A Lost Lady: Biography: Willa Cather

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Willa Sibert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley Virginia on December 7, 1873, to Charles Fectigue Cather and Mary Virginia Boak, the oldest of seven children. When she was nine, her family moved to her grandfather Cather’s farm in Nebraska where she grew up with many pioneering neighbors, French, Swedish, and Bohemian. Later the family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, fictionalized as Sweet Water in A Lost Lady, and called Hanover, Moonstone, Black Hawk, Frankfort, and Haverford in other Cather stories. Her father opened an insurance and real estate office, and the young Willa, driving around with the country doctors, learned about the people and the land, wanting to grow up to be a doctor herself. She called herself “Willie” and dressed often as a boy, taking boys’parts in plays. She graduated from high school in 1890 at the age of 16, enrolling in college at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, which was highly unusual for women at that time. Her success in writing changed her studies from science to English as she published many essays in the local papers. She graduated in 1895 and pursued a career in journalism. In 1900, she became a high school English teacher in Pittsburg and traveled abroad on her summer vacations. She became especially enamored of French culture and literature. Her first publications were April Twilights (1903), a collection of poetry, and The Troll Garden (1905), a collection of short stories. After five years of teaching, she moved to New York to be the editor of McClure’s Magazine (1906-1912), becoming the leading editor of her time. She resigned so she could write, and in 1912, her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge was published. O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Antonia (1918), and A Lost Lady (1923) all celebrate the pioneering spirit. Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), is another collection of short stories. In 1922 Cather won a Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, about a Nebraska youth who fights in World War I. The Professor’s House (1925) contrasts older values with modern materialism; My Mortal Enemy (1926) pictures the hazards of marriage. Death Comes for the Archbishop, published in 1927, concerns a pioneering Catholic priest in New Mexico. Shadows on the Rock (1931) depicts a French immigrant, and Lucy Gayheart (1935) explores small-town life versus international culture. Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) is her last novel, set in pre-Civil War Virginia. Cather’s lesbianism was never openly spoken of, but she had early significant affairs with Louise Pound in college and traveled with Isabelle McClung, for whom, she once said, she wrote her fiction. Her lifelong companion was Edith Lewis. Cather died on April 24, 1947 at the age of 70. Cather’s fiction looks both forward to modern themes and backward to older lost ideals, as she herself had a foot in both worlds. Her stories have a sense of place and often highlight strong and unconventional women. Her prose is renowned for its classic beauty and simplicity. She received numerous honorary degrees and The Howells Medal for fiction (1931), The Prix Femina Americain (1933), and the Gold Medal for Fiction of the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1944).

 

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