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« Woolf and Cather | Main | The Novel: A Product of the Middle Class »
Monday
Apr112011

A Willa Cather Time Line

MY ANTONIA is, of course, our first Cather novel. We will undoubtedly return to the well several times if we keep up the book group at the library. Cather's novels are so evocative--and so troubling. Real mixed bags.

But before that, you might like a little run-down of Cather's rather full life. (Another mixed bag!) Here are some important dates:

1873. Born December 7th near Winchester, Virginia, on the family farm. Named for her aunt Wilella; called "Willie" by her parents. Family includes members who had fought in the Revolutionary War and for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

1877. Her paternal grandparents move to Webster county, Nebraska, where one son is already a farmer.

1883. After a fire incinerates the barn in Virginia, she, her parents, siblings, maternal grandmother, and cousins pick up and move to Nebraska, which Willa calls "as bare as a sheet of iron." Lives with paternal grandparents. Begins visiting the homesteads of Scandinavian, Russian, German, and Czech settlers. Goes to school only intermittently; develops intense relationships with pioneer women. May have contracted a mild case of polio.

1884. Her father moves the family to a small frame house in Red Cloud, Nebraska (still the site of the Willa Cather museum). Cather attends school regularly. Local grocery man, a British immigrant, teaches her Latin and Greek.

1888. Begins cropping her hair and wearing men's clothes. Calls herself "William Cather." Plays Beauty's father in a production of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at the Red Cloud Opera House.

1890. Graduates from Red Cloud High School in a class of three; delivers graduation speech entitled "Superstition versus Investigation," in defense of science. Moves to Lincoln to enter preparatory school before the University of Nebraska.

1891. Matriculates to the university where she forgoes science for studies in Greek, Latin, Renaissance literature, and French literature. First published essay, "Concerning Thomas Carlyle," published in the Nebraska State Journal.

1892. First short story ("Peter") published in a Boston literary magazine. Before returning home for the summer, writes a love letter to a friend, declaring it "unfair" that female affection should be labeled "unnatural." Becomes the editor of the university's literary magazine and abandons men's clothes.

1895. Graduates from the university and becomes associate editor of the Lincoln Courier. Travels to Chicago for the opera, the beginning of an eduring fascination with the genre.

1896. Returns to Red Cloud. Complains of isolation; begins dating letters as from "Siberia." Moves to Pittsburgh to assume the editorship of "Home Monthly," a women's magazine. Continues publishing stories and poems in national journals.

1897. Resigns from the magazine but continues to be a columnist. Enjoys a week in New York seeing the complete Wagnerian cycle at Carnegie Hall. Returns to Pittsburgh after a summer in Red Cloud to write full-time.

1899. Meets Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent Pittsburgh family--begins a lifelong friendship. Loves to visit her at home with her parents ("chez the goddess"). Travels extensively (Red Cloud, New York, Washington D. C., Wyoming).

1901. Moves in the Isabelle in her parents' home in Pittsburgh. Continues a grueling publishing schedule. Visits the popular, romance-fiction novelist E. D. E. N. Southworth in Washington D. C. and is amazed by the thousands of letters sent her every year by her fans. Begins teaching Latin at Central High School in Pittsburgh.

1902. Travels with Isabelle McClung to Europe from June to September.

1903. "A Death in the Desert" published in Scribner's magazine. Collection of 37 poems also published. Is called to New York by S. S. McClure who promises to publish her stories in the magazine and collect them as a book.

1905. First collection of short stories ("The Troll Garden") published by McClure. Travels the west with Isabelle. Teaches English at Pittsburgh high school. Attends birthday dinner for Mark Twain on December 5th at Delmonico's in New York.

1906. Moves to New York City (60 Washington Square South) to work as an editor at McClure's magazine. Describes life at the magazine as "working in a high wind."

1907. Moves to Boston for McClure's where she will research a book on the life of Mary Baker Eddy. Enjoys a very active social calendar.

1908. Meets Annie Fields, the widow of Boston publisher James T. Fields. She and Annie begin an intense relationship. Also moves into 82 Washington Place with Edith Lewis, a fellow editor at McClure's. Travels to Europe with Isabelle McClung. Complains repeatedly of exhaustion.

1909. Assumes sole editorship at McClure's. Goes to England to solicit manuscripts--meets H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford. Cather writes Annie Fields that life is "dark and purposeless" without her.

1910. Hospitalized for mastoiditis. Travels again to England for McClure's. Visits Annie Fields in Boston. Takes leave of absence from McClure's and spends three months in Cherry Valley, New York, with Isabelle McClung, where Cather begins writing long-form fiction.

