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Definition: Cather, Willa from Philip's Encyclopedia

US novelist and short story writer. She grew up among immigrant Nebraskan farmers who became the subject of her work. Her fiction explores the pioneer spirit: love of the land, loyalty to family, and the struggle with nature. Her books, often featuring strong characters who lead life as a noble endeavour, include O Pioneers (1913), A Lost Lady (1923), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

Summary Article: Cather, Willa (1873–1947)
from The Encyclopedia of Populism in America: A Historical Encyclopedia

American author Wilella Seibert Cather, more commonly known as Willa, was one of the nation's best-known early-twentieth-century authors. Although her writing covered many states and topics, she is best known for her works about the Great Plains in general, and Nebraska in particular. Cather's work, while not overtly political, celebrated and explored the lives of the farmers and westerners who formed the backbone of nineteenth-century American Populism.

Although born in 1873 on her grandmother's Virginia farm, Cather identified herself as a westerner. In 1883, her family moved to Nebraska in an abortive attempt at farming. Eighteen months later, her father moved the family again, this time to the town of Red Cloud, where he began a career in real estate and insurance. On the south-central border of the state, Red Cloud was barely beyond its first decade of settlement when the Cather family arrived. As a young adult, Cather left Red Cloud for the University of Nebraska with the intention of becoming a physician. She quickly became interested in writing, however, and graduated in 1894 with a bachelor's degree in English. Her work took her to Pittsburgh and then on to New York City, where she took a job on the editorial staff of McClure's magazine. In 1912, McClure's serialized her first novel, Alexander's Bridge. Upon the advice of her mentor, author Sarah Orne Jewett, she turned to writing about what she knew best, rural Nebraska.

Set variously in Nebraska, the American Southwest, and her native Virginia, the novels and stories of Willa Cather reflect a keen sense of place and the values of the American pioneers. Her best-known books include My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop.

(Library of Congress)

Although the author of 12 books and numerous other works, Cather is perhaps best known for two of her Nebraska novels, O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918). In each of these works she examined topics near and dear to the souls of westerners: the beauty of the land, the hard work required to master it, and the fortitude required of settlers. Loving descriptions of Great Plains landscapes abound in Cather's work. In her writings, the land came alive as a sea of grasses, vibrant with color and life. While the landscape had the power to destroy, and such destructions were not uncommon in her work, it also had the power to nurture those who would work with it instead of against it. Cather described as beautiful a place that many characterized as empty and harsh.

While the land was beautiful, Cather's people were a tough and determined lot. The hard work and fortitude described in Cather's novels generally came in the form of capable women. Although My Antonia is ostensibly about a young Jim Burden, sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents, the more important story is that of Antonia Shimerda, the daughter of Bohemian immigrants and Jim's neighbor. The tough Nebraska sod, and his general inability to adapt to it, drove Antonia's father to suicide, leaving her to manage her family's business. Although she stumbled at times, she succeeded. Likewise, O Pioneers! is the story of a hardworking immigrant woman, the Swedish Alexandra Bergson, who took over the management of her family's farm after her father's untimely death from cancer. She pushed forward against hard times and difficult conditions, making a prosperous farm in a place where many men failed. Both women took over for fathers whom the land had defeated. Both women, driven to succeed, did the hard work of making Nebraska farms livable and made profitable homes for themselves and for their families. Antonia Shimerda and Alexandra Bergson are the best known of all of Cather's literary creations.

Cather died in New York City in 1947. She produced three works of nonfiction, 12 novels, and six collections. Her career as a professional writer extended from 1909 until 1956, when her estate published a final work nine years after her death. Although her books had great critical and popular success, her working life ended on a discouraging note. During the 1930s, critics panned her writing for being idealized, romantic, and essentially backward-looking. This may explain why she destroyed the vast majority of her correspondence and forbade the publication of what was left after her death. The lack of material has made it difficult for scholars to explore other facets of her life, such as her sexual orientation. She cross-dressed and called herself William for a time during her college years and had a female, life-long companion named Edith Lewis. The nature of that relationship, however, remains somewhat of a mystery and a subject of much scholarly debate. Despite her contemporary critics, the majority of her titles remain in print, and O Pioneers! and My Antonia are firmly ensconced in American literature, western history, and U.S. history survey courses a century after their publication.

See also: Anderson, Sherwood (1876–1941); Baum, L. Frank (1856–1919); Garland, Hamlin (1860–1940); Rogers, Will (1879–1935); Plains and Midwest, Populism in the; Steinbeck, John (1902–1968)

  • Ahearn, Amy.Biographical Sketch.” The Willa Cather Archive, Nebraska, University of
    Lincoln. Accessed January 3, 2013.
  • Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1918.
  • Cather, Willa. O, Pioneers! Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1913.
  • Robinson, Phyllis C. Willa: The Life of Willa Cather. Doubleday Garden City NY, 1983.
  • Pamela Riney-Kehrberg
    Copyright 2014 by Alexandra Kindell and Elizabeth S. Demers

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