The authors featured in our exhibit American Voices represent the evolution and flourishing of American writing. Writers of the 1600s and 1700s borrowed forms and themes from Europe, applying them to New World settings and issues. Then, over the course of the 1800s, a new, democratic style emerged, rooted in the way Americans talked and thought. Previously underrepresented voices began to be heard, culminating with an explosion of perspectives in the modern era. Taken together, this rich literary heritage reflects America in all of its complexity: its energy, hope, conflict, disillusionment, and creativity.
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
After graduating from college, Willa Cather left Nebraska for Pittsburgh and then Manhattan, where she stayed until the end of her life—but the American West would always be her great literary subject.
My Ántonia (1918), the story of two young people growing up on the frontier, is considered her finest work. “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one-half so beautiful as My Ántonia,” wrote critic H. L. Mencken. Cather won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours (1922), about the restless son of a Nebraska farmer, whom she modeled on a cousin killed during World War I.
For an 1897 article in The Home Monthly, using the pen name Helen Delay, Cather recalled playacting with her brother. “We were at the age when children unconsciously dramatize and enact what they read,” she wrote. “The fact that I was a girl never damaged my ambitions to be a pope or an emperor.” Indeed, upon entering college, Cather was inclined toward a medical career. She went on house calls with a local doctor and even referred to herself as “Wm. Cather, M.D.”
Cather began her career in journalism, working for newspapers and magazines. After publishing her first novel in 1912, she focused on fiction but continued occasionally to publish nonfiction. Her 1922 essay, “The Novel Démeublé,” muses on the difference between novels and journalism, art and fact:
“If the novel is a form of imaginative art, it cannot be at the same time a vivid and brilliant form of journalism. Out of the teeming, gleaming stream of the present it must select the eternal material of art.”—Willa Cather