English, Department of


Date of this Version



Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark (Signet Classics, 2007).


Copyright 2007, the author. Used by permission.


In May of 1912, Willa Cather traveled to Winslow, Arizona, to visit her brother, Douglass, who worked for the railroad. The year before, she had begun a leave of absence from McClure's Magazine, where she had been an editor since 1906, so that she could focus her energies on writing fiction. Although she had been publishing short fiction regularly since 1892, her first novel-the cosmopolitan, somewhat derivative Alexander's Bridge ‒ did not appear until 1912. Feeling tired and unwell, she, like many other Americans, sought renewal in the dry air and open spaces of the desert. After six years in the fast-paced, hothouse working and living environment of New York City, she enjoyed the company of the railroad men and of local Mexican residents. Particularly memorable for her was a trip with her brother to Walnut Canyon, near Flagstaff, the site of Indian cliff dwellers' ruins. On her way back east, she visited her family in Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she had spent seven years of her childhood, and watched the wheat harvest come in.

In a strange sort of creative alchemy, her time in the Southwestern desert crystallized in her mind a way to approach the Nebraska prairies and the experiences of immigrant farm women as a subject for fiction. Thus the Arizona desert produced the novel Cather later characterized as her real "first novel," O Pioneers!, the story of Swedish immigrant Alexandra Bergson, who tames the prairies. The time she spent in the desert also fortified Cather's resolve to at least partially sever her ties to McClure's-she resigned as editor, although she continued to write for the magazine for three more years. As a result of her trip to the Southwest, she had, as she wrote in 1931, "recovered from the conventional editorial point of view" and was able to write about "a kind of country [she] loved" rather than working up "interesting material" alien to her.1 As she wrote in 1928 in a copy of O Pioneers! she sent to a childhood friend in Red Cloud, "This was the first time I walked off on my own feet‒everything before was half read and half an imitation of writers whom I admired. In this one I hit the home pasture."