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Cather, Willa (1873-1947)  
 
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One of America's premier literary artists in the earlier twentieth century, Willa Cather reflected her own lesbianism in the creation of strong women characters and in the exploration of male homosexuality.

In 1922, Cather declared that the power and quality of art arise from "the inexplicable presence of the thing not named," from "whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there." For decades, this remark in "The Novel Demeuble" was interpreted strictly in aesthetic terms as a statement of Cather's commitment to classical principles of starkness and simplification in art.

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Recently, however, the psychosexual implications of "the thing not named" have moved into the foreground, as biographers and critics have begun to grapple with how Cather's lesbianism, a fact of her life long ignored or denied, may have shaped both the form and the content of her writing.

Nebraska's first lady of letters--the award-winning author of twelve novels and several collections of short fiction--who shared her life for nearly forty years with Edith Lewis, has thus been liberated from the stereotypes of the celibate artist or the sexless spinster whose reticence on the subject of heterosexuality was generally viewed as a sign of repression.

The belated recognition of Cather's sexual identity has created a provocative new context for understanding her life and work and established her important place in gay and lesbian literary history.

Born in Back Creek, Virginia, on December 7, 1873, Willa Cather was the first of seven children. Her family moved when she was nine to the prairie country of Nebraska, whose settlement she would immortalize in O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918; rev. 1926). The wide open spaces of the prairie were socially and psychologically congenial to Cather, affording her the freedom needed for an unconventional adolescence.

Red Cloud, the town her family moved to in 1884, could be confining and parochial, but family, friends, and neighbors encouraged Cather's love of books and theater, nurtured her ambitions (she first aspired to be a doctor), and most surprisingly, (reluctantly) tolerated her four-year masquerade as "William Cather."

Begun when she was fourteen, Cather's elaborate and public episode of male impersonation is documented in studio photographs that show her sporting crewcuts and dressed in masculine attire. Letters from this period, including passionate epistles to another woman, are written over William's signature.

She sustained the performance even after she moved to Lincoln to begin studying at the University of Nebraska. Biographer Sharon O'Brien has recently analyzed "William" as Cather's "first major work of fiction, a text in which she was both author and character." "He" was also, of course, a brave rejection of her culture's constraining ideology of femininity, an effort to fashion a self that was powerful, autonomous, and heroic rather than weak, dependent, and passive.

Finally, "William" was a mask Cather could hide behind, a persona she could adapt for the purpose of articulating feelings that, by the 1890s, had been defined as signs of deviance. It is manifestly unfair, "William" laments in a letter to college crush Louise Pound, that feminine friendship should be unnatural. "William" was the first of many masks Cather would devise to camouflage or naturalize her "unnatural" passions.

Early in her college career, Cather's ambitions shifted from medicine to writing, and she began publishing in earnest, in campus publications and the local papers in Lincoln. Her columns on the arts and reviews of books, theater, and opera evince both critical acumen and youthful bravado, as, for example, when she confidently declares that Mark Twain is "neither a scholar, a reader or a man of letters and very little of a gentleman."

For years after graduation, the need to support herself financially prevented Cather from devoting herself full time to the writing of fiction, so she worked in journalism in Lincoln, Pittsburgh (where she also taught Latin and English in high school), and New York until 1912, ending this phase of her career as managing editor of the immensely successful muckraking magazine, McClure's.

One fortuitous benefit of her work for McClure's was that in 1908, while in Boston doing research on the life of Mary Baker Eddy, she met Annie Fields, widow of the publisher James T. Fields, and Sarah Orne Jewett, a New England writer whose work she admired.

In Fields's gracious Charles Street home, which Jewett shared for the several months of every year she spent in Boston, Cather made many valuable discoveries. She saw in the women's lives a model of the kind of female domestic partnership she was then establishing with Edith Lewis, though the older women's "" enjoyed a degree of acceptance that her own relationship would never attain as modern notions of sexuality and deviance took hold.

She gained, through Fields's lively conversation and the rich sense of history her house contained, a vivid connection to America's literary and cultural past.

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Top: Willa Cather as William Cather.
Above: Cather in 1936.

  
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