WILLA CATHER was born on December 7, 1873, in Back Creek Valley, Virginia. Her father was a sheep farmer. When she was nine the family moved to Nebraska, eventually settling in the frontier village of Red Cloud. As a child Cather read voraciously, learning Greek and Latin from a neighbor, and displayed an early interest in science. At the University of Nebraska she immersed herself in literary studies and began writing stories and essays; following her graduation in 1895 she worked for some years as a journalist and schoolteacher, living part of the time in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., and visiting Europe.
Cather's first book, a collection of poetry called April Twilights, was published in 1903, followed two years later by a book of short stories, The Troll Garden. In 1906 she accepted a job in New York as editor at one of the great American national magazines, McClure's, where she stayed for six years, often doing the bulk of the work of putting out the magazine herself. In 1908 she met the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, whose writing influenced her greatly, and with whom she shared a close friendship until Jewett's death sixteen months later. From 1912 on, Cather devoted herself entirely to writing. For most of her adult life she was based in New York City, but she traveled frequently; she was particularly influenced by her visits to the Southwest from 1912 onward, and to Quebec City beginning in 1928. Her friends included Dorothy Canfield, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Mary Austin, Sigrid Undset, Stephen Tennant, Yehudi Menuhin, and Edith Lewis.
While Cather's first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912), was not particularly successful, in the next--O Pioneers! (1913)--she firmly established the sense of place and the meticulous descriptive style that would inform her best work. She later wrote of O Pioneers!: 'Since I wrote this book for myself, I ignored all the situations and accents that were then generally thought to be necessary.' Her reputation was further enhanced by The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918), and for the war novel One of Ours (1922) she received the Pulitzer Prize. A Lost Lady (1923), My Mortal Enemy (1926), and Lucy Gayheart (1935) were further evocations of the Midwestern setting, but in other works she explored a variety of landscapes and eras: in The Professor's House (1925) the contemporary Southwest; in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) the Southwest in the period of the Spanish missions, treated in what she called 'the style of the legends'; in Shadows on the Rock (1931), seventeenth-century Quebec; and in her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), the nineteenth-century Virginia of her own ancestors.
Cather's later stories were collected in Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920) and Obscure Destinies (1930). Of her approach to fiction, she wrote: 'Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process. . . . Any first-rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it. A good workman can't be a cheap workman; he can't be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise.' Cather was for many years regarded as one of the most important American novelists and was the recipient of many literary prizes and honors. She died in New York on April 24, 1947.