Willa Cather Essay - Critical Essays

Willa Cather American Literature Analysis

Cather is a rarity among writers: a woman who has managed to escape classification as a “woman writer.” As a novelist, she is closely identified with a particular region but has nevertheless avoided the label “regional writer.” It is the depth and universality of the themes that run through her work that have allowed Cather to transcend such limiting definitions of her voice as a writer, permitting its individuality to achieve full critical recognition.

Central to much of her work is Cather’s fascination with the men and women who struggled to build lives for themselves and their families in the sometimes hostile environment of the American frontier. As the daughter of a farmer and, briefly, a homesteader, Cather was intimately acquainted with the conditions faced by the pioneers, many of them immigrants adjusting to new lives far from their native lands and the level of courage, endurance, patience, and strength that was demanded of them in their efforts to tame the frontier. In books such as O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, Cather creates vivid fictional portraits of the individuals who peopled the world of her Nebraska childhood. Her sensitivity to the problems faced by the immigrant homesteaders is especially acute, and her admiration for their ability to outlast the difficulties awaiting them in their new land is boundless.

In Cather’s world, the pioneer experience draws on the depths of an individual’s character. Cather’s particular talent lies in her ability to translate this experience into universal terms, turning a pioneer woman’s simple life into a glowing tribute to the human spirit. Cather sees in her characters—as she did in the figures surrounding her in her youth—people whose individual stories of courage and endurance form a heroic pattern that changed the face of a nation.

Cather also recognizes, certainly to some extent from personal experience, that a life tilling the soil can be restrictive and unfulfilling for anyone whose aspirations lie beyond the horizons of the Midwest’s farms and small towns. Claude Wheeler, the central character in One of Ours, is ill-suited to the life of a farmer and finds his escape in the battlefields of France. Jim Burden, the narrator of My Ántonia, is impatient to leave his small community for the larger world.

Cather also deals in her work with the passing of the frontier spirit as larger communities draw an influx of people to the region. There is a strong nostalgia for times past in many of her novels and an increasing dislike of modern society and modern ways that sometimes drew critical fire later in her career. In A Lost Lady, the charming Marian Forrester—a gracious, aristocratic presence in the small town of Sweet Water—gradually enters a decline that leads her to an affair with her husband’s friend and an association with the town’s unscrupulous lawyer. The book is sympathetic in its portrait of Marian, who represents the fading past, and harsh in its portrayal of Ivy Peters, the attorney whose ways represent a break with traditions such as honor and respect.

Hand in hand with Cather’s reverence for the pioneer spirit is her admiration for individuality. One of the recurring themes in her work is that of the individual whose dreams and ambitions place him or her at odds with society. The choices a person makes, and the repercussions those choices have, is the theme of both The Song of the Lark and The Professor’s House. In the former, a singer sacrifices everything for her career, leaving behind her midwestern home and family and relegating her social life to secondary status in order to pursue her dream. When she has achieved her goals, she is able to look back, clear-eyed, on the decisions she has made along the way and accept that they were necessary in obtaining her goal. For Cather, this was a highly personal subject, and the novel’s story line has many similarities to her own life.

The Professor’s House examines the life of a man who has not made such a decision and who reaches the beginning of old age only to come face to face with the unique individual spirit he suppressed years ago. Although outwardly successful, he feels less and less at home in the life he has gradually allowed to become his own. He at last releases his connection to his earlier self and resigns himself to living out what his life has become. His own choices are contrasted with his reminiscences concerning a former student, Tom Outland, whose ability to live in harmony with his own spirit reminds the professor of what he has lost.

Cather also had a strong feeling for the land itself, both the midwestern prairies and the more dramatic landscapes of the southwestern region she later came to love. The land is an intrinsic part of several of her best works, and it was frequently the inspiration for the poetry she wrote earlier in her career. It is in her descriptive passages that Cather’s prose style is at its most eloquent, capturing with vivid imagery the colors, physical features, and shifting moods and impressions that a particular landscape evokes in its human inhabitants. In O Pioneers! and My Ántonia, the unique and subtle beauty of the prairie landscape is strongly felt throughout the stories, while Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Professor’s House both offer striking portraits of the Southwest.

The latter two books also draw on Cather’s fascination with Indian culture and the history of the land prior to the arrival of white settlers. Tom Outland’s discovery of the cliff-dwelling Indian ruins in The Professor’s House and his complete absorption in them over the following year of his life provide the book with its most compelling segments. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a historical novel that brings to life the missionary work of two priests whose lives span the dramatic changes in the southwestern frontier that took place in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The love they come to have for the land and its people reflects Cather’s own feelings, even as the book gives voice to a unique period in American history.

My Ántonia

First published: 1918

Type of work: Novel

An immigrant pioneer woman’s life is recalled by her childhood friend.

One of Cather’s best-loved novels, My Ántonia is a moving tribute to the spirit of the pioneers whose strength and endurance made possible the settlement of the American frontier. In its portrait of its title character, the book gives an individual face to the myriad experiences facing the immigrants who composed a large portion of the Midwest’s early homesteaders.

The story is told from the point of view of Jim Burden, a young boy from Virginia who has lost his parents and travels to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. On the same train as Jim is an immigrant family, the Shimerdas, whose oldest daughter, Ántonia (pronounced in the Eastern European manner, with accents on the first and third syllables), will become the companion of Jim’s childhood days. Through Jim’s eyes, the reader sees the family’s early struggles as they suffer cold and deprivation in a dugout house, lose the sensitive Mr. Shimerda to suicidal despair, and gradually begin to pull free of hardship through diligence and hard work.

Ántonia Shimerda is an intelligent girl who must forgo any thought of serious study in order to work for her family. First in the fields and later as a “hired girl” in Red Cloud, she is cheerful and uncomplaining, shouldering her share of the backbreaking work required to support a family farm. Ántonia’s patient, gentle spirit stays with Jim long after he has left his small community, coming to represent for him the very best of what the pioneer experience can draw from the individual.

Ántonia is not, however, a simplistic character or a lifeless symbolic figure. Cather brings her fully to life, flawed and warmly human, and her story is both specific in its details and universal in its larger themes. A practical, sensible girl, she is nevertheless passionate in her love of the dances that provide all the hired girls with one of their few pleasures, and her trusting nature leads her into trouble—in the form of an illegitimate child—when she is unable to recognize dishonesty, so foreign to her own nature, in the man she loves.

My Ántonia draws its inspiration from Cather’s own childhood memories, and Ántonia herself is modeled after a woman named Annie Sadilek, who worked as a maid for the Cathers’ neighbors in Red Cloud. Like Ántonia, Annie’s father had tragically committed suicide when faced with the hardships and cultural deprivations of his new home, and Annie’s strength and perseverance left a deep impression on Cather over the years. The book’s narrator, Jim Burden, who leaves his small community first for college and then to become an attorney for the railroad, is essentially Cