My Ántonia (Magill Book Reviews)
Antonia immigrates as a girl with her family from Bohemia to a homestead on the open plains. The hardships of attempting to farm the raw land drive her sensitive father to suicide, and, as a young teenager, Antonia is forced to endure hard physical labor in helping to work the farm.
Like many other daughters of the farming immigrants, Antonia becomes a servant girl to an established family in the small town of Black Hawk, with her wages sent to her older brother to help support her family on the homestead. In town, she is able to participate in social activities such as dances and parties, and these gatherings become the focus of her life. She meets a man who works as a conductor on the railroad, and she runs away with him in the belief that he will marry her. However, he deserts her with child, and, in shame, she returns to the grueling hard work of her brother’s farm.
Willa Cather’s portrayal of the great presence of the prairie, which is converted during Antonia’s lifetime from open expanse to productive farmland, serves as a powerful background to Antonia’s struggles. Although Antonia faces severe hardship, she remains strong, responding openheartedly to her simple life, which centers on child rearing and family concerns. At the close of the novel, Jim Burden visits her after a twenty-year absence, and he discovers her happily married to a local farmer and caring for her large family. Her courage has enabled her to become a mature...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Burden farm. Ranch in pioneer Nebraska owned by Jim Burden’s grandparents. It is to this farm that the ten-year-old Jim Burden is brought from Virginia after his parents die, and it is here that he learns to love the prairie. It is also here that he meets the Shimerdas, a Bohemian family (immigrants from Bohemia) who are distant neighbors struggling to survive in this harsh new land.
Shimerda home. Sod cave, built into a hillside, that is home to Ántonia and her family. The Burdens help out their Bohemian neighbors, who live in isolation and deprivation in their first year in America. The Shimerdas survive the brutal winter, but the father, homesick for the old country, kills himself. When the church refuses to bury Mr. Shimerda in the cemetery, he is laid to rest in a corner of his property. In the spring, the Shimerdas build a log house, and through hard work and economy begin to make their farm prosper.
Black Hawk. Small town that is the center of this farming region (probably based on Red Cloud, Nebraska, where Cather grew up). When the farm gets too much for them, the Burdens rent it out and buy a house in town, where Jim can start school. Ántonia also moves to town to work for the people who live next door to the Burdens. Jim feels a loss of freedom in the move from the prairie to Black Hawk and becomes “moody and restless,” but life is...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Jim Burden, a middle-aged, successful New York railway lawyer with a sterile marriage and a host of nostalgic memories, writes his reminiscences about his rural Nebraska youth. These reminiscences are My Ántonia, a coming-of-age story, but not primarily the story of Burden’s coming-of-age. His early life provides the plot’s framework. After three years on his grandparents’ farm, he moves with them to the prairie town of Black Hawk. From there he will go to college, law school, and his career in New York. Burden’s memories, however, center more on Ántonia than on himself. He remembers her early years as she struggled to overcome her father’s death and bore too much of the burden of her family’s hardscrabble fight to survive. He recalls his fears that Ántonia might be so coarsened by her experiences that she might become like her mother and her brother Ambrosch. After he moves to town and enters his teens, his feelings about Ántonia change. Ántonia also comes to Black Hawk as a hired girl in a neighboring home. Before, she had been a childhood playmate; now, she was a beautiful young woman. Ántonia will always respect and treasure Jim like a beloved younger brother. Jim’s feelings toward her grow more complex. He will come to love her, but his is love with little sexual desire. It will be more spiritual. She will embody all elements of woman—wife, mother, sister, sweetheart—and become a part of himself.
There were other...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
My Ántonia is Willa Cather’s most important contribution to American women’s literature. Appearing at a time when old Victorian standards were crumbling and debate raged over women’s rights and responsibilities, Cather argued for women’s freedom to choose their own lifestyles. She also clearly suggested that females were superior to men. Willa Cather will be known by feminists for her creation of strong, dominant women. By 1918, Cather had already published two novels, O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915), with powerful female figures, but the mythic Ántonia stands as Cather’s most complete, transcendent heroine.
