Study Guide

O Pioneers!

by Willa Cather

O Pioneers! eText - eText

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What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?

A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.

Willa Sibert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, on December 7, 1873. When Cather was nine, her family moved to Nebraska as homesteaders, and she wrote about the experiences, setting, and characters she found there in nearly all her books. During these years, Cather met Annie Sadilek, who would become the model for one of her most memorable creations: the simple, yet heroic Ántonia Shimerda.

While attending the University of Nebraska, Cather wrote a column for the school newspaper, became managing editor for the college literary magazine, and wrote poetry for other publications.

After graduation, Cather continued her writing career and also taught high school in Pennsylvania. Between 1893 and 1895, books of her poetry and short stories were published; later, her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, also called Alexander's Masquerade, was serialized in McClure's Magazine. In 1913, the first of Cather's major works, O, Pioneers, caught the attention of the public, and My Ántonia, which took two years to complete, was first published in 1918.

Over the next thirty years of Cather's life, she continued to write and associate with many literary figures of her time—Stephen Crane, D. H. Lawrence, publisher Alfred Knopf, and Sara Jewett, among others. In addition, Willa Cather won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize. She had a few health problems, both physical and mental, but these did not diminish her output. While living in New York, she wrote Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), and it proved to be yet another success.

Willa Cather died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 24, 1947.