Education: University of Nebraska, A.B., 1895.
Litt. D, University of Nebraska, 1917.
Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, 1922.
Litt. D, Yale University, 1929.
William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for Death Comes for the Archbishop, 1930.
Litt. D, Princeton University, 1931.
LL. D, University of California, Berkeley, 1931.
Prix Femina Américain for Shadows on the Rock, 1933.
L.H.D, Smith College, 1933.
National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal, 1944.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- April Twilights (Boston: Badger, 1903; London: Heinemann, 1924).
- The Troll Garden (New York: McClure, Phillips, 1905).
- Alexander's Bridge (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1912; London: Heinemann, 1912).
- O Pioneers! (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1913; London: Heinemann, 1913).
- The Song of the Lark (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1915; London: Murry, 1916).
- My Ántonia (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1918; London: Heinemann, 1919).
- Youth and the Bright Medusa (New York: Knopf, 1920; London: Heinemann, 1923).
- One of Ours (New York: Knopf, 1922; London: Heinemann, 1924).
- April Twilights and Other Poems (New York: Knopf, 1923; London: Heinemann, 1924; enlarged edition, New York: Knopf, 1933); abridged in volume 3 of The Novels and Stories of Willa Cather (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937).
- A Lost Lady (New York: Knopf, 1923; London: Heinemann, 1924).
- The Professor's House (New York: Knopf, 1925; London: Heinemann, 1925).
- My Mortal Enemy (New York: Knopf, 1926; London: Heinemann, 1928).
- Death Comes for the Archbishop (New York: Knopf, 1927; London: Heinemann, 1927).
- Shadows on the Rock (New York: Knopf, 1931; London: Toronto, Melbourne & Sydney: Cassell, 1932).
- Obscure Destinies (New York: Knopf, 1932; London, Toronto, Melbourne & Sydney: Cassell, 1932).
- Lucy Gayheart (New York: Knopf, 1935; London, Toronto, Melbourne & Sydney: Cassell, 1935).
- Not Under Forty (New York: Knopf, 1936; London, Toronto, Melbourne & Sydney: Cassell, 1936).
- The Novels and Stories of Willa Cather, 13 volumes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937-1941).
- Sapphira and the Slave Girl (New York: Knopf, 1940; London, Toronto, Melbourne & Sydney: Cassell, 1941).
- The Old Beauty and Others (New York: Knopf, 1948; London: Cassell, 1956).
- Willa Cather on Writing (New York: Knopf, 1949).
- Writings from Willa Cather's Campus Years, ed. James R. Shively (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1950).
- Willa Cather in Europe, ed. George N. Kates (New York: Knopf, 1956).
- Early Stories, selected by Mildred R. Bennett (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1957).
- Willa Cather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892-1912, ed. Virginia Faulkner (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965).
- The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896, ed. Bernice Slote (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966).
- The World and the Parish: Willa Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902, ed. William Curtin, 2 volumes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970).
- Uncle Valentine and Other Stories: Willa Cather's Uncollected Short Fiction, 1915-1929, ed. Bernice Slote (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973).
- Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters, selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).
- S. S. McClure, My Autobiography, ghostwritten by Cather (New York: Stokes, 1914).
Willa Cather is a splendid example of a writer whose work is deeply rooted in a sense of place and at the same time universal in its treatment of theme and character. The corner of earth that she is best known for depicting is the Nebraska where she lived as an adolescent and young woman and where she was educated. This dominant subject is the setting for all or significant parts of six of her twelve novels and many of her short stories. Her typical preoccupation with her Nebraska material is, as one of her oldest friends, Dorothy Canfield Fisher , put it in a summarizing article, "the effect of a new country ... on people transplanted to it from the old traditions of a stable, complex civilization." She evokes indelibly the shaggy virgin prairie around Red Cloud, Nebraska, during the late decades of the nineteenth century, the Scandinavian, Bohemian, German, and other immigrant peoples who settled that area, and their problems in populating the new land. In a sense Cather's work is a metaphor for the American westering experience.
Her work is not confined to Nebraska, however, and a second large area of her interest is the Southwest, which she discovered and fell in love with when she was thirty-eight and used as the setting for Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), the novel she thought her best, and significant parts of two other novels. Her interest in the Southwest, which includes the people and their culture as well as the land, turned her attention to the history of that region and to history in general. As a result, three of her last four novels are historical reconstructions of the Southwest, Quebec, and Virginia (her natal state), and she was at work on a fourth historical novel to be laid in medieval France when she died in 1947.
Whether she is writing of Nebraska in her youth or seventeenth-century Quebec, her work is always meticulously crafted. She wrote slowly, averaging no more than one novel every three years, and regarded the writer's art as an activity that required complete dedication. Her fiction is written in language that is disarmingly clear and simple but at the same time richly allusive and subtle. It also obtains its effect by a careful selection of detail, never a heaping up of incident, to achieve verisimilitude. She describes her method as "unfurnished" in an essay she entitled "The Novel Déemeuble." She said: "If the novel is a form of imaginative art, it cannot be at the same time a vivid and brilliant form of journalism. Out of the teeming, gleaming stream of the present it must select the eternal material of art." She wants to throw all the furniture out and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theater. "The elder Dumas enunciated a great principle when he said that to make a drama, a man needed one passion, and four walls."
Cather divided her childhood and adolescence between the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and Webster County, Nebraska. The oldest child in a family that eventually included seven children, she was only nine when her father moved his family west to join his brother and parents, who already had migrated to Nebraska. Cather remembered vividly the trauma of leaving a hill farm that raised sheep for the Baltimore market for a that, empty land that seemed as bare as a piece of sheet iron. But she also remembered the subsequent excitement of growing up in the new country and the intense pleasure she got from riding her pony to neighboring farms and listening to the stories of the immigrant farm women who had come from various parts of Europe. Charles Cather, however, was not cut out for farming the prairie and eighteen months later moved his family into Red Cloud and went into the insurance business.
