The American author Willa Sibert Cather (1873-1947) is distinguished for her strong and sensitive evocations of prairie life in the twilight years of the midwestern frontier. Her poetic sensibility was in sharp contrast to the naturalistic and Freudian-influenced literary movements of her time.
Willa Cather was born in Winchester, Va., but at the age of 9 moved to Nebraska, where her father had bought a farm. Her immediate response to the stark grandeur of the prairie and her involvement in the life of the Bohemian and Scandinavian immigrants provided her with both the material and an unadorned manner of expression for her novels. Although she was educated largely by her mother, her knowledge of English literature and Latin was sufficient for her to do excellent work at the University of Nebraska. Leaving the prairie for the first time in 1900, she moved to Pittsburgh and found employment as editor, drama critic, and high school teacher.
In 1903 Cather published a collection of poems, April Twilights, and in 1905 a collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, neither of which indicated her considerable talent. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912), the story of an engineer's love for two women, lacked emotional involvement.
In her poignant story of the prairie, O Pioneers! (1913), Cather at last discovered her subject matter. This tale of Alexandra Bergson, daughter of Swedish settlers, whose devotion to the land and to her tragically fated younger brother precludes her own chance for happiness, is a major novel and an important source for Cather's subsequent work. In Song of the Lark (1915) she presents the story of a young woman's attempt at artistic accomplishment in the constricting environment of small-town life. My Antonia (1918), generally considered her finest novel, is based on a successful city lawyer's reflections on his prairie boyhood and his love for Antonia Shimerda, a warm, vibrant Bohemian girl.
Cather's next novel, One of Ours (1922), about a man who goes to war in order to escape his midwestern farm environment, won the Pulitzer Prize. A Lost Lady (1923) depicts the conflict of a cultivated and sensitive young woman with the crass materialism of the post-pioneer period, and The Professor's House (1925) is a study of the problems of youth and middle age. These three novels differ from Cather's earlier studies of prairie life in that the midwestern atmosphere is used as a force in opposition to the artistic aspiration and intellectual development of the gifted inhabitants.
With the passing of the frontier and its ugly transformation into "Gopher Prairie," Cather permanently left the Midwest, both literally and as a thematic vehicle for her novels. She lived intermittently in New York and Europe until the late 1920s. Then she discovered the Southwest desert, which came to serve as an emotional substitute for the prairie. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), which describes the dedicated missionaries in Mexico during the 1850s, and Shadows on the Rock (1931), a vivid re-creation of French-Catholic life in 17th-century Quebec, represent Cather's interest in Roman Catholicism and her attempt to find a historical metaphor for the qualities of heroism and endurance that she had observed in actuality.
Willa Cather's devotion to the land and her respect for those rooted to it imbue her work with a mystical quality. Man and nature are viewed as dual protagonists in a somber cosmic drama. Despite her love for the prairie, she did not permit sentimentally and nostalgia to cloud the clarity of her vision. She presented the intellectual stagnation, moral callousness, and small-minded bigotry that existed side by side with the heroism of frontier life. "Miss Cather's novels portray the results of the pioneer's defeat, both in the thwarted pettiness to which he is condemned by material failure," observed Lionel Trilling, "and in the callous insensitivity of his material success."
In her last years Cather devoted herself to literary criticism. Not under Forty (1936) contains an eloquent expression of her philosophy of writing.
The authorized biography of Willa Cather is Edward K. Brown and Leon Edel, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography (1953). The best book-length critical study is David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction (1951). More recent studies are John H. Randall, The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather's Search for Value (1960), and Edward A. and Lillian D. Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy (1962). James Schroeter edited an excellent collection of essays, Willa Cather and Her Critics (1967). For briefer analyses of her work see the relevant sections in Rebecca West, The Strange Necessity (1928); Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds (1942); Edward Wagenknecht, Cavalcade of the American Novel (1952); and Maxwell Geismar, The Last of the Provincials (1947).