Willa Cather Biography
Wilella Sibert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, on December 7, 1873, the first of seven children. Her father’s side of the family settled in Virginia during colonial times. Her grandfather, William Cather, was opposed to slavery and favored the Union cause during the Civil War, creating a rift in a family of Confederate sympathizers. Her grandfather on her mother’s side, William Boak, served three terms in the Virginia House of Delegates. He died before Cather was born, while serving in Washington in the Department of the Interior. Cather’s maternal grandmother, Rachel Boak, returned with her children to Back Creek Valley and eventually moved to Nebraska with her son-in-law Charles, Willa Cather’s father, and his wife, Mary Virginia. Rachel Boak is an important figure in Cather’s life and fiction. A courageous and enduring woman, she appears as Sapphira’s daughter Rachel in Cather’s last completed novel and as the grandmother in a late story, “Old Mrs. Harris.” Rachel’s maiden name was Seibert, a name that Cather adopted (spelling it “Sibert” after her uncle William Sibert Boak) as a young woman and then later dropped.
In 1883, when Cather—named Wilella, nicknamed Willie, and later renamed Willa by her own decree—was nine years old, her family sold their holdings at Back Creek and moved to Webster County, Nebraska. In that move from a lush Virginia countryside to a virtually untamed prairie, Cather experienced what Eudora Welty has called a “wrench to the spirit” from which she never recovered. It proved to be the most significant single event in her young life, bringing her as it did face-to-face with a new landscape and an immigrant people who were to make a lasting impression on her imagination. The move was a shock, but a shock that was the beginning of love both for the land and the people, and for the rest of her life, Cather was to draw from this experience in creating her fiction.
Cather always had a special affection for her father; he was a gentle, quiet-mannered man who, after eighteen months on his parents’ prairie homestead, moved his family into Red Cloud, sixteen miles away. There he engaged in various business enterprises with no great success and reared his family. Unlike her husband, Mary Cather was energetic and driving, a hard disciplinarian, but generous and life-loving. A good many scenes and people from Cather’s years on the farm and in Red Cloud appear in her fiction. Her third novel, The Song of the Lark, though its central character is a musician, recounts some of Cather’s own struggles to develop her talent amid the strictures and jealousies of small-town life.
Cather’s years at the university in Lincoln were extremely busy ones. Not a metropolis by any means, Lincoln was still many times larger than Red Cloud, and Cather gratefully discovered the joys of the theater and of meeting people with broad interests and capabilities. Her experience is much like that of Jim Burden as she describes it in My Ántonia. At first she planned to study science but switched to the humanities, she later confessed, when she saw an essay of hers printed in the newspaper. As she tells it, she was hooked for life. While at the university, she was active in literary circles, serving as an editor for the Lasso and the Hesperian, two student literary magazines. Several of her stories appeared in those magazines and in others. She spent the year after her graduation, in 1895, in and around Red Cloud, where she began writing for the weekly Lincoln Courier as well as for the Nebraska State Journal and published her first story in a magazine of national circulation, the Overland Monthly. Then in June, 1896, she left Nebraska to take a position with the Home Monthly, a small rather weak family magazine in Pittsburgh.
Cather knew she had to leave Red Cloud to forward her career, and even the drudgery of the Home Monthly was an important opportunity. Later, she secured a position with the
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