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Willa Cather Biography

(1876–1947), April Twilights, The Troll Garden, McClure's Magazine, Alexander's Bridge, O Pioneers!

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American novelist, born in Virginia where she lived until she was nine; her family then moved to Nebraska, to the prairie country pioneered by Central European and Scandinavian emigrants, individuals at once dour and passionately nostalgic, who were to inspire her most famous novels. She was educated at the University of Nebraska, where she studied classical literature (also an influence on her work, with its emphasis on the pastoral). After a period of teaching and journalism, during which she published her first volume of poems, April Twilights (1903), and a book of short stories, The Troll Garden (1905), she worked in New York on the staff of the famous ‘muck-raking’ periodical, McClure's Magazine, from 1906 to 1912, eventually becoming editor. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912), was followed by her first characteristic work, O Pioneers! (1913), whose title was taken from Walt Whitman and which concerns a Swedish immigrant family struggling to establish itself on the Nebraskan prairies; The Song of the Lark (1915), a study of the professional dedication of an opera singer, Thea Kronberg, who clearly stands for all artists; and My Antonia (1918), a pastoral of life on the prairies and perhaps her most consistently popular work. Then came One of Ours (1922), which won her many readers, but also made her enemies. Its hero is a young man who escapes from a stultifying existence on a Nebraska farm into the war in France. His eventual redemption through suffering and death was—understandably—attacked by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others, who felt that Cather was not writing from experience and was preaching a dubious moral. A Lost Lady (1923) is a delicately wrought study of elegant, warm-hearted Marion Forrester, who emerges as less innocent than she at first seems; it was followed by My Mortal Enemy (1926), which deals with the runaway marriage of a selfish and wilful woman, Myra Henshawe, and by The Professor's House (1925), perhaps her finest novel, which depicts the falling out of love with life of Professor St Peters, a distinguished academic and authority on Spanish New Mexico. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), a historical novel set in New Mexico, concerns the life and work of two French Catholic priests and expresses the author's admiration for the Catholic Church. Cather herself never converted to Catholicism, although she was attracted by the moral values embodied in it, which she saw as providing an alternative to the corruption of American society. Other novels include Shadows on the Rock (1931), set in seventeenth-century Quebec, which continued the Catholic theme; Lucy Gayheart (1935), about a Midwestern girl torn between the values of her home town and those of the artistic world; and Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), a study of jealousy and possessiveness, set in her native Virginia. As Hermione Lee's critical biography, Willa Cather: A Life Saved Up (1989) makes clear, Cather's most significant achievement is to have annexed for women and for America the pastoral form, previously the preserve of European, male writers, and in doing so, to have created works of rich and universal resonance.

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