English, Department of


Date of this Version



Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction, edited by Patrick O’Donnell, et al., p. 487-491 (Blackwell-Wiley, 2011).


Copyright 2011, Blackwell-Wiley. Used by permission.


Willa Cather is known primarily for her novels representing the experiences of women immigrants on the Nebraska prairies in the late nineteenth century, but Cather’s 10 novels and scores of short stories’ produced over a career spanning 50 years actually range widely over space and time, from seventeenth-century Quebec to twentieth century New York. A social conservative who proudly identified herself as one of the backward-looking, her experiments with fictional form and her approach to culture nevertheless ally her with modernism. It is, perhaps, the depth and diversity of Cather’s body of work and the impossibility of reducing her achievement to a single descriptive formula that have secured her reputation as a major American novelist.

Born Wilella Cather in Back Creek, Virginia in 1873, Cather moved with her family to Webster County in south-central Nebraska in 1883. After a year living on a farm, the family moved to the county seat of Red Cloud, where Cather attended high school She then attended the University of Nebraska, in the state capital of Lincoln, majoring in English and working both on student publications and professionally as a journalist (primarily writing theater and book reviews). After her graduation in 1895, she spent a year doing journalistic writing and looking for work before moving to Pittsburgh in 1896 to take an editorial position at a regional women’s magazine. The magazine was short-lived, but Cather stayed on in Pittsburgh, returning to journalism and then turning to high school teaching to give herself more time to write fiction. She finally left Pittsburgh in 1906 to accept an editorial position at McClure’s Magazine in New York City, which became her primary residence until her death. She did not make her final break from McClure’s until 1912, becoming a full-time creative artist for the first time when she was nearly 40 years old. She died in New York City in 1947.