Born on a sheep farm near Winchester, Virginia, in 1873, Willa Cather was named Wilella after her aunt (Willa was her own invention). Cather's grandparents left Virginia for Nebraska in 1877, but the burning of the family's sheep barn gave the final push for her father to uproot his family in 1883. The journey from Virginia's lush mountains to Nebraska's open range shocked the nine-year-old Cather, a transforming experience she later described as "a kind of erasure of personality."
After eighteen months on her grandparents' farm, the Cather family moved to the prairie town of Red Cloud. The privacy of her attic room afforded Cather countless hours to read adventure books, Russian and British novels, and Shakespeare's plays. When she left Red Cloud at age sixteen to attend the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, she wanted to be a surgeon. But after her freshman English professor secretly published her essay on Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle, she decided to become a writer.
Twenty years passed between the publication of this first essay and her first novel. A year after her college graduation, Cather left Nebraska for Pittsburgh to work as the editor of Home Monthly.
In 1899, Cather met Isabelle McClung, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent Pittsburgh judge. Cather later declared that all her books were written for McClung, and their intimate friendship would continue until the latter's death in 1938.
While living at the home of the McClungs, Cather taught English and Latin at two Pittsburgh high schools (1901-1905). During this time she wrote the stories and poems that led to her employment as associate editor of McClure's Magazine in New York.
Between 1906 and 1912, Cather became the foremost woman in American journalism. After she published a book of poetry, a collection of short stories, and her first novel, the separation between her journalism and her art became more pronounced. At age thirty-eight, she gathered enough strength to take a leave of absence from her prestigious job at McClure's, eventually leaving the magazine for good after a transformative trip to the Southwest. In a remarkable five-year period of productivity, she wrote three American masterpieces: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918).
By the mid-1920s, Cather was one of America's best-loved writers. She won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours in 1923, made the cover of Time in 1931, and received the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1944. She died on April 24, 1947, at her home in New York, never finishing a final novel set in medieval Avignon. Despite her acquired affection for the Nebraskan prairie, she chose to be buried on a hillside in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, a place she had loved and returned to every year after her first trip there in 1916. Her grave includes a citation from My Ántonia: "that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."
"The further the world advances the more it becomes evident that an author's only safe course is to cling to the skirts of his art, forsaking all others, and keep unto her as long as they two shall live."
—Willa Cather, 1894