Willa Cather in 1927, the year she published Death Comes for the Archbishop
After reading Death Comes for the Archbishop, the first of Willa Cather's novels that I've ever read, I wanted to know more about her life. What I knew about her came mostly from her friendship with Sarah Orne Jewett, who had a deep friendship with Annie Adams Field, a Boston figure I'm very interested in. I haven't had a chance to read a biography of Willa Cather - though I will! - but I found an excellent PBS documentary in the library that told me more about her.
She was born in Virginia in 1873 to a family split by the Civil War; her uncles fought for the South while her grandparents were Union sympathizers who harbored fugitive slaves. Her grandparents left Virginia for the Nebraska frontier, and Willa's family followed when she was about 9 years old. Her father spent two years as a farmer, then moved his family to the small town of Red Cloud, which became the model for many of the small towns in her novels. As a child, Willa spent time with immigrants from many different countries who were settling in Nebraska, and she herself experimented with a new identity, cutting her hair into a crew cut, dressing like a man, wanting to be a doctor, and signing her letters 'William Cather, M.D.' She's described as being not just intelligent, but intensely curious, and desperate to grow up to have an interesting life.
At age 16, she left Red Cloud to go to the University of Nebraska, one of the Midwestern co-educational land-grant colleges that were opening at that time. She was encouraged by her professors to see herself as a writer; she wrote for and edited a college magazine and wrote theater reviews and other materials for the local paper.
After graduating, she went to Pittsburgh to take a job as an editor of a woman's magazine, and began a deep, lifelong friendship with Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a local judge, who nurtured and appreciated her. Willa Cather said that she wrote all her books for Isabelle. They traveled to Europe together in 1902.
Willa published her first book of poems in 1903, and her first book of short stories in 1905. Her influential publisher, S.S. McClure, offered her a job editing McClure's Magazine, and she became arguably the most influential woman journalist of that time. During this period, she met Edith Lewis, another editor at McClure's, with whom she lived for 35 years. They lived in Greenwich Village, which Cather liked because the immigrant populations there reminded her of Nebraska. She also met Sarah Orne Jewett, who encouraged her to write about Nebraska.
Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, set in Boston and London high society, wasn't a critical or financial success, and after it was published she took a leave of absence from McClure's and traveled first to Nebraska, then to Arizona and New Mexico. When she returned to New York, she began supporting herself for the first time as a writer, and began writing her second, more critically-acclaimed novel, O Pioneers!, the story of an immigrant woman's struggle to save her Nebraska farm. In 1914, she met Olive Fremstat, a Swedish immigrant who made her way from Minnesota to the Metropolitan Opera, inspiring Cather to write her next novel, The Song of the Lark.
Willa told a friend that she wanted her next character to be like an object placed on a table. to be viewed from all sides. That novel, My Antonia, was based on a real person, Annie Pavelka, the daughter of an immigrant family from Bohemia who settle - and struggle - in Nebraska. In 1918, Cather's cousin became the first man from Nebraska to die in World War I, and Willa's next novel, One of Ours, was the story of a man who feels trapped as a farmer but finds freedom as a soldier who dies in battle. Critics (including Ernest Hemingway) argued that her battle scenes didn't ring true; other readers and critics found the book patriotic and inspiring. It became her first best-selling novel and won the Pulitzer Prize.
Cather was entering a difficult time; 'in 1922, or thereabouts, the world broke in two, and I belonged with the former half.' In later years, critics saw her as someone who refused to change with the times, but readers loved her books, and she was a popular success and a famous figure. The documentary tells us that Cather became reclusive, and hated the popularization of her novels (including the early movies made from them).
Among other losses, her friend Isabel married and moved to Europe, which was devastating for Willa. Her next novel, The Professor's House, was a very dark book, describing (as one of contemporary critics quoted in the documentary said) 'what happens when the meaning of your life is over before your life is over.'
In 1925, Willa traveled again to New Mexico, where she became interested in the story of Father Lamy, the first Archbishop of Santa Fe. When she wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop, she used historical facts but created her own narrative around them.
When she was 59, she wrote Old Mrs. Harris, set in a town like Red Cloud. The story revolves around three generations of women living in one house, with Mrs. Harris, the grandmother, quietly coming to terms with death. Willa Cather died in 1947, at the age of 74.
It's always interesting for me to read biographies of the writers I'm reading. I'm interested in how their lives shaped or intersected with their writing, and how they became writers, and how they worked. I'm hoping to read more Willa Cather; a friend has suggested My Antonia and The Professor's House as the books to read next.