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Willa Cather Essay, Research Paper
There are few female authors that have had an impact on literature as great as
that of Willa Cather. Not only was she an exquisite author, but she broke
through into writing during a time when few female authors were successful. Her
life, which was directly influential to her writing, was of a simple nature.
However, she was able to over come a drab, mundane life, and turn her
experiences into stories that would be enjoyed by many generations. Willa
Siebert Cather was born in her maternal grandmother’s home in 1873 in the
western region of Virginia (Robinson). Cather’s name was originally Willela
(after her father’s younger sister who died as a child), but the family always
called her "Willie." They did this because as a child Willa altered
her name in the family Bible and insisted that she was named after her uncle
William Sibert Boak (Woodress). In the spring of 1883, when Willa was nine, the
Cathers moved to a farm near Red Cloud, Nebraska. Cather described her thoughts
of this land to an interviewer. She said, "As we drove further and further
out into the country , I felt a good deal as we had come to the end of
everything." (Cather quoted in Woodress). They came to Nebraska by train
because the journey by wagon would have been long and tiring. Cather’s first
home in the state of Nebraska was with her Grandfather. (Robinson). "Its
most characteristic feature which she described faithfully in My Antonia was a
basement kitchen and dining room." (Robinson) However, a year later the
Cather’s left the farm to live in the town of Red Cloud, so the children could
attend school. Red Cloud was a town of 2,500 people. The people of Red Cloud
played an important part in the life and work of Willa Cather. There were many
people in the town who inspired her and "she sought interesting adults
wherever she could find them." (Woodress). Two of Red Cloud’s doctors
became friends with Willa, and sometimes let her come along on their calls.
Cather also medically experimented on animals with a set of medical instruments,
this upset and disgusted some of the citizens of Red Cloud. (Robinson). In high
school Willa Cather had greatest ambition was to become a doctor, a profession
in which few women excelled. Cather graduated from high-school in June of 1890,
at the age of sixteen (Woodress). She was the only student of the three who
graduated who intended to pursue college. She would enter the University of
Nebraska at Lincoln the following September (Robinson). Cather was also inspired
by the actors and actresses who came to perform at the town’s Opera House. The
children of Red Cloud would put on their own shows where Willa seemed to be an
adequate actress, but she always played a boy (Robinson). This was a great
surprise because at the time, many women did not perform. Rather younger boys
would play the female roles in a play. She expressed a vast dislike for skirts
and dresses (Woodress) and later when she attended the University of Nebraska
she continued to dress in a boyish manner (Daiches). She wore suspenders,
starched shirts and insisted while in college to continue trying out for the
male roles in college theater (Woodress). Cather went to Lincoln with the intent
of studying science. She was very interested in botany, astronomy and chemistry
(Woodress). However, the event that changed her heart toward writing occurred in
March of 1891. A professor of Cather’s assigned an essay to be written, and the
professor was so impressed with Cather’s work that without telling her, he sent
it to the Journal, the towns paper. He also sent it to a literary magazine for
students called The Hesperian (Robinson). Cather opened the Sunday paper to find
her essay in print and from that time on she forgot about medicine and
concentrated on writing (Woodress). Throughout her college years Cather
continued to write for the Journal and took any chance to earn money writing for
the paper. Even if that meant putting aside her school work to do it. In the two
years she wrote for the Journal she produced over 300 pieces, many of which were
essays (Woodress). Cather became the Journal’s drama critic and she quickly made
a name for herself. "Her work showed a maturity and poise not expected in
so young a critic, and her knowledge of drama and literature, continental and
classic, as well as English was extensive" (Robinson). During her last two
semesters at the University, Cather wrote over 100 pieces for the Journal .
"A full time reviewer might not have produced much more than she did."
(Robinson). In addition to her school work and writing for the paper, Cather
also did some practice teaching during her senior year. By the time Cather
graduated from the University in 1895, she had a great deal of experience in the
writing field (Woodress). Cather returned home to Red Cloud after graduation and
began to write for the Courier, another local paper (Robinson). However, her big
break came when she was offered a job at Home Monthly, a magazine in Pittsburgh.
Cather was 22 when she left home to begin the start of her professional career
as a writer. In addition to writing stories for Home Monthly, Cather also helped
with editing, writing editorials and also some nonfiction work. After a year of
writing for Home Monthly, Cather was offered a job at the Pittsburgh Leader. She
took the job, but continued to write for Home Monthly under another name. At
this time Cather was at an age that marriage was typical of. However, she was
too independent and out going to be taken in. There is no proof that Cather ever
came close to marriage. The men she loved the most were her father and brothers.
"She simply had no need for heterosexual relationships, she was married to
her art." (Woodress). In her book, Willa Cather : The Emerging Voice,
Sharon O’Brien discusses Cather’s sexuality. She dwells mainly on Cather’s
relationship with her best friend Louise Pound and says, "That Willa Cather
was a lesbian should not be an unexamined assumption, however, but a conclusion
reached after considering questions of definition, evidence and
interpretation." Yet, after her affair with Pound ended, Cather found
"more enduring and supportive relationships," (O’Brien) with Isabelle
McClung and later with Edith Lewis, yet she never declared publicly that she was
in fact a lesbian. Cather’s newspaper career ended in 1901. Her last years at
the Leader produced little work, and when she returned from a visit with her
brother she became a Latin teacher at Central High School in Pittsburgh. She
later taught English and then transferred to Allegheny High School across the
river where she taught for three years (Woodress). Cather did not have a natural
teaching talent, but her classes were not considered to be boring. In 1903,
McClures began nagging Cather for her stories. McClure offered to publish her
stories in book form. He told her that he wanted to publish everything she wrote
(Robinson). After 5 years of teaching, Cather moved to New York to work full
time at McClures (Woodress). At that time, McClure’s was considered the most
"successful reforming magazine in America." (Robinson). Cather, who
had no interest in social work of the magazine was involved in the magazine
because of its literary content. Cather was responsible for reading the
manuscripts that came in and also editing articles sent in by semi- literate
people who knew a lot about the copper mines in the West, but didn’t write well
(Woodress). During the years that Cather helped to edit the magazine, she had
very little time to write. During her time at McClures she worked in Boston,
Europe and wrote McClure’s biography (Robinson). Cather worked for McClures from
1906 until 1912 and became the leading magazine editor of her day. Working at
the magazine changed her life, and the experience was important to her.
"She had been a good editor, as she had been a good critic and a good
teacher. Now she wanted one thing only, to be a writer, a good one."
(Robinson). She quit her job as editor in order to devote all her time to
writing and in 1912 her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was published (Daichess).
From that point on, Willa Cather became a great American author. Willa Cather
died in 1947 at the age of 70. Willa Cather’s primary inspiration was her home
town of Red Cloud. Many of her books won her literary awards, as well as the
admiration of authors of every generation. It takes a great writer to take on
the many literary occupations that Cather took on. However, it takes an even
greater writer to raise each of those occupations to an art form. For these
reasons, and many more of which could never be described, are why Willa Cather
is one of America’s finest writers.
Daiches, David. Willa Cather a Critical Introduction. Westport, Ct. :
Greenwood Press, 1951. O’Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather the Emerging Voice. New
York : Oxford Up, 1987. Robinson, Phyillis C. Willa : The Life of Willa Cather.
New York: Doubleday, 1983. Schroeter, James, ed. Willa Cather and Her Critics.
Ithica : Cornell UP, 1967. Woodress, James. Willa Cather Her Life and Art. New
York : Pegasus, 1970
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