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"We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it for a little while."
- O Pioneers!
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Willa Cather
Willa Cather - The Early Years, 1873-1890
Article Index
Willa Cather
The Early Years, 1873-1890
The University of Nebraska, 1890-1895
Journalist and Teacher, Writer and Poet, 1895-1912
Emerging Writer, 1914-1922
Leading American Author, 1922-1933
The Later Years, 1933-1947
Works Cited
All Pages

The Early Years, 1873-1890

Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia on December 7, 1873, the eldest of an eventual seven children raised by Charles and Virginia Cather. Cathers had been in the area since the 1700s and Back Creek, near Winchester west of Washington, was a place deeply affected by the Civil War. It was a border area, one of the counties in Virginia adjacent to the new state of West Virginia, and the contending armies had vied for control there (Winchester shifted between sides multiple times). The Cathers, who had a sheep farm, were sympathetic to the Union and some of Cather's relations were officials of the reconstruction. Emotions ran deep and the effects of the tumult were slow healing.

In this place Cather's first litmus years were impressed with memories of rural Virginia and of the deep culture of the South while the war's discord, still near at hand when Cather lived there, remained a great fact. This, the place she started out from and eventually returned to in her last novel, Sapphira, gave her memories and imaginative effects which she carried throughout her life. They embody her own repeated "relation with the earth itself." Probably owing to the ongoing frictions caused by the war, when Willa was nine years old Charles and Virginia decided to leave Back Creek for Webster County, Nebraska northwest of Red Cloud. So in April 1883 Cather moved with her extended family--mother, father, three siblings, her maternal grandmother Rachel Boak and two of her grandchildren, and the family's hired girl Margie Anderson and her brother Enoch--to Nebraska. There they joined Cather's paternal grandparents, William and Caroline and her Uncle George and Aunt Franc, who were already homesteading. A district known locally as Catherton.

Cather alighted with her family at the Red Cloud train depot and drove the twelve miles by team and wagon into the country. The family then stopped at the home of Cather's grandparents, where they would live for the next sixteen months. Cather's first impressions of the prairie filled her with awe and fear, as she once told a newspaper interviewer in 1913:

We drove out from Red Cloud to my grandfather's homestead one day in April. I was sitting on the hay in the bottom of a Studebaker wagon, holding on to the side of the wagon to steady myself-the roads were most faint trails over the bunch grass in those days. The land was open range and there was almost no fencing. As we drove further and further out into the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything-it was a kind of erasure of personality.
I would not know how much a child's life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it, if I had not been jerked away from all these and thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron. I had heard my father say you had to show grit in a new country, and I would have got on pretty well during that ride if it had not been for the larks. Every now and then one flew up and sang a few splendid notes and dropped down into the grass again. That reminded me of something-I don't know what, but my one purpose in life just then was not to cry, and every time they did it, I thought I should go under. (Bohkle 9-10)

When she offered this description Cather had just published O Pioneers!, her first and far more literary novel focused on prairie pioneering. It would be followed in 1918 with the more personal My Antonia where the narrative proper begins with the very autobiographical experience Cather described. Transposed to Jim Burden, the narrator, these memories inform his first impressions of the Nebraska prairie-he is newly orphaned, removed to this place which seems otherworldly: "I had never before looked up at the sky where there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it." "Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out" (My Antonia 7, 8).

Cather's removal from the settled and deeply felt culture of postwar rural northern Virginia to the pioneering prairie of the Nebraska Divide--a sensitive child at a critical age--was in many ways her making as an artist. Dropped into such a place at such a time, naturally curious, young Cather made the very most of it during her first year in Nebraska. As she made clear repeatedly after O Pioneers! was published, she had been afforded a rare opportunity for an incipient writer: though sparsely settled, the Divide between the Republican and Blue rivers offered her multiple opportunities to meet and gather information from immigrants and other pioneers who spoke different languages and engaged in other cultural practices. The young Cather, whom Joan Acocella has rightly described as "one of those genius children-a show-off, an explosion, a pest" (Politics 7), listened to these stories and stockpiled the details, not knowing the use she would later put them too in some of her novels.

During her time on the Divide, Cather attended a one-room school house, but Charles Cather was not suited to be a prairie farmer so after about a year and a half in Catherton the family moved into Red Cloud--a decision made in part so the children could receive a better education at the town's school. At that time, Red Cloud was a division point on the Burlington railroad and so sustained a population of about 1,800. Eight passenger trains and several grain trains passed through Red Cloud daily, and a horse-drawn streetcar transferred passengers to and from the depot south of town. The Red Cloud Opera House, now restored by the Willa Cather Foundation, was built in 1885 and was the cultural center of the town--it hosted concerts, speakers, and performers. There the young Willa Cather developed her love for the stage, for musical performance, and for artistry of all sorts.

When they moved to Red Cloud Cather's parents rented a house on Third and Cedar streets and Charles Cather opened an office to deal in real estate, insurance, and loans. Their neighbors, an educated Jewish couple name Wiener, spoke French and German and gave Willa access to their personal library. Mrs. Wiener read her French novels and interpreted them as she went along. Cather's other neighbors, the Miners, quickly became her closest friends. Cather heard serious music for the first time in the Miner house; she would often listen to Mrs. Miner--a talented musician--play the piano. Both the Wieners and the Miners served as prototypes for figures in Cather's fiction--the former appear as the Rosens in one of her best short stories, "Old Mrs. Harris," and in My Antonia Cather recreated the atmosphere in the Miner home by her creation of the Harlings, whose home draws Jim by its activities and society. In the novel Jim is also drawn to the Harlings by the presence of Antonia Shimirda. Growing up in Red Cloud, Cather had also met the Miner's hired girl, Annie Sadilek. Sadilek, an immigrant from Bohemia, had moved to Nebraska with her family where they had initially lived in a dugout house before moving into town; her father had committed suicide. That suicide would become the basis for Cather's first published story, "Peter," and Annie herself would later serve as central to My Antonia.

As Cather grew into adolescence in Red Cloud, she continued to explore the countryside, meet new people, and remained an active presence in the town. As one of "those genius children," it was clear to all that the Cathers' oldest daughter was going somewhere, that she had a future. Cather had befriended the local doctors, so initially she seemed to be defying norms by heading toward medicine. She cropped her hair short, referred to herself as "Willie," William, or "Wm" Cather, M.D., and adopted a generally male form of dress. In 1890, at the age of sixteen, Cather graduated from Red Cloud high school along with two others, both boys. Each delivered a graduation speech on the stage of the Opera House. Cather's--published in the Red Cloud Chief--was an answer to local people who had evidently been critical of her interests in biology and medicine. James Woodress, who published the whole text, called it "a ringing defense of scientific inquiry" which "ranges from the dawn of history to the present moment" (60). Ironically, the Chief foresaw great accomplishment for the two boys but was silent on Cather's prospects.