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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 Routledge Revivals: Encyclopedia of Homosexuality

American novelist, short story writer, poet, and editor. Cather was born to a cultivated country family in Virginia. When she was nine the family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where the ruggedness of the frontier still persisted. Arriving at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1890 dressed as William Cather, her opposite-sex twin, Willa soon learned to tone down her image. Still she stood out as a brilliant eccentric. A large, ungainly girl, she was too outspoken and socially unsure of herself to adjust comfortably. She also had a habit of developing crushes on women: classmates, faculty wives, and acquaintances. The intensity of her feeling repelled its objects, and Willa would sulk. Nonetheless, her writing skills matured and she joined a Lincoln newspaper as a reviewer. In her art reviews she praised the beauty of female sitters in portraits. Later, her device of male narrators in her novels allowed her to set forth the varied charms of female characters at length.

Cather did not long remain in Nebraska. She got a better job in Pittsburgh, where she met Isabelle McClung, the beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter of a judge. Swept off her feet, Willa committed herself without reservation. In return Isabelle granted affection but not passion. Although Isabelle married in 1916, her close connection with Willa lasted for forty years.

In the meantime Cather had been sending out her short stories to New York magazines, usually with little success. In 1903, however, she met Sam McClure, the aggressive editor of McClure's Magazine. Summoning her to New York, he said that he would print anything she cared to submit. In 1905 he brought out her first volume of short stories, The Troll Garden. In turn Cather moved to New York to work for McClure as an editor. She spent six years with him, acquiring a wide variety of writing skills, while her conviction that she should write out of her experience grew. Her new friend, the New England writer Sarah Ome Jewett, urged her to leave the magazine, which she finally did in 1912. Cather settled into a Greenwich Village apartment with her companion Edith Lewis, who was a copyeditor at the magazine. Together they created an orderly life that allowed Cather to produce her masterpieces. One of her greatest pleasures was music, which meant more to her creative life than the conversation of New York intellectuals. As World War I ended, she had already written O pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and her best-known novel, My Ántonia. Successful from the first, the books allowed her to travel to the Southwest and to Europe. For forty years Lewis was her indispensable friend, companion, and secretary. To outsiders their relationship was a typical Boston marriage, an arrangement that suited two professional women. It is uncertain whether there was any genital aspect. Cather's heart was still pledged to Isabelle McClung.

Her novels tell little of sex and marriage. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) is the story of a French missionary priest in New Mexico, and My Antonia (1918) depicts the world of immigrant settlers in Nebraska's open spaces. In each the beauty and strength of the land is central. Cather is rightly regarded as a quintessentially American writer. But she was sophisticated as well, and her novels bear comparison with the best that England and Europe could offer at the time. She did not choose to become an open lesbian, though it was always women that she loved, their support that made her work possible. Unfortunately, she decided to destroy her letters to Isabelle McClung, but there survives a revealing series to Louise Pound, a dashing friend from her college days.

Drawing on a personal alchemy, she transmuted her feelings into the strong characters of her novels. As she put it: “Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.” Whether intentionally or not, the expression “thing not named” evokes an old tradition of homosexual love as unnameable. But Cather's triumph is that her need to veil her inner emotional life did not condemn her to silence, but inspired her great writing.

  • O'Brien, Sharon , “The Thing Not Named: Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer,” Signs (1984), 576-99;.
  • dress, James Woo , Willa Cather: A Literary Life, University of Nebraska Press Lincoln, 1988.
  • Evelyn Gettone
    © 2016, 1999 Wayne R. Dynes

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