The Wild West of Yester-Year

Willa Cather
By Rachel Kovaciny

Oh Pioneers! Song of the Lark. My Antonia. Death Comes to the Archbishop. Willa Cather wrote four of the greatest books about American pioneers and life in the Old West. Her name now seems synonymous with the Great Plains in our mental landscapes. Imagine my surprise to learn she was born less than two hours from where I live! I don’t associate Willa Cather with the East Coast, but it’s true: she was born near Winchester, Virginia, smack dab in the Shenandoah Valley. In fact, she lived in this area for the first nine years of her life.

In 1883, the Cather family moved to Nebraska, which jibes better with my mind’s image of her standing on windswept prairie. At first, young Willa felt homesick and lost in her new home. It’s no wonder! Instead of round-shouldered, verdant mountains surrounding and protecting her, she was in the middle of a vast flatness. To an intelligent and artistic girl, the difference must have been staggering, even painful. Still, it took only a year or so before she embraced her new home with a mighty loyalty that would saturate the pages of her adult writing.

Willa Cather attended the University of Nebraska, initially planning to earn a medical degree. But her writing soon earned her the attention of an English professor who submitted one of Cather’s papers to a local newspaper. From then on, Cather pursued writing wholeheartedly. While in college, she became the managing editor for the school newspaper and wrote columns and theater criticisms for the Nebraska State Journal and the Lincoln Courier. After graduating, Willa Cather returned to the East Coast, where she lived for the rest of her life, although she traveled extensively. She moved to Pittsburgh to manage the women’s magazine Home Monthly. While there, she continued to contribute to the Nebraska State Journal and became a theater critic for the Pittsburg Leader. Eventually, she took a break from the demanding life of a magazine editor to teach high school English for a few years. While teaching, she published a collection of poetry, April Twilights, and a book of short stories called The Troll Garden.

At age 33, Cather moved to New York City, which remained her main home for the rest of her life. In New York, she managed McClure’s Magazine and began publishing more of her fiction. Her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, appeared serially in that magazine in 1912. A year later, she published O Pioneers!, the first book in her “Prairie Trilogy.” Song of the Lark and My Antonia followed in 1915 and 1918. Although these three books don’t have characters in common, the way they express a deep love for life on the Great Plains and for the land ties them together. They concern common, ordinary people and show them to be heroic in their everyday lives. Willa Cather based many of the characters on people she encountered when growing up in Nebraska, or they represent the people she knew. Immigrants abound in her books, just as they did in her life: people came to Nebraska not only from eastern states like Virginia, but from every corner of Europe. All sought a new, better life in the untamed land of the American Midwest.

After World War I, Cather’s writing changed. Her next few novels were brimming with disillusionment, discouragement, defeat. She echoed the sentiments of so many Americans in the postwar period we call the Roaring Twenties. The modern world seemed to have no place for the ideals and sentiments of pioneer life. In 1923, Cather received a Pulitzer Prize for her novel One of Ours, but her greatest novel lay ahead of her. She turned again to the wide-open spaces and simpler times of the American frontier. But this time, she wrote about the American Southwest of the 1850s. Death Comes to the Archbishop concerns the struggles of a French Catholic missionary to aid and minister to the peoples of New Mexico. Like in her “Prairie Trilogy,” the land itself becomes a kind of character. Cather portrays the harsh beauty of that wild land with a starkness and grandeur that serve both to highlight and humble her human characters. It’s one of the finest novels of American history, deserving of all the accolades piled high upon it.

Willa Cather published other novels in the last ten years of her life, but none has affected our concept of our American heritage the way her four most-famous novels did. Whether writing historical fiction about a world long-since disappeared, or narratives based on the life and people she knew herself, Cather gave us pictures into places we are richer for experiencing through her writing.