My Ántonia received favorable critical reviews, eventually becoming an American classic. Its position on women’s concerns was not the only reason for its success. Cather’s eulogizing of the land clearly struck a chord. This theme had also been present in O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark, but as was the heroine motif, it was most fully realized in My Ántonia. Many Americans, unhappy about the spread of industrialism, with its blighting of the landscape and destruction of the rural heritage, would be drawn to Cather’s romantic evocation of the prairie and its pioneers.
Cather continued to write after My Ántonia, but her concerns changed. There was less autobiography. Increasingly, she became more interested in a remoter past,...
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Up until 1825, less than 10,000 new immigrants came to the United States each year. By the late 1840s, revolutions in Europe and the devastating potato famine in Ireland sent people to this country by the hundreds of thousands. Immigration increased steadily during the 1850s, and by 1860, one-eighth of America's 32 million people were foreign born. While many of these immigrants settled around the mill towns of the east as well as in the larger urban centers, the promotional activities of the railroads brought many immigrants straight past them to the prairies. The railroad companies even sent scouts abroad to encourage people to come and settle the plains and prairies. It has been claimed that the transcontinental railroad could not have been built without immigrant labor. The railroad was not just crucial to economic success of the town and countryside; it was a powerful monopoly charging what it wished to ship grain to the market. Another flood of immigrants came in the 1860s and 1870s, just after the Homestead Act of 1862. This legislation granted, for a small fee, 160 acres of Western public land to citizens or prospective citizens who would stay and settle it for five years. These settlers were predominantly from western and northern Europe. They became the "old immigrants" when the numbers of "new immigrants" from eastern and southern Europe swelled in the 1880s and 1890s.
In Willa Cather's Nebraska, the population...
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Book I, Introduction and Chapters 1-10 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Cather have Jim Burden and the Bohemian immigrants arriving on the same train?
2. What is the significance of the train arriving at night?
3. Why does Jim want to be left alone in the garden?
4. To what does Jim compare the many-colored grasses on the prairie?
5. Why isn’t Mr. Shimerda’s fiddle of any use to him here?
6. What is the significance of the sunflower-lined roads?
7. Why does Jim visit trees “as if they were persons?”
8. Why does Cather choose to have the characters Pavel and Peter come from Russia?
9. Why does Cather have Antonia relay the tragic tale of the Russians to Jim?
10. Ms. Cather uses contrast to great effect in this section. Between what chapters do we see contrasts?
1. They are on a journey together, one that will ultimately forge a lasting friendship between Jim and Antonia.
2. Jim and the immigrants are strangers arriving in a new and savage land. The darkness emphasizes that they will have to struggle to make their way.
3. He feels a need for independence through his solitude with nature.
4. Jim compares the prairie to the ocean and its many-colored seaweeds.
5. Mr. Shimerda can’t make money playing it the way he did at home, and he has become too depressed to make music.
6. Legend tells of...
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Chapters 11-19 Questions and Answers
1. What is the significance of the snowstorm just before Christmas?
2. What is so unusual about Otto’s trunk?
3. Why does Mr. Shimerda arrive at the Burden’s alone?
4. What is the significance of the “false spring” just before the blizzard?
5. Name two places in this section where the narrator jumps forward in time.
6. When Antonia tells Jim of her father’s worsening depression, why does he feel little pity for him?
7. On the morning of the suicide, how does Jim know that something has happened?
8. Why doesn’t Grandmother Burden believe Mr. Shimerda could have killed himself?
9. What one thing makes Jake believe that Krajiek killed Mr. Shimerda?
10. How are Jim’s and Ambrosch’s concerns over the dead Mr. Shimerda related?
1. It cuts them off from the town and gives Jim a pleasant memory of a country Christmas.
2. Along with his boots and pistols, he keeps the delicate paper figures he takes out to decorate the tree.
3. Cather wants to reinforce his sense of isolation and loneliness.
4. It shows that there is “false hope” for things to get better, and things are going to change drastically.
5. At the end of Chapter 11, he jumps forward to say he’ll always remember Jake and Otto that Christmas; at the end of Chapter 16, he recalls...
