Willa Cather, born in 1873, moved from Virginia to Nebraska when she was ten years old. Though she did not live there for much beyond her formative years, her memories would go on to inspire several of her stories and, most famously, her Prairie Trilogy. In her 1918 novel My Ántonia, the final novel of her Prairie Trilogy, written a few decades after Cather left Nebraska, she would describe Nebraska at this time, through her protagonist Jim Burden, as “a place where there was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the materials out of which countries were made.”
Certainly, many of us today, when we think of Cather at all (I feel she should be at the center of many more American Literature courses, alongside her contemporary Edith Wharton), think of her stories about Nebraska. There’s good reason for this — the books and stories about Nebraska or Nebraska natives are several and many are important masterpieces of American literature — but I sometimes worry that, as much as we may love Cather as a plains writer, we do her a disservice, the categorization can be reductive. After all, Cather’s career, which spanned from her first (and only) poetry collection, April Twilights, published in 1903, to her final book of stories, The Old Beauty, published just after she died in 1948, is vast is place, time, and, most importantly, humanity. Fortunately, even if we underappreciate her work, it is available for our The Library of America has published three volumes that collect all of Willa Cather’s fiction and much of her other writings, and today you can pick up all three in a wonderfully large boxset: Willa Cather: The Complete Fiction and Other Writings.
The three volumes have been available individually for some time, but for me this is an ideal set, attractive on the shelf, hopefully calling attention to Cather as my kids wander around and wonder just what treasures are on the shelf.
The first volume, Cather: Early Novels & Stories, is the largest, coming in at 1,336 pages, which includes some of her most famous works. The full contents are as follows:
- The Troll Garden: Cather’s debut work of fiction, published in 1905, was this collection of seven short stories: “Flavia and Her Artists,” “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” “A Death in the Desert,” “The Garden Lodge,” “The Marriage of Phaedra,” “A Wagner Matinee,” and “Paul’s Case.” Many of these stories involved young men and women, often of an artistic bent, trying to pull themselves out of the rut in which they were born. Remarkably, even in this debut, Cather has a mature sensitivity to mortality and the swift passage of life.
- O Pioneers!: I mark one of the most important reading and conscious-shifting moments of my life with this book. I was in college, I didn’t know who Cather was, and this book, to be honest, didn’t look appealing, especially to a young man who grew up in Idaho hearing about pioneers all the time, who found the land boring, who thought there were bigger stories elsewhere. This book, the first in Cather’s so-called Prairie Trilogy, was first published in 1913, but in the fall of 2000 it deeply affected me, causing me, for perhaps the first time, to look beyond the surroundings to the beating hearts of individuals who grew up in a landscape not unfamiliar to me. I’m sure it primed my love for Alice Munro.
- The Song of the Lark: I still haven’t read this central novel in Cather’s trilogy, published in 1915, but I’m excited to fix that. Though the name of the trilogy places this on the plains, it ranges from Chicago, to Colorado, to the American Southwest.
- My Ántonia: This 1918 novel was the second book by Cather that I read, and, much like O Pioneers!, it left an indelible impression on me. I don’t particularly remember the plot points well (so a reread is definitely welcome), but I remember feelings, atmosphere, loneliness, loss, great confusion about time and this whole thing called life.
- One of Ours: Published in 1922, this World War I novel won the Pulitzer Prize. The novel begins in Nebraska as a young man named Claude Wheeler comes of age and quickly discovers the life he is living is completely different from the life he expected and felt he deserved. He finds himself without purpose, but purpose shows up when he is sent to France. Though given the Pulitzer Prize, it is not one of Cather’s great works, but that doesn’t mean it is not worthy of her name.
- This volume also comes with an extensive Chronology an accompanying Notes on the Texts put together by editor Sharon O’Brien.
The second volume, Cather: Later Novels, is my personal favorite for the main reason that it includes my favorite of Cather’s books — so far — Death Comes for the Archbishop. I’ve also heard such good things about many of the others that, if less famous than the novels in the first volume, the pickings here feel like hidden treasures. At a mere 988 pages, the volume includes:
- A Lost Lady: This book, published in 1922, really came to my attention when I read Alice Munro’s “Dulce,” which takes place at the hotel where Cather wrote A Lost Lady. I still have not read it, but it sounds promising, with the central character, Marian Forrester, apparently serving as inspiration for Daisy Buchanan, who would show up a few years later in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
- The Professor’s House: I’ve heard so much loving praise for this book, first published in 1925, that it is like my new Stoner, meaning, it’s a book I almost cannot bear to read yet. It sounds lovely and lonely and ingeniously structured around two narratives. If I were selecting a readalong, this would be it.
