Cather, Willa 1873—1947

Citation metadata

Editors: A. Walton Litz and Molly Weigel
Date: 1998
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Critical essay; Biography
Length: 14,361 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

Willa Cather 1873—1947

“LIFE BEGAN FOR me,” Willa Cather once said, “when I ceased to admire and began to remember.” Her artistic power was also born when she moved from admiration to memory, but this was a long process. Cather began writing fiction as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s; in her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, published in 1912, she was still an admirer, patterning her story after the high-toned psychological fiction of Henry James—whom she described as the “mighty master of language.” But in O Pioneers!—published just a year later, in 1913—Cather “hit the home pasture,” as she told her friend Elizabeth Sergeant. Now her creative process had tapped into the deep wellspring of memory, and after that, her fiction would soar.

O Pioneers! was her literary breakthrough: in it she returned to the Nebraska cornfields of her childhood and invented a character new to American fiction, a strong, creative woman who is not rebuked for her independent-mindedness, unlike the heroines created by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. Cather continued to take what she called the “road home” in The Song of the Lark (1915), her novel of a woman artist’s emergence from a Western background much like Cather’s own, as well as in My Ántonia (1918), the novel that most extensively draws on, and explores, the creative power of memory.

Cather’s early novels were hailed as bringing a fresh voice to American fiction by such prominent critics as H. L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson. She kept writing and her literary reputation continued to rise throughout the 1920s: she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours (1922), received honorary degrees from major universities, and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In the 1930s, when left-wing critics attacked her for “escapism,” Cather’s literary reputation slipped momentarily. But her creativity continued to flow, and she published a novel or a collection of short stories every two or three years until 1940, an extraordinary record of productivity coupled with continuing literary excellence. She suffered no dry spells, not even when politically motivated critics slighted her work, confounding F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Cather’s discovery of the deep force of her creative powers in O Pioneers!—after twenty years of apprenticeship—had opened the floodgates.

The novels she wrote during those years are not only still valued, they are read. What is extraordinary about Willa Cather is her continued enjoyment of critical esteem combined with a wide popular readership. After suffering slightly during the 1930s and 1940s, Cather’s literary reputation began to rise again in the 1970s and 1980s as new critical approaches—feminist criticism, cultural studies, gay and lesbian studies, among others— found new depths and resonances in her fiction. Her complete works were published by the Library of America in the 1990s.

Her work appeals to different kinds of readers because it can be read on so many levels—her prose is supple, pure, and...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1380200010