The great novelist Willa Cather (1873-1947) came from Red Cloud, Nebraska, a dusty little town in farm country. Her parents had seven children and no money. But she was a brilliant child, and, against all odds, she managed to go to college. (Her father borrowed the money.) After graduation, she became a writer in a small way—stories, reviews. At 33, she went to work at a respected New York magazine, McClure’s, where she eventually became the managing editor. For a woman of the time, this was an extremely good job. She got to travel to Europe and meet famous writers.
The problem was that she too wanted to be a famous writer. She was terribly afraid of failing, but finally, at 38, halfway through her life, she took leave from McClure’s and wrote a novel, Alexander’s Bridge, about something of which she was largely ignorant, Bostonians having tea and affairs. The book was a dud, and she knew it. One would expect that at this point she would run back to her job at McClure’s. She didn’t. She returned to her desk and wrote a second novel, this one about something she was familiar with—Nebraskans, and women, and their work. That book and the two that followed it are:
O Pioneers! (1913). This is the story of Alexandra Bergson, the one daughter in a family of poor Swedish immigrants to the Midwest. In Chapter 2, the father dies. Alexandra, not entirely to the satisfaction of her brothers, saves the farm. It is a sad book, but with almost mystical scenes of beauty.
The Song of the Lark(1915). Now Cather makes her young heroine an artist, like herself. Thea Kronborg, again from a Midwestern family of Swedish immigrants, becomes a renowned Wagnerian soprano. The book is too long, which is often the case with autobiographical works, but precisely because it is autobiographical—and tells us how hard Cather had to work to become an artist, and how much she had to sacrifice: comfort, love—it is one of her most touching novels, in a difficult, heart-snagging way.
My Ántonia (1918). This is Cather’s most famous novel, the story of a Czech girl, again from a family of immigrants to the Midwest. Here the poverty is brutal. The family lives in a dugout, which is essentially a cave. When the rains come, snakes dangle from the ceiling. The father, a violinist in the old country, finally gives up, goes to the barn, and puts a bullet in his head. The book has too upbeat an ending, but so do a lot of great novels.
Joan Acocella is a journalist who writes regularly for The New Yorker. She is also the author of several books, including Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism.