Domestic Goddess Willa Cather was born in December of 1873. Like many other authors, Cather worked a variety of jobs, from journalist, to teacher, to editor of McClure's magazine. She won a Pulitzer prize in 1923 for One of Ours, however, this was not the only honor she received.
Cather once said that she belonged to a world that had split in two and, as a woman of two centuries-- the conservative nineteenth and the twentieth-- she certainly bridged quite a gap. She was the eldest child of seven, and, like her character Ántonia in her most famous novel, Cather moved to Nebraska when she was very young. Cather once said that during the trip from her birthplace in Virginia, she imagined that, "I had left even their spirits [her grandparents] behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. . . . Between that earth and sky I felt erased, blotted out" (qtd in the foreword to My Ántonia x).
Cather understood the coming change between cultures; she saw the immigrant children, like Ántonia, moving away from the culture of their parents and into a kind of uneasy Americanism. She said of these new inhabitants of the Midwest, "It is perhaps natural that they should be very much interested in material comfort, in buying whatever is expensive and ugly" since they "were reared amid hardships" (qtd. in the foreword to My Ántonia xiii).
Besides a keen eye for the changes taking place in the country at the turn of the century, Cather wrote extensively about her own writing. She once said "when one comes to write all that you have been taught leaves you, all that you have stolen lies discovered. You are then a translator, without a lexicon, without notes. . . You have then to give voice to the hearts of men, and you can do it only so far as you have known them, loved them. It is a solemn and terrible thing to write a novel" (foreword xvii) . Cather's 1908 advice to another domestic goddess, Sarah Orne Jewett, was to "find a quiet place. . . find your own quiet center of life, and write from that" (foreword xvii).
Much of the criticism of Cather in the past has focused on the primacy of landscape, including the Nebraska plains and New Mexico, in Cather's work. Certainly she speaks of nature, but she also writes the most intimate pictures of the inner setting-- the heart, the soul, the home. Cather's work is not so much about "the prairie" but about the humans who lived there, and the human relationships that followed.
There has been, and continues to be, speculation about Cather's personal life, and her relationships, often deeply emotional, with other women. Whatever her sexual orientation was, she did share intimate friendships, and these connections are found in the relationships between her characters. In addition to intense human interactions and nature imagery, Cather's work often comments on the arts-- on music, on painting, on all expressions of the impulse to create. Her work is sometimes romantic, sometimes naturalistic, but always, it compels discussion and thought.
Another interesting study of book covers, for My Ántonia shows that while some artists choose to feature the prairie, others feature a young girl ostensibly on the prarie. Only one features, instead of an element of the story, the author's face, as though that were the most important feature (some might argue it is-- but what does this featuring imply?) None feature the narrator, Jim's, face, despite his dominance in the story.
All quotations and photos on this page come from:
Norris, Kathleen. Foreward. My Antonia. By Willa Cather. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1995.
Book covers courtesy Amazon.com