University of Nebraska–Lincoln alumna Willa Cather was not only a famous writer, she also survived a pandemic. The so-called Spanish flu ripped across the globe from 1918 to 1920, its spread accelerated by the troop movements and combat conditions of World War I. At that time, Cather was in her 40s and living in New York City, having left teaching and magazine editing behind to be a full-time writer.
Cather’s letters describe some things that sound familiar today. She wrote to her mother that she needed to spend some time in the hospital, but her doctors suggested waiting until the flu had died down (Letter No. 2414). In the same letter, she added that her friend Ethel Litchfield was exhausted from caring for her sick children, so Cather had her over for a respite, complete with a good meal and a little time to rest by the fire. In a note to her Aunt Frances Smith Cather in November 1919, Cather said that she couldn’t write too much, as she had so many letters of condolence to write “to friends who have been bereaved by this terrible scourge of Influenza” (Letter No. 440).
Cather knew how brutal the flu could be — she caught it herself in September 1919 and had a bad time of it. She wrote to a friend, “I have been in bed with Influenza for two weeks, and it has ended in a stubborn bronchitis which refuses to quit me and keeps hovering on the edge of pneumonia. … I am simply unable to make any plans at present — I’ve had to call off ever so many engagements on account of this stupid illness” (Letter No. 474).
In an odd twist of literary fate, Cather’s bout with the flu ended up strongly influencing the novel she was writing at the time, the story of a Nebraska farm boy serving in what was then called the Great War. The doctor who treated her during her illness had previously been a physician on a troop transport ship that was struck with influenza. Cather borrowed the doctor’s journal and used it extensively when writing her novel.
That novel, “One of Ours,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.
Please visit the Willa Cather Archive at cather.unl.edu to explore more of Cather’s life and letters. Thanks to the support of donors and UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and University Libraries, this free online archive shares a vast collection of Cather material with the world. The collection includes not only Cather’s writing but also photos, letters, interviews and biographies.