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Willa Cather

A Distinctive Pioneer: Willa Cather by Barbara Grier alias Beverly Lynch [from Lesbian Lives, Reproduced with permission from the author] Willa Cather was a male-identified woman. In her books she is always the hero. Her memories are set in the mold of a male existence. Yet she is important for us because she was able to project herself into the heroic situations and forms not intended for women. She rose above women of the nineteenth century in thought and creativity to become one of America's greatest writers. Born in 1875 in Virginia, Willa Cather moved at about age eight to the frontier: Red Cloud, Nebraska. There she lived a life similar to her pioneers, creating with her neighbors American in her small town. Surrounded by this culture, she found early that she was destine to be different from the people she knew. First a tomboy and later an overly intelligent young woman, Willa Cather strove to express herself in an environment where self-expression outside of set narrow limitations was considered eccentric and an active mind for a woman was unthinkable. The natural result of her inclinations and their unacceptable consequences was her identification with men and the adoption of the outward trappings of a boy. She wore pants and had short, short hair [and insisted on being addressed as William]. She played much with her brothers and showed an "unnatural" curiosity in high school for the workings of things. Her community condemned her for he biological experiments with animals which were a part of her self-preparation for a career as a doctor. She was encouraged only by her friends- the eccentrics of the community, relatively well-educated older men. Despite all the sufferings being different brought, Willa Cather became a strong individual. She discovered her literary talent at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and began to use it immediately. She helped her family in her college years, from 1891 to 1895, by writing a column for a large newspaper. After college she entered a career of magazine editing at The Home Monthy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She stayed there until 1901 when she took a job in New York with McClure's Magazine. Successful at journalism, Willa Cather also did well when she taught and still had time to write and publish stories in magazines for years before putting together her first book, April Twighlights (1903). With her continued growth in writing she became financially able to support herself through those creative efforts alone and was finally able, before her death in 1947, to publish seventeen books: twelve novels, three books of short stories, one book of poetry and one book of essays. Willa Cather spent most of her life after she left home with two women. The first was Isabelle McClung, a wealthy young woman into whose parents' home she moved at about age twenty-three, sharing a bedroom with her friend, and with whom she first traveled to Europe. In 1903 Willa Cather met Ellen Lewis and they were in and out of each other's lives until they began to live together in 1909. James Woodress, in his biography of Willa Cather, states that although Ellen Lewis was greatly supportive to Willa Cather through her writing career, she never matched the emotional hold Isabelle McClung had on Willa Cather, even after Ms. McClung married. Ms. Lewis has written a not very intimate biography of Willa Cather which nonetheless reflects the depth of her own emotion for and devotion to the author during their life together in Greenwich Village, New York, and in travels through Europe and America. The relevance of this woman to Lesbians may simply lie in the fact that she was a Lesbian. Beyond that tie, however, lies the conflict many Lesbians face in this society, that of the aforementioned male-identified woman. Willa Cather had to think of herself as a man, had to imitate men because she had no other behavior model to follow. The women she could have created in her literature had she been allowed to envision them! She could have written a prototype for Isabel Miller's A Place for Us [also entitles Patience and Sarah]. She could have written of the great strong women who built this country as primary movers, not as appendages to the hearty men she revered. Granted, she did create characters based on women she admired, artistic women, especially singers. She also wrote some stories which were variant ("The Old Beauty" in the collection of the same title). She wrote others which hinted at homosexuality ("Paul's Case) very subtly. But the power of these is lost in their ambiguity and the obvious societal interference with her thought. Now we have a legacy, another man-made legacy, from a woman, who, had she not been cramped and stuffed into dresses and acceptable mores, could have defined and explored her own development and near-transcendence over oppression. Willa Cather is fun to read and important if we watch for her own life in her writing. When we remember that Jim Burden in My Antonia is Willa Cather and we follow his reverence for Antonia, his long and respectful love for her, we can see Willa Cather thinking and feeling, a Lesbian expressing her distinctive Lesbian love. Bibliography By Willa Cather O Pioneers! (1913); The Song of the Lark (1915); My Antonia (1918); Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). About Willa Cather Edith Lewis. Willa Cather Living. N.Y.: Knopf, 1953. James Woodress. Willa Cather, Her Life and Art. N.Y.: Pegasus, 1970. [Also an excellent book about Willa Cather is published by Chelsea Press, in their series of famous gays and lesbians]