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"There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they have never happened before."
- O Pioneers!
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Willa Cather
Willa Cather - Journalist and Teacher, Writer and Poet, 1895-1912
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

Journalist and Teacher, Writer and Poet, 1895-1912

Following her graduation in June 1895 Cather returned to Red Cloud for a year, before, through connections she had made while reviewing in Lincoln, she managed to secure a position running the Home Monthly magazine in Pittsburgh. Then an imitator of the Ladies Home Journal, the Home Monthly was not much of a publication but it was an important first step for Cather--she wrote much of the material it published herself, both fiction and nonfiction, commissioned artwork, managed its layout and printing. More than work, in Pittsburgh--then a major city of some 400,000--Cather took full advantage of the city's cultural scene. She attended live performances, wrote criticism for concerts and the dramatic arts for Pittsburgh Daily Leader, sent some of the same material back to the Nebraska State Journal, and pursued an active social life. In many ways, Cather's time in Pittsburgh was her making as a professional, for there she established her own base and her own connections, developing herself as a journalist and a writer of fiction, branching out. After her first year there she left the Home Monthly to work as the telegraph editor on the Pittsburgh Daily Leader; she stayed there and with other journalism until early 1901, when she accepted a high school teaching position in Pittsburgh, later moving across the river to Allegheny, where she taught until she moved to New York in 1906.

The most notable friendship Cather made in Pittsburgh was with Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a prominent Pittsburgh judge. Without question the closest emotional attachment Cather had outside of her immediate family, Isabelle inspired, encouraged and fostered Cather's writing, bringing her into the McClung home in one of the best Pittsburgh neighborhoods (nearby neighbors were the Carnegies, the Fricks) and providing a quiet space where Cather could write. The two set off in 1902 on Cather's first trip to Europe--to Britain and France; there they met Dorothy Canfield, a friend of Cather's from Lincoln who would become a prominent writer herself, and the three had made a well-known visit with A. E. Houseman, then a poet Cather much admired.

While still writing fiction, Cather was then concentrating on poetry--her first book, April Twilights, appeared from a vanity press in 1903. It was well-reviewed and, along with the stories she had been publishing and the connections she had made, probably played some role in Cather's coming to the attention of S. S. McClure, then one of America's best-known editors. His McClure's Magazine had become synonymous with the exposure and eradication of social ills--"Muckraking"--and it was also the leading monthly publishing fiction, poetry, and other items of cultural interest. Having heard of Cather from various sources, McClure summoned Cather to New York for an interview in May 1903. This expereimce transformed Cather's situation since, as was his practice, McClure promised her a great deal in that interview; he would publish her stories in his magazine--some she had previously submitted had been rejected--and also in book form. More than that, he would watch and help her career. McClure was as good as his word, since Cather's second book, The Troll Garden, a collection of stories, appeared from McClure, Philips in 1905.

Yet the most momentous result of Cather's first interview with McClure was his decision, when his magazine was having difficulties on its staff in 1906, to offer her a job and bring her to New York. She accepted, and this was the decision that transformed her career. Building upon her solid foundation as an energetic journalist in Lincoln and Pittsburgh, drawing upon her own then still nascent accomplishments as a fiction writer and poet, Cather was placed in 1906 at the nexus of professional literary life in the United States. Along with the magazine's muckraking--a dimension of its offerings which, although some have argued so, Cather never eschewed--McClure and McClure's had relations at the time with most prominent writers writing in English. When she met McClure in 1903, Cather also met his family and Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson, who was visiting the McClures. Among his prominent authors were Joseph Conrad and Henry James, and the magazine was publishing the early poetry of William Butler Yeats. As such a situation confirms, at McClure's Cather herself became one of the most influential editors in America, for by 1908 she was its Managing Editor and deep into its myriad details.

Working at McClure's launched Cather in many ways. Arriving in New York in 1906 she was soon sent to Boston to work on the magazine's biography of Mary Baker Eddy which needed checking and rewriting. There she met Sarah Orne Jewett, subsequently an important literary mentor and also Ferris Greenslet, a prominent editor at Houghton Mifflin. As a reviewer he had been impressed by April Twilights; as an editor he published Cather's first four novels and, even after she shifted publishers, he remained a lifelong friend. At McClure's, too, Cather connected with Edith Lewis, a person she knew from Lincoln who was to be her closest lifetime companion--the two took an apartment together on Washington Square shortly after Cather arrived. They lived together for the rest of Cather's life and, along with McClung, Lewis was to foster Cather's fiction. Because she also came from an editorial background, though, Lewis's work was that of an editorial collaborator while McClung was more of a muse. Scholars are still discovering the specific extent of Lewis's work on Cather's books, but there is no question that her work was far more than technical; much of it was literary.

Ironically, throughout her time at McClure's Cather struggled to break away from the magazine to write--Cather was able to finally leave fulltime editorial work in early 1912. Even so, the connection was critical to Cather's development as a writer--once she had made contact with McClure he published her stories ("The Sculpter's Funeral," "Paul's Case"), but after she arrived there her contributions to the magazine--poems, fiction, nonfiction articles--increased. Even as she left McClure's Cather continued to publish there--it serialized her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, in 1912. Once she had completed her second novel (the one she called her real "first novel," since it offers her true material), O Pioneers!, Cather agreed to listen to S. S. McClure tell he his own story orally; having done so, she wrote his autobiography, one ironically titled My Autobiography. It was published in 1914 and, as is now quite clear, had a major and sustained effect on Cather's narrative technique in her own fiction (see Thacker It's Through).