Willa Cather, the world-renowned author and University of Nebraska alumna, will be the first Pulitzer Prize winner and the 12th woman represented in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Designed by artist Littleton Alston, a bronze sculpture of Red Cloud, Nebraska native will be dedicated and unveiled during a ceremony in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall at 10 a.m. June 7. The event was announced May 24 by the Willa Cather National Statuary Hall Selection Committee.
Cather’s sculpture joins one of Ponca Chief Standing Bear, installed in 2019 — the two new sculptures that represent Nebraska.
The public is invited to watch the dedication ceremony with live viewing parties at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln and at the National Willa Cather Center’s Opera House in Red Cloud. These are free events and open to all. The ceremony will also be broadcast live on C-SPAN and on the website of the Speaker of the House.
Cather once said in an interview, “I had searched for books telling about the beauty of the country I loved, its romance, and heroism and strength and courage of its people that had been plowed into the very furrows of its soil, and I did not find them. And so I wrote ‘O Pioneers!.’”
The novel, alongside “My Ántonia” and “A Lost Lady” — all set in Nebraska — helped establish Cather’s career and introduce readers to the state and its people.
The University of Nebraska–Lincoln, the flagship public research university in Nebraska, is home to the Willa Cather Archive, the premier location for academic study of Cather and her works. Faculty members Andrew Jewell and Melissa Homestead praised Cather’s selection as a representative of Nebraska history and culture.
“Willa Cather very explicitly represents Nebraska and Nebraskans in multiple works,” said Jewell, co-director of UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and advisory editor to the Cather Archive. “She is a key voice in telling the story of our state. To have her statue alongside that of Chief Standing Bear in the U.S. Capitol reflects the complex history of Nebraska. Their stories represent very different experiences and, as a Nebraskan, I’m thrilled that they will be there together.”
Homestead, professor of English and director of the Cather Project at Nebraska, described Cather as one of the university’s most distinguished graduates.
“She attended at an exciting time with interesting people who went on to do interesting things and the university is featured in some of her novels,” Homestead said. “Even after she left, she was called to represent Nebraska and she spoke to the world as a Nebraskan.”
Alston, associate professor of sculpture at Creighton University in Omaha, was selected from more than 70 artists to create the Willa Cather statue. Alston becomes the first African American artist to have a sculpture in the National Statuary Hall Collection.
“It was an immense honor to create the Willa Cather sculpture for Statuary Hall,” Alston said. “I’m thrilled that Nebraska will finally have a literary heroine representing our state in the U.S. Capitol. I’ve come to know some remarkable people over the course of this project, including individuals who have volunteered their services for the past three years to bring the unveiling of the statue to fruition. I’m looking forward to seeing Willa in our nation’s capital.”
Ashley Olson, executive director of the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, praised cather for always being 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,” Olson said. “I hope her representation in our U.S Capitol will encourage even more readers to discover the beauty and complexity of her writing.”
The late Ron Hull, longtime champion of Cather and chair of the Cather National Statuary Hall Selection Committee, was appreciative of Alston’s design, which shows the author in action.
“Writer Willa Cather is at work, walking with quickened steps through the Nebraska landscape,” Hull said. “Her pen is in hand with her head held high, while her eyes capture thoughts of a story being created in her mind.
“This sculpture will be a worthy addition to National Statuary Hall and Cather a fine representation of our Nebraskan ethos.”
Jill Dolberg, interim director of History Nebraska, and also on the Statuary Hall Committee, said it has been an honor to develop the project over the last five years.
“I am thrilled that Willa Cather, an author who explored both the meaning and place of gender roles, now represents Nebraska at our nation’s capital,” Dolberg said. “Having her share space with our other state statue of Standing Bear, a Ponca champion for civil rights, speaks to the diversity of Nebraska and our state’s place in the nation’s history.”
Following the livestream at the Nebraska History Museum, Nathan Tye from the University of Nebraska at Kearney will speak on Willa Cather as a Nebraskan. In Red Cloud, guided tours of Cather historic sites will be held at 11 a.m., and 1 and 3 p.m. A wide selection of celebratory “Cather at 150” merchandise, recognizing this year’s 150th anniversary of her birth, will also be available in the National Willa Cather Center Bookstore.