Cather spent her high school years in Red Cloud, a farm-to-market town of twenty-five hundred people and a division point on the Burlington Railroad. Although it was a raw, new town, there was a good deal of intellectual nourishment there. The Weiner couple around the corner were educated Europeans who spoke French and German and encouraged Cather to read in their well-stocked library. Cather also studied Latin and Greek with William Drucker, an Englishman who clerked in his brother's store. Another neighbor was Julia Miner, who had been born in Oslo, the daughter of an oboist in the Royal Norwegian Symphony. She played the piano expertly to her young neighbor's perennial delight. Cather also took part in amateur theatricals and attended performances of road companies that played in the Red Cloud opera house. Then at the age of sixteen and one-half she finished high school along with two other students in the second class to graduate. After delivering a commencement oration on "Superstition versus Investigation," a ringing defense of experimental science, she left for Lincoln and the University of Nebraska, but she had to complete an additional year of prep school there before she could become a regularly matriculated freshman in the fall of 1891.
Cather's career as a novelist began with a long foreground of apprenticeship. But she knew that she wanted to be a writer from the moment her freshman English instructor gave a Lincoln newspaper, which published it, an essay she had written on Carlyle. She had until then planned to study medicine. From that day on, however, until she left her position as managing editor of McClure's Magazine in 1911, she wrote an enormous quantity of newspaper copy and published forty-five short stories. Beginning in her junior year at the University of Nebraska, she supported herself as a journalist, first as a reviewer and columnist for the Nebraska State Journal, then after graduation as a magazine editor and newspaper writer in Pittsburgh. Then she quit daily journalism and for five years was a high school teacher of Latin and English in Pittsburgh. During these years she published her first book, April Twilights (1903), a collection of verse brought out by a vanity press. This period of teaching, however, was most important in giving Cather her summers to concentrate on fiction, and in 1905 she was able to have published her first collection of stories, The Troll Garden
The seven stories in this volume, which range from good to excellent, all deal with art in one way or another. "Flavia and Her Artists" is about a woman who collects artists, "The Garden Lodge" about a woman who gave up a concert career for marriage, and "The Marriage of Phaedra" about a British painter. These three were written when Cather was in her Henry James period, and she never thought them good enough to reprint. "Death in the Desert" deals with a singer dying on her brother's ranch in Wyoming; "A Wagner Matinee" details the reaction of a Nebraska farm wife to a Boston concert; "The Sculptor's Funeral" describes the return home in death of a Midwest boy who had become a famous sculptor; and "Paul's Case" is the tragedy of a Pittsburgh high-school youth who is seduced by art. These four all were revised and reprinted, and the last is the only story Cather, in her later years, ever would allow to be anthologized.
The year after the publication of The Troll Garden, when S. S. McClure hired her to help edit his magazine, she settled down in New York. She lived there for the rest of her life except for trips back to Nebraska to visit, and to the Southwest, Canada, and New England in the summers. From 1906 until she left McClure's she was deeply immersed in editing one of the leading muckraking magazines. Her interest in muckraking, however, was nil, and she concentrated on buying fiction from the prominent writers of the day--Arnold Bennett, O. Henry , Theodore Dreiser , Jack London , and others. Cather enjoyed this part of her job and particularly liked being sent by McClure to London on the search for manuscripts. These activities perhaps kept her in her editorial position long after she should have struck out as a free lance.
She had a difficult time breaking away from the magazine despite the urging of her older literary friend Sarah Orne Jewett , who wrote her in 1908: "you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world...." As long as Cather stayed with McClure's, Jewett said, she would be caught up in the hectic life of a magazine office and what might be strength in a writer would be only crudeness, what might be insight would be only observation, and what might be sentiment would be only sentimentality. Under such conditions, she added: "You can write about life, but never life itself." Still, Cather did not feel secure enough to cut loose. Perhaps it was hard to give up a position as one of the most successful women editors at a time when journalism was almost wholly dominated by men. At any rate she did not quit for three more years.
When she did make the break, she was emotionally to use her youthful memories of Nebraska. She had been living in the East for fifteen years, and the Nebraska experience had by that time penetrated deeply and matured. As Sarah Orne Jewett also said in a statement that Cather was fond of repeating: "The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper--whether little or great, it belongs to Literature." Cather found that she had distanced herself enough from Nebraska by 1912 to turn the memories into art. It is this long perspective on her experience that gives Cather's best work about Nebraska a rich aura of nostalgia and converts it into a drama of memory. The slag has burned off, and what remains is the pure ore of enduring literature. Cather is a retrospective writer, a romantic, though she wrote in an age of realism and naturalism.
She had, of course, been using Nebraska material in her short fiction ever since she was an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska. Her first story, "Peter," makes use of the real-life episode of a Bohemian immigrant's suicide that Cather reuses as a central scene in My Ántonia (1918). But the early use of Nebraska often has the critical tone of a Hamlin Garland writing bitterly about the hardships of farming on the prairie in the 1870s and 1880s. Among such stories are "Lou the Prophet" and "The Clemency of the Court." Also some of the early stories suggest the "revolt-from-the-village" motif that one associates more with later works like Edgar Lee Masters 's Spoon River Anthology (1915) or Sinclair Lewis 's Main Street (1920). Examples of these are "The Wagner Matinee" and "The Sculptor's Funeral." When Cather turned to the Nebraska material after 1911, she affirmed the positive values of the Midwest experience. She had been out in the world, and she now was returning home. Again, Sarah Orne Jewett had told her: "One must know the world so well before one can know the parish."
Before she could begin a story laid in Nebraska, however, she had to revise for serialization in McClure's a short novel that she had managed to write despite the organized chaos of the magazine office. This was Alexander's Bridge (1912), the story of Bartley Alexander, a bridge builder from Boston. The novel is very Jamesian in its structure and thematic treatment, and Cather in later years never thought very much of it. She later said that she had written two first novels, Alexander's Bridge and O Pioneers! (1913), her first major use of the Nebraska material. The story takes place in Boston, London, and Quebec where Bartley Alexander is building a bridge across the Saint Lawrence. Bartley is married to a Boston socialite but in love with a London actress. During the course of the novel he makes the decision to leave his wife for the actress, but before he is able to do so, his lieutenants at the bridge site summon him to troubleshoot structural problems that have developed. He arrives in Quebec too late, and as he inspects the bridge, it collapses and carries him to his death. A flaw in the bridge's design tallies with a flaw in Bartley's character and both go down together.
