Willa Cather - Career


In 1896, Cather moved to Pittsburgh after being hired to write for the Home Monthly, a women's magazine patterned after the successful Ladies Home Journal. A year later, she became a telegraph editor and drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader and frequently contributed poetry and short fiction to The Library, another local publication. In Pittsburgh, she taught Latin, algebra, and English composition at Central High School for one year. She next taught English and Latin at Allegheny High School, where she became the head of the English department.

In 1906 Cather moved to New York City upon receiving a job offer on the editorial staff from McClure's Magazine. During her first year at McClure's, she wrote a critical biography of Christian Science founder, Mary Baker Eddy. While Georgina Milmine's name appears as co-author both in serial and book form – she provided copious amounts of research but was incapable of producing a publishable manuscript – Cather was the principal writer of the biography. Mary Baker Eddy: The Story of Her Life and the History of Christian Science was published in McClure's in fourteen installments over the next eighteen months and later in book form. In 1907 she wrote a short story, "The Namesake", which contains autobiographical significance.

McClure's serialized Cather's first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912). Most reviews were favorable. The New York Times praised "the dramatic situations and the clever conversations," and the Atlantic called the writing "deft and skillful."

Cather followed Alexander's Bridge with her Prairie Trilogy —O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918). These deeply felt works became both popular and critical successes. Cather was celebrated by national critics such as H.L. Mencken for writing in plainspoken language about ordinary people. Sinclair Lewis praised her work for making "the outside world know Nebraska as no one else has done."

Through the 1910s and 1920s, Cather was firmly established as a major American writer, receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for her novel One of Ours. By the 1930s, critics began to dismiss her as a "romantic, nostalgic writer who could not cope with the present." Critics such as Granville Hicks charged Cather with failing to confront "contemporary life as it is" and escaping into an idealized past. During the suffering of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, her work was seen to lack social relevance. Cather's own conservative politics and the same subject matter that appealed to H. L. Mencken, Randolph Bourne, and Carl Van Doren soured Cather's reputation with younger, often left-leaning, critics such as Granville Hicks and Edmund Wilson. Discouraged by the negative criticism of her work, Cather became reclusive. She burned letters and forbade anyone from publishing her letters.

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