My Antonia: Biography: Willa Cather

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Like Jim Burden, the protagonist of My Antonia, Willa Cather was born in Virginia (Back Creek, to be precise, on December 7th, 1873), to an established and successful family.  Also like Jim Burden, Cather would migrate to Nebraska at a young age.  Willa’s grandparents, William and Caroline Cather, left their farm outside Back Creek and migrated to Nebraska in 1877.  Willa’s parents, Charles and Mary Cather, followed a few years later, in 1883.  In Virginia, Willa established a strong relationship with her maternal grandmother, Rachel Boak, a woman who embodied traditional Southern womanhood for Cather, and who, by moving west with the family, would have a strong influence on her life and writing.   
Cather and her parents initially settled in Catherton, a town named after Cather’s uncle George.  Her father worked as a farmer for only two years before moving the family to the nearby town of  Red Cloud, Nebraska, where he worked as a realtor and insurance agent.  Red Cloud, at the time, was a thriving railroad town of about eighteen hundred people.  There were, of course, significant differences between the Virginia and Nebraska landscapes: Virginia was sparsely wooded and hilly, while Nebraska was flat and treeless.  While Cather appears to have felt some initial homesickness, she would grow to love the Nebraska prairie, and she would become famous for singing its praises in books such as O Pioneers! and My Antonia.  Apart from growing to love the land, Cather also found the swelling ranks of immigrants on the prairie a subject of fascination.  At the time, Nebraska was a destination for the waves of immigrants arriving from Europe, mostly because of the land made available through the Homestead Act, and the ease of access made possible by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.  Much of Cather’s fiction explores her sympathies for the immigrants who struggled through this period of growth in American history. 
As a young woman in Red Cloud, Cather was able to find intellectual stimulation through her interaction with her grandmother Boak, through the generous library of the Weiner family, and through the classical music and opera she was exposed to by visits with the Miner family, the basis of the fictional Harling family in My Antonia.  The daughters of the Miner family – Mary, Carrie, and Irene – were her best friends as a young woman and would remain close friends throughout her life.  The Miners also employed a young Bohemian woman, Annie Sadilek, who would become the inspiration for Antonia Shimerda, the title character of My Antonia
Cather began to establish a reputation as a young woman who enjoyed reading (Dumas and Tolstoy especially), who was bright and sociable (though she would later reverse this tendency, seeking more privacy as her fame increased), and yet chose to cut her hair very short, refused to wear skirts or dresses, and sometimes signed her name “William.”  She expressed herself frequently through drama, performing in amateur theatre in Red Cloud with the Miner children.  She also wrote for the local paper.  She finished high school at sixteen, and entered the University of Nebraska in 1890, in Lincoln.  Lincoln was considerably larger and busier than Red Cloud, and Cather took advantage of the bustle to find employment as a journalist.  She was a diligent student, known for her strong opinions and her willingness to express them.  She paid much of her own way through school as a journalist, and she graduated in 1895 with her reputation as a journalist well-established.  During this period, she was able to meet well-known writers and political figures such as Stephen Crane and William Jennings Bryan. 
After graduation, Cather supported herself as a freelance journalist, splitting her time between Red Cloud and Lincoln, but was unable to secure full-time work as a writer or as a teacher.  She began experimenting as a fiction writer, emulating some of Hamlin Garland’s work, and criticizing the realistic work of people like William Dean Howells.  One of her greatest heroes as a writer, though, was Henry James, a writer whose early work had been along the lines of realism, but who seemed to be moving toward something else in his later work.  Through a friend, she was offered the position of editor of a women’s magazine in Pittsburgh.  It was a breakthrough for Cather, and she would eventually come to dominate the magazine, Home Monthly, contributing her own fiction, articles, and reviews.  She also wrote part-time for the largest local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Leader.  At the time, Pittsburgh was a part of the burgeoning steel industry in the United States, and the beneficence of Andrew Carnegie furnished the city with numerous arts and cultural attractions.  She left the editorship at the magazine after a year to take a better-paying position as telegraph editor at the Leader.  She also made an important friend in Pittsburg, Isabelle McClung, who she met in 1899.  Some scholars have speculated that McClung and Cather were lovers, though Cather burned their correspondence.  Cather left the newspaper in 1900, moved into the McClung household, and took a position teaching high school.  She taught both Latin and English Composition for six years.  She managed to save enough money as a teacher and writer to visit Europe for the first time in 1902.  McClung accompanied her. 
At about this time, Cather published a book of poems called April Twilights, in 1803.  She was given another opportunity through McClure’s Magazine, at the time one of the most famous and best-selling magazines in the country, to publish a collection of her short stories as a book.  The book came out as The Troll Garden in 1905, which included some now-famous stories such as “Paul’s Case.”  Cather was offered the position of managing editor at McClure’s in 1906, and she accepted it.  McClure’s, as also one of the most prominent “muckraking” magazines of the time, published many important journalistic works that exposed the excesses of industrialism at the turn of the century.  Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell published their famous muckraking in McClure’s, and several important works of fiction were also published in the magazine, such as the work of Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Mark Twain.  Cather met several important writers through her work at the magazine, including Sarah Orne Jewett, who would become an important influence and companion.  In fact, Jewett was so important to Cather that she would dedicate her breakthrough novel, O Pioneers!, to Jewett.  Cather moved into an apartment with Edith Lewis, a friend from Lincoln, in 1908.  She helped Lewis find a position at McClure’s, and the two would live together for the next forty years. 
In 1911, Cather asked for a six-month leave to focus on her fiction.  When she returned to McClure’s, she found the magazine so changed that she decided to leave her position permanently and contribute as a freelance writer.  Her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was published in 1912.  Though it did not sell very well, it did receive some encouraging reviews.  The novel was based on the true story of a man killed by the collapse of a bridge near Quebec in 1907.  Her next novel, based on her experience in Red Cloud and published in 1913, received almost universal acclaim and established Cather as a novelist.  O Pioneers! addresses the immigrant struggle against the land of the American plains.  The Song of the Lark (1905) tells the story, based on the life of Olive Fremstad, of a young woman from the plains who rises to fame as an opera singer.  Cather had interviewed Fremstad for McClure’s, and she found the woman’s story an excellent way to write about the struggle of a developing artist. 
After The Song of the Lark, Cather fell on relatively hard times.  Isabelle McClung’s father died, and the house where Cather had spent so much time and done so much writing was sold.  Shortly thereafter, her friend Isabelle married a concert violinist, and Cather found her connection to Pittsburgh broken.  She re-visited New Mexico, which had figured prominently in The Song of the Lark and which would become more important to her later in life, and she returned to Red Cloud, where she visited the person who was the basis of Antonia Shimerda.  Her visit to Anna Pavelka’s farm is likely the basis of the scene near the end of My Antonia, which was published in  
1918.  Her next novel,  One of Ours (1922), won the Pulitzer Prize.  A Lost Lady (1923) and The Professor’s House (1925) show an increasing cynicism about the initial spirit of expansion and some people’s willingness to exploit that spirit.  She published Death Comes for the Archbishop in 1927, and then wrote little fiction in her remaining years, her final book, Sapphira and the Slave Girl being published in 1940.  Cather died in 1947.
Though considered a prominent writer in her own time, later critics (notable the New Critics) mostly ignored her work, until her fiction re-entered the canon in the 1970s and 1980s.  Today, Willa Cather is considered one of the great writers in American Literature. 
 

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