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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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