Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On this day...

... in 1873, American novelist Willa Cather was born in Back Creek, Virginia. Today's Writer's Almanac featured an interesting piece on her life.

It's the birthday of novelist Willa Cather, (books by this author) born Wilella Cather in the village of Back Creek near Winchester, Virginia (1873). The Cathers had a hired girl named Margie, and when Margie would go home to visit her mother, Mary Ann, she would bring young Willa with her. Mary Ann was illiterate, a "hill woman" from Timber Ridge, a stretch of the Appalachians. Willa soaked in the stories that Mary Ann told — the gossip, family feuds, stories of lovers and murderers and legacies from the Civil War. Many years later, Willa Cather said that this was the beginning of her life in storytelling.
Cather's family had a tense relationship with many of their neighbors. Willa Cather was the fifth generation of Virginian aristocracy. They lived in a large, elegant farmhouse. Even worse, her father's family were known supporters of the Union during the war — her father and uncle had crossed the border into West Virginia to avoid being drafted, and people suspected her grandfather of being a Union spy. The year that Willa was born, her uncle moved to Nebraska to homestead, and her grandparents soon followed their son. Willa's parents wanted to stay in Virginia and keep farming sheep. However, a few years later their four-story sheep barn burned to the ground, and there were rumors that it was an act of arson by resentful neighbors. The Cathers took that as a sign and headed off to join the rest of their family in Nebraska.
So in 1883, Willa, her three brothers and sisters, her parents, Willa's grandma on her mother's side, two of her cousins, their hired girl Margie, and Margie's brother all set off together for Nebraska. They took a train to Red Cloud, then a covered wagon out to the precinct of Catherton, which her relatives had named after themselves. She wrote later, "That shaggy grass country had ripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and the curse of my life."
After a childhood on the prairie, growing up with immigrant pioneers, Cather went off to college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, intending to become a doctor. But after one of her professors sent in an essay of hers without her knowledge and it was published, she decided to become a writer instead.
She had a stint working for the Nebraska State Journal, then moved to Pittsburgh and ended up with a job at the Daily Leader. Crawford Peffer was a law student and friends with Edwin Couse, the editor of the Daily Leader. Peffer wrote: "I often went to his office at the close of the day's work, about 4 p.m. One day I found a young lady with flashing blue eyes, sitting opposite him at his large flattop desk, whom he introduced to me as 'Miss Cather, my new assistant.' […] Miss Cather was unconventional in both dress and conversation. She wore skirts much too short for that day and mannish looking shirtwaists. Soon we were calling her 'Bill,' a name she seemed to like. Bill Cather was the most argumentative person I have ever met. She disputed any subject that Couse or I brought up." That was in 1898. In 1906, she moved to New York to work on the editorial staff of McClure's. But the prairie remained her inspiration. She serialized her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, in McClure's in 1912. Her second novel, O Pioneers! (1913), was her first book about Nebraska — it was published when she was almost 40 years old. She wrote to a friend, "I wanted to let the country be the hero."
O Pioneers! begins: "One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them.”
She quit her job at McClure's to write full time, and her many novels include The Song of the Lark (1915), My √Āntonia (1918), One of Ours (1922), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

Over the past several years, I've enjoyed two of Cather's novels and a few of her short stories. Three years ago, my book club chose My Antonia as our annual classic selection. It received a unanimous thumbs up. The following year, I read O Pioneers! and loved it. Since then, I've purchased a few more of her novels and consider myself a fan.

The TBR Dare, sponsored by James at Ready When You Are, C.B. begins January 1 and offers me the perfect opportunity to return to Cather's work. I will choose from:

Death Comes For the Archbishop
A Lost Lady
The Professor's House

Have you read Willa Cather? Can you help me decide which book to read next?


  1. I haven't read any Willa Carther but i'm beginning to think I really would. I look forward to hearing about the one you choose. Maybe she'll be a 2011 author.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this JoAnn! Ever since I discovered her last year, Cather has become one of my favourite authors. I have a huge stack of her books in my apartment waiting to be dived into at the appropriate moment.

    A Lost Lady was absolutely superb - I have reviewed it. I think you'll love it, though really, I don't think you can go too far wrong with Cather.

  3. I havent read anything by her yet but would love too. Which one would you recommend I start with?

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this piece on Willa Cather. I've enjoyed her writing, especially the two you mentioned. Just yesterday I came across Death Comes To the Archbishop and put it in my 2011 pile. I'm looking forward to it and your thoughts on it as well. I'm going to check out the challenge too.

  5. Joan Hunter Dunn - Hope you decide to give Cather a try in 2011. Maybe even a short story if you just want a sample... several can be found online.

    Rachel - I'm so glad you enjoyed reading The Writer's Almanac piece. Looking forward to getting back to Cather in 2011... it was actually your review that prompted me to purchase A Lost Lady!

    Yolanda - Most people would probably recommend starting with My Antonia, but I'd suggest O Pioneers!. Even my youngest, a reluctant reader, loved it.

    Margot - Death Comes for the Archbishop is the title I've had the longest. Hopefully we'll both get to it in 2011!

  6. I haven't read any of her books but I do love her name. Like a gentle stream, a rose or a spring zephyr.

    I'm no help at all.

  7. I love Willa Cather. So much that I've begun from the beginning and am reading her chronologically. I read O Pioneers first, it was like a coming of age story for the prairie. Beautiful.

  8. Darlene - I've always loved her name, too. You've just expressed it much more poetically though...

    Melody - Hmm, maybe I should check the publication dates of these three...

  9. Rereading my comment, I think it may have sounded confusing...sorry! O Pioneers was my first experience with Cather, I have a chronological list of her works on my blog.

  10. Melody - Thanks for the link! Looks like A Lost Lady is the earliest of the three I own.

  11. I have to read something by her now!!

  12. I read My Antonia in college and remember really enjoying it. I don't think I have read any other Cather but I will look out for your reviews of her books!

  13. I haven't read Cather in years but both "My Antonia" and "O,Pioneers" are on the list of classics which I'm proposing to my book club for 2011. I'm really hoping they'll pick one of them; so many of them are transplants to Nebraska and I'd love for them to fall in love with our beloved Cather.

  14. Staci - O Pioneers! or My Antonia would be a perfect place to start.

    Booksnyc - I started reading Cather when my daughter chose My Antonia for a high school. We both loved it!

    Lisa - Nebraska is lucky to claim Cather! I'd love to visit Red Cloud one day and see her home.

  15. I loved My Antonia and O' Pioneers! Death Comes for the Archbishop is also very, very good. I went to a Cather conference in Red Cloud many years ago and enjoyed seeing several locations mentioned in My Antonia. Keep us posted on what you chose next.

    BTW, you sure got a lot of snow this month!! We've only had a little bit here and there. I'm not complaining!

  16. Les - Would love to visit Red Cloud one day to see Cather's home, etc. Looking forward to reading more of her books in 2011.

  17. I love Willa Cather's novels and short stories. I think I do pretty much have most of her oeuvre on my shelf now too. My oldest daughter is completing her PhD (English) at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and we went out and spent a couple of days visiting all-things Cather in and around Red Cloud, NE. It was fabulous visiting her home, and seeing the houses and landscape that she wrote about in her Nebraska novels. UNL has the Cather Archive too with so much good stuff to see. Cheers! Chris

  18. Chris - My family flew to Colorado, then drove to Santa Fe last summer. I tried to persuade them to start our journey in Nebraska, but was overruled. I will get there and visit all the Cather sites eventually... in the meantime I continue to accumulate (and read) her novels and stories. She is truly an American treasure!


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