Willa Cather

Willa Cather

(1873 – 1947)

American Writer

Born in Virginia and living most of her adult life in Pittsburgh, New York City and the island of Grand Manan, Canada, Cather is probably best known for writing about the vast landscape of the American heartland and those who immigrated and settled there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1883, the Cather family moved to Nebraska, where she lived until a year after graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1895. The Nebraska landscape had a profound effect on her writing, especially her fascination for detail. This is most vividly expressed in her two most famous novels, O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), the latter winning critical acclaim in the US and Europe.

Cather commented that art was something not extraneous to life, but ‘must spring out of the very stuff that life is made of’. Yet the ‘stuff’ of her own life, and those for whom she felt the ‘deepest affection’ both in her life and in her work, have traditionally been ignored or overridden. This tension between same-sex desire and growing awareness of the building momentum of homophobia in the early twentieth century is evident not only in Cather’s public rebuke of Oscar Wilde in one of her columns in 1895, but also in her short story ‘Paul’s Case’ (1905), one of her most often republished and frequently taught stories. Cather herself taught English in a Pittsburgh high school from 1901 to 1906 which coincided, in part, with her 12-year relationship with Isabelle McClung. By concealing her relationships with the women she loved, including Louise Pound, McClung (whose later marriage devastated Cather) and Edith Lewis, with whom she shared a 40-year relationship, Cather also concealed, as Lillian Faderman notes, the ways in which these women contributed to and nourished her creative abilities.

Lesbian studies have questioned interpretations of Cather’s work and her identification with her characters, particularly readings of My Ántonia as a classic heterosexual love story. Lesbian readings suggest, for instance, the strong possibility that the novel was not a capitulation to convention in spite of Cather’s lesbianism, but a resistance to heteronormative relations. Judith Fetterley has argued that unlike Ántonia, who has traditionally been idealized as the pioneer heroine, the character of Lena Lingard, who resists marriage as restrictive to women, elicits desire in the fictional narrator and in the narrative voice (i.e. Cather’s) that describes her. To merely focus on Cather’s masculine masquerade in narrating the novel is to miss important connections to Cather as a lesbian novelist. Given homophobic speculation and suspicion of so-called ‘female friendships’ in the early twentieth century, Cather’s use of the masculine fictional narrator may also have been a subversive way to write about women as objects of desire.

Cather wrote other novels including The Professor’s House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), and numerous poems and essays. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours and held honorary degrees from various universities. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1938 and received a gold medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1944. She died in New York City; Edith Lewis, author of the biography Willa Cather Living (1953), died in 1972 in the apartment the couple had shared there.

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