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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Willa  Cather

Willa Cather 1873to –1947

American writer, known for her depictions of life on the frontier in novels such as My Ántonia. When she was nine years old, her family moved from Virginia to rural Nebraska, where the prairie landscape and the local pioneers had a profound impact on her. In school she earned a reputation for wearing masculine clothing and going by the nickname “William.” At first she wanted to study medicine, but decided to focus on writing after being published in the Nebraska State Journal. She moved to Pittsburgh at 23, then to New York City ten years after, and during this time she worked as an editor, journalist, critic, and poet for publications such as the Home Monthly, the Pittsburgh Leader, and McClure’s Magazine. She also met the editor Edith Lewis, the woman she would live with for the rest of her life. In 1911, Cather left her high-powered managing editor position to focus on fiction. Her first novel was followed up with the widely successful Prairie Trilogy—O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia—and her writing was acclaimed for its straightforward prose and its romantic portrayal of the American west. In 1923, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her World War I novel, One of Ours. But during the Great Depression, her writing fell out of favor, and academic interest wasn’t revived until years after her death. By this time, Cather had become a bit of a mystery. In an attempt to protect her privacy, she burned most of her personal correspondence, and what remained wasn’t permitted to be quoted until 2013. It’s known that she had a number of close female friendships throughout her life, lived with Edith Lewis for 40 years, and wrote all of her books for her friend Isabelle McClung. And although she destroyed anything that might have confirmed her sexuality, she has since been embraced as a lesbian. She has also been reclaimed as one of the great American writers.

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