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Who is Willa Cather?

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  • Written By: Diane Goettel
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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Willa Cather, born Wilella Sibert Cather on 7 December 1873, is best known for her depictions of American life and her pastoral novels. With such publications as Alexander’s Bridge, O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cather presented not only a range of American experiences, but a distinguished literary voice.

The infant who was to become this famous author was born on a small farm in Black Creek Valley, Virginia, where her family had lived for six generations. Although Willa was the first child, parents Charles Fectigue Cather and Mary Virginia Boak would add another six youngsters to their brood. In 1883, the family relocated to Red Cloud, Nebraska, which would later be made famous by Cather’s novels.

Willa Cather attended the University of Nebraska where she began her writing career as a regular contributor to the Nebraska State Journal. After graduating from college, Cather relocated to Pittsburgh where she taught English at a high school and worked at Home Monthly. Her famous short story Paul's Case is based on a troubled young man who spends the better part of his time fantasizing about living a gilded life. When, a few years later in 1906, she received a job offer at McClure’s Magazine, Willa Cather moved to New York City where she would spend the better part of her adult life. In 1908, she was promoted to managing editor of the magazine.

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It was McClure’s that published Willa Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, in serial form. It is widely accepted by scholars of the author’s work that Willa Cather was highly influenced by Henry James early in her career. Her first novel is viewed as a direct descendant from James. While living in New York, however, Willa Cather met author Sarah Orne Jewett, who advised her to rely less on James and more on her American experience. It was the novels that were born of the prairie that won Willa Cather critical acclaim. In 1923, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her pastoral novel One of Ours, which was published the previous year.

Although Willa Cather passed away on 24 April 1947, her work and person are still revered today. In 1973, the United States Postal Service commemorated her with a postage stamp. Thirteen years later, in 1986, she was officially inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. Feminists and literature academics have speculated on Cather's sexual orientation. Although it is known that she was the companion of opera singer Olive Fremstad, Willa Cather was a very private person and destroyed many personal letters and documents that might have shed more light on her personal life.

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