The Paris Review

Willa Cather, Pioneer

Willa Cather was not a flashy stylist, and though she was ambitious in her work, she did not attach it to a publicity-worthy life like some of her contemporaries, such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cather’s first book of poetry came out in 1903, when she was twenty-nine; her first book of stories followed a couple years later, when she was thirty-one. Her last novel appeared in 1940, and a volume of three more stories was published in 1948, shortly after she died. Forty-five years is a long career for a novelist, but she possessed an intensity of observation and a curiosity about human psychology, especially as it relates to nature, that never waned. My Ántonia is one of her best-loved books, and it displays all the characteristics that make Cather both elusive and fascinating even as it depicts a world that vanished almost as soon as the novel was published.

Willa Cather was born in an interesting spot in the mountains of Virginia, near Winchester, on the banks of a tributary of the Potomac, Back Creek. The family properties (one owned by her grandfather, another given to her father by her grandfather) were about ninety miles from Washington, D.C., and fifty miles from prosperous plantation regions like Loudon County. But—perhaps especially after the Civil War—it was difficult to make a living in the mountains and dangerous because of tuberculosis outbreaks, so Cather’s father and mother, Charles and Mary Virginia, took Willa and the other children (eventually there were seven in all) to rural Nebraska. After their first winter in the country, they settled in Red Cloud, a new town six miles north of the Kansas border and about

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