Alexandra Bergson, a young Swedish immigrant girl who inherits her father's farm and must transform it from raw prairie into a prosperous enterprise, is the first of Cather's great heroines-all of them women of strong will and an even stronger desire to overcome adversity and succeed. But the wild land itself is an equally important character in Cather's books, and her descriptions of it are so evocative, lush, and moving that they provoked writer Rebecca West to say of her: "The most sensuous of writers, Willa Cather builds her imagined world almost as solidly as our five senses build the universe around us."
Wila Cather was probably born in Virginia in 1873, although her parents did not register the date, and it is probably incorrectly given on her tombstone. Because she is so famous for her Nebraska novels, many people assume she was born there, but Wila Cather was about nine years old when her family moved to a small Nebraska frontier town called Red Cloud that was populated by immigrant Swedes, Bohemians, Germans, Poles, Czechs, and Russians. The oldest of seven children, she was educated at home, studied with a Latin neighbor, and read the English classics in the evening. By the time she went to the University of Nebraska in 1891–where she began by wearing boy’s clothes and cut her hair close to her head–she had decided to be a writer.
After graduation she worked for a Lincoln, Nebraska, newspaper, then moved to Pittsburgh and finally to New York City. There she joined McClure’s magazine, a popular muckraking periodical that encouraged the writing of new young authors. After meeting the author Sarah Orne Jewett, she decided to quit journalism and devote herself full time to fiction. Her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, appeared in serial form in McClure’s in 1912. But her place in American literature was established with her first Nebraska novel, O Pioneers!, published in 1913, which was followed by her most famous pioneer novel, My Antonia, in 1918. In 1922 she won the Pulitzer Prize for one of her lesser-known books. One of Ours. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), her masterpiece, and Shadows on the Rock (1931) also celebrated the pioneer spirit, but in the Southwest and French Canada. Her other novels include The Song of the Lark (1915), The Professor’s House (1925), My Mortal Enemy (1926), and Lucy Gayheart (1935). Wila Cather died in 1947.