Discipline: Literature – fiction

Willa Cather

Discipline: Literature – fiction
Region: Red Cloud, NE
MacDowell Fellowships: 1926

Willa Cather, an American novelist and poet, is remembered for her vivid portrayals of pioneer life on the western plains. Born in 1873, Cather spent her early years in Virginia, before moving with her family at the age of 10 to her grandparents’ homestead, and then Red Cloud, Nebraska, a town that would become synonymous with her name. After graduating from the University of Nebraska, she began her career as a journalist, writing theater reviews for the Pittsburgh Leader and the Nebraska State Journal. In 1901 she took a break from journalism to teach high school English, while continuing to write poetry and short stories. One of her stories caught the attention of S.S. McClure, editor of the famous muckraking journal McClure’s Magazine, in 1906 and the publisher invited Cather to join his staff in New York, where she was to live most of the rest of her life. Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, serialized in McClure’s, was published in 1912. The following year O Pioneers!, the first story of her Great Plains trilogy, was published to enthusiastic reviews. It was followed up by The Song of the Lark (1914) and the unanimously praised, My Antonia (1918), and A Lost Lady (1923). In August of 1926, Cather came to MacDowell and wrote parts of Death Comes for the Archbishop, hailed by critics as “an American classic,” in The Youngstown Studio (renamed Irving Fine Studio in 1972). The novel has consistently been listed on “best novels” lists and is considered an American classic for its somewhat experimental depiction of a life well lived, and for its empathetic portrayal of characters during American western expansion.

Cather died on April 24, 1947, from a cerebral hemorrhage. She had published twelve novels, 58 short stories, and several collections of essays. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the novel One of Ours (1922), the first Prix Femina Americain, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters gold medal. The National Willa Cather Center holds an annual Cather Spring Conference to pay homage to the author's life and legacy in Red Cloud. She owned a home in Jaffrey, NH, where she wrote for many summers and is buried in Jaffrey Center.

From: A Place for the Arts: MacDowell, 1907-2007

While at MacDowell, in the summer of 1926 Cather expressed interest in seeing Grant Reynard’s paintings when she learned that he was a fellow Nebraskan. Over tea in his studio she told him how her desire to do “fine” writing brought her some acclaim, but that “it wasn’t until I suddenly thought of my youth in a great wave of nostalgia for the early Nebraska days that my work took on a new dimension.” She advised him, “the crux of this whole art experience is in that word ‘desire’ – an urgent need to recreate a vital life experience which wells up within and must find release in the writing.” Reynard’s meeting with Cather left him stunned. He recognized that he was “mixed up in arty ambitions” and rethought his whole approach to his work.” Cather never returned to the Colony but her presence was keenly felt the season she was there.


Irving Fine

Willa Cather worked in the Irving Fine studio.

Youngstown Studio was given to MacDowell by friends of Miss Myra McKeown in Youngstown, OH, where she promoted both art and music. It was renamed Irving Fine Studio in 1972 in honor of Irving Fine, a distinguished composer, conductor, and teacher who was a MacDowell Fellow during the 1940s and 1950s. The simple interior of the studio…

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