December 7th – Willa Cather

“Nothing mattered … but writing books, and living the kind of life that made it possible to write them.”

Willa Cather

Willa Cather was born Wilella Sibert Cather on December 7th, 1873, in Gore, Virginia. She was the eldest of seven children, and when she was nine, the family moved from Virginia to Nebraska in search of the promise of rich farmland. After eighteen months of farming, her father gave it up and moved into the city of Red Cloud to sell insurance. Interested in the sciences and medicine, Young Willa wanted to become a surgeon, but she also read extensively and published pieces in the local paper. In 1890 she enrolled in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to study medicine. While at the University, and without her knowledge, her classmates and teachers submitted an essay she wrote to the Nebraska State Journal. After its publication Cather changed her major, graduating with a BA in English in 1895.

After college, she moved to Pittsburgh, teaching and writing for newspapers. When Cather was twenty-seven, she was invited by her friend, twenty-three-year-old Isabelle McClung, to move into their family house on Murray Hill Avenue in Pittsburgh. Isabelle’s father was a judge, and their family was prominent in Pittsburgh society. Cather had been living in a boarding house and struggling on her teacher’s salary while establishing a writing career. Cather lived with the McClung’s from 1901 until 1906, when she moved to New York City. Cather taught Isabelle about books, and Isabelle taught her gracious living. They vacationed abroad together, and some speculate McClung was the great love of her life. There is no evidence of any romance between the two, and in 1916 Isabelle married Jan Hambourg. Willa and Isabelle remained close friends throughout their lives. 

Isabelle and the assistance received from the McClung family was undoubtedly inspiring to Cather’s life and writing. While living at the McClung residence, Cather publisher her first works: a collection of poetry, April Twilights (1903), and a collection of short stories, The Troll Garden (1905).

In 1906 she moved to New York City to work as an editor of McClure’s MagazineMcClure’s serialized her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, published in 1912. Cather was thirty-nine at the time her first novel was published, and she was not very happy with the results. She followed it with her famous ‘Prairie Trilogy’ of O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918).

First edition of O Pioneers! for sale on Biblio.com by Biblioctopus

In New York, Cather lived with editor Edith Lewis and remained with her for the last 39 years of her life. The nature of their relationship, although probably romantic, can only be speculated. Cather was a private person and had most of her personal correspondence destroyed. There is only one letter that has surfaced between Cather and Lewis. It is a beautiful letter – you can read here: http://www.catherletters.org/letters/1936-letter-edith-lewis/

It is clear they had a strong and intimate relationship and that Lewis was integral to Cather’s writing. 

Cather mused in letters that some thought her writing was merely a way to avoid marriage. She did avoid marriage. And write. 

In 1923 she received the Pulitzer Prize for her WWI novel One of Ours (1922). Another of her novels, A Lost Lady (1923), was later made into a film, although it strayed from the original story. 

Her 1927 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop, written in her fifties, was a best-seller.

Her final novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) was picked up by the Book of the Month club and sold an additional 200,000 copies. 

Cather was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1945 and died on April 24th, 1947, at the age of 73, in her residence on Park Avenue, New York. Edith Lewis died on August 11th, 1972. They are buried together at the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. 

Lesson from Cather:

Living an unconventional life for a woman of her time, Cather carved out a legacy for herself and her novels. Her well-known works weren’t published into she was into her forties, and after making a name for herself as a journalist and editor she published 12 novels, 6 collections of short fiction, and won a Pulitzer. 

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