O Pioneers! Willa Cather’s Murray Hill roots

by Allison Keene

Willa Cather’s house at 1180 Murray Hill Avenue is still standing, though it looks a bit different than it did in 1906. A speed limit sign outside on the front sidewalk urges drivers to stay beneath 25 miles an hour, and a steady stream of cars rolls past.

From 1898 to 1906, this now-private residence was home to one of the country’s most famous writers. Pittsburgh was just about to suffer the collapse of the steel industry, and Cather, best known for her novel O Pioneers!, was settling into the city to begin her professional and writing careers.

Photo credit: The Daily Telegraph

Photo credit: The Daily Telegraph

According to The Willa Cather Archive, Cather was working as the managing editor of the Pittsburgh monthly magazine Home Journal and publishing her first short stories, several of which featured Pittsburgh as the setting.

Duquesne University professor Dr. Susan Howard says that Willa Cather’s biography, particularly her places of residence, offers a unique and interesting perspective on her literary works. The fact that Cather often used Pittsburgh as a backdrop to her work allows readers to understand her connection to the city.

“It does give you a sense of what she took from the city,” Howard said.

In Cather’s early short story “Paul’s Case,” the titular character struggles with the confining nature of Pittsburgh and abandons the city in search of adventure in New York.

Paul visits recognizable Pittsburgh landmarks such as Carnegie Hall, Schenley Park, and the Schenley Hotel, which becomes a symbol of his yearning for a better, more successful life.

“All the actors and singers of the better class stayed there when they were in the city,” said Cather’s narrator in the story. “Paul had often hung about, watching the people go in and out, longing to enter and leave school-masters and dull care behind him forever.”

According to Howard, setting the story in a city where she lives “gives the writing a sense of place,” but it also forces readers to consider Cather in their analysis of the story.

“It broadens our attention to Cather by looking at that sort of thing,” Howard said. “Maybe Cather herself felt constrained by the this place. After all, Pittsburgh at the turn of the century was a steel town, and she did eventually leave.