1911. Ill again--and journeys to Winslow, Arizona, to recuperate at her brother's home. Begins lifelong fascination with the American southwest. Starts writing O, PIONEERS, her first novel of the Nebraska trilogy that will conclude with MY ANTONIA.

1913. O, PIONEERS published to rousing critical and commerical success. Moves in with Edith Lewis at 5 Bank Street in New York City.

1914. Hospitalized with blood poisoning from a hat-pin scratch. Spends most of the year recuperating in Pittsburgh at Isabelle's house (her parents') and writing the second prairie novel, THE SONG OF THE LARK.

1915. Annie Fields dies. Spends summer in the southwest with Edith Lewis; spends fall in Pittsburgh with Isabelle McClung. THE SONG OF THE LARK published. H. L. Mencken declares that Cather is among the "small class of American writers who are serious."

1916. Isabelle McClung unexpectedly marries violinist Jan Hambourg; Cather is devastated. Heads to the Southwest with Edith Lewis. Smarting from Isabelle's marriage, begins MY ANTONIA on her return to New York.

1917. Work on MY ANTONIA is slow. Goes to New Hampshire to visit Isabelle and Jan Hambourg in Jaffrey. Continues working on MY ANTONIA "in a tent pitched in a meadow." Begins almost annual trips to Jaffrey, even when Isabelle is no longer there.

1918. Travels to Red Cloud to cook for the family while her mother is ill. Finishes MY ANTONIA in June; published in September to good reviews but slow sales.

1920. Signs contract with Knopf. H. L. Menken to publish a story ("Coming, Aphrodite!") which eventually proves too salacious for his magazine "Smart Set." Works on her next novel (ONE OF OURS--about a fallen World War I soldier) in Toronto.

1923. A LOST LADY serialized in "Century" from April to June. Wins Pulitzer Prize for ONE OF OURS. Earns $19,000 in royalties, a princely sum.

1924. Sells film rights to A LOST LADY for $12,000.

1925. Film opens to Cather's horror at the adaptations involved; vows that no movie rights will ever be sold from her books again--and so begins lifelong attempt to control any access to her papers or writings. Travels to the southwest and begins writing DEATH COME FOR THE ARCHBISHOP.

1927. Travels extensively in the American west. Moves with Edith Lewis to the Grosvenor Hotel at 35 Fifth Avenue. Returns to Red Cloud for Christmas.

1928. Father dies of a heart attack; returns home to find a renewed connection to her family. Recieves an honorary degree from Columbia (one among many). Summers on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy off New Brunswick. She will eventually buy the only piece of property she will ever own on Grand Manan Island.

1929. Elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; recieves an honorary degree from Yale. Summers again on Grand Manan. Mother falls ill while visiting children in California; mother is eventually warehoused in a sanitarium in California for the rest of her life. Cather depressed, finds work difficult.

1931. Recieves honorary degrees from Berkeley and Princeton; goes to Europe with Edith Lewis, then returns to Canada. Mother dies--is not able to leave Grand Manan in time to attend funeral. SHADOWS ON THE ROCK published with over 150,000 copies sold by the end of the year. Travels to Red Cloud for Christmas--her last visit to Nebraska.

1932. Moves to 570 Park Avenue with Edith Lewis who is now a copy-writer at J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. An increasingly ascerbic figure on the New York social scene.

1933. Becoming isolated and reclusive. Spends more time on Grand Manan Island. Sprains wrist that summer--the inflammation extends up her arm and down into her hand, making writing a painful task. Writes legal prohibition against any of her books being made into films (a provision later carried forward in her will).

1935. LUCY GRAYHEART published; critics pan it, accuse her of a "supine romanticism" that ignores contemporary problems. Spends a great deal of time in Europe with Edith Lewis.

1936. More time on Grand Manan. Claims that "the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts" and that she belongs in the "other half."

1938. Isabelle (McClung) Hambourg dies. Cather writes: "People often write books for just one person, and for me Isabelle was that person." Continues pilgrimages to Jaffrey, Hew Hampshire.

1940. Writes SAPPHIRA AND THE SLAVE GIRL, a novel made from her memories of childhood in Virginia.

1941. Hand pain and recurrent illness keep Cather in the hospital for months. Eventually has her gall bladder and appendix out at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City but never comes back to full health.

1943. World War II keeps her away from her beloved home on Grand Manan Island. Begins spending months on Mount Desert Island in Maine.

1946. Turns down Viking's offer to publish "The Portable Willa Cather"--"I simply refuse to be portable." Writes a will that includes tight restrictions on using her papers for scholarship and also seals off her works from film and stage.

1947. Dies in New York on the afternoon of April 24th of a cerebral hemorrhage; buried in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

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