December 7, the day that
Franklin Roosevelt declared would live in infamy, also happens to correspond
to the day that marks
the birthday of novelist Willa Cather. Born on a farm in Back
Creek Valley near the town of Winchester, Virginia, in 1873, she was
the eldest of seven children. When she was 12 years old, her family moved to Red
Cloud, Nebraska, where they lived in the "Story and a Half House" that
appears in many of her novels.
All of the children of that house slept together in the attic,
which made for some creative bed-time storytelling sessions. In time, Cather
crafted a makeshift study for herself in an alcove on the stairs so that she
had a place where she could read and write.
Red Cloud became the setting and inspiration for many of
Cather's novels, and she drew heavily for her characters upon the frontier
mentality of the Bohemian, Swedish, and other European immigrants, as
well as the Native Americans of the region who settled the prairie along the
Divide. Her stories always rallied around the underdog in society.
While growing up, Cather befriended the town
physician, who once allowed her to assist with a limb amputation. When she
turned 14, she went to the local barber for a crew cut and began wearing
men's clothes, a habit she continued into college. In a classmate's
album, she wrote that perfect misery was doing needlework and perfect
happiness was amputating limbs.
After high school, Cather enrolled in
pre-med classes at Lincoln, but she soon switched to English. She had
first arrived at the University dressed as William Cather, her opposite-sex
twin. While she was there, she fell passionately in love with Louise
Pound, a fellow student and athlete; and, although her writing never
championed gay or lesbian causes, her sexuality can be seen between the
lines of many of her tales.
While in college, Cather became a regular columnist
for the State Journal. When she was graduated from the
University in 1895, she moved to Pittsburgh, where she worked as a
journalist, taught high school, and took the first of several trips to Europe. In
1905, she published The Troll Garden, her earliest collection of
short stories; the following year, she moved to New York to work first as
the editor and then the managing editor of McClure's Magazine.
While working on assignment, she met Sarah Orne Jewett, who
understood her aspirations in art and encouraged her to withdraw from
journalism "to find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to
the world" (1908).
first novels followed shortly after: the Jamesian Alexander's Bridge and O
Pioneers! In a copy to a friend, Cather wrote of O Pioneers!,
"This was the first time I walked off on my own feet -- everything before
was half real and half an imitation of writers whom I admired. In this
one I hit the home pasture."
In 1912, on a
trip to the American Southwest, she was inspired to quit her job and work as
a full-time novelist.
She said, "Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember."
In 1923, Willa Cather won the
for her novel, One of Ours (1922), about a Nebraska farm boy who
refuses to settle for a ready-made fortune and instead goes off to
fight in World War I. In 1925, her novel, A Lost Lady, was
made into a silent film staring Irene Rich, who often starred opposite Will
Rogers. The film premiered in Cather's old hometown of Red Cloud,
In 2001, the editorial board at The Modern Library named
her novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), one of the 100
best English-language novels of the 20th century.
Willa Sibert Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947.
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