Happy Birthday, Willa Cather!

By | December 7, 2020

Guest post by Michelle E. Moore 

The exceptionally prolific writer Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873 in Gore, Virginia. Her literary work blends fiction with documentary while spanning vast distances across geographies, relationships, and time. Her personal papers document a lifetime of relationships kept afloat by near constant letter writing, sometimes conducted as she traveled long distances by rail to visit friends and family and to promote her newest publications.

While at the University of Nebraska, Cather wrote about birthdays in her column in the Nebraska State Journal:

“In spite of all the things that are that should not be, children continue to be born into the world and to celebrate the birthday of the child who made all childhood sacred. One cannot be wholly a pessimist while this is so.” 

The paper published her essay on December 17, 1893, in the weeks between her recent twentieth birthday and Christmas. Birthdays are, she feels, inherently optimistic and rekindle hope for the next year. They are the original celebration of the returning of the light for an individual and mark not only the passing of time, but for the very social, the deepening of and continuity of lifelong friendships and family ties. 

In her letters, she mentions birthdays often and enthusiastically. She reveals plans to celebrate her own with special dinners, bottles of wine, friends. She sends letters to wish others well on their upcoming birthdays, sometimes mentioning a special gift being sent and how she so wished she could be with everyone she loved all at once. She tells of sending money to all of her nieces and nephews on their birthdays back in Red Cloud. Her novels and short stories, too, often mention the characters’ birthdays and birthday celebrations, which indicates the great feeling she had for her fictional characters.

The Prairie Trilogy, in particular, shows Cather’s tendency to show her characters on their birthdays as on the precipice of something more: a movement forward, discovery, transcendence. O Pioneers (1913) employs this subtly with the character of Marie Tovesky. She: “pined in the convent for a year, until her eighteenth birthday was passed.” Her birthday marks her escape from the convent.  The “Friends of Childhood” section of The Song of the Lark (1915) punctuates Thea Kronburg’s fated march to adulthood with each of her birthdays. Her piano teacher, the aptly named “Wunsch” commemorates her path by teaching her German on her thirteenth birthday and a new song on her fourteenth. 

In My Antonia (1918), Jim Burden relates how he gets a “birthday present” with “the big storm of winter” beginning on his “eleventh birthday.” His memory and the mention of the birthday is more ironic than the others, because Mr. Shimerda kills himself soon after, changing the course of not just Jim’s life, but Antonia’s life, forever.  The two grow close as a result, which is the relationship that forms the purpose and plot of his story. 

One of Ours (1923) also uses birthdays to light the way forward for Claude Wheeler. We are told: “The Elrich family loved anniversaries, birthdays, occasions. “ And then several chapters and years later: “The next day was Claude’s twenty-fifth birthday, and in honour of that event Papa Joubert produced a bottle of old Burgundy from his cellar, one of a few dozens he had laid in for great occasions when he was a young man.” The Elrichs and the Jouberts, like Thea’s piano teacher, live intelligently and artistically, in contrast to the inhabitants of the small town in which Claude grew up. It is with these families that Claude experiences a new way of being in the world and that gives him his greatest happiness. It is they who provide hope to Claude and the reader by celebrating his birthday in ways similar to how Cather did her own.

Michelle E. Moore, Ph.D. is Professor of English at the College of Dupage, where she teaches classes in American literature and film. She has published articles in Literature/Film QuarterlyCather Studies 9 and 11, and Faulkner Studies, and given numerous presentations on American modernism at Modern Language Association conventions and at Modernist Studies Association conferences. She is the author of Chicago and the Making of American Modernism: Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald in Conflict, part of the Historicizing Modernism series.

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