Cather's low opinion of this novel rested mainly on the subject matter. It derives from her years as a magazine editor and her visits on editorial assignment to Boston and London. She felt that she had been too much the observer of life that she found exciting but was not really a part of. The beginner, she said, has to "work through his youthful vanities and gaudy extravagances before he comes to deal with the material that is truly his own." Yet this novel is well written, carefully plotted, and Cather's opinion notwithstanding, it is a good piece of fiction. Although the world of Bartley Alexander is not the world of Willa Cather 's most characteristic fiction, the novel fits in well with her themes and preoccupations. Bartley, like Cather, is a self-made Westerner who had made his success in the East. As a middle-aged man who feels that he has not got all he wants from life, Bartley anticipates Professor St. Peter in The Professor's House (1925) and Jim Burden, the narrator in My Ántonia. His desires and yearnings are similar to those that corrupt Marian Forrester in A Lost Lady (1923) and destroy Myra Henshawe in My Mortal Enemy (1926), and Bartley is killed by his inability to reconcile contradictions in his character, a theme frequently found in Cather's fiction.
When Cather left McClure's in the fall of 1911, she and her Pittsburgh friend Isabelle McClung rented a house in Cherry Valley, New York. The quite and seclusion produced a great burst of creative energy, one result of which was a story called "Alexandra," which later became part of O Pioneers!, and another story of foreigners on the "Divide," as the area north of Red Cloud, Nebraska, was called, which she entitled "The Bohemian Girl." This second story is vintage Cather and recounts the story of Nils Ericson's return to his prairie home after he has been off in the world seeking his fortune. His mother and brothers have remained on the farm and grown up with the country. It ends with the elopement of Nils and his former sweetheart, the Bohemian Clara Vavrika, a heroine who anticipates Marie Shabata in O Pioneers! Nils's delight in the beauty of the wheat fields as he returns home mirrors Cather's delight, and his disgust at his brothers' smug materialism amid the prosperity of the postpioneer era is Cather's disgust.
The following year after a trip to the Southwest to visit her brother who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, Cather stopped off in Red Cloud to visit her family. On the edge of a wheat field as she watched her first harvest in years, she had the idea for a story to be called "The White Mulberry Tree." This is the tragic tale of Marie Shabata and Emil Bergson, who are killed under the tree by Marie's enraged Bohemian farmer-husband. When Cather looked this story over and reread the previously completed "Alexandra," there occurred what she later described as an "inner explosion and enlightenment." She had the idea of putting the two together to form a novel. Such was the genesis of O Pioneers! , the novel that Cather preferred to think of as her first.
This novel is the story of Alexandra Bergson, the oldest child of a Swedish immigrant who dies in the struggle to tame the wild land. Alexandra holds the family together with her industry and vision, keeps her plodding brothers from giving up the struggle, and plans a brilliant future for her beloved younger brother Emil. Alexandra and her brothers prosper, but the brothers turn out mean-spirited, as do Nils Ericson's brothers, and when Emil falls in love with their neighbor's wife Marie, tragedy ensues. But Alexandra endures, and when her old friend Carl Lindstrom returns from years of wandering, she can look forward to a serene middle and old age with him. The novel ends on a note of transcendental renewal: "Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth."
The novel is suffused with nostalgia for the pioneer days, as is much of Cather's best fiction. The poignancy in her best fiction derives from the remembrance of things past, the evocation of a departed grandeur seen in contrast with a lesser present. The novel begins in 1883, the year that the Cathers moved from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to Nebraska. The pioneer days are sketched briefly but lovingly with the focus on Alexandra, then about twenty years old. She is the great earth mother, the pioneer woman, like Nils Ericson's mother or Ántonia Shimerda, the heroine of Cather's fourth novel. It is her courage and vision that bring civilization to the new land. Cather writes, as Alexandra faces the future after her father's death: "For the first time perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning.... The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman."
The critics treated O Pioneers! very well, and Ferris Greenslet, Cather's editor at Houghton Mifflin, had been right when he had told his colleagues that the novel "ought to ... definitely establish the author as a novelist of the first rank." Although the novel is flawed by an uneasy joining of the stories that were put together to create it, it is an impressive performance and still has wide appeal. The rather formless structure Cather defended as having been dictated by the land itself, which had no skeleton, no rocks, no ridges. But she wrote it to please herself and did not try to devise an elaborate plot structure. She wrote in a presentation copy given to a friend: "This was the first time I walked off on my own feet--everything before was half real and half an imitation of writers whom I admired. In this one I hit the home pasture...."
The organic principle that she describes in her next novel, The Song of the Lark (1915), applies to all of her fiction after O Pioneers! In that novel her heroine, Thea Kronborg, spends her summer in the Southwest, and as she bathes in the stream at the bottom of Panther Canyon after having climbed down from an ancient cliff dwelling below the rim of the mesa, she reflects. Why had the Indian women lavished such loving care on the pottery they had made for the mere purpose of carrying water? The shards of the broken pottery she had been admiring suggested grace and beauty in the work. Then it came to her. The world of the mesa Indians centered on water, the life-giving liquid that she was then pouring over herself. "The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself."
The Song of the Lark is the story of a Swedish girl from Colorado who becomes a great Wagnerian soprano. After finishing O Pioneers!, Cather had turned to fulfilling her promise to McClure's to write five articles. One of these articles was a trio of profiles of American opera singers--Louise Homer from Pittsburgh, Geraldine Farrar from Massachusetts, and Olive Fremstad from Minnesota--who had been born in Sweden. Fremstad was the reigning diva of Wagnerian roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and when Cather interviewed her for the article, she realized in a flash that here was Alexandra Bergson with a voice. The story of a gifted Western girl of Swedish extraction--the sort of person Cather had known on the Divide--fighting her way to the top in the world of art in the East combined themes that fascinated Cather. She herself was a great devotee of opera and also had made good in the highly competitive world of journalism and now literature. Fremstad's career provided a perfect vehicle for a fictional portrait, partly autobiographical, of a great artist.