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Book II, Chapters 1-8 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Grandfather Burden become a deacon of the church?
2. What became Jim’s “compensation” for his lost freedom?
3. How did Ambrosch Shimerda take advantage of Antonia’s reputation as a hard worker?
4. Why does Jim consider Frances Harling so important?
5. Why doesn’t Antonia want to give all of her allowance to Ambrosch?
6. Why did Mr. Harling take Mrs. Harling away to their room on the west wing?
7. What is the significance of the traveling salesmen?
8. What is the significance of the altercation between Lena Lingard and Crazy Mary?
9. How are Antonia and Mrs. Harling similar?
10. What is the significance of the blind slave that becomes a pianist?
1. It establishes his involvement in the community.
2. Jim can see the river from the house.
3. Ambrosch hired her out to other farms.
4. Jim considers her important because of her independence as a woman.
5. Antonia wants clothes and pocket money.
6. They go there to discuss business.
7. The appearance of the salesmen emphasizes the idea of movement and change.
8. It shows that Lena is becoming a woman.
9. They are both strong and independent and don’t try to imitate other people.
10. It serves as a metaphor: one must grope...
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Chapters 9-15 Questions and Answers
1. Why did Jim want Lena to settle down with a town boy?
2. What reasons does Antonia give for wanting to work for the Cutters?
3. How did Wick Cutter say he got his start in life?
4. Under what condition does Mrs. Cutter threaten to leave Mr. Cutter?
5. Who does Jim compare to Snow White?
6. How does Tiny Soderball make Jim angry?
7. Who was the proprietor at the saloon that Jim visits?
8. Who does Jim consider “a professional ladies man?”
9. As Jim gets more lonely, who does he find for companionship?
10. Down by the river, with whom does Jim remember hunting?
1. To give all the country girls a better reputation in the town.
2. They pay more, they have no children, and the work is easy, giving her more free time.
3. Wick got his start by saving the money other men spent on cigars.
4. If he chopped down the cedar trees around the house and took away her privacy.
5. Antonia is compared to Snow White.
6. She tells the girls she heard that Jim’s grandmother wanted to make him a Baptist preacher.
7. Anton Jelinek, the Bohemian who visited the farm during Mr. Shimerda’s death.
8. Larry Donovan is a “professional ladies man.”
9. The telegrapher and the cigar-maker and his canaries.
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Book III, Chapters 1-4 Questions and Answers
1. Why did Gaston Cleric move west?
2. What was so unsusal about Jim’s room in Lincoln?
3. What does Jim believe was “fatal” to Gaston Cleric’s “poetic gift”?
4. Why did Lena insist on paying her own way to the theatre?
5. What did Lena plan to do with the money she saved?
6. Where does Lena tell Jim Antonia is working?
7. What does Jim remember when he hears Lena laugh?
8. Why was Jim puzzled by Lena’s business success?
9. What was the significance of the umbrella Jim uses on his way back from the theatre?
10. Why does Lena like to be lonesome?
1. Gaston’s doctor suggested he move west in order to improve his health.
2. The small room was once a linen closet.
3. Jim believes Gaston’s “bursts of imaginative talk” prevented him from becoming a great poet.
4. She insists on paying her way because she was making good money and Jim was a student with little money.
5. She wants to build a house for her mother.
6. She is working at the hotel for Mrs. Gardener.
7. It makes Jim remember the laughter of all the hired girls.
8. Jim was puzzled because most business people are hard-nosed, but Lena is an easy-going person.
9. It was the present Mrs. Harling gave him for his graduation.
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Book IV, Chapters 1-5 Questions and Answers
