Willa Cather


The sun was peeking over the distant horizon as I followed the winding, southern New Hampshire roads. I was headed to the community of Jaffrey, located in the shadow of Grand Mondanock Mountain. Arriving in town, I parked in the gravel lot next to the Meeting House, which still cast its shadow over the Old Burying Grounds.

As I walked over to the historic cemetery, I noticed a man standing at the grave I had come to visit. He was setting up his camera as I stepped through the gate and wanting him to have his time at the gravesite, I wandered about the cemetery scanning the older graves. The graves of Amos and Violate Fortune immediately caught my attention. Their story was engraved on the stones. Amos’ stone read “Who was born free in / Africa, a slave in America, / he purchased Liberty, / professed Christianity, / Lived reputably & / died Hopefully.” Violate’s grave held a similar inscription: “By sale the slave of / Amos Fortune by Marri / age His wife, by her / fidelity His friend and / slace, She died his widow.” Note: The word solace was engraved without the “o,” which was added right above the “S” in slace.

Another grave that I sought while waiting was the grave of Talcott Parsons. A sociologist and author who taught at Harvard, he believed sociological studies should include findings from both economics and anthropology. His best-known book was Structure And Process In Modern Societies.

I glanced up from Parsons’ gravesite to see the man was finishing with his pictures so I began to walk toward the corner of the cemetery. We passed greetings as he walked toward the gate and I took my place to pay my respects to one of my all-time favorite authors: Willa Cather.

As I stood at her grave, I immediately noticed her birth date was wrong. It states that she was born in 1876, a year she often used, but that was not the correct date of her birth.

Born Wilella Sibert Cather on December 7, 1873 in Back Creek Valley near Winchester, Virginia, she was the oldest of seven children of Charles and Virginia Cather.  When she was nine years old, the family moved from Gore, Virginia to Red Cloud, Nebraska. Willa fell in love with the prairie and got to know many of her immigrant neighbors, who provided her with the material that would fill her novels.

Although Cather’s early education came from her mother, she was able to attend the University of Nebraska. Her plans were originally to study medicine, but decided to pursue journalism. In 1895, after receiving her degree, Willa moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she took an editing position for Home Monthly and taught high school. While in Pittsburgh, she met Isabelle McClung, a socialite with whom Cather would live with and tour part of Europe. McClung encouraged Cather’s writing and even after they separated, the two remained close, even after McClung married.

Cather was still living in Pittsburgh when her first book was published. April Twilights, a collection of poems, was published in 1903, which was followed in 1905 by The Troll Garden, a collection of short stories. The following year she took a position at McClure’s Magazine in New York City where she worked as an editor until 1911.

In the early 1900s, Cather began a long-term friendship with Edith Lewis while in New York City. The two lived together from 1908 until Cather’s death in 1947. In 1912 Cather published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, which was printed as a serial in McClure’s. The following year, Willa published O Pioneers! Cather’s tale of the Swedish immigrants on the Nebraska frontier captured reader’s attention. She followed it with Song of the Lark in 1915 and My Antonia in 1918. Cather’s next novel, One of Ours, published in 1922 earned her a Pulitzer Prize. In 1928 she published Death Comes for the Archbishop, which often appears on many reading lists to the present day.

In 1931, she published Shadows on the Rock, followed by Lucy Gayheart in 1935. Her final novel was published in 1940 and has a much darker overtone than the rest of her novels. Sapphira and the Slave Girl is set in antebellum Virginia and tells the escape of the slave girl, Nancy to freedom in Canada.

Willa Cather died on April 24, 1947, in New York City at the apartment she shared with Edith Lewis. Lewis was appointed the literary trustee for Cather’s estate and in the wishes of Cather, had destroyed the letters she had kept and also Cather’s final, unfinished manuscript. Cather herself, while alive, destroyed many of her letters and rough drafts. It would not be until 2013, after the death of Willa’s nephew that the remaining letters were finally collected and published.

Note: Scholars have debated why Cather destroyed her letters and unfinished and older drafts and why her will instructed the remaining ones to also be destroyed. Most believe Willa destroyed them and had the rest destroyed due to her private nature.

Buried with Cather is her domestic partner, Edith Lewis. Born December 22, 1882 in Lincoln, Nebraska, she was a magazine editor at McClure’s Magazine. Edith is often considered a mere editor that existed only in connection to Willa Cather. In 1953, she wrote a memoir titled Willa Cather Living. When she died on August 11, 1972, she was buried next to Willa.

I saw another vehicle pulling into the lot and a younger couple got out. Not knowing if they were waiting to visit the gravesite, I finished paying my respects as they lingered near the historic meeting house. As I walked toward the gate to the cemetery, another quote from My Antonia came to mind, one that had stuck with me from the first reading of it many years ago: “Some memories are realities and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.”

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