Where to Start with Willa Cather

By Nicholas Parker
December 7, 2016

Willa Cather. Photo by Associated Press.

It's December 7, and that means we're celebrating Willa Cather's birthday here at NYPL!  Willa Cather was a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet known for her descriptions of life on the American frontier and the immigrant experience. One of the foremost American female writers of the 20th century, Cather penned several novels from the 1910s through the 1930s that were highly popular in their time and are widely read today. They include O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. She died in New York City in 1947, and today is her 143rd birthday.

If you've never been introduced to Cather's work, or you somehow managed to skip reading her in high school English, then you're missing out on some truly gorgeous prose, vivid imagery, and moving, mature stories about plains living. For those of you who don't know where to start with Willa Cather, we've got a list of our favorites, all available to borrow through the Library:

1. My Antonia:

My Antonia is Willa Cather's most famous novel and a great introduction to the world of hardscrabble frontiering and farming she explores in much of her work. The novel chronicles the lives of Jim Burden, an orphan, and Antonia Shimerda, the child of Bohemian immigrants, as they mature and become friends eking out a living in Black Rock, Nebraska. Breathtaking descriptions of the plains landscape and heartwrenching stories of lost souls coming to the frontier to build a better life make this a truly compelling novel for adults and young readers.

2. O Pioneers!

The first book in Cather's "Prairie Trilogy" (which includes My Antonia and The Song of the Lark) is also concerned with the immigrant experience in Nebraska, focusing on the Bergsons, a family of Swedish settlers. After her father's death, Alexandra Bergson takes over the family farm and attempts to keep her family afloat amidst harsh winters, family conflicts, and small-town grudges and loyalties. Brutal, tragic, and spare, O Pioneers! was Cather's first big hit when it was published in 1913, and it's remained an enduring classic for over 100 years since.

3. My Mortal Enemy

One of Cather's later works, My Mortal Enemy is the story of the marriage of Myra Henshawe, who forsakes her family's vast inheritance to marry  Oswald out of love. Painting a bleak picture of romance, Cather chronicles the couple's slide into poverty and illness through the eyes of the young, innocent Nellie Birdseye. This modernist novella on the pitfalls of marriage is one of Cather’s darkest works.

4. The Song of the Lark

The second novel in Willa Cather's prairie trilogy tells the story of Thea Kronberg, who rises from humble beginnings in a small town in Colorado to a career in opera singing. Unlike O Pioneers! and My Antonia, much of the story takes place outside of the plains as Thea's adventure takes her to Chicago, Dresden, Arizona, and New York. This lyrical novel has been described as semi-autobiographical, as Thea's journey from plains to city in pursuit of her art reflects Cather's own career path: she moved from Nebraska to Pittsburgh to New York, which became her home from age 33 to her death.

5. Death Comes for the Archbishop

This novel is based on the lives of two historical Catholic priests, Jean-Baptiste Lamy and Joseph Projectus Machebeuf, and their efforts to create a church in New Mexico, just after the territory was acquired by the United States. Death Comes for the Archbishop is noted for its episodic storytelling and its stark portrayal of the complicated Wild West. It's considered one of the best Westerns of all time, and has ended up on several top 100 lists, including Modern Library's list of the best English-language novels of the 20th century.

6. One of Ours

This book, which is about the journey of Nebraskan Claude Wheeler from unhappy farmer to proud soldier in World War I, won the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1923. One of Ours was criticized by many prominent authors, including Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis, for its heroic and rosy depiction of war, but the American public disagreed, and it became one of the bestselling books of that year.

7. Alexander's Bridge

While Alexander's Bridge is lesser known than her other books, it's unique in her oeuvre for its subject matter, focusing on high society Boston and London rather than the untamed American wilderness. Bartley Alexander, a successful construction engineer known for his grand bridge designs, begins an adulterous affair with his former lover, Hilda Burgoyne. Alexander's midlife crisis and his longing to escape his current life fuels the existential drama of this short read, which was Cather's first book.

Got any other favorite Willa Cather books to celebrate with? Let us know in the comments!