Bringing the American West to Life

Willa Cather

Until Willa Cather, literature in America was dominated by writers from New York and Boston. Immigrants were either ignored or portrayed as objects of derision. Strong women characters didn’t exist. This one woman changed all that. Her writing is so vivid you can almost taste the homemade jam from cherries harvested by the creek. You can almost hear the rustling of the grasslands that once stretched forever across Nebraska. As one historian put it, “Suddenly, not only had the West found a literary voice, but American writing had become authentically American.” She was a “tomboy” whose family valued education, and she’d become one of the few women of her time to get a college education—graduating from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. She put herself through college writing for the Nebraska Journal, took a job with a Pittsburgh magazine after graduation, and then went into teaching, publishing her first poems and short stories while she taught. They caught the eye of an editor from one of the most important magazines of the day, McClures, who lured her to New York in 1906. In 1912, she published her first novel, eventually penning 12. Several had a common theme of heroic womanhood in the face of great hardship and featured the immigrants from Germany, Sweden and Russia that she’d known growing up in Red Cloud, Nebraska. In 1913, she published “O Pioneers!” and in 1918, “My Antonio.” She won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1922 “One of Ours,” the story of a western boy in World War I. Perhaps her most famous novel was the 1926 “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” set in the American Southwest. She was the first woman voted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame, and has been inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners in Oklahoma City, the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York, and the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Ft. Worth. She was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Princeton, and also was honored by seven other colleges. In 1933 she won the Prix Femina American in France for her “distinguished literary accomplishments.” Willa Cather died in 1947 in New York City. She will be forever remembered as Word Book describes her: “One of America’s finest novelists.”

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