Although this novel is Cather's longest and is definitely not written in her démeublé manner, it is an extraordinarily interesting one. The early parts of the story are fashioned from Cather's own memories of childhood in Red Cloud, even though the fictional locale is Moonstone, Colorado. The youthful aspirations of Thea Kronborg are the youthful aspirations of Willa Cather , and the departure from home to study music in Chicago also has the authenticity of the author's memories. A midsection that takes place in Arizona, including Thea Kronborg's visit to the cliff dwellings, derives from Cather's first visit to the Southwest. Just as Cather broke loose from journalism after years on the treadmill, Thea in the novel goes west for rest and reflection after a period of intense study of music in Chicago, and for the first time in years she has time to think about her life.
From this point the novel is built more on observed facts, not Cather's preferred technique, rather than on material assimilated through long immersion. The novel is engrossing as the reader sees Thea Kronborg scoring a great triumph as Sieglinde in Die Walküre, but it does not have the authenticity of the earlier sections. Later in her life when, realizing that she had greatly overwritten, Cather made a great many cuts in this novel for a revised edition, most of the excisions came from the later parts of the book. Had she been writing the novel then, she would have left her heroine at the threshold of success. Struggle always interested her more than success, both in her fiction and in her own life.
The greatest of her Nebraska novels, My Ántonia , followed The Song of the Lark, and with it Cather reached a level of artistic excellence that she perhaps equalled but never surpassed. This novel creates an unforgettable heroine in Ántonia Shimerda, Bohemian immigrant farm girl who is one of the great characters in twentieth-century American fiction. The story is told in the loose episodic fashion that Cather had developed in O Pioneers!, but it has more focus and better direction. She told her friend Elizabeth Sergeant when she was planning the novel she wanted her new heroine to be "like a rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides ... because she is the story." While there are small stories within the story and Ántonia is offstage during the third of the five books of the novel, there never is any doubt that this is Ántonia's story. Some critics have argued that Jim Burden, the narrator of the story, is the chief character, but the novel was intended to be Ántonia's story, and for most readers it is.
The narrative point of view, however, is important, for Jim Burden is Cather's persona, and the reader sees Ántonia through his eyes. Jim comes to Nebraska as a boy, about the time the Cathers moved west, and he lives on a farm for a time with his grandparents, as Cather did. Jim's neighbors are the Shimerdas, a Bohemian immigrant family trying to gain a toehold in the new country, as were the Sadileks, who lived near the Cathers. There is no evidence that Cather met Annie Sadilek, Ántonia's prototype, until after the Cathers moved into Red Cloud, but as Cather was growing up in Red Cloud, Annie worked for the nearby Miner family, who become the Harlings of the novel. And when Jim goes to college and Ántonia drops out of the story except as someone to talk about, his experiences parallel Cather's life as a student at the University of Nebraska. The story of Ántonia's seduction and abandonment and the birth of an illegitimate child is told to Jim, as the real-life story probably was related to Cather by letter. The final book of the novel, in which Jim Burden returns to Nebraska after having made his career in the East as a lawyer, derives its emotional impact from Cather's own return to Red Cloud, probably in the summer of 1914. She visited Annie, who then was surrounded by a large brood of children and happily married to a Czech farmer named Pavelka (Cuzak in the novel). Ántonia is the mother of races, the madonna of the wheat fields, a heroic figure in myth and symbol.
My Ántonia ends on a happy note, as Jim visits her on her farm. Although her father had committed suicide in her childhood, she has had to work in town as a hired girl, and she has been abandoned at the altar, she endures triumphant. Cather's earlier heroines, Alexandra Bergson and Thea Kronborg, do not achieve happiness. Alexandra tames the wild land at the expense of personal tragedy, and Thea becomes a great singer at the cost of having no private life. Other Cather heroes and heroines in her later novels also are denied happiness: Marian Forrester, Godfrey St. Peter, Myra Henshawe; and Lucy Gayheart dies before having a chance for a career. Only Archbishop Latour and Ántonia achieve real fulfillment in their fictional lives.
This novel is compounded of the things that had "teased" the mind of Willa Cather for many years. To her thorough assimilation of the material may be added her complete and abiding love for the people and the country, what she later called "the gift of sympathy." Perfect knowledge and boundless enthusiasm, however, would count for little if the artist had not mastered her instrument. Willa Cather 's technical skill after twenty-five years of steady practice enabled her to create a virtuoso performance. When Thea Kronborg's old music teacher is asked, as he listens to her perform at the Met, what is the secret of her success, he replies: "`Her secret? It is every artist's secret'--and he waves his hand--`passion. That is all. It is an open secret, and perfectly safe. Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials.'" That also was Cather's secret.
Cather's next book was a collection of stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), her first book published by young Alfred Knopf, who became her friend and remained her publisher for the rest of her life. She continued with the subject of art, which had unified The Troll Garden in 1905, and gathered together eight stories, four of which were reprinted from the earlier collection. The new ones were "Coming, Aphrodite!," "The Diamond Mine," "A Golden Slipper," and "Scandal," all of which deal with opera singers. The last two create a star more like a Mary Garden than an Olive Fremstad; "The Diamond Mine" depicts a character who might have been Thea Kronborg ten years later. She goes down on the Titanic, worn out by the rapacity of her relatives, her singing coach, and her husbands. The most interesting tale is "Coming, Aphrodite!," which juxtaposes a young artist and a young singer who in their struggling days find themselves living side by side in a Greenwich Village rooming house. They fall in love but ultimately go their own ways--Eden Bower to become a popular opera star, Don Hedger to become an influential though not popular painter. Each achieves the kind of success she or he wants.
Cather's novel about World War I, based on the life of her cousin who was killed in France in 1918 during the Argonne Forest offensive, appeared in 1922 as One of Ours . This novel, which was four years in the making, cost Cather more effort than any other work and, as an artistic achievement, is a disappointment. It is a story she wanted very much to do, however, and she was inspired to write it by reading her cousin's letters to his mother, her Aunt Franc. She had not known her cousin very well, but in the letters she found a sensitive, idealistic young man who was dissatisfied with the materialistic prosperity of Nebraska in 1917. He found fulfillment in enlisting in "the war to end all wars" and went off to France like a medieval crusader to the Holy Land.
