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Willa Cather

Author; Born: December 7, 1873 near Winchester, VA; Died: April 24, 1947 in New York, NY

Headshot of Willa Cather


B.A. in English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1894

Willa Cather studied Latin and Greek both in high school in Red Cloud and later at the University of Nebraska. With the help of an older friend, William Ducker, an educated Englishman who worked as a clerk in a Red Cloud store, she read Vergil, Ovid, the Iliad, and the Odes of Anacreon before even entering college.

Before graduation, she already began working as a theater critic and columnist for the Nebraska State Journal and the Lincoln Courier. Later, she was the managing editor for McClure's Magazine out of New York. For a brief time, she also taught Latin, algebra, and composition at a high school.

Cather's best known works are her novels, O Pioneers! (1913), My Ántonia (1918), A Lost Lady (1923) and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). In 1923, she won the Pulitzer Prize for a novel set in World War I, One of Us (1922).

Willa Cather and the Classics

"Cather's thorough grounding in Latin [...] gives depth to [the] narrative of [My Ántonia]. As Jim studies the classics under Gaston Cleric, he develops a passion for Virgil, whose Georgics he is studying one night in his room. His book is open to the passage: "Optima dies . . . prima fugit " ("the best days are the first to flee"). Jim reflects on the dying Virgil at Brindisi, who must have remembered his youth in his native Mantua. Jim too has left his native Black Hawk, Ántonia, and his grandparents. His destiny will take him East and turn him into a corporation lawyer. The theme from Virgil supplies a leitmotif for this elegiac narrative. Cather also quotes another line from Virgil: "Primus ego in patriam mecum . . . deducam Musas " ["I shall be the first to bring the Muse into my country"], which has a parallel contemporary meaning. Cleric has explained to his class that Virgil meant by patria the region along the Mincio River where he had been born, not all of Italy. The reader realizes that what Virgil did for his native place, Cather also was doing for Nebraska—putting it on the literary map."

(excerpted from James Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 1987)


The Willa Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln

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Classical Studies

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