Happy Birthday Willa Cather

US #1487 was issued for Cather’s 100th birthday.

Willa Sibert Cather was born on December 7, 1873, in Gore, Virginia. 

In 1883, Cather’s family moved to Nebraska to flee the tuberculosis outbreaks in Virginia.  Her father spent 18 months attempting to run a farm, but ultimately moved the family to Red Cloud, where he started a real estate and insurance business.  It was here that Cather and her siblings first attended school.

US #1198 – Many of Cather’s most famous works were based on her childhood on the family homestead in Nebraska.

Cather’s writing was first published in the local paper, Red Cloud Chief.  She found lots of inspiration on the frontier – the vast Nebraska prairie, extreme weather, and a variety of cultural differences between immigrants and Native Americans.  She saw it as a “place where there was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the materials out of which countries were made…  Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out.”

US #1487 – Fleetwood First Day Cover

Cather enjoyed reading as a child, and her neighbors gave her access to their extensive personal library for free.  She began making house calls with one of the local doctors, which inspired her to enter that field.  She went on to attend the University of Nebraska to study science.  During her time there, her work was published in the Nebraska State Journal and she became managing editor of the school paper.  She soon decided she wanted to be a writer instead of a doctor and graduated with a degree in English in 1894. 


Two years later, Cather moved to Pittsburgh to write for Home Monthly, a women’s magazine similar to Ladies’ Home Journal.  Soon she also began contributing articles, poems, and stories to the Pittsburgh Leader and The Library.  Around this time she also taught Latin, English, and algebra at some local schools.  She eventually became head of the English Department at Allegheny High School. 

US #1487 – Classic First Day Cover

Cather first published a collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, in 1905.  It included several of her most well-known stories, such as “A Wagner Matinee,” “The Sculptor’s Funeral,” and “Paul’s Case.”  The following year, Cather moved to New York City to write for McClure’s Magazine.  In 1912, the magazine released her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge in small excerpts.  The book was well received, with one review calling it “deft and skillful.” 

Cather received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours.  Her 1928 book Death Comes for the Archbishop was considered one of the best 100 novels of the 20th century.  In the 1930s, some began to criticize Cather for being too nostalgic and not acknowledging contemporary life.  Her works remained popular with the public, however.  Her 1931 Shadows on the Rock was the most widely read novel in the country and Lucy Gayheart was a 1935 bestseller. 

US #1487 – Colorano Silk Cachet First Day Cover

Cather published her final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, in 1940.  It was a critical and commercial success and was adopted by the Book of the Month Club.  Over the next few years, she was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received the gold medal for fiction from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.  She died on April 24, 1947.  Cather is remembered as one of America’s finest novelists and Nebraska’s best. 

Click here to read lots of Cather’s work and letters.

Click here to read about the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and other events that happened on This Day in History.

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