Welcome to Willa Cather’s Pittsburgh!

Although Cather made New York City her permanent residence after 1906, Byrne and Snyder note that she did not surrender her rooms in the McClung house for another nine years.  Indeed, the McClung house, a spacious three-and-a half story Queen Anne style mansion at 1180 Murrayhill Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood,  was one of her most cherished and productive writing spaces. Here were written most of the poems collected as April Twilights (1903), and two lost works called  The Player Letters and  Fanny.  Here were born several of her best-known stories, including “Eric Hermannson’s Soul” (1900),  “The Sculptor’s Funeral” (1901), “Paul’s Case” (1905), and the five others collected in The Troll Garden (1905).  Here she finished three novels:  Alexander’s Bridge (1911), O Pioneers! (1913), and The Song of the Lark (1915). Helen Cather Southwick recalls that it was not until her aunt moved into her spacious apartment on Bank Street in 1912 that she had room to keep her books in New York (“Willa Cather’s Early Career, Origins of a Legend” rptd in Hoover 161).  Thus, for a half-dozen years after her move, much of her working library (and with it much of her personal history) remained in Pittsburgh. Between 1906 and 1915 she took frequent and prolonged working vacations at the McClung house; Sharon O’Brien notes that Cather spent the fall of 1913 and “much of the year” of 1914 here while writing The Song of the Lark.  These long, productive vacations ceased only in 1915, when, following Judge McClung’s death and Isabelle’s marriage, the heirs sold the family home. Biographers assert that Isabelle’s impending marriage struck Cather as a double loss: she would lose her studio as well as her host and protector.

More than two decades after she left Pittsburgh, her memories of these years figure prominently in such later works as The Professor’s House (1925) and the novella-length late stories “Uncle Valentine” (1925) and “Double Birthday” (1929). Because she spent little time in Pittsburgh after 1915, these later works are remarkable in their accurate rendering of places, persons, and customs of the turn of the century. “Double Birthday” (1929), for example, has perhaps the most local color of any of her Pittsburgh fictions.  It contains an accurate rendering of a humble “workingman’s house” at 114 South Seventeenth Street on Pittsburgh’s South Side, which Cather had probably not seen since 1896-97, when it was briefly the home of her friends George and Helen Seibel.  She had spent her first Christmas in Pittsburgh with the Seibels at their South Side rental; thirty years later she recalled every architectural detail: from the external stairs to the second story apartment, to the cistern and bricked courtyard in back, to the pollution-resistant ailanthus trees that to this day sprout from runners growing beneath the courtyard bricks.  Like the hardy ailanthus, Cather’s Pittsburgh fictions are irrepressible, seeming only to strengthen the longer they remain buried.  “Double Birthday” broke into the sunlight in 2000, when it was selected as one of the Best American Short Stories of the Century by anthologist John Updike and was subsequently praised by reviewers of Updike’s volume.

Unfortunately, Cather’s journalism has not survived underground as well as her fiction.  Even today, when her oeuvre is documented by a half-dozen bibliographies, the record of her newspaper and magazine work from Pittsburgh is not yet online or fully recovered.    Barely examined are newly attributed unsigned and pseudonymous pieces in Home Monthly and the forty-two folio sized pages of a youth column she wrote and edited for the Stockman.

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