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The Unconventional Willa Cather

By Janis Johnson | HUMANITIES, July/August 2005 | Volume 26, Number 4

From an early age, novelist Willa Cather was determined to be noticed by the world. At fourteen she shocked her hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska, by masquerading as a boy. In college she became a feared cultural critic for the local newspaper. By her late twenties she was one of the most formidable women in American publishing.

"From the beginning, she had a single-minded goal to be great," says Christine Lesiak, coproducer and writer of Willa Cather: The Road Is All, an NEH-supported documentary from NET Television in Nebraska, which will be broadcast September 7 on PBS's American Masters.

"Cather invented her way from a cow pasture to the top of the man's world of publishing in New York City before she even wrote her first novel," adds Joel Geyer, coproducer and director. "When she was told she couldn't do something, that set her on fire."

Cather was born in 1873 in Back Creek, Virginia, and her childhood was uprooted by the legacy of the Civil War. Her uncles had fought for the South but her grandparents were Union sympathizers. Not popular with their neighbors, the elder Cathers had already left for the Great Plains, and after a suspicious barn fire on their property, Cather's parents hustled their family out of Virginia. Miserable at first, young Willa soon made the world of immigrant pioneers her own--the world of Scandinavians, Germans, Poles, and Bohemians seeking to make the American dream out of the vast nothingness of the Great Plains.

Of mornings she spent with the farm women in Nebraska, Cather wrote; "I used to ride home in the most unreasonable state of excitement; I always felt as if they had told me so much more than they said--as if I had actually got inside another person's skin. . . . The country and I had it out together, and by the end of that first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and the curse of my life."

The Nebraska Plains provided a blank slate for invention, and Cather was part of an era in which women pioneers were breaking down barriers. In high school, she reinvented herself by getting a crew-cut, dressing in men's clothes, and playing male roles in theater productions. "She wanted to be different," says Lesiak. "She didn't fit in. She didn't care what people thought. She simply had a huge amount of self-confidence." While she was signing her correspondence, "William Cather, MD"--she aspired to be a doctor then--she also locked herself away in her upstairs room reading for hours--Dickens, Poe, and Shakespeare, poetry, translations of Latin and Greek classics, and women's magazines. Her reading took her out of Red Cloud long before she could move on her own. At sixteen, Cather enrolled at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, planning to major in science.

When a discerning teacher published Cather's essay on Thomas Carlyle in the Lincoln newspaper, her plans changed. "What youthful vanity can be unaffected by the sight of itself in print?" Cather later confessed. "It was a kind of hypnotic effect." Suddenly she imagined that she could have a life as a writer, says Joan Acocella, cultural critic and writer for The New Yorker. "She wanted to be Virgil. She wanted to be as big as the big guys."

By then Cather had discarded her "William" phase and developed her own sophisticated style. She became literary editor of the campus magazine, The Hesperian, and filled the magazine with her short stories, plays, and essays. Her fellow students, all men, said she did most of the work while they looked on in admiration. Captivated by the touring theater companies that passed through Lincoln, Cather became a columnist for the local newspaper, the Nebraska State Journal. "Between 1893 and 1896, when she was carrying a full load of courses at the university, she published nearly half a million words of criticism," Acocella says. She made a dollar a column, enough to cover her room, board, and university expenses.

Cather earned a reputation as a blunt and opinionated critic, whom her delighted editor described as a "meat-ax." Of actor Lewis Morrison, Cather wrote: "Mediocrity is of all things the most hopeless. . . . That is what is the matter with Lewis Morrison. He is fairly good." Actress Effie Ellsler had a "shrill domestic little stage shriek that is suggestive of mice," Cather stated. Cather's lean assessments were also applied to those she revered. Of Sarah Bernhardt, she wrote: "Her bursts of passion blind one by their vividness. . . . It is like lightning, gone before you see enough of it, and indescribable in its brilliancy."

After graduation Cather set her sights beyond Nebraska. With the help of a mentor at the newspaper in Lincoln, she landed a job in Pittsburgh at a women's magazine, The Home Monthly; it was a first step out of the Plains. In Pittsburgh, Cather met a woman who would become her muse, nurture her literary development, and shape her social skills. Isabelle McClung, whose father was a judge, invited Cather to live in her family's home, where Cather had her own room in which to write poetry and short stories. Later, Cather said that she wrote all of her books for Isabelle. Although their relationship continued for decades, its true nature remains unclear because all their letters were burned.

In 1903, Cather's first book was published, a poetry collection titled April Twilights. Two years later, her book of short stories, The Troll Garden, was published by one of America's top publishers, S. S. McClure of New York. His McClure's was considered one of the top muckraking and fiction magazines of the time, but many of his staff rebelled against his eccentric manner. McClure needed a new editor and chose Cather.

At McClure's Cather became a major force as an editor and refined her skills through interactions with other writers. Yet the job robbed her of time and energy for fiction. McClure discouraged her from writing novels, in part because he needed her to maintain the success of his publication. She had transformed the publication into a respected literary magazine with glamorous Gibson Girl covers and stories by some of America's best writers.

