April 24

This Day in History

Old West

Apr 24, 1947:

Author Willa Cather dies

Willa Cather, the author of several celebrated novels examining the lives of western pioneers, dies in New York.

Born in Virginia in 1873, Cather moved with her family to Red Cloud, Nebraska, when she was 10 years old. Although she did not attend regular school until high school, she was a bright student who eventually earned a degree from the University of Nebraska. She had long dreamed of being a writer of fiction, but initially she took a more secure route, working as a journalist and editor in New York City. In 1894, she had a chance encounter with the author Stephen Crane, who encouraged her desire to write fiction.

In 1903, Cather published a book of poems and, two years later, a collection of short stories. Although well received by critics, sales were modest. Significantly, neither of these books, nor her first novel (Alexander's Bridge, published in 1912), dealt with the frontier West. Still, by 1912, Cather was earning enough money from her writing to quit her job in New York and devote herself to writing full time. That same year, Cather and her brother made a trip to the Southwest, sparking her interest in the western frontier as a setting for her novels.

In her next novel, O Pioneers! (1913), Cather first developed the frontier themes that would give her works a uniquely western voice. Five years later, she produced her best-known work, My Antonia. These two novels, along with her 1927 work, Death Comes to the Archbishop, established Cather as a brilliant novelist focusing on the American pioneer experience.

Though Cather's novels unflinchingly explore the hardships of pioneer life, they also celebrate the optimism of hardworking men and women who are confident of better days to come. Criticized by some for romanticizing pioneer life and by others for portraying it too harshly, Cather's goal had never been to recreate accurately a vanished period from the past. Rather, she used her frontier settings as a useful stage on which to examine broader universal themes, like the power of humans to overcome adversity through faith in the future.

By choosing to set many of her novels in the West, Cather was instrumental in creating a serious literature for a region that had previously provided fodder primarily for dime novelists.

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