1. Where does Frances Harling tell Jim that Antonia is living?
2. What happened while Tiny Soderball was running her boarding house in Seattle?
3. What was the only thing that now interested Tiny?
4. Why did Tiny limp when she walked?
5. What does Jim notice about the picture of Antonia’s baby?
6. Why was Larry Donovan fired as a passenger conductor?
7. How did Larry Donovan treat his female passengers different from his male passengers?
8. What does Jim notice about the old pasture lands?
9. Who was in the basement when Mrs. Steavens and Jim went into the sitting room?
10. Who shows Jim Antonia’s baby?
1. Antonia has gone back to live on the farm.
2. Gold was discovered in Alaska.
3. Tiny was only interested in making money.
4. She lost some of her toes in the cold weather.
5. The picture is in a great gilt frame.
6. He was blacklisted for knocking down fares.
7. He was cold and distant toward the men and friendly toward the women.
8. It is being broken up into wheat fields and and corn fields.
9. Mrs. Steavens’ quiet brother was sitting in the basement reading his farm papers.
10. Yulka Shimerda shows Jim the baby.
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Book V, Chapters 1-3 Questions and Answers
1. What did Jim send Antonia when he was in Prague?
2. From what does Antonia make kolaches?
3. Where does the narrator tell us that life “comes and goes” at a farmhouse?
4. Where does the children’s teacher have the school picnic every year?
5. Who does Jim tell Antonia was once a great huntswoman but now shoots only clay pigeons?
6. What does Antonia do with her pictures of the old country?
7. What story does Charley Cuzak want Jim to tell?
8. How was Anton Cuzak dressed when Jim first met him?
9. What did the coroner find on Wick Cutter’s desk?
10. Who was Anton Cuzak’s cousin?
1. He sent her some photographs of her native village.
2. Antonia makes kolaches from spiced plums.
3. Life comes and goes by the back door.
4. She has the picnic in the Cuzak’s grape arbour.
5. The Queen of Italy was once a great huntswoman.
6. She framed them and hung them in the parlour.
7. He wants to hear the story of Jim killing the rattlesnake.
8. He arrives in the heat in his Sunday clothes, a tailored jacket and a polka-dot bow tie.
9. He found a letter stating that he shot his wife, invalidating her will.
10. Anton Jelinek was Anton Cuzak’s cousin.
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Cather's superb prose style is disarmingly clear and simple, relying on a straightforward narration of facts. Yet it is also subtle, using carefully selected images to create a rich portrayal of the prairie environment. She worked consciously to achieve this effect through the selection of which details to include and which to leave out. She also heaped up incidents to achieve a realistic portrayal of life, known as verisimilitude. Cather described this prose style as "unfurnished" in an essay entitled "The Novel Demeuble." She compared it to throwing all the furniture out of a room and leaving it as bare as the stage of a Greek theater. To accomplish this, she eliminated many adverbs, used strong verbs, and many figures of speech.
Cather's sparse but allusive style relies on the quality and depth of her images. She consciously used the land, its colors, seasons, and changes to suggest emotions and moods. Summer stands for life (Ántonia can't imagine who would want to die during the summer) and winter for death (Mr. Shimerda commits suicide during the winter). Animals are used as symbols of the struggle for survival experienced by the Shimerdas during their first winter. The essential grotesque image of the cost of this struggle is that of Mr. Shimerda's corpse frozen in his blood, his coat and neckcloth and boots removed and carefully laid by for the survivors. At the end of the novel, Cather uses animalistic...
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Jim's idealized personal history of himself and Antonia on the untamed prairie receives his most avid attention and controls the flow and structure of his narrative as a whole. Yet, he bears witness to the tension between agrarian myth and agrarian reality by counter-pointing his romantic vision of the world of his youth with those episodes where, despite all of his half-conscious efforts to soften its harshness, he describes the bitterness of the frontier experience. It is from this intermingling of mythic and realistic perspectives that the novel derives much of its strength and avoids the false resolutions of either escapism or nostalgia.
Although Jim says his story is formless, he has structured it carefully. It is made up of two long and three short sections. The first two, devoted to his childhood on the prairie and his adolescence in Black Hawk, accumulate material for retrospection while the others reexamine those experiences from different perspectives. Throughout, he demonstrates his ability to reconstruct the past out of a myriad of rapidly-drawn remembered moments, events, tales, and impressions and to confer broad significance on his regional materials, making the people and events of Nebraska stand for America and for humanity. He also proves himself to be a talented creator of images, especially of images of Antonia whom he always depicts in a few strong strokes of description that capture what he sees as the essence of her personality....
