Summary of the Novel
My Antonia takes the form of a memoir by the narrator, Jim Burden. In his memoir, Jim recounts the life of his childhood friend Antonia Shimerda, the eldest daughter of an immigrant family of Bohemian farmers living in Black Hawk, Nebraska. Antonia’s father commits suicide and she is forced to farm the fields throughout her early teens. Later in her life she goes to work for the Harling family. She remains with the family until Mr. Harling interferes with her social life. Antonia then goes to work for the Cutters until Wick’s amorous intentions cause her to leave.
Jim Burden enters a college in Lincoln, Nebraska, and leaves Antonia’s side for two years. When he returns to Black Hawk, he learns of her failed relationship with Larry Donovan, the train conductor and ladies man who had promised to marry her. Donovan abandoned Antonia in Colorado, unwed and pregnant, and she returns home to Black Hawk, ashamed. She resumes her hard-working life in Black Hawk and gives birth to a daughter. After Jim goes East to attend law school, Antonia meets and marries Anton Cuzak, a fellow Bohemian, and has a large family with him. Content with family life, Antonia lives the rest of her days toiling and happy on her farm in Nebraska.
Estimated Reading Time
The average student should be able to read My Antonia in its entirety in a total of approximately 12 to 18 hours. It is suggested that the reading of the novel be divided into three blocks: Book I, “The Shimerdas” for the first block, Books II and III for the second block, and Books IV and V for the third block. These blocks divide the novel into the stages of Antonia’s life, from her early childhood on the farm, to her life as a hired girl, and finishes with her family life as a mother and wife.
Block One-Book I: The Shimerdas
(Reading Time: 4-6 hours)
Block Two-Book II: The Hired Girls
Book III: Lena Lingard
(Reading Time: 4-6 hours)
Block Three-Book IV: The Pioneer Woman’s Story
Book V: Cuzak’s Boys
(Reading Time: 4-6 hours)
The Life and Work of Willa Cather
Willa Cather was born in 1873 in rural Virginia. She moved with her family from Virginia to Red Cloud, Nebraska, at age ten. Red Cloud was a small railroad town that had just been founded thirteen years before the Cathers moved there, populated by immigrants from all over Europe. When Cather attended Red Cloud High School, she became enamored with learning the classics. A townswoman, Mrs. Minor, contributed greatly to her love for music, a love that entered many of the characters in her novels. Ms. Cather began to forge friendships with many of the immigrants that had moved to Red Cloud. Her compassion for their struggles again reflected itself in her novels.
Cather graduated high school and tired quickly of small town life. She moved to Lincoln in 1890. She wanted to enter the University of Nebraska, but her poor schooling in Red Cloud prevented her from getting admitted. She spent a year studying to enter college. She was admitted as a medical student, but abandoned that for the study of the classics. During her college years she became a dedicated writer on the classics. One of her literary papers was published, without her knowledge, in the Nebraska State Journal by one of her professors. She was enamored by the sight of her own writing published in a magazine. “What youthful vanity can be unaffected by the sight of itself in print!” she later wrote. The influence of prairie life made her stand out at the University of Nebraska. Many of the students would later remember her as unmannerly, masculine in appearance, and poorly dressed. After graduation, Ms. Cather decided to pursue a career in journalism. She moved to Pittsburgh, getting a job as a newspaper woman but she tired quickly of the hectic newspaper life. She moved to Allegheny, Pennsylvania, to become a high school teacher of English and Latin. She continued to write more consistently, and in 1903, she published April Twilights, her only volume of poetry. Shortly after that, she published The Troll Garden, a collection of short stories.
When she was 32, she moved to New York City and joined the editorial staff of McClure’s Magazine. At McClure’s, she edited and rewrote hundreds of magazine articles. Cather continued writing and publishing short stories in her spare time, in The Century magazine, Harper’s Monthly and McClure’s.
While doing research in Boston for a magazine piece, Cather met Sarah Orne Jewett, a sixty-year-old short story writer. Jewett advised Cather to become a novelist. “Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience,” Jewett told her. “You must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to the world.”
Though she knew that her chances of becoming a successful fiction writer were slim, Cather resigned from McClure’s after seven years. She traveled to the Southwest, where she became inspired to spend her life writing. She published her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, in 1912, and then her second novel, O Pioneers!, in 1913. Willa returned to the Southwest in the summer of 1915, and her third novel, The Song of the Lark, had its setting there in the ancient cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon, Arizona. In 1918, Willa published My Antonia in which she returns to her childhood years in Nebraska.
After My Antonia, Willa continued to write novels set around characters from the prairie. She achieved popular success with One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. It is the story of a Midwestern farmboy who enlists in the army during World War I and is killed in France. The novel was based on a relative of Cather’s, who died in that war. Her next novel, A Lost Lady, deals with the slow moral deterioration of a woman from a small Nebraska town. The Professor’s House, published in 1925, is set in a small mid-western college. Of all her novels, she is best remembered for My Antonia.
The characters of Willa Cather’s writings stem from the landscape of the prairie and her personal experiences growing up. Her early novels, including My Antonia, are reflections of the courageous immigrants from Europe who settled in the Midwest. Many of these immigrants could speak only their own native languages. They were people so poor they built their homes with almost no money, while braving the harsh prairie winters. Though many of the immigrants became successful farmers, many also lost their ambition and gave up. Willa saw, through their endeavors, what the pioneer spirit was all about.
Willa Cather died in 1947 at the age of seventy-three. Today, she is considered the definitive writer of the plains states, and one of the most acclaimed woman writers in American literature. Her tombstone, in the small town of Jaffrey, New Hampshire, bears a line from My Antonia: “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”