Willa Cather was born in an interesting spot in the mountains of Virginia, near Winchester, on the banks of a tributary of the Potomac, Back Creek. The family properties (one owned by her grandfather, another given to her father by her grandfather) were about ninety miles from Washington, D.C., and fifty miles from prosperous plantation regions like Loudon County. But—perhaps especially after the Civil War—it was difficult to make a living in the mountains and dangerous because of tuberculosis outbreaks, so Cather’s father and mother, Charles and Mary Virginia, took Willa and the other children (eventually there were seven in all) to rural Nebraska. After their first winter in the country, they settled in Red Cloud, a new town six miles north of the Kansas border and about halfway between the northwestern corner of Missouri and the northeastern corner of Colorado. Willa was about to turn ten. In Nebraska, the Cathers, immigrants from Virginia, immediately encountered a huge population of other immigrants from more distant and perhaps more romantic—to Willa—places: Norway, Sweden, France, Bohemia, Mexico. A sense of the world that compelled Cather for the rest of her life began to develop, a sense of the world that is deeply American, simultaneously local and exploratory, rustic and cosmopolitan.
Cather’s early prairie novels were published over the course of six years that were extremely eventful in American and world history—O Pioneers! in 1913, The Song of the Lark in 1915, and My Ántoniain 1918. She did not address the issues of World War I until her next novel, One of Ours, published in 1922. (It won the Pulitzer Prize.) But in all four works, the main characters—Alexandra, Thea, Ántonia, and Claude—wrestle with more or less the same question, maybe the essential question of the twentieth century: to stay or to go, and if so, how and why?