Willa Sibert Cather was born in Winchester, Virginia, in the year 1873. She lived in Virginia until she turned nine years old at which point she moved to the Nebraska prairie, to the borough of Catherton, which bore her familial namesake because so many members of Cather's family already lived here. This move to the prairie and her subsequent period of growing to adulthood on the prairie would be extremely influential in her later life and writing. Indeed, even when she was working as an editor in New York City, it would be the prairie that would provide her main inspiration for writing material in such novels as o Pioneers! And My Antonia. Although, as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, her beginnings may seem quite humble, indeed, nonetheless, she achieved much in the subsequent years following the end of her childhood. She attended the University of Nebraska, graduating in the year 1895, before she moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she worked jobs as both a teacher and a journalist. It was in this latter calling where Cather would find her first and most impressive success in the world of the urban Northeastern United States. She was hired by McClure's Magazine as an editor, and eventually she became the managing editor of the magazine and her keen editorial eye and shrewd journalistic sense enabled her to save "the magazine from financial disaster" (Brown and Edel). After the success of her first several books, Cather was eventually able to leave McClure's in the second decade of the Twentieth Century and devote herself full-time to her writing. It is at this point that Cather wrote her two most famous novels detailing prairie life, O Pioneers! And My Antonia and very much began to make her name for herself as a writer. While much of her work is known for it focus on and dissection of the intricacies and simplicity in the struggle for existence on the harsh and beautiful prairies of North America, Cather, later in her life, did also experiment with other important styles of writing. She took on several historical subjects in later novels, such as Death Comes for the Archbishop, which dealt with the colonial times in what would later become New Mexico, and Shadow of the Rock, in which she choose Quebec in the 1600s as the subject for her work. Cather's impressive, lyrical novels, which retain an inimitable American-ness at their very core, remain some of the best examples of twentieth century American literature. Although Willa Cather died in 1947 at the age of 1970, her legacy has continued to live on and she will continue to be remembered as one of the most important and influential writers that America has ever seen.
Among the biographical themes that must be dealt with in considering her work critically, there are factors beyond her background. Indeed, as a woman living in a world that was not necessarily open to female advancement, Cather provides an extremely strong and impressive model. Aside from this, though, her recent critics have started to deal more with the issue of her homosexuality and how that might have been an influence on her own work:
In 1922, Cather declared that the power and quality of art arise from "the inexplicable presence of the thing not named," from "whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there." For decades, this remark in "The Novel Demeuble" was interpreted strictly in aesthetic terms as a statement of Cather's commitment to classical principles of starkness and simplification in art.
Recently, however, the psychosexual implications of "the thing not named" have moved into the foreground, as biographers and critics have begun to grapple with how Cather's lesbianism, a fact of her life long ignored or denied, may have shaped both the form and the content of her writing.
Cather, Willa (1873-1947))
While the knowledge of Cather's own sexuality is certainly not in the least necessary for an appreciation of the profound art to be found within the pages of her novels, nevertheless knowledge of her own sexuality can enrich the reading of her works and clarify some of her tendencies can be explained. In the novel, My Antonia, for example, certain characteristics of the book can be explained by or at least are thrown into a more interesting relief by considering this fact. For example, the weakness of males in the book or the tendency to portray women, notable Antonia, as emblematic of an entire time and place make larger sense within this context and framework than without it. Nonetheless, however, Cather was, most of the time, able to achieve an impressive creative androgyny in her work, bringing to life exceptionally realistic men and women in her novels of prairie life.
In her two most important novels about the prairie, O Pioneers! And My Antonia, Willa Cather shows the profound and central role that place plays in her perception of the world. Indeed, in her novels, people and memories are inextricably tied to place and in these novels we see that characters who become disconnected from this homeland are typically also divorced from their cherished memories of the past. Indeed, considering that Cather was writing of her prairie memories from the distant remove of New York City, one might be inclined to read a biographical element in this longing. Indeed, she, like her character Jim Burden, for example, has been taken away from the simple prairie of her childhood, where so many of her most important and formative memories were developed. Indeed, however, Cather also often spoke of the importance of the ability of the artist to place herself in a supportive community, and it would be easy to see that, while by living in New York she was divorced from the golden memories of her childhood, she was nonetheless able to find a creative environment in which people were more open and accepting of her creative endeavors. Regardless, place is the prime factor in these novels, which very much established Cather's reputation as one of America's greatest writers of all time, and, whether or not it is fair, since she wrote so many novels on other subjects as well, it is for these novels about the Nebraska prairie that she is most well-regarded. Perhaps this is because these prairie novels seem the most uniquely American since they describe a specific time in place in the development of America as it moved from an expanding country that constantly pushed its own frontiers outward into one of the most powerful and impressive nations upon earth. In this way, Cather's novels are now of profound historical interest, because they act as a sort of historical document, capturing one of the most interesting areas in America at a crucial time in its historical development.
In Cather's novels, place and character are always strongly allied. She details people who live off the land through farming and whose lives and emotional well-being are similarly connected to the land. In this way, she equates people with the land around them, seeing a sort of harmony between them that many of those who live in cities could never feel in quite the same fashion:
When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.
Cather O. Pioners! Chapter 5)
Here, Cather explicitly links the land and human emotions, suggesting that each is dependent upon the other. Here it is the land that evokes this emotional response in its massive sublimity, but at the same time, she also states that the land is "bending" to a "human will." In this sense we see that the two are dependent on each other in one large cycle of feedback. Indeed, perhaps her most profound statement on this matter is to suggest that the "history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman," which most powerfully equates the topography of the land with the topography of the heart. Here, Cather suggests that human emotions are capable of shaping the landscape just as profoundly as the landscape can shape human emotions. Indeed, Cather's characters enjoy an almost symbiotic relationship with the land on which they live. She continues this theme in her great novel, My Antonia, as well.…