(See Willa Cather Birthplace) She was born Wilella Siebert Cather in 1873 on her maternal grandmother's farm in the Back Creek valley near Winchester, Virginia. Her father was Charles Fectigue Cather (d. 1928), whose family had lived on land in the valley for six generations. Her mother was Mary Virginia Boak(d. 1931). Within a year they moved to Willow Shade, given to them by her paternal grandparents. The senior Cathers moved on to Nebraska. Mary had six more children after Willa: Roscoe, Douglass, Jessica, James, John, and Elsie.
The family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska in 1884 to join Charles' parents when Cather was nine years old. Her time in the western state, still on the frontier, was adeeply formative experience for her. She was intensely moved by the dramatic environment and weather, and the various cultures of the American and immigrant families in the area.
While in college at the University of Nebraska, Cather became a regular contributor to the Nebraska State Journal. She graduated in 1894 with a B.A. in English.
In 1896, Cather moved to Pittsburgh after beinghired to write for The Home Monthly. She lived in Pittsburgh until 1906. In Pittsburgh, she taught English first at Central High School for one year and then at Allegheny High School, where she also taught Latin and became the head of the English department. She also worked as a telegraph editor and drama critic for the Pittsburgh Leader and frequently contributed to The Library, another localpublication.
She moved to New York City in 1906 upon receiving a job offer on the editorial staff from McClure's Magazine.
Cather and Georgina M. Wells were co-authors of a critical biography of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. It was serialized in McClure's in 1907-8 and published the next year as a book. Christian Scientists were outraged and tried to buy up every copy. (Thework was reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press in 1993.)
McClure's serialized Cather's first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912). The work showed her admiration for the style of Henry James. While recognizing her potential, the author Sarah Orne Jewett advised Cather to rely less on James and more on her own experiences in Nebraska. Cather left McClure's in 1912 and began towrite full time.
Cather returned to the prairie as a setting for inspiration for most of her novels; she also used experiences from her travels in France. Such deeply felt works became both popular and critical successes. Cather was celebrated by national critics such as H.L. Mencken for writing in plainspoken language about ordinary people. When the novelist Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prizein Literature in 1930, he paid homage to Cather by declaring that she should have won the honor.
Later critics tended to favor more experimental authors. During the 1920s, critics treated Cather in a condescending manner. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression and a time of social ferment, critics attacked Cather for her lack of interest in economics and for her conservative politics.Discouraged by the negative criticism of her work, Cather became reclusive, burned letters, and forbade anyone from publishing her letters.
As a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s, Cather sometimes used the masculine nickname "William" and wore masculine clothing.  A photograph in the University of Nebraska archives depicts Cather dressed like a young man and...