Senator Ricketts’ Weekly Column: Honoring Willa Cather
June 2, 2023
Each state in our nation has the opportunity to honor two great Americans hailing from their state with statues in the U.S. Capitol. When I was Governor, I had the privilege of signing legislation to change Nebraska’s statues and honor two tremendous Nebraskans: Chief Standing Bear and Willa Cather. This week as U.S. Senator, I am humbled to see that process come to fruition as we welcome the arrival of Willa Cather’s statue on June 7th.
Cather’s family moved to Nebraska at the age of nine, where she spent her formative years in Red Cloud. Upon reflecting on the impact of her family’s move to Nebraska, Cather said, “By the end of the first autumn the shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life.”
In 1890, after graduating high school at age 16, Cather enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Originally planning to study science and medicine at UNL, Cather’s ambitions quickly changed after seeing her first essay published. Later in her life, she described that as the launching pad of her success. Her classmates remember her as an intelligent, outspoken, opinionated, and talented person. Those characteristics led her to Pittsburgh to be the managing editor of a women’s magazine. While away from her home state, she honed her creative talents, writing and publishing a collection of short stories.
Cather had a career in the magazine industry for almost two decades, as she continued to develop her craft. She took the leap of faith to embark on a full-time writing career just months before her 38th birthday. In 1912, Cather published her first novel. Her second novel, O Pioneers, was published the next year, celebrating immigrant farmers and their desire to develop the prairie. This book launched Cather into the spotlight of American literature and brought much attention to her new and unique writing style.
Her most popular book, My Antonia, directly drew on her early life and followed an autobiographical theme through the eyes of Jim. The book was unanimously praised, and many, including Cather, claimed it as her greatest work.
Cather made waves again when she traded epic autobiographical novels for a streak of post-war novels. One of Ours told the story of her cousin’s experience fighting in the war, and was her most impactful. It earned tremendous praise from soldiers for the accurate depiction of their experiences, and would earn Cather a Pulitzer Prize.
Willa Cather epitomizes the Nebraska values we hold so dearly – a focus on family, a love of learning, the power of our experiences to shape us, and optimism for the future. She used our state and the varied experiences of our people to tell epic and innovative stories that are still revered by millions. She was a pioneer who redefined success and broke barriers. Cather’s headstone reads, “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Cather’s legacy is great, indeed. I am pleased that she will now be representing Nebraska inside our United States Capitol for years to come.
Along with Senator Fischer and the rest of my colleagues in the Nebraska delegation, my team and I are here to serve you. Contact my team and I anytime by phone at 202-224-4224 or on my website at www.ricketts.senate.gov/contact. I am honored to serve our great state and will continue to work to protect the Good Life from Washington overreach.