Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1982, pp. 204-09.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


She was a good artist, and all true art is provincial in the most realistic sense: of the very time and place of its making, out of human beings who are so particularly limited by their situation, whose faces and names are real and whose lives begin each one at one individual unique center.

Katherine Anne Porter

Willa Cather, as Katherine Anne Porter realized, was a provincial or regional writer who could derive the universal from the specific, as the best artists do. For Cather, the specifics to which she returned throughout her career were the people, places, and things of her childhood in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, and Red Cloud, Nebraska. "The ideas for all my novels have come from things that happened around Red Cloud when I was a child," she once said. "I was all over the country then, on foot, on horseback and in our farm wagons." To be familiar with Willa Cather's childhood, then, is to gain a special entry into her art.

Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873, in her Grandmother Boak's house in Back Creek Valley, Virginia. Her grandfather, William Cather, a county sheriff and a strong Union man, had done much to unify the divided community after the Civil War, including using his Northern money to provide schooling for the young people of the valley. Virginia Boak, Willa's mother, was one of the young Confederates whom he helped, and there was little strife between her and her husband Charles. Virginia Cather combined the qualities of natural mother and Southern belle that would distinguish Willa's portrait of her as Victoria Templeton in "Old Mrs. Harris." During the Back Creek Valley years, she bore three more children, Roscoe, Douglass, and Jessica, but she always maintained her fine figure and aristocratic role, even while she enjoyed nursing her babies and never, as many Southern ladies did, turned them over to former slave wet nurses.

Charles Cather and his brother George served as deputy sheriffs to their father and ran the family sheep business, buying and raising lambs to sell on the Washington and Baltimore markets. In June, 1873, when George left Back Creek Valley to pioneer in Nebraska with his wife, Frances Smith, his share of the work passed to Charles. A year later, grandfather William went to visit George, and Willa and her parents moved into Willow Shade, the homestead William had built on the side of a mountain. Through the basement kitchen of the house of Willa's childhood ran a spring that kept the dairy products cool.