All human history is a record of an emigration, an exodus from barbarism to civilization; from the very outset of this pilgrimage of humanity, superstition and investigation have been contending for mastery. Since investigation first led man forth on that great search for truth which has prompted all his progress, superstition, the stern Pharoah of his former bondage, has followed him, retarding every step of advancement.
Above is the opening paragraph of a speech Willa Cather made at her graduation from Red Cloud High School in June of 1890. She was sixteen and wrote it in response to those who criticized her interest in biology and science. You can see the entire text at Superstition VS. Investigation by Willa Cather.
Yes, I know, there are hundreds of websites filled with information about this great American writer, including, The Willa Cather Foundation and the University of Nebraska Willa Cather Archive, along with articles, blogs, and book reviews. This brief summary is only to acquaint those who haven’t read her work, and reacquaint those who have, to one of my favorite authors.
Willa Cather, born in Virginia in 1873, was most famous for her stories of immigrants who pioneered the American Midwest. Her family moved to Nebraska in 1882 when Willa was nine. A few years later, she took a job delivering mail on horseback to farms in the community, an experience that allowed her to become personally familiar with the diverse cultures settled there. When the Cather family moved from their unsuccessful farm into the town of Red Cloud, she met neighbors whose influence on her life was more intellectual and artistic, but equally profound. Many of them, along with those to whom she delivered mail, would become models for her future characters. She wrote, I don't gather the material for my stories....All my stories have been written with material that was gathered—no, God save us! Not gathered but absorbed—before I was fifteen years old.
Following high school, Willa enrolled at the University of Nebraska’s preparatory school to study science. It was only after one of her professors submitted a paper she wrote for publication that she considered a career in journalism. In 1893 she became managing editor of the Hesperian, the college literary digest and began writing columns for the Nebraska State Journal.
During her years at the university, Cather did what many college students do—searched for her identity. She experimented with her writing and her looks. For the latter, she cut her hair short, wore men's clothing, and signed her name William Cather. These actions, hardly revolutionary today, were outrageous for a woman of the late nineteenth century, but so was a woman wanting to write. Her early writing, along with the literary criticism and essays, included a book of poetry, April Twilights, and a collection of short stories called The Troll Garden published in 1905. In 1906, she moved to New York and joined Edith Lewis, who would be her companion for the rest of her life. She also became an editor at McClure's magazine where she stayed until 1912 when she began writing full time. It was that year that her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, (originally Alexander's Masquerade) appeared in McClure's. During a trip to the southwest, Cather was struck by sudden inspiration and began writing the pioneer novels that would bring her greatest fame, O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark, (1915), and My Antonia (1918).
Here is the chronology of books that followed.
Youth and the Bright Medusa a collection of short-stories 1920
One of Ours published in 1922 won a Pulitzer Prize the following year.
A Lost Lady 1923
The Professor’s House 1925
My Mortal Enemy 1926
Death Comes for the Archbishop 1927
Shadows on the Rock 1931
Obscure Destinies, a collection of short stories 1932
Lucy Gayheart 1935
Not Under Forty, a book of essays 1936
Sapphira and the Slave Girl 1940
The Old Beauty and Others, a collection of short stories 1948 published by Knopf a year after her death.
There is a sparseness to Cather's books. Not something forgotten, but the intentional clearing away of debris to allow the story full reign. In an article written for The New Republic called The Novel Démeublé she wrote: How wonderful it would be if we could throw all the furniture out of the window; and along with it, all the meaningless reiterations concerning physical sensations, all the tiresome old patterns, and leave the room as bare as the stage of a Greek theatre, or as that house into which the glory of Pentecost descended; leave the scene bare for the play of emotions, great and little—for the nursery tale, no less than the tragedy, is killed by tasteless amplitude.
If you have read her stories, you know how effectively 'unfurnished' they are. Cather once said that after seeing a mural by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes she wanted to create the same effect with a story. “…something in the style of legend…with none of the artificial elements of composition…the mood is the thing."
It is 'the mood' I find most attractive in her writing. A line in the epilogue of her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, answered an age old question for me. Are we the person we perceive ourselves to be, or the one that others see? Wilson shook himself and readjusted his glasses. "Oh, fair enough. More than fair. Of course, I always felt that my image of him was just a little different from hers. No relation is so complete that it can hold absolutely all of a person."
In My Antonia, the narrator pens a manuscript called 'Antonia', to which he hastily adds 'My' as he passes it on to a friend. In his text he recounts his childhood journey to Nebraska and parts of his life shared with Antonia. The story, the struggle of immigrant farmers in harsh, unforgiving land and times, is a classic work. H.L. Mencken wrote, No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Antonia.
It is difficult to pick a favorite, but if I had too, I might choose The Song of the Lark, which is the story of a young woman's struggle to become an opera singer, and Death Comes to the Archbishop, which I read again after having lived in New Mexico for a few years. She completely captured the 'sense' of the area. For someone new to Willa Cather, I would say My Antonia is a good place to start, but do start.
Willa Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947, at their home in New York and was buried in New Hampshire. At the bottom of her large gravestone is a quote from My Antonia: "that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."