The early parts of the novel are excellent Cather. Claude Wheeler, the protagonist, is first seen as a farm boy growing up in Nebraska. He is too sensitive and fine-grained to accept the coarse realities of farm life. His father is prosperous, good-natured, materialistic; his older brother is a money-grubbing farm implement dealer. Claude suffers too much over little things and feels that somehow life ought to be splendid. He goes to college but after two years his father decides that he is needed on the farm and forces him to return to a life he hates. Then he falls in love and marries a frigid woman. So far the material is authentic and is written out of sympathy and knowledge; the Nebraska arm background is authentic and the characterizations believable.
When Claude goes off to war, however, Cather has to get her material from observation and reading. She used a doctor's diary to work up the troopship crossing and conversations with soldiers to get the feel of military life. She wisely kept the battle scenes to a bare minimum, and she handled the garrison life in France successfully by drawing on her own memories of her reaction to France during her first visit with Dorothy Canfield in 1902. But the final scene in which Claude is killed in battle is a stereotype, which Hemingway told Edmund Wilson must have come from D. W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation (1915): "Poor woman, she had to get her war experience somewhere."
The critical reception of this novel was mixed. H. L. Mencken , who had been a great admirer of Cather's earlier novels, wrote that the appearance of John Dos Passos 's Three Soldiers the year before had changed forever the war novel and at one blast had "disposed of oceans of romance and blather." Any subsequent war novel would inevitably be compared to it, and in this comparison he found Cather's novel wanting. By the time One of Ours came out, the postwar disillusionment already had set in, and any war novel in which the protagonist dies believing he is saving the world for democracy--appearing in the same year as Eliot's The Waste Land --was doomed to critical disapprobation. But there was a supreme irony in the whole venture: the novel was a best-seller, whereas My Ántonia had earned very little money, and also One of Ours won Cather the Pulitzer Prize.
Cather bounced back with a great critical success in A Lost Lady the following year. In this novel she returns to memories of childhood when ex-governor Silas Garber and his young wife were the leading citizens of Red Cloud. When Cather read about the death of Garber's widow while she was finishing her war novel, the past came flooding back. She remembered in vivid detail Mrs. Garber's voice and eyes, the big house on the hill east of town, and the cottonwood grove nearby where she had gone for picnics. The result was another of Cather's inner explosions that brought the entire story to her mind within an hour, as though she had read it somewhere. Marian Forrester, the lost lady, is one of Cather's most memorable creations.
The story is a good example of the "unfurnished" novel. Told in about fifty thousand words, it begins with a brief stage-setting, then a picnic in the cottonwood grove where Mrs. Forrester is seen through the eyes of twelve-year-old Niel Herbert. Next the novel skips seven years and then a series of sixteen chapters covers four years, ending with Niel's departure from Sweet Water for good. No effort is made to supply a continuous narrative, but each chapter recounts a key episode: a carefree dinner party before Captain Forrester's bank fails; a winter sleigh ride during which Mrs. Forrester and Frank Ellinger are seen coming out of the woods together; Niel's overhearing Frank's voice from outside Mrs. Forrester's bedroom during the Captain's absence on business; the bank failure; the Captain's stroke; Niel's departure for college. After the Captain dies, Marian slowly disintegrates under the blight of poverty and the pernicious influence of Ivy Peters, an unscrupulous lawyer who represents the soulless materialism that has replaced the pioneer generation of men like Captain Forrester.
In this novel Cather creates indelible pictures through her remarkable ability to conjure up the past. The figure of Marian Forrester is authentic, three-dimensional. The town of Sweet Water (Red Cloud) is as real as Moonstone in The Song of the Lark or Black Hawk in My Ántonia, and the character of old Daniel Forrester, ex-governor and railroad builder, is as solid and believable as the stone hank building that still stands in Red Cloud. The creation of Niel Herbert, son of the town lawyer, provides an excellent persona for Cather, from whose perceptions most of the drama is developed. The novel is written in the third person, however, which gives Cather the latitude to show Mrs. Forrester both through the boy's eyes and through the perceptions of other people in the town. For example, it is another boy, Adolph Blum, the butcher's son, who sees Marian and Frank emerge from the woods. Niel's disillusionment with his idolized Mrs. Forrester comes all at once when he lays a bouquet of roses outside the French doors of her bedroom and hears Frank's voice from inside. This adulterous relationship, as some reviewers pointed out, invites comparison with Flaubert, as a sort of Madame Bovary of the plains. The comparison is interesting, for Cather admired Flaubert very much and strove for le mot juste, as he did, though her preference for Flaubert's romantic strain exceeded her pleasure in his realism.
The Professor's House more than any other novel, reflects the malaise that Cather felt in the decade of the 1920s. She wrote in a prefatory note to her essay collection, Not Under Forty, (1936), that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts," and this view of the world mirrored her own personal feelings about life. She solved one problem by joining the Episcopal church in 1922, but she felt alienated by the moral climate of the decade, and for a writer who believed that struggle was more important than success, achieving best-sellerdom was a hollow victory. Professor St. Peter in her next novel also suffers from a middle-age weariness and a sense of loss after winning a great literary prize for his history of the Spanish adventurers in North America.
The novel begins at the point where St. Peter's wife is building a pretentious new house with his prize money. The professor is reluctant to leave the modest house where he raised his children and struggled with his history, especially his attic study. He and his wife have grown apart; his daughters are married, the younger to a mediocre journalist, the elder to an aggressive Jewish engineer who has made a fortune promoting an invention of prime importance to the aviation industry. While Kathleen, the younger daughter, remains unchanged, the older Rosamond has been thoroughly corrupted by her husband's money.
The midsection of the novel is a story within the story, the tale of Tom Outland, the professor's best student who has been killed in the war. He had loved Rosamond and had willed her the patent to the invention on which her husband's fortune is based. The story of Tom Outland relates his activities before he turns up as a student at the professor's college. Tom had participated in the discovery of the ancient cliff dwellings in what is now Mesa Verde National Park. The discovery had made an indelible impact on the uneducated boy, who was then working as a cowhand. But when he went to Washington to try to interest the government in preserving the cliff dwellings and the artifacts, he encountered only indifference. Then he returned to the Southwest to find that his partner had sold the artifacts to a German collector. Disillusioned, Tom took his part of the proceeds and went to college.
