people, workers and servants, parents, professors, priests, farmers, singers, shop keepers and small townsmen. She did so during a period of backlash against so-called “second wave” immigration to the United States, with pronounced prejudice against those coming from non-northern European and non-Protestant Christian countries, including against those of southeastern Europe and Russia, and Catholic and Jewish faiths.

Bohemian immigrants on a sidewalk. Illustration by W. T. Benda, My Ántonia. Prints & Photographs Division 

At the same time, Cather’s often romanticized vision of wide-open expanses graced by newly arrived hardscrabble homesteaders and the founders of towns sidestepped consideration of much of African American or Asian experience or culture, and she often used the speech of persons of lower classes or for whom English was a second language for comic effect. She looked away as well from the bitter history of removal forced upon Indigenous peoples who had been residents and stewards of the Great Plains for untold millennia, in tacit approval of ideas of manifest destiny and dreams of land ownership for incoming European migrants of little means. But she also had a dry wit. She could refer wryly to march-of-civilization and gender specific assumptions and convey the thoughts of the settlers with touches of irony and sometimes mocking comedy. She does this in characterizing Claude Wheeler’s rather boorish civic booster father and cowed socially conservative mother and some of their neighbors, such as the man who does not wish to have his wife learn to drive lest she neglect her domestic sphere in “One of Ours.” Her characters and their relationships are flawed and complex, and so too are the historical conditions she describes in her writing.

Statue of Liberty, ca. 1920 – ca. 1950. Photograph by Theodor Horydczak. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Statue of Liberty figures in a powerful scene in “One of Ours as American troops set off across the Atlantic. In the new statue gracing the U.S. Capitol, Cather is depicted by the Creighton University sculptor Littleton Alston (b., 1958) in emblematic fashion. She wears an outdoor walking outfit and strides forward, a walking stick in one hand and writing paper and pen in the other, the Nebraska state bird and wildflower near her feet. Born, like Cather, in Virginia, Alston was raised in Northeast Washington, D.C., where he was inspired by the public sculpture he saw as a boy in the nation’s capital. After studying in Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland, Alston became a professor and professional sculptor in Omaha. His sculpture of Cather marks the first statue by an African American artist in the state statuary collection, and the twelfth that depicts a woman. The 2023 Cather sculpture joins a statue of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, added in 2019, as the new statues representing the state of Nebraska, replacing older images of William Jennings Bryan and James Sterling Morton.

Sculptor Littleton Alston with Willa Cather statue, U.S. Capitol. Image ©Cheriss May, Ndemay Media Group, June 7, 2023. National Willa Cather Center/Foundation

Though the Library of Congress Manuscript Division holds sporadic Cather correspondence in various collections, the main repository of her primary materials is at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, which is home to the Willa Cather Archive documentary project that has produced edited versions of her letters. Many of Cather’s novels and stories are based in part on historical figures, family members, friends, or people she met or knew. “One of Ours” is no exception. It is loosely framed on the life of Cather’s Webster County cousin, G.P. Cather, a young farmer who served in the war and died in France, and the letters that he wrote home to his family.

Cather went to France in 1920 to visit G.P. Cather’s grave, and his body was later returned to Nebraska.  At the end of “One of Ours,” fictional protagonist Claude Wheeler’s mother and the hired woman who co-parented him continue to receive letters written by Claude from France which arrive long after they have been informed of his death—and then, too, additional letters from his friends to tell them of his heroism and good conduct. Like letters of the Civil War and World War I housed in the Manuscript Division and featured in recent Library of Congress exhibitions; or, collected letters and testimonials from more modern wars saved through the Library’s Veterans History Project, such missives bring war poignantly up close and personal and are the way that many family members received key news.

Real-life World War I service member J. J. Boone, U.S. Navy, 6th Marines, medical officer. AEF identity card. Joel T. Boone Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Claude was, as Cather created him, a white American, a Nebraskan, a mother’s son, a man who went off to war on the basis of an ideal, but also on the basis of escaping some of the strictures of small-town and rural life. He expanded himself through the experience. Cather has Claude struggle throughout the novel between elements of cynicism and idealism. She has him experience a vivid realization at the moment of his death—not so much of saving the world for democracy, but a sense of admiration for the camaraderie and bravery he saw manifested in his fellow soldiers (“He felt only one thing; that he commanded wonderful men”). Claude felt himself to be a misfit in Nebraska and in his ill-suited heterosexual marriage to a Temperance activist, but he successfully discovers a sense of place and meaning in the company of men on a battlefield in France.

Cather has Claude fall mortally wounded by gunfire with a slight smile on his face, and he feels, in the moment of dying, dissolved into something complete and great. It was a kind of death that could be interpreted by readers as solace to families who had themselves lost similar young men in the recently concluded war. But in the novel’s closing lines, Cather questions idealism. Claude’s mother wonders if her sensitive son may have been better off dying as he did, in a moment of beautiful belief—better off than those who returned home to post-war disillusionment, or who died later by their own hand, or who slipped silently over the side of a vessel into the sea. The novel ends on a note of post-war veteran mental health need, and with the feeling that after all its many pages Cather is telling us what remains an ongoing story.

What is your connection with Willa Cather? How will the world remember her ongoing legacy?

Comments (4)

  1. Dear Friends,

    Thank you for this rich biography of Willa Cather and infomration about the age when she lived and worked. When today’s debates over immigration are heated and often derogatory, we would all be helped by a dose of Cather’s great stories. Immigrants founded the nation. I also appreceiate that you included the fact that Cather left our African Americans and Indigenous Nations from the story of settlement in the West. These are critical and important perspectives about our nation today. I am reading Ned Blackhawk’s new history: The Rediscovery of America which includes the indigenous narrative at key junctures of the establishment of the Republic and during the Civil War. As such, I think Cather’s writng is valuable as gems of creative writing based on her direct experience, and her stories will remain in the pantheon of American Fiction. Thanks so much for all the work you do to preserve, make available to the public, and interpret our great writers, artists, and leaders.

    Susan Feathers

  2. Willa Cather is one of my favorite authors, thanks to my high school English teacher who recommended that I read “O’Pioneers” in the late 80s. I ended up reading all of her books that summer, which was one of the best summers for reading ever! In the 90s, my love for Cather’s work led me to discover Jane Smiley and her novel “A Thousand Acres”.

  3. I have come to read Wila Cather from a different perspective. I am Australian and heard that Wila Cather’s books were accurate portrayals of early settlers on the prairies. I thought My Ántonia a really beautiful book full of dazzling descriptions of the landscape and weather, so different from my own country, and the characters are drawn with great sensitivity. Also, I knew Cather was a convert to Catholicism, an unusual move for someone of her background in America at that time. In fact I bought my copy of My Ántonia from Cluny, a Catholic publishing group which also has other interesting women writers in its stable like Sigrid Undset. I shall definitely read more of Wila Cather’s work . Her portraits of people and descriptions of American pioneer society in an earlier time are priceless.

  4. Regarding Angela’s comment last week – Willa Cather’s immersion in Catholicism in much of her fiction, and especially in DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP and SHADOWS ON THE ROCK, has often led to the understandable misapprehension that she converted to Catholicism. But, in fact, curiously, she never did, as several biographers have discussed.

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