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Discovering Willa Cather

by Tara Marta

As a high school student, I studied many literary classics by authors like Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Jane Austen, just to name a few. I knew all about Hamlet’s dilemmas, Jean Valjean’s prison sentence,  and Mr. Darcy’s s sexual appeal to women. At the time, I thought I’d heard about every literary giant in American Literature, yet there remained one author who seemed utterly forgotten; someone whose name never appeared on summer reading lists or whose stories never made it into our textbooks – Willa Cather.

I first discovered Cather not through books, but, of all places, through television. A film adaptation of her novel My Antonia aired in 1995, and I became instantly enamored with the story, which involved three main elements: Jim, Antonia, and a prairie. Still, I had no idea that the movie had actually been a book written by Willa Cather. Fast forward several years later when I found a copy at a used book sale. Upon reading the novel, I became captivated by Cather’s unique style of writing. Nobody could tell a story with such profundity quite like she could.

Per my usual habit after reading a good book, I did an intensive study on the life of Willa Cather in an effort to get to know the woman behind the words. Through my research I learned that Cather, born in Virginia on December 7, 1873, moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska with her parents and siblings at the age of nine. Life on the prairie did not seem to suit the young girl, and she spent much of her time longing for the home she left behind. Fate, however, had other plans, and little did Cather know that the prairie life she so readily despised, would one day come to serve as a prominent character in two of her most important novels – My Antonia and O’ Pioneers!

During the early part of her life, Cather entertained the idea of becoming a doctor. Her dream of writing did not take flight until a college professor, unbeknownst to her, had one of her essays on Thomas Carlyle published in the Nebraska State Journal. From that moment on Cather became smitten with the written word, and readers have been benefiting from it ever since.

Cather’s incredible gift for writing exhibited not only a person of high intelligence, but an immensely prolific storyteller. She created unforgettable characters and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for the novel One of Ours, much to the dismay of Ernest Hemingway who complained that a woman had no business writing a war novel. Luckily for Cather, readers did not agree.

For me, Cather’s appeal does not solely belong to her work; rather, much can be learned from the way in which she lived her life. At a time when women lived within the confines of conformity, Cather broke barriers to forge her own path – one that did not adhere to being a conventional woman. No marriage, no children, no questions asked, and if one did ask, she likely never felt obliged to answer. She spoke her mind, valued her privacy, and remained unapologetic for her autonomous lifestyle.

When Willa Cather died on April 24, 1947, she left behind an enduring legacy, which included not only great works of literature – even if schools still do not add them to the reading list – but a lasting impression of a strong willed woman whose brilliant acumen kept her way ahead of her time. Although she might be unappreciative of the many books that have been written about her, particularly a recent one containing her personal letters, perhaps she would forgive the intrusion if she knew that we merely wish to get a glimpse into the soul of a woman whose impact has lasted nearly seventy years after her death. Only great writers have the ability to enjoy such longevity.