After the Tom Outland story the novel returns to St. Peter, whose family goes off to Europe leaving him alone in the old house. Just before they return, as he wonders how he can go on living with them, he lies down for a nap in his attic study. He is nearly asphyxiated when the gas stove goes out, but while he is unconscious something lets go within him. His family will not know he is not the same man, but he now feels that he can face life, a diminished life to be sure, but he can go on. Cather also picked herself up from her malaise and went on to write five more novels, including Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Despite the unusual structure of the novel, containing a seventy-page story within the story, the work is unified by the house symbolism. In the sections dealing with the professor there are the old and new houses, the comfortable old one and the detested new one. Also there is the security of the attic workroom (womb, if one wishes to give the novel a psychoanalytic reading). Contrasted with these houses is the image of the cliff dwellings, which are simple, functional, open to the wind and sky. Tom Outland's love for this ancient civilization is Cather's, and Tom's adventures in Mesa Verde are her own dream adventures. Cather's ability to cast a nostalgic aura over the past makes "Tom Outland's Story" a vivid piece of fiction. Cather defended the structure of this novel by explaining that she was trying to do in fiction what the Dutch genre painters did in painting interior pictures that show open windows from which outdoor scenes may be viewed. She wanted to open a window in the professor's house and let in the fresh air of the Blue Mesa.
The use of the Southwest in The Professor's House presages the setting of an entire novel in that area in Death Comes for the Archbishop and a turn to historical fiction. But Cather still had one more story to write out of her spiritual malaise of the mid-1920s, My Mortal Enemy , the angriest piece of fiction she ever wrote. It is the story of Myra Henshawe, a woman who feels cheated by life and who dies of cancer, alone, embittered, and impoverished at the age of fifty-five. This time Cather turns to a first-person narrator, a young woman from Myra's Midwest hometown. We see Myra on three different occasions, twice when she is forty-five and a third time just before her death. She was raised by a rich Irish-Catholic uncle who cut her off without a cent when she eloped with a Protestant, and when the novel opens Myra and her husband Oswald have returned to their hometown for a visit. A few months later the narrator, Nellie Birdseye, and her aunt visit New York and the Henshawes, who live comfortably but not affluently. Myra already regrets her marriage and hates not being rich. In this section the evocation of New York in 1904, at the time Cather first knew the city, is remarkably effective.
The bitter denouement of the novel takes place ten years later in San Francisco where the Henshawes are living in a cheap apartment, and Oswald, who has been destroyed by Myra, has been reduced to a minor position with the street railway company. Nellie by this time is teaching in a college in San Francisco and looks in on the Henshawes from time to time. Myra tells Nellie, as she is dying, that the mistake of her life was in marrying for love: "I am a greedy, selfish, worldly woman. I wanted success and a place in the world." Oswald, meantime, ministers devotedly to Myra, who tells Nellie: "Perhaps I can't forgive him for the harm I did him." When her end comes, she hires a cab and goes off to die alone under a tree facing the sea.
This novel, which is written in the "unfurnished" manner, apparently drained the last bit of gall from Cather's system and cleared the way for the serene historical novels of her next decade and a half. The "unfurnished" manner is especially appropriate for this astringent portrayal of defeat and death, and the novel is Cather's final comment on the destructive power of money in a society that worships material values. Perhaps Cather saw in Myra Henshawe the person she might have become, if she had not had her art to sustain her.
Cather actually had been preparing to write Death Comes for the Archbishop ever since she first visited the Southwest in 1912. The enchantment of Arizona and especially New Mexico had gotten into her bloodstream, and it was inevitable that one day there would be a novel about the area. The fascination of the Southwest even antedates her first visit, as one notes in "The Enchanted Bluff," a story written in 1909. Also one of the memorable scenes in My Ántonia is the picnic by the river in which Jim Burden tells Ántonia and her friends Lena and Tiny about Coronado's search through the area looking for the seven golden cities. Finally, one remembers Cather's use of the Southwest in The Song of the Lark and The Professor's House. Professor St. Peter's life work was a study of the Spaniards in North America.
The story of Death Comes for the Archbishop is the fictionalized life of Archbishop Lamy, the first bishop appointed for the territory of New Mexico after its annexation to the United States. The story begins in the mid-nineteenth century with the Vatican's appointment of a French missionary priest, Jean Latour, to the new bishopric. He and his boyhood friend Joseph Vaillant, who becomes his vicar, take up their posts in Santa Fe. The story is episodic in form and details the lives of the bishop and his vicar until the old prelate, later the archbishop, dies in 1889 at the end of a long and successful episcopate.
What plot there is concerns itself with the gradual organization of the vast diocese and the bringing under central control, after decades of neglect, all the parishes scattered over hundreds of miles of mountains and deserts. There is plenty of variety and contrast in the novel--from the opening scene in Rome where the appointment of the bishop is discussed, to the bishop's lonely journey to Durango in Old Mexico to establish his authority with the former bishop of both Old and New Mexico; from the amusing account of how Father Vaillant separates Manuel Lujon from his two prized white mules to the story of the murderer Buck Scales and his abused Mexican wife; from the chilling account of the night Father Latour and his Indian guide spend in a cave used by the Indians for the secret practice of their ancestral snake worship to the contest between the bishop and Father Martinez of Taos, an old reprobate who is the last holdout of the old regime.
Cather knew that she had accomplished something remarkable in this novel, and when she sent the manuscript off to Knopf she was convinced that long after she and the publisher were gone, Alfred Knopf's son would be paying royalties to her niece. She was right about the book's long life, and it continues to sell and to be read widely. Some of the reviewers were puzzled about whether or not it was a novel since it is a historical reconstruction, loosely episodic, covering forty-one years in the life of its protagonist. Cather preferred to call it a narrative and thought of it as moving along a straight line on the backs of the two white mules that the bishop and his vicar ride during their ministry. Her definition of a novel, however, covers this work, for she describes a novel as "a work of the imagination in which a writer tries to present the experiences and emotions of a group of people by the light of his own." Although the real-life letters of Bishop Lamy's vicar gave her the inspiration for the novel, about ninety percent of the book is fiction. This is a large work of the creative imagination.
