In the family resettled in Red Cloud, the town that has become synonymous with Cather's name. She described the move in an interview: "I was little and homesick and lonely. So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn the shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life. In addition to the landscape of her new home, Cather was captivated by the customs and languages of the diverse immigrant population of Webster County.
She felt a particular kinship with the older immigrant women and spent countless hours visiting them and listening to their stories.
This exposure to Old World culture figures heavily within Cather's writings and choice of characters. In September , Cather moved to Lincoln to continue her education at the University of Nebraska, initially planning to study science and medicine. She had had a childhood dream of becoming a physician and had become something of an apprentice to the local Red Cloud doctor. Later Cather recalled that seeing her name in print had a "hypnotic effect" on her—her aspirations changed; she would become a writer.
Her reviews earned her the reputation of a "meat-ax critic," who, with a sharp eye and even sharper pen, intimidated the national road companies. While she was producing four columns per week, she was still a full-time student.
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Cather's classmates remembered her as one of the most colorful personalities on campus: intelligent, outspoken, talented, even mannish in her opinions and dress. In June of , one year after graduating from the University, Cather accepted a job as managing editor for the Home Monthly , a women's magazine published in Pittsburgh. While she was turning out this magazine almost single-handedly, she also wrote theater reviews for the Pittsburgh Leader and the Nebraska State Journal. Cather met a fellow theater lover, Isabelle McClung, who quickly became her closest friend.
McClung encouraged the writer's creative streak: when Cather took some time away from journalism to foster her fictional bent, she found comfortable lodging in the spacious McClung family home. During this time, she published April Twilights , a book of verse, and The Troll Garden , a collection of short stories. Her short stories caught the eye of S.
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McClure, editor of the most famous muckraking journal. In , he invited Cather to join his magazine staff. Once again, Cather returned to her work in periodicals, this time enjoying the prestige of editing the most widely circulated general monthly in the nation. She continued to publish short stories and poems, but the demands of her job as managing editor took up most of her time and energy. McClure felt Cather's true genius lay in magazine business: he considered her the best magazine executive that he knew.
Cather, however, remained unfulfilled in the position. Her friend and mentor Sarah Orne Jewett encouraged the writer to leave the hectic pace of the office to develop her craft. By , Cather acted on the advice, leaving her managing position at the magazine. She was just shy of her thirty-eighth birthday and about to embark on a full-time writing career in fiction.
Later she dismissed the work as imitative of Edith Wharton and Henry James, rather than her own material. Cather placed her "shaggy grass country" at the center of the novel, allowing the form of the land to provide the structure of the book. She had taken Jewett's advice to heart, writing about the land and people she knew best, and dedicated this "second first novel" to the memory of her friend. Reviewers were enthusiastic about the novel, recognizing a new voice in American letters. Before writing The Song of the Lark , she met Olive Fremstad, a Wagnerian soprano, who inspired her to create Thea Kronborg in the form of an artist.
The resulting story of Thea Kronborg's development as an opera singer fused Cather's childhood with Fremstad's success.
Jim's first reaction to the landscape undoubtedly parallels the author's: "There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction. Between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge.
At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.
Of Willa Cather’s Lasting Love For the Frontier
When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep. Critics unanimously praised the novel. As she confided to her childhood friend Carrie Miner Sherwood, "I feel I've made a contribution to American letters with that book. In this untamed landscape, young Willa Cather rode her pony about to get to know her foreign-born neighbors who were homesteading on the Great Plains. She observed their struggles to conquer an unforgiving land with its extremes of droughts, blizzards, storms, and prairie fires.
Though it would be some time before she turned her hand to fiction, the Norwegian, Swedish, and German neighbors she grew up around were the basis of characters in her best-known novels, including O Pioneers! Because she had spent time with the local doctor in Red Cloud, her intention was to study medicine.
Recognizing her talent for writing, her college classmates secretly submitted an essay she wrote to the Nebraska State Journal. It was a kind of hypnotic effect. Similarly, without her knowledge, this story was submitted to The Mahogany Tree , a Boston-based literary magazine, by her English professor. Like many authors before and since, Willa first worked as a journalist, starting with a position at the aforementioned Nebraska State Journal as she completed her college studies in the s. Though she was from Virginia and spent much of her adult life in New York City, Willa never got over her deep love for the Great Plains region that had been her home during her formative years.
In a interview she was quoted as saying:. A great many people find it dull and monotonous; they like a church steeple, an old mill, a waterfall, country all touched up and furnished, like a German Christmas card. I go everywhere, I admire all kinds of country. I tried to live in France. But when I strike the open plains, something happens.
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For the setting of her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl , she used the Virginia of her ancestors and her childhood. However, upon the death of a nephew who had served as her last designated executor, copyright of her work passed to the Willa Cather Trust. Though Cather had destroyed much of her own epistolary record, nearly 3, missives were tracked down by scholars, and were collected in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather Willa Cather. Article Media. Info Print Cite. Submit Feedback.
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