Willa Cather believed in a personal intimacy between reader and writer

Her rich prose rang with the strength and grace of a poet.

Much of Willa Cather’s whole life was fiction. She scripted it herself.

Don’t like life?

Don’t like where it’s headed?

Don’t like yourself?

Don’t like the world around you?

Change it.

Revise it.

Make it up to suit yourself.

Willa Cather did it all of her life.

She was properly, officially, and legally named Wilella, but she hated it. She insisted on calling herself Willie instead. In time, she had herself baptized as William Cather, Jr. She was born in 1873. But for whatever reason, she decided that 1876 was a better year, so she spent the rest of her days three years younger than she really was.

No one ever had a reason to question her.

No one cared.

Willa Cather did.

Willa Cather

Her mother had every intention of raising Willie Cather as a proper and genteel young lady. But Willie cropped her hair short, wore men’s clothing, and did not get around to dressing like the woman she was until she was a junior in college.

She wrote her life, one day at a time, as she went along. And the life she led became the stuff of fiction. Every moment, every memory was ingrained in her senses, each sight and sound lodged in her brain. They would remain locked away until she needed them, and she needed them every time she sat down to write.

Though born in Virginia to a Southern family that had stayed steadfast and loyal to the Union during the Civil War, brought up on land that still bore the scars and bloodshed of war, scars festering with pain and emotions that were slow to heal, Willa Cather journeyed at a young age with her family to Red Cloud, Nebraska.

As a child, she had lived in the shadows of the mountains. Now, the plains stretched before. Empty. And barren. She was horrified.

As Willa Cather would write in her brilliant novel, My Antonia, “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.”

As she would later say in an interview: “The land was open range, and there was almost no fencing. As we drove farther and farther out in the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything … 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 heard my father say you had to show grit in a new country.”

The new country would have a lasting influence on the dozen novels and numerous short stories that flowed from the mind of Willa Cather. Even she would say that the land was the hero of her novels, the land and the intriguing culture that evolved around her.

With nothing to do, she roamed the prairies on her pony and met an odd assortment of Bohemian immigrants who had settled the open country – the Germans, Swedish, and Norwegians. They spoke with different accents and brogues.

They told different kinds of tales, and Willa Cather listened to them all, stockpiling the stories, and storing up all of the details that would one day spill out onto the pages of O Pioneers!, My Antonia, The Song of the Lark, and One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

She was a stylist. Her rich prose rang with the strength and grace of a poet as she turned out such passages as The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers … I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or good and knowledge. At ay rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

Cather’s fiction created a personal intimacy between writer and reader.

It was honest.

It was authentic.

It was genuine.

Willa Cather wrote a story, The Best Years, for her brother, Roscoe. As she was getting ready to send the story to him, she received a telegram telling her of his death.

Willa Cather set the story aside and never wrote again.

When she died, her last novel, set in France and almost finished, was burned as her final request.

She kept her last great words and stylistic passages to herself.

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  • Sally Berneathy

    What a remarkable woman! I read her works, but knew nothing about her personal life. Thanks for sharing this. Of course, I love reading anything you write!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You are kind. I’m just glad to know a bestselling author who deals in death and chocolate. Next week, I am publishing a blog on Willa Cater’s advice on writing.

      • Sally Berneathy

        Can’t wait to read it! “Kind” isn’t a word that’s often used to describe me! “Brutally honest” is more like it!

        • Caleb Pirtle

          I would choose brutally talented for you.

          • Sally Berneathy

            Thank you! I’m sure everybody would agree on the “brutal” part!

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