- Death Comes for the Archbishop: From 1927, this is my favorite book by Cather among the ones I’ve read. About a Catholic bishop and priest trying and on the surface mostly failing to set up a diocese in New Mexico. A series of vignettes, it remains one of the most peaceful books I’ve ever read.
- Shadows on the Rock: I don’t know much about this one yet, even by reputation, making me think this book from 1931 might be one of Cather’s lesser works. Or I’m just ignorant, which seems just as likely. It does sound fascinating, though: a year-in-the-life of a husband and wife living in seventeenth-century Quebec. I told you that Cather is not just about nineteenth-century life on the prairie.
- Lucy Grayheart: On the other hand, I have heard a lot about this novel from 1935, though I still haven’t read it. It does sound like Cather is returning to some of her earlier themes, though: a young girl growing up in Nebraska wants to escape to pursue an artistic career, this one as a pianist. From the title/name of the character, though, it does sound more somber, as claimed by the jacket flap.
- Sapphira and the Slave Girl: Cather’s final novel, from 1940, is also unread by me. I have a lot of work to do — which will be more apparent when I have almost no insights on the works compiled in volume three . . . In this final novel, Cather goes to the years prior to the American Civil War. Sapphira and her husband own slaves, though reluctantly. The blurb, though, makes this sound like anything but a nice, pedantic book: “When, through kindness, [Sapphira’s husband] refuses to sell a slave, Sapphira’s jealous reaction precipitates a sequence of events that registers a conflict of cultural as well as personal values.”
- This volume also contains the Chronology and Notes on Text arranged by editor Sharon O’Brien.
Finally, the third volume, Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings, brings the page count up again to 1,038 pages. Containing only one novel (or novella, which I haven’t read), this books is mostly composed of stories, poems, and essays. Here’s a look:
- Uncollected Stories 1892 – 1929: This volume starts with fourteen short stories that were never collected in Cather’s published story collections. I have read not one of them, but I’m sure they’ll be a delightful place to dig every once in a while.
- Alexander’s Bridge: This is Cather’s first novel, published in 1912, though it runs only 75 pages in this edition and, thus, is probably more rightly called a novella. It concerns a bridge engineer who has an affair with a former lover.
- Youth and the Bright Medusa: Published in 1920, this collection of eight short stories actually re-uses some of the ones Cather published in The Troll Garden, such as her famous “Paul’s Case.”
- My Mortal Enemy: Published in 1926, this is also sometimes classified as a novel, though it runs barely over fifty pages in this edition. Again, this is one I know nothing about — who is the mortal enemy!? — but I’m anxious to fix that.
- Obscure Destinies: This selection of three longer stories, from 1932, contains my all-time favorite anything by Cather, the story “Neighbor Rosicky.” I’ve read it half a dozen times, and the story about the death of a kindly neighbor always strikes me afresh. I’ve never read the other two, “Old Mrs. Harris” and “Two Friends,” but if they’re half as good . . .
- The Old Beauty and Others: This collection of three stories — “The Old Beauty,” “The Best Years,” and “Before Breakfast” — published in 1948, just after Cather’s death, was Cather’s final published work of fiction. Again, this is completely new territory for me, as I knew nothing of these stories prior to looking into them for this post.
- April Twilights and Other Poems: From the end of her career back to the beginning, this is Cather’s only collection of poems, first published in 1903.
- Not Under Forty: Cather’s 1936 collection of essays contains six essays. Of particular interest to me are the ones on Sarah Orne Jewett (whose A White Heron is also a deeply impacting piece of fiction in my life) and Katherine Mansfield.
- Selected Reviews and Essays 1895 – 1940: The volume ends — other than the Chronology and Notes on the Text by Sharon O’Brien — with a large selection of occasional writings, including essays on Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Kate Chopin, among others, and prefaces and thoughts on her own novels.
The Library of America, always doing superb work, has definitely hit a personal sweet spot with this three-volume set. I hope that those of you who have never read anything by Willa Cather will find some desire to get to know this very important American author. I hoe that those of you have have gotten to know her before are, like me, inspired to go even further.
And now that I have all of her novels handy, I’m inducting Cather into my personal Pantheon of writers I want to keep reading — see that list, which now includes Cather — here.