English, Department of

 

Date of this Version

2007

Citation

In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History, edited by Bonnie G. Smith, et al. (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Comments

Copyright 2007, Oxford University Press. Used by permission.

Abstract

American novelist, Born in Virginia, Cather moved with her family to Nebraska in 1883 and is best known as a novelist of the American prairie. However, her life history and literary output belie this characterization. As a student at the University of Nebraska she published short stories and poems and worked as a journalist. This experience earned her a position at the Home Monthly magazine in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When the magazine failed, she stayed in Pittsburgh, first returning to newspaper journalism and then teaching high school. For several years she lived in the family home of Isabelle McClung, a young society woman. In 1906, Cather moved to New York City to join the editorial staff McClure’s magazine. She lived in Manhattan for the rest of her life but traveled widely in the United States Europe and adopted a series of rural locations north of New York City as summer writing retreats. Cather shared a home in New York for thirty-seven years with Edith Lewis, a magazine editor and advertising copywriter.

Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge (1912), appeared shortly after she began a leave of absence from editorial duties at McClure’s. Both critics and Cather herself dismissed her first novel as a pale imitation of Henry James, but her second novel, O Pioneers! (1913), featuring an immigrant Swedish heroine in Nebraska, established her reputation as a novelist of the American West. Cather never returned to magazine editorial work, although a series of articles she wrote for McClure’s on opera singers led to The Song of the Lark (1915), a novel about a Swedish American girl from Colorado who achieves success as an opera singer in Europe and New York. Cather’s most autobiographical novel, My Ántonia (1918), presents its Bohemian immigrant heroine through the eyes of Jim Burden, an orphan from Virginia sent to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. Cather valued the cosmopolitanism that nineteenth-century New Mexico, and Shadows on the Rock (1931), set in seventeenth-century Quebec—focus on moments of transition in European colonial projects in North America. She turned to her own family’s southern history in her last published novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940). Although she was attacked as conservative and backward-looking by leftist critics beginning in the 1930s, Cather has increasingly been recognized as an important modernist writer who experimented with literary form.