Author Willa Cather: Biography & Works

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  • 0:03 Who Was Willa Cather?
  • 0:35 Biography
  • 2:24 Works
  • 3:51 Cather's Style
  • 5:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

A Pulitzer Prize winning author, Willa Cather is widely regarded as one of the great novelists who vividly depicted life on the American frontier. In this lesson, we will learn about Cather's experiences as a writer and editor. Her most notable novels and her unique, risk-taking style will be discussed as well.

Who Was Willa Cather?

Willa Cather was a writer during a time of great change in American history. Her writing focused on characters who represented such historical situations as the American pioneer experience and the immigrant struggle. Drawing from her childhood on the Great Plains, Cather wrote about ordinary people, which greatly contrasted the stories of wealth and grandeur that were popular during that time. But she continued to write from a unique perspective and maintained a strong work ethic, which helped mold her into a very successful author.


Willa Cather, originally Wilella Sibert Cather, was born in 1873 and was the oldest of seven children. She was a tomboy, often riding horses and doing 'man's work' on her family's farm. When she was nine years old, her family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where they lived on a homestead. Cather's experience there among the first white settlers in 1880s Nebraska became her inspiration for some of her novels. She frequently dressed in men's clothing and worked as a mail carrier, riding on horseback. Though this created some gossip, Cather ignored it and continued to do as she pleased.

Cather attended the University of Nebraska and graduated in 1895. After graduating, she began to establish herself professionally, running the Home Monthly magazine in Pittsburgh and writing both fiction and nonfiction pieces for it. Cather also wrote for the Pittsburgh Daily Leader as a critic of live performances. She left her position at Home Monthly to work as a telegraph editor for the Pittsburgh Daily Leader and later became a high school teacher until she moved to New York in 1906.

In 1903, Cather published April Twilights, her first book of verses. In 1905, she published a collection of short stories titled The Troll Garden. From 1905 to 1912 she worked for McClure's Magazine and became its managing editor. With encouragement from a friend, Cather left the magazine to focus on her writing. Shortly thereafter, Cather achieved success and notoriety for her novels, most notably O Pioneers! in 1913 and My Antonia in 1918. She spent forty years of her life with her companion Edith Lewis in New York City. In 1947, Cather died from a cerebral hemorrhage.


Aside from her various fiction and nonfiction pieces published in magazines and her published verses and short stories, Cather wrote multiple novels. Her most notable works include the following.

O Pioneers! was published in 1913, and it was Cather's first highly regarded novel, exploring themes such as the challenge of balancing personal dreams with society's expectations, the importance of the land as people's livelihood, and the promise held onto from moving to the West. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, My Antonia is often seen as Cather's finest achievement. It was published in 1918 and encapsulates the spirit and courage of the frontier known in her youth.

In 1922, Cather wrote a novel about the making of an American soldier during WWI, titled One of Ours, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. Published in 1923 and set in a small town on the Great Plains, A Lost Lady mourns the loss of the pioneer spirit. Cather's 1927 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop follows Bishop Jean Latour and Father Vaillant as they work to organize the new Roman Catholic diocese in Santa Fe, New Mexico, after the Mexican War. The two face religious and cultural issues. In 1940, Sapphira and the Slave Girl was published, depicting the life of a Virginian woman named Sapphira who becomes irrationally jealous of a beautiful slave.

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