Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1982, pp. 000-000.


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


Three events or circumstances in Willa Cather's life seem directly related to the writing of My Àntonia. In 1916, the year the novel was begun, Isabelle McClung married, and the great friendship of Cather's life was profoundly altered. Second, by 1916 Cather was in her forty-third year and had written five books; she was no longer enjoying youth and first success but entering middle age, with its attendant disillusionments and disaffections. Third, she spent much of that year at home in Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she visited many of the people and places of her childhood. I think these circumstances-her sense of personal loss, her growing awareness of life's brevity, and her rediscovery of old friendships and memories-combined to kindle in her imagination My Àntonia, the novel most often considered her masterpiece.

These circumstances were not simple or straightforward. Isabelle McClung's marriage disturbed Cather deeply; its impact, most critics agree, can be felt in The Professor's House, a novel written and published nine years later. Isabelle McClung was the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Pittsburgh judge, and the two women apparently met backstage at a theatre sometime in the 1898-99 season when Cather was working on the Pittsburgh Daily Leader. An intimate friendship developed, and Isabelle, who preferred the company of artists to fashionable society, invited Cather to live at the McClung mansion. According to friends, Isabelle was an exceptionally frank and generous person; to the novelist she was a deeply loved, rare, and perfect human being. In a letter to Zoë Akins after Isabelle's death, Cather says she believed Isabelle was the one person for whom her books were written. In 1906 Cather left Pittsburgh to join the staff of McClure's Magazine in New York, but for the next ten years she frequently returned for holidays with Isabelle and periods of work in the special room set aside for her in the McClung home. Thus the end of what seemed her most permanent and emotionally satisfying relationship had a profound effect on Cather. It left her for a long time emotionally without a rudder.

Elizabeth Sergeant tells us about her loss of spirit-how bleak and vacant she appeared, how her natural exuberance seemed to have drained away. In her fiction she turned from strong, creative protagonists such as Bartley Alexander, Alexandra Bergson, and Thea Kronborg to characters whose lives are failures-Jim Burden, Claude Wheeler, and eventually Godfrey St. Peter of The Professor's House, Cather's powerful portrait of a man in middle life who finds at the heart of his existence a terrible, unnamed sense of betrayal.

The change in her relationship with Isabelle McClung came at a time when Cather was assessing the direction and significance of her life. Not only did Isabelle marry in 1916, but so did Olive Fremstad, the opera singer Cather admired as a female artist who was wholly dedicated to her art. As James Woodress has pointed out, Cather never seems to have considered marriage seriously for herself, although she was not without opportunities. She apparently enjoyed several dates during her first year in Pittsburgh, and according to a letter that she wrote to Mariel Gere, one young doctor proposed to her. Her need for emotional relationships with women, however, seems to have been stronger; there is a suggestion in her letters that she once experienced strong feelings for Dorothy canfield. That need for an intimate friendship with a woman was fulfIlled in the relationship with Isabelle McClung.