Cather wrote an interesting letter to Commonweal after the book's publication. The longer she stayed in the Southwest, she said, the more convinced she became that the story of the Catholic church in that country was the most interesting of all its stories. Then while visiting Santa Fe she happened on the vicar's letters and experienced one of those epiphanies that preceded her best fictions. But she said that she also had wanted to do something in the style of legend, the very reverse of dramatic treatment. For this her inspiration was Puvis de Chavanne's frescoes depicting the life of Saint Genevieve, which she first had seen in Paris in 1902. Thus her concept for the novel is that of a series of tableaux. Finally, her title comes from Holbein's woodcut The Dance of Death, one of a series in which death comes for an archbishop. This title is instructive, for in the novel death comes for a great many more people than the old archbishop--Indians, Yankees, Mexicans, as well as the French priests.
In Shadows on the Rock (1931) Cather retreats further into the past to lay her story in Quebec toward the end of the seventeenth century. The novel testifies to her lifelong love of French culture and the discovery of Quebec during an enforced stay there when her traveling companion Edith Lewis got sick. She was particularly interested in the sense of arrested time she got in Quebec. Built on a rock that Cather treats metaphorically as well as physically, the French city in America had retained its cultural and ethnic integrity into the twentieth century. While the rest of the world was in turmoil, the city on the Saint Lawrence seemed still the city of Count Frontenac and Bishop Laval, both of whom are characters in her novel. Cather celebrates in Shadows on the Rock the durability of this Canadian outpost of French civilization. For a moment at least she could stop the clock and pretend that the good old days would last forever.
There is little action in the novel, and it makes no effort to tell a story, though there are narrative vignettes inserted here and there. It mostly recounts one year in the life of the people of Quebec on their rock where nothing really changes. The chief characters are Euclide Auclair, a widower who owns an apothecary shop and lives with his twelve-year-old daughter Cécile. We follow the characters through the fall, the long winter, the spring, and into the summer when the annual supply fleet arrives from France. The author's knowledge and understanding of French culture give this book distinction in its detail, but the entire work is static and inferior to Death Comes for the Archbishop. Although it was a best-seller and the reviewers treated it kindly, Carl Van Doren's judgment is a fair statement: he found the book dramatically thin but pictorially rich.
Again Cather had to work up much of the material and visited Quebec three times during the writing. Her historical knowledge came from extensive reading, but she approached her research with some preconceived ideas. She took her characterization of Count Frontenac from Francis Parkman , a historian she had long known, but when Parkman's view of Bishop Laval did not suit her, she got her data for his fictional portrait from a sympathetic Canadian historian. She treats some of her familiar themes in this novel: the New World versus the Old, stability versus mutability, the virtues of friendship, and the perpetuation of tradition. Although Cather was not yet sixty when the book appeared, it is an old woman's book and has a valetudinarian flavor. But it was written at a distressful time in her life, after the death of her beloved father and during the lingering death of her mother following a stroke.
Cather returned to her Nebraska material for the first time since A Lost Lady appeared in 1923 in Obscure Destinies (1932), a collection of stories in her best vein. In the late 1920s her father's death and her mother's stroke, which brought long return visits to Red Cloud, turned her mind back to her own past. The results were extraordinarily rich and effective--perhaps the last great fiction she wrote. The first story is "Neighbor Rosicky," a long tale that stands as a sequel to My Ántonia. Cather's feelings about her father give the tale its emotional impact, but the prototype of Rosicky is the Czech farmer that Ántonia married. Antony Rosicky is shown in the last few months of his life, and the story is elegiac and retrospective. The reader recognizes the family as Ántonia's some ten years after the end of her novel. The doctor tells Rosicky at the outset that he has a heart condition and must let his sons take over the hard labor of the farm. The relationship between father and sons, husband and wife, is devoted and sympathetic, and the human equation in the Rosicky family always takes precedence over the economic one. At the end Rosicky dies and is buried on his own land that he has worked hard to buy and to develop. The doctor pronounces a mute benediction as he passes the burial ground, thinking that "Rosicky's life seemed to him complete and beautiful."
The second story in the group is "Old Mrs. Harris," a memorable fictional re-creation of Cather's Grandmother Boak, who had lived with the Cathers during their early years in Nebraska. Grandma Harris is a three-dimensional character, and the ambience of the Cather home in Red Cloud is highly evocative. The selfless old woman dies at the end of the tale not wanting to be a burden to anyone, while her daughter and granddaughter ( Willa Cather ) are absorbed in their own lives. The daughter is preparing to have another baby, and the granddaughter is worrying about getting ready to go to college. The third story of the collection is "Two Friends," the story of the effect that the adult conversation of two men friends in Red Cloud had on a young girl who listened to them summer evenings.
Lucy Gayheart (1935) returns to Cather's interest in the career of an artist, but it is a rather conventional novel written in the third person and containing a great deal more plot than is characteristic of Cather's best fiction. More than half of the novel takes place in Chicago where Lucy is a piano teacher and piano student. She meets a famous baritone who engages her as his accompanist and falls in love with her despite the fact he has a wife in Europe. At the end of a summer concert tour in Europe, however, her singer is drowned in an accident at Lake Como, and Lucy goes back to Haverford (Red Cloud) with her broken heart. After four months at home she picks herself up and plans to return to her teaching in Chicago, but while skating on the river, she falls through the ice and drowns.
Cather knew that Lucy Gayheart was not up to her usual mark and privately admitted as much to close associates. But the novel made the best-seller lists and stayed there for weeks. The reviewers, however, mostly ranked the novel low among her productions. The reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor wrote: "One does not get the impression that the hand of the potter shook, but only that it grew weary, and rounded off its work in haste." There was no faulting Cather's narrative skill or her competent prose; the difficulty lay elsewhere. She wrote an old friend that she had lost patience with her silly young heroine--a surprising statement to come from a novelist who knew that she only wrote at her best when she dealt with characters she loved and admired. The story does not grip the reader, as do the tales of Marian Forrester or Ántonia Shimerda, because Cather herself could not kindle an emotional response toward her character.
