A crowd gathered to photograph the bronze statue of author Willa Cather after a dedication ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall on June 7, 2023. The Cather statue is Nebraska’s second added to the National Statuary Hall Collection. (Ashley Murray/States Newsroom)
WASHINGTON — Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather, who brought to life the Great Plains of Nebraska, is now honored with a statue in the U.S. Capitol, becoming the 12th woman represented in the National Statuary Hall Collection.
U.S. and Nebraska lawmakers on Wednesday unveiled the bronze figure of the woman who wrote the widely acclaimed “O Pioneers!,” “My Ántonia” and the Pulitzer-winning “One of Ours,” depicting the human experience in Nebraska and beyond in the years surrounding the turn of the 20th century.
“‘Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet,’ this quote attributed to Cather, is an apt summation of the author’s life and work,” Republican U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska said at the morning ceremony in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. “Cather’s vivid, reflective writing has become synonymous with the pioneer spirit of Nebraska.”
Omaha sculptor Littleton Alston, who created the Cather statue, becomes the first Black artist to have a piece in the collection. Alston is an associate professor of sculpture at Creighton University.
“Thank you sir, for capturing this American hero’s impact on this nation and on our literary canon with such dignity and honor,” U.S. House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York said to Alston, who sat with his family in the front row. Jeffries is the first Black party leader in the House.
Lawmakers from both parties delivered remarks to the hundreds seated in the hall to watch as a black cloth was ceremoniously removed to reveal Cather’s likeness.
Alston sculpted Cather in motion, walking through the open Nebraska prairie with a walking stick in her right hand. Cather is dressed in her field research clothing — a large, brimmed hat and a wool jacket — and holds a writing pen and paper in her left hand.
Goldenrod, the Nebraska state flower, and a Western meadowlark, the state bird, are depicted at her feet.
“I’ve portrayed Cather as a mature artist in her prime,” Alston said in 2021 upon the approval of his final design by the Architect of the Capitol. He added: “I sought to capture Willa Cather’s spirit, coupled with her achievements and aspirations, in this sculpture. I hope it will provide insight into Cather and her literature for viewers both young and old.”
Cather is Nebraska’s most recent addition to the U.S. Capitol, erected alongside the state’s other effigy, of Chief Standing Bear, a Native American of the Ponca Tribe, installed in 2019. The two bronze figures frame the entrance to the south corridor leading from Statuary Hall to the House chamber.
“As anyone walks (to the chamber) you’ll see these two today,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said to the crowd.
“Willa’s statue stands today as a monument to her incredible legacy and our people’s incredible spirit,” McCarthy, a California Republican, later continued. “Today we should celebrate the progress that America continues to make as a land of opportunity, but it is equally important that we follow in the footsteps of Willa’s pioneers.”
Each state can contribute two statues to the Capitol’s collection. Standing Bear and Cather replace Nebraska’s former statues — Populist lawmaker William Jennings Bryan and former Secretary of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton.
Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, in 1873 and later moved with her family to Webster County, Nebraska, at the age of 9 before relocating to Red Cloud.
She attended the University of Nebraska but began her writing career in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she worked as a journalist and teacher for a decade.
In 1908, she moved to New York City, where she worked as the managing editor of McClure’s Magazine before dedicating her focus to her own literary works that gained both national and international readers.
Cather, who authored 12 novels and many works of short fiction, poetry and nonfiction, was awarded the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for “One of Ours,” the story of a Nebraska man who fights in World War I.
Cather died in 1947, age 73, in Manhattan. She is buried in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
“Willa Cather was always a champion for Nebraska. While her writing spans settings that include the desert Southwest, 17th-century Quebec and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, among others, many of her most well-known stories are about Nebraska and its people. I hope her representation in our U.S Capitol will encourage even more readers to discover the beauty and complexity of her writing,” said Ashley Olson, executive director of the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud.
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