This Day In Literary History
On December 7th, 1873, the famous American writer Willa Cather was born. The oldest of seven children, she was born Wilella Sibert Cather in Gore, Virginia.
When Willa was nine years old, her father moved the family to Nebraska, where he tried his hand first at farming, then at the real estate and insurance business.
The young Willa fell in love with the landscape and weather of the frontier. She also became interested in the cultures of the immigrant and Native American families who lived in the area. All of this would inspire her as a writer.
When Willa enrolled at the University of Nebraska, she chose science for her major, as she had initially planned to become a doctor. Then, during her freshman year, her first published work appeared.
An essay she'd written about Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle was published by the Nebraska State Journal. Willa became a regular contributor to the Journal and changed her major to English, determined to become a writer.
After graduating with a degree in English, Willa Cather moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to take a job writing for the Home Monthly, a women's magazine.
From there, she became a drama critic and telegraph editor for the Pittsburgh Leader. She also taught high school English, Latin, and algebra. At the Allegheny High School, she became the head of the English department.
In 1906, at the age of 33, Willa moved to New York City to work as an editor for McClure's Magazine, a hugely popular liberal magazine that was famous for its muckraking exposes of corporate crimes and abuses.
In addition to her editing duties, her fiction was published alongside that of Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Willa also co-authored the biography Mary Baker Eddy: The Story of Her Life and the History of Christian Science which was published in a serialized format by McClure's in fourteen installments over an eighteen month period. It would be republished in book form.
After several years working at her hectic editing position, Willa found her own writing output slowing to a crawl. So she bounced back and wrote her first novel.
Alexander's Bridge (1912), first published in a serialized format by McClure's, received great reviews from The New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly.
Alexander's Bridge was way ahead of its time in its depiction of a man suffering from mid-life crisis. The middle-aged, married Bartley Alexander, a construction engineer famous for the bridges he's built, finds himself drawn into an affair with an old flame, Hilda Burgoyne.
Torn between two loves and tormented, Alexander's life literally comes crashing down around him when he is summoned to Canada to inspect his newest bridge, which is in danger of collapsing.
Willa Cather followed her memorable debut novel with her classic Prairie Trilogy - O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918).
O Pioneers! told the story of a Swedish immigrant farm family in Nebraska at the turn of the 20th century. In The Song of the Lark, the young heroine Thea Kronborg leaves her Colorado hometown, determined to become an opera star.
My Antonia, the third and most famous novel in the trilogy, chronicles the life of Antonia "Tony" Shimerda, a young Bohemian girl living in the small town of Black Hawk, Nebraska.
The novel, which incorporates several previously written short stories, is divided into five "books" and narrated by Jim Burden, a successful lawyer.
Antonia was his childhood sweetheart and remains his lifelong friend, though she marries another man and Jim has an affair with another childhood friend, Lena Lingard.
In 1922, Willa published the novel that would win her a Pulitzer Prize. One of Ours is a tale of existential angst set in Nebraska around the time of the first World War.
Claude Wheeler, the son of a successful farmer, is attending a Christian college, which he absolutely hates. He pleads with his parents to let him enroll at the state university in order to get a better education. They refuse.
Struggling to find meaning in his life, Claude strikes up a friendship with the Erlichs, a family who introduces him to classical music and progressive free thinking.
Unfortunately, Claude has the rug pulled out from under him when his father expands the family farm and orders him home to help work it. Pinned to the farm like a mounted butterfly, Claude grows bored and listless.
Finding no fulfillment in farm work, he marries Enid Royce, a childhood friend, but soon realizes that she cares more about her activism and Christian missionary work than him.
Enid ultimately leaves him and goes to China to care for her sister, a fellow missionary who has fallen ill. Devastated and disillusioned, the only thing that Claude has to take his mind off his miserable life is news of the war.
A world war has broken out in Europe, and Claude's entire family is obsessed with the conflict. When the United States enters the war in 1917, he volunteers for military service.
Ironically, despite the hardships and horrors of war, Claude finally finds meaning in his new life as a soldier. Despite all his new responsibilities and all the orders he must follow, he has never felt so free.
The idealist without an ideal to cling to now has something to fight for in the hellish trenches of France, as his regiment engages an overwhelming German force in a ferocious battle.
Willa Cather established herself as one of the best American writers of the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, her work fell out of favor as the American landscape made a dramatic shift from the Jazz Age to the Great Depression.
Discouraged by criticism that her work had become irrelevant, her later writing output slowed to a crawl and she became a recluse. She died of a stroke in 1947 at the age of 73.
Quote Of The Day
"Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen." - Willa Cather
Today's video features a complete reading of Willa Cather's classic, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, One of Ours. Enjoy!