Cather's last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) marks a return to her origins. It is a historical reconstruction of the area around Winchester, Virginia, where she was born, and the time is before the Civil War. The story draws on family history, for the central episode of the novel is the escape of a slave named Nancy, an event Cather's grandmother Boak helped bring about in 1856. In an epilogue to the novel Cather dramatizes the most exciting event of her young childhood, the return of Nancy from Canada after the war. In a moving scene Cather as first-person narrator describes the reunion of Nancy with her mother some quarter of a century after her escape.
The bulk of the novel concerns the events leading up to the escape. Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert is an imperious old woman, semi-invalid, who is married to Henry Colbert, a miller. The marriage has been one of form mostly, with Sapphira managing the farm, worked by the slaves she brought with her dowry, and Henry running the mill. Sapphira wants to sell Nancy, but Henry will not hear of it. From this situation develops a tense relationship with Nancy as the pawn. Sapphira sets about to get rid of Nancy and invites her wastrel nephew to visit, expecting that if given the opportunity he will seduce or rape Nancy. With Henry's aid, Rachel Blake, Sapphira's daughter, spirits Nancy away from the farm one night and arranges for her escape to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Sapphira and the Slave Girl is a very good novel in which setting, plot, and character all are developed skillfully and blended together to reinforce each other. The delight that Cather felt in revisiting the Shenandoah Valley during the writing of this novel is keenly communicated in the effective rendering of place. The house where Cather lived as a small child, the mill, the road up Timber Ridge, the woods, the wild flowers spring to life under the author's sensuous prose. The characterization, especially that of Sapphira, the cool, crafty, anti-heroine, is effective and believable. She is capable of having Nancy debauched to get rid of her, but she also knows how to manage her slaves and feels a sense of noblesse oblige toward them. The plot, which could easily have become melodrama like Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), is keyed low, and the action never runs away with the development of character. The narrative technique is third-person, which Cather always believed was the proper method for a story of action. Reviewers in general praised the book, the Nation calling it one of her five best--a judgment that many of Cather's admirers find reasonable.
Cather's last novel was published on the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and as the United States plunged deeper and deeper into World War II, Cather watched with increasing horror the destruction of the world she had known. She felt old and tired and not much like writing. She had a happy reunion, however, with her favorite brother Roscoe in California before Pearl Harbor and during the war wrote a beautiful story, "The Best Years," which evokes in her best manner her memories of Nebraska, her youth, and her brothers. But soon after completing this story, she received a telegram announcing Roscoe's death, and that event, she said, broke the last spring in her.
Physical infirmities also plagued her in her final years. An inflamed tendon kept her right hand in a brace for eight months and prevented her from writing. Later her vitality was sapped by a gall bladder operation from which she never fully recovered. The habits of a lifetime, however, did keep her writing to a limited degree in these years. She produced one other excellent story, "Before Breakfast," and started another novel. The latter was to have been laid in medieval Avignon, and had she finished the work, it would have continued her fictional retreat into the past begun with Death Comes for the Archbishop.
During her last years she lived quietly in her Park Avenue apartment with her longtime companion Edith Lewis. She never again visited Nebraska, and the war kept her from summering in her cottage on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy. She entertained relatives from time to time, and she greatly enjoyed her warm relationship with Yehudi Menuhin and his sisters that had begun when Yehudi was twelve. In 1945 she wrote an old friend that she had gotten a good deal of what she had wanted out of life and above all had escaped the things she most violently had not wanted, such as too much money, noisy publicity, and the bother of meeting lots of people. She was reasonably satisfied with her career, and her last letters do not suggest that she felt unfulfilled. She had worked hard and knew that her accomplishments were significant. Her death came quickly from a massive cerebral hemorrhage on 24 April 1947, and she was buried at Jaffrey, New Hampshire, on a hillside spot that she had selected.
Although Cather's refusal to become involved in causes brought her criticism in the socially active 1930s, no one ever questioned her artistic integrity or her literary skill. From My Ántonia on, her carefully crafted fiction gathered a steadily increasing following, and since her death her reputation has continued to grow. She was one of the writers selected for inclusion in Sixteen Modern American Authors (1973), a volume that generally establishes the canon of our most important writers of the first half of this century, and in that work she is the only woman represented. The scholarly attention to her writings in recent years suggests that her stubborn devotion to her art created a body of work that has enduring value, and the delighted response of successive generations of students to a first reading of her novels makes it clear that Cather's works will go on attracting enthusiastic readers into the indefinite future.
There are no collections of manuscripts, but there are many letter collections (see O'Connor above), the chief ones being at the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial in Red Cloud, Nebraska, the University of Nebraska, the Nebraska State Historical Society, The Newberry Library in Chicago, and the libraries of the University of Vermont, the University of Virginia, and Harvard University.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- Bernice Slote, "Willa Cather," in Sixteen Modern American Authors, ed. J. R. Bryer (Durham: Duke University Press, 1973), pp. 28-73.
- Margaret O'Connor, "A Guide to the Letters of Willa Cather," Resources for American Literary Study, 4 (Autumn 1974): 145-172.
- JoAnna Lathrop, Willa Cather: A Checklist of Her Published Writing (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975).
- Joan Crane, Willa Cather: A Bibliography (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982).
- Marilyn Arnold, Willa Cather: A Reference Guide (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986).
- E. K. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (New York: Knopf, 1953).
- Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Willa Cather: A Memoir (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1953).
- Edith Lewis, Willa Cather Living (New York: Knopf, 1953).
- Sharon O'Brien, Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
- Edward Wagenknecht, Willa Cather (New York: Continuum, 1993).
- James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art (New York: Pegasus, 1970).
- Marilyn Arnold, Willa Cather's Short Fiction (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984).
- Mildred Bennett, The World of Willa Cather (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961).
- Edward and Lillian Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962).
- David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1951).
- Philip Gerber, Willa Cather (Boston: Twayne, 1975).
- Richard Giannone, Music in Willa Cather's Fiction (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968).
- John Murphy, ed., Critical Essays on Willa Cather (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983).
- John H. Randall III, The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather's Search for Value (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960).
- Susan Rosowski, The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).
- James Schroeter, ed., Willa Cather and Her Critics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967).
- Bernice Slote and Virginia Faulkner, eds., The Art of Willa Cather (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974).
- David Stouck, Willa Cather's Imagination (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975).