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The greatest of Cather's Nebraska novels. My Antonia, is based on recollections of her childhood on the prairie and her adolescence in Red Cloud. Just as the immigrant pioneer characters struggling to get a foothold in their new environment are drawn from the Bohemian, Swedish, and German farmers Cather knew as a child, so are the townspeople of Black Hawk inspired by her teenage memories. The heroine, Antonia Shimerda, is modelled on Annie Sadilek Pavelka, who emigrated to Nebraska from Bohemia in the 188Os and lived through hardships and triumphs much like those described in the novel. Cather attributes to the narrator, Jim Burden, the outline of her own early years, beginning with her move to Nebraska from Virginia at the age of nine.
On one level, the novel, which is narrated by Jim from the perspective of middle age, encapsulates the story of the settlement of America. The first part deals with the land and the few families settled on it. These are sod-busting pioneers engaged in the struggle to master the environment and wrest material success from the resources of nature. Thus, the physical sense of the prairie is strongly felt and the people are concerned with such primal needs as shelter, warmth, and food. The larger meaning of the enterprise in which they are engaged is articulated by Jim's grandfather, who, Jim recalls, knew they were at work on the transformation of the primitive land into a part of the modern world. Jim's memories of...
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Compare and Contrast
1880s: The "new immigrants" who came from eastern and southern Europe in the 1880s are considered a potential threat to the "American" character. For the first time, in 1882, Congress acts to restrict immigration on a selective basis, although standards are not very stringent. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 puts an end to the importation of cheap Chinese labor which had caused some ugly racial riots in the West.
Post World War I: Congress passes the Immigration Act of 1924; it institutes a quota system based on the U.S. population in 1920 and was an overt attempt to keep the country's ethnic "composition" what it had been—that is, predominantly Northern European.
Today: The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 gave legal status to millions of illegal aliens living in the U.S. since January 1982 and established penalties for anyone found hiring illegal aliens. Immigration preferences are extended due to family relationships and needed skills, not country of origin. In the 1990s, states like California attempt to pass legislation restricting government services to legal immigrants.
1880s: After the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment extended the right to vote to include black males. Women of all races remained unable to vote. An active woman's movement in the 1880s consolidated in 1890 into the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Post World War I: In August, 1920,...
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Topics for Further Study
Explore the religious, social, and national background of the various waves of European immigration to the Great Plains and how these factors affected their assimilation into "American" society.
Track the correlation between changing economic conditions and the changing American attitude toward immigration.
Consider how much of Mrs. Shimerda's greed and false pride is a product of her own psychological nature or of the circumstances we find her in.
Consider reasons why Willa Cather chose a male narrator and why women dominate the novel.
Compare Willa Cather's writing style to that of Herman Melville, that of Ernest Hemingway, or that of Virginia Woolf.
Create two differing interpretations of My Ántonia, one depending on Jim Burden as its center and one with Ántonia Shimerda at its center.
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Cather's use of Virgil's phrase "optima dies . . . prima fugit," (the best days are the first to flee) and, even more so, the self-reflexive scene in which Jim discovers the beauty and depth of Virgil's Georgics, suggest that the reader consider her novel as belonging to the pastoral tradition. In this literary mode, memory and imagination render a not-too-distant past of comparative innocence and happiness as more pleasurable than a disappointing communal or personal present overshadowed by undesirable social change and technological growth. Jim's vision of a life of contentment located in the rural past clearly expresses pastoral attitudes, as do his contrasts between country and city, and youth and maturity. Other characteristics linking My Antonia to this tradition are its poetic descriptions of the landscape and attention to the cycle of seasons, its expression of the georgic insight that it is through labor that man experiences nature, and the way it places in antithesis the real and the ideal, pleasure and suffering, and achievement and loss.
My Antonia can also be placed in the American female literary tradition, specifically, in relation to works by women regionalists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Sarah Orne Jewett who, besides firmly grounding their works in the local realities of their regions, tended to focus on a rural matriarchy and to celebrate female creativity. At their best, like...
