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Willa Cather



Willa Cather (1873-1947), was an American writer respected for her novels set on the American frontier and she set many of her works in Nebraska and the American Southwest. Cather added to the strength of regional writers, with influence from Sarah Orne Jewett, and helped define the unique qualities of life on the frontier as a distinctly American experience.

Born in Virginia, the Cather family mover to Red Cloud, Nebraska when she was ten years old. After graduating from the University of Nebraska she became newspaperwoman and teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She moved to New York City in 1906 to work in a prestigious and influential position as an editor on McClure's Magazine. Cather interviewed and knew many of the prominent writers and artists of her time, and had began publishing her own works of fiction, the first novel was published in 1905. Cather's best known works are O Pioneers!, My Antonia, Song of the Lark, and One of Ours, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

Cather visited the American Southwest and spent time visiting ancient ruins and absorbing the power of the landscape and the resoluteness of the desert and mountain peoples on three summer trips. These experiences were eventually to become embodied in her stories. Her first trip was made to Arizona in 1912 when she visited ruins, majestic canyons, cliff dwellings, and attended a Hopi Snake Dance. In 1915, she returned and visited Mesa Verde, Taos and Santa Fe. In 1925 she returned again and stayed for two weeks with the influential Taos-based New York socialite, Mable Dodge Luhan and visited with D.H. and Freida Lawrence.

The Professors' House

Song of the Lark

Song of the Lark, which we feature an excerpt from her in Camp Internet, was written after her 1912 trip to Arizona and published in 1915. It includes a section called The Ancient People. This section of the book is filled with her personal first hand impressions of the ruins of an ancient cliff dwelling community, and her imaginings of what these mysterious long gone inhabitants must have felt, thought, and valued in their lives.

The heroine is Thea Kronborg who had been raised in a Colorado frontier mining town and dreamed of becoming a famous singer. She moves to Chicago for awhile, receives singing training, meets influential people (who will eventually help her move her career forwards), but is feeling her efforts there have failed. At the time of our part of the story, she escapes to a ranch in Arizona to rest and think about what she wants from her career and for her life. It is a time for reflection, and also a time where she has experiences that the author tells us help her build the inner strength and character to then launch a demanding career as an opera singer. Like Cather, Thea eventually chooses to devote her entire life to her career and does not marry (but there is a romantic interest for Thea in this part of the story, Ottenberg, a man who remains a devoted friend that visits her around the world as she travels between Europe and the United States developing her fame as an opera singer.)

More on Willa Cather

Sections 1-4 focus on exploring Panther Canyon, suitable all grades

Song of the Lark, IV

The Ancient People, I
The Ancient People, II
The Ancient People, III
The Ancient People, IV

Suggested for middle and high school reading

The Ancient People, V
The Ancient People, VI
The Ancient People, VII