In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Willa Cather

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Biographical Resources
  • Primary Nonfiction Texts
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • History of Criticism
  • Cather and American Place
  • Cather and the Environment
  • International Influence
  • Cultural and Interdisciplinary Studies
  • Pedagogy
  • Cather and Gender
  • Cather and Sexuality
  • Aesthetic Development
  • Cather and Religion
  • Cather and Other Writers

American Literature Willa Cather
Evelyn Funda
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0062


Born in Virginia, Willa Cather (b. 1873–d. 1947) and her family moved to a homestead in Red Cloud, Nebraska, when she was nine. After a precocious childhood, she enrolled at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1890. Originally a pre-med major, Cather soon changed to an English major and began to regularly contribute theater and book reviews to the local newspaper. After graduating, she moved to Pittsburgh to edit a women’s magazine, in which many of her essays and early fiction appeared under pseudonyms. Later, after a stint teaching high school English, she took a job as managing editor for the muckraking McClure’s magazine in New York City and became the most powerful woman in magazine publishing at the time. There she met Edith Lewis, who would be her partner for nearly forty years. After five years at the magazine, during which she published a collection of poetry (April Twilights in 1903) and another of short stories (The Troll Garden in 1905), Cather devoted herself to writing full-time. Her first novel was Alexander’s Bridge (1912), a novel patterned after Henry James. However, Cather soon realized that she would have greater success writing about the kind of people she had grown up with on the Great Plains, and in 1913 she published O Pioneers!, which was about immigrant efforts to homestead in Nebraska. With this novel, Cather laid claim to the American West as a key setting for her fiction. Her next novel, the autobiographically influenced The Song of the Lark (1915), focused on the rise of an opera star from a provincial hometown that resembles Red Cloud. My Ántonia (1918), which was about a boy who meets a Bohemian immigrant girl in Nebraska, was a critical success. Her World War I novel One of Ours (1922) earned the Pulitzer Prize and began a decade of Cather’s greatest successes, including A Lost Lady (1923), and two novels that moved away from the Nebraska landscape for which Cather had become known. The Professor’s House (1925) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) were substantially set in the American Southwest. Later fiction moved farther afield. Shadows on the Rock (1930) is a pioneering story set in 17th-century Quebec, while Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) portrays the final years of slavery in the Virginia valley where Cather had been born. By the time she died in New York City in 1947, Cather had published a total of twelve novels, three short-stories collections, a poetry collection, a collection of nonfiction essays, and two other nonfiction books that she ghostwrote (the biography of Mary Baker Eddy and the autobiography of her former boss, Sam McClure).

General Overviews and Biographical Resources

Cather scholarship has been fortunate to have several good critical biographies of Willa Cather. Bennett 1995 (originally published in 1951) was the first full-length biography and focuses on her engagement with places and culture. The 1950s were a fruitful time in Cather studies and included Lewis 2000, a biography written by Cather’s life partner of forty years and the first critical biography, and Brown 1980. Cather scholarship was reinvigorated in the 1970s and 1980s as American literature began focusing more on women authors. O’Brien 1987 argued at length that previous scholarship had neglected to understand Cather’s lesbianism; Woodress 1989 is still considered the definitive critical biography. Stout 2000 represents current trends in considering Cather through a cultural studies lens (see also Cultural and Interdisciplinary Studies), while Porter 2010 focuses on the public image Cather established for herself. Geyer 2005 is good for general audiences.

  • Bennett, Mildred R. The World of Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

    Originally published in 1951, this is the first biography by pioneer Cather scholar Mildred Bennett, who established the Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational Foundation and was a leading voice in early Cather scholarship. Offers significant focus on Cather’s childhood in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

  • Brown, E. K. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. New York: Avon, 1980.

    Originally published in 1953 by Cather’s publisher, Knopf, this critical biography was written in cooperation with Cather’s partner Edith Lewis. Until Woodress 1989, it was the best critical biography used by Cather scholars.

  • Geyer, Joel, dir. Willa Cather: The Road Is All. DVD. American Masters Series. Arlington, VA: PBS Home Video, 2005.

    Good PBS documentary of Cather’s life that is accessible to a nonacademic audience and students. Includes interviews with key literary scholars.

  • Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

    Originally published in 1953. Lewis was Cather’s life partner for nearly forty years; however, her biography makes no mention of Cather’s lesbianism, nor is it very personal. Lewis aimed to enhance Cather’s reputation after her death, and the biography focuses on Cather’s writing process and sources for her fiction.

  • O’Brien Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

    O’Brien’s work, which focuses on Cather’s developing sexual and artistic identity during her childhood and young adulthood, was somewhat controversial when it came out in 1987 because some scholars felt she focused on Cather’s sexuality to the exclusion of other topics popular at the time (such as landscape); however, the book is now considered a key work of scholarship. O’Brien examined sources that had been unavailable to scholars previously.

  • Porter, David H. On the Divide: The Many Lives of Willa Cather. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.

    Analyzes the development of images that Cather developed for herself through promotional activities against the very different private life that she shared with family and friends. Includes discussions of the Mary Baker Eddy biography that Cather wrote and her friendship with Sarah Orne Jewett.

  • Stout, Janis P. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

    Stout portrays Cather’s connections to the issues of modernist writers and thinkers. Linking her to the intellectual controversies of her day, Stout shows a Cather who was much less self-assured and more ambivalent than other biographies showed her to be. Stout also complicates the O’Brien vision of Cather’s sexuality.

  • Woodress, James Leslie. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

    Still considered the gold standard of Cather biographies, Woodress’s substantial critical biography is comprehensive and thoroughly researched.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.