Born in Virginia in 1873, Willa Cather spent the first decade of her life on her family’s farm in Back Creek Valley. In 1884, her family moved to join her father’s relatives among the ethnically diverse settlers of the Great Plains, an area that would serve as the inspiration for several of her novels, including My Antonia (1918). Her father tried farming but soon settled the family in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a town of approximately 2,500 people. Cather remembered vividly both the trauma of leaving a hill farm for a flat, empty land and the subsequent excitement of growing up in the new country. She took intense pleasure in riding her pony to neighboring farms and listening to the stories of the immigrant farm women she met there. Cather accompanied a local doctor on house calls and by her thirteenth birthday had adopted the outward appearance and manner of a male. She signed her name “William Cather, Jr.” or “William Cather, M.D.” Eventually returning to more conventional modes of dress, she later dismissed the episode as juvenile posturing.
At sixteen, she left home to prepare to enroll at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, which she entered in 1891. Her freshman English instructor gave her essay on Thomas Carlyle to a Lincoln newspaper for publication and by her junior year, she was supporting herself as a journalist. From Lincoln, she moved to Pittsburgh as a magazine editor and newspaper writer and then became a high school teacher, using summer vacations to concentrate on fiction. In 1905, she published her first collection of short stories, The Troll Garden.
In 1906, Cather was hired to edit McClure’s, a leading muckraking magazine, and moved to New York City. Although her older literary friend Sarah Orne Jewett advised her to “find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world,” she found it difficult to give up a position as a highly successful woman editor during a time when journalism was almost wholly dominated by men, and did not quit her position for three years. In 1912, on a visit to her family in Red Cloud, she stood on the edge of a wheat field and watched her first harvest in years. By then, she was emotionally ready to use her youthful memories of Nebraska. From this experience evolved O Pioneers!, the novel she preferred to think of as her first. It is this long perspective that gives Cather’s work about Nebraska a rich aura of nostalgia, a poignancy also found in her next Nebraska novel, 1918’s My Antonia.
Although Cather’s 1922 novel about World War I, One of Ours, was received with mixed critical reviews, it was a best-seller and won Cather the Pulitzer Prize. She continued to write until physical infirmities prevented her from doing so. In 1945, she wrote that she had gotten much of what she wanted from life and had avoided the things she most violently had not wanted-too much money, noisy publicity, and the bother of meeting too many people. Willa Cather died from a massive cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947.