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My Ántonia was adapted for television in 1994 by Victoria Riskin and David W. Finteis, Fast Track Films, Inc., Wilshire Productions, and is distributed by Paramount Home Video. It stars Neil Patrick Harris, as Jim Burden, Jason Robards Jr. and Eva Marie Saint as Jim's grandparents, and Elina Lowensohn as Ántonia. The film was directed by Joseph Sargent.
Charles Jones adapted My Ántonia for the stage. The work was published by Samuel French in 1994.
Sound recordings of My Ántonia are available from Bookcassette Sales, Brilliance Corp., and Blackstone Audio Books.
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What Do I Read Next?
In The American (1877), Henry James presents a clash between an aristocratic old French family and a wealthy, self-made American. This novel is the first of his studies of the contrast between the simple, innocent American and the sophisticated, corrupt European.
In Franz Kafka's unfinished novel Amerika (1927, translated 1938), he deals with the adventures and ordeals of a young European in an unreal, expressionistically depicted America.
Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of Pointed Firs (1896) is a book of tales and sketches thinly bound together by a faint thread of plot which portrays a Maine seaport town from the point of view of a summer resident.
Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie (1924-25 in Norwegian; 1927 in English) is a stark and realistic work by the Norwegian-American novelist Ole E. Rolvaag describing the hardships, both mental and physical, of a small group of Norwegian farmers who set out from Minnesota with their families in 1873 to settle in the then-unopened Dakota Territory. It is the first in a trilogy that also contains Peder Victorious and Their Father's God.
Sinclair Lewis' Main Street (1920) is both a satire and an affectionate portrait of Gopher Prairie, a typical American town, which was undoubtedly suggested by Sauk Centre, Minnesota, where Lewis was born.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hester...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Randolph Bourne, "Morals and Art from the West," in The Dial, Vol. LXV, No. 779, December 14, 1981, pp. 556-57.
E. K. Brown, Willa Cather: A Critical Biography, Knopf, 1953.
Sister Peter Damian Charles, "My Ántonia: A Dark Dimension," in Western American Literature, Vol. II, No. 2, Summer 1967, pp. 91-108.
David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction, Cornell Umversity Press, 1951.
Maxwell Geismar, The Last of the Provincials: The American Novel, 1915-1925, Houghton, 1947.
Richard Giannone, Music in Willa Cather's Fiction, University of Nebraska Press, 1968.
Granville Hicks, "The Case against Willa Cather," in English Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 9, November 1933, pp. 703-10.
Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1942.
Terence Martm, "The Drama of Memory in My Ántonia," in PMLA, Vol. 84, No. 2, March 1969, pp. 304-10.
H. L. Mencken, "Willa Cather," The Borzoi 1920, edited by Alfred A. Knopf, 1920, pp. 28-31.
Review of My Ántonia, in The Nation, Vol. 107, No. 2783, Nov. 2, 1918, pp. 522-23.
John H. Randall, III, The Landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather's Search for Meaning, Houghton, 1960.
Susan J. Rosowski, The...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Collection of eleven reprinted articles, selected by a leading literary critic. Includes a Cather chronology and bibliography.
Brown, Edward Killoran. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. Brown was Cather’s first biographer. A gracefully written book that still provides insights into Cather’s writings, this work is penetrating in its discussion of Cather’s use of feelings and nostalgic memories in My Ántonia. Brown died before he could finish the biography, and Leon Edel completed the work.
Brown, Muriel. “Growth and Development of the Artist: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.” Midwest Quarterly 33, no. 1 (Autumn, 1991): 93-107. Refers to Cather’s own ideas about the novel and about creativity. Brown offers her interpretation of the characters of Ántonia and Jim Burden.
Dyck, Reginald. “The Feminist Critique of Willa Cather’s Fiction: A Review Essay.” Women’s Studies 22, no. 3 (1993): 263-279. Dyck explains Cather’s regained literary reputation as a major writer as a consequence of work by feminist critics since the 1970’s. Summarizes some of the conflicting interpretations of Cather, using My Ántonia as the primary focus....
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