Willa Cather's most popular novels today feature strong female protagonists who emerge as uncompromising artists. Alexandra Bergson, Thea Kronborg, and Ántonia Shimerda each possess vision and energy, and all three fight to overcome great obstacles.
But when Cather wrote O Pioneers! (1913), she never expected anyone to see greatness in a slow-moving novel set in Nebraska that focused on a Swedish immigrant, Alexandra. No American writer before her had tried to write seriously about Swedish settlers, and Cather contradicted the vaudeville stereotypes. Dedicated to Isabelle McClung, The Song of the Lark (1915) focuses on Thea Kronberg, an aspiring opera singer who leaves her Colorado home to pursue success in Chicago. My Ántonia's (1918) Bohemian heroine prevails despite a tragedy, tames the land, and raises twelve children.
This so-called prairie trilogy was not Cather's most widely read work in her own day. World War I ended as My Ántonia was published, and Cather's cousin's death in battle at Cantigny took hold of her imagination. Her Pulitzer-Prize winning war novel One of Ours (1922) was based on journals and letters from the front and her travels to French battlefields. Despite the scorn of many critics, including Ernest Hemingway, the public loved it. The $19,000 in royalties she received from Knopf that year meant she would never have financial trouble again. (Compare this to the $1,700 she earned in two years for My Ántonia!)
When Cather said that "the world broke in two" in 1922, this brokenness did not derive only from the tragedy of the Great War. A melancholy pervades her later work, based partly on several personal sorrows: the marriage of Isabelle McClung, the death of Cather's father, and her own health problems. Another five-year burst of brilliant fiction—according to both critics and the public—resulted in A Lost Lady (1923), The Professor's House (1925), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). All three remain beloved classics to this day.
While all Cather's fiction evokes the past, her later fiction draws on ever more distant histories. Death Comes for the Archbishop and "Shadows on a Rock" (1931) are set in the nineteenth and seventeenth centuries, respectively, painting the Catholic and French presence in the New World. In her last completed novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), Cather finally revisits her native Virginia to reconstruct the most memorable event of her childhood: the return of Nancy Till, the ex-slave whom Cather's grandmother Boak had secretly delivered to underground railroad agents years before. Her final, uncompleted manuscript went even farther back: to the Middle Ages. Critic Joan Acocella believes these last novels plow the same furrow: the idea that "to desire something is to have as much of it as you will probably ever have. The mind dreams; life mocks the dream. The only real life is in the imagination, in desire and memory." No American novelist described this dream with more lyrical power than Willa Cather.
"A book is made with one's own flesh and blood of years. It is cremated youth. It is all yours—no one gave it to you."
—Willa Cather, 1921
"There was the material in [My Ántonia] for a lurid melodrama. But I decided that in writing it I would dwell very lightly on those things that a novelist would ordinarily emphasize, and make up my story of the little, every-day happenings and occurrences that form the greatest part of everyone's life and happiness."
—Willa Cather, 1921