Despite the demands on her, Cather published her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, in 1912 at the age of thirty-eight. It imitated other major writers of the time, such as Henry James and Edith Wharton, was a financial and critical failure. One of Cather's friends, the author Sarah Orne Jewett, urged her to step back and find her own voice.

Cather took a leave of absence and continued past Nebraska, which was already losing its frontier flavor, to visit her brother Roscoe in Arizona. In a place called Walnut Canyon, Cather had an artistic awakening that would later be attributed to her character Thea Kronberg in The Song of the Lark: "The personality of which she was so tired seemed to let go of her. The high, sparkling air drank it up like blottingpaper. It was lost in the thrilling blue of the new sky and the song of the thin wind in the piñons." Cather returned to New York and resigned from McClure's to devote herself to fiction.

With her next novel, O Pioneers!, the critics took notice. "Cather was writing about her own emotional reaction to the Plains, her own coming to terms with what she experienced as an empty and overwhelming landscape," said Susan Rosowski, the late Cather scholar who was the Adele Hall Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Out of Cather's early memories came the novels O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark. The Plains and Red Cloud served as geographical canvases oh which she explored ideas of place, of aging, of gender. "A book is made with one's own flesh and blood of years," Cather said. "It is cremated youth. It is all yours--no one gave it to you."

"She spent the first half of her life living and the second half writing," Lesiak says. Cather accrued real-life experience in order to trust what she understood intuitively--strong women characters facing frontiers, whose stories reflect fundamental human emotions. "She's tapped into a universal relevance through her characters, perhaps because her work has autobiographical elements," says associate producer Michele Wolford.

Cather's life is understood largely through her novels, because she burned her letters at her death and asked her friends to do the same. She even stipulated in her will that biographers could not quote directly from any letters that were subsequently discovered. As a result, the documentary uses Cather's fictional writing more than other similar projects. "She writes beautifully, but she talked tough," says Lesiak. "Her personal style was blunt, plainspoken, and yet I have so few of her everyday words. That was what I was hoping to find. So I turned to her books, which are more polished and refined, more elegant, more writerly."

"The closest I could get to her was the granddaughter of her famous Ántonia character, who was based on Annie Pavelka, who was a real person," Lesiak says. "There was nobody else who could say this is what she looked like or would say, except the friends who would write about her. But the self that emerges from her books is her true self, perhaps her deepest self. I wanted to tell her true story."

"Cather's always trying to deflect our attention away from her personal life into her work, and why not?" said Rosowski. "What are we looking for when we read? We're not looking for clues to the life of the writer, we're looking for clues about our own lives, our own struggles. 'Who am I?' That's the basic frontier we all face when we're young."

One more book would arise from her Nebraska memories--this time about the generation that followed the first pioneers. One of Ours, a book based on the life of her cousin G. P. Cather, who died in the trenches in France in the Great War, came out in 1923 and won her a Pulitzer Prize. With her war novel, Cather found herself caught in a cross fire of cultural forces she never intended to provoke. Patriotic readers and reviewers loved the book, seeing it as a glorification of the war and the fundamental ideal that men can still die for ideas. Others, like Ernest Hemingway, scorned the war scenes and dismissed her as a female novelist who had to learn about battle from the movies. At the time, Cather was realizing that the modern world wasn't her world. In fact, she detested the Jazz Age. "Sometime in the nineteen-twenties," she wrote, "the world broke in two. And I belong with the former half."

As the 1920s progressed, Cather felt increasingly alienated from where America was going and wondered whether she had more stories to tell. Her bleakest work during this period was The Professor's House, which deals with failure, loss, and death. Cather returned west to the high desert of New Mexico, where she discovered a small book about the missionaries who built the great cathedral in Santa Fe. Out of that experience came the novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, which conveys promise in the human capacity for reinvention.

In totality, Cather's fiction reflects the life cycle of hopeful youth, middle-aged despair, and late-in-life reflection on the human response to the unknown. "The frontier is a real place, but it's also a state of mind," Rosowski said. "When you're on the frontier, you're standing on the edge. . . . You're not safe-you can't afford to be complacent." Cather contemplated the end of life when she was only fifty-nine-fifteen years before her death--in "Old Mrs. Harris," a story about three generations of women living in the same house. The younger women are oblivious to their dying grandmother, and it's a grim tale. In the end, the younger women have become wiser and more understanding of how they rely on each other. "When they are old, they will come closer and closer to Grandma Harris . . . and their lot will be more or less like hers," Cather writes in the novel. "They will regret that they heeded her so little; but they, too, will look into the eager, unseeing eyes of young people and feel themselves alone. They will say to themselves: 'I was heartless, because I was young and strong and wanted things so much. But now I know.'"

About the Author

Janis Johnson is a writer in Playa Vista, California.

Funding Information

NET Foundation for Television received $530,000 from NEH to produce Willa Cather: The Road is All. The Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Education Foundation received $150,000 as a Challenge Grant for a program director, an archivist, building maintenance, and programming at the center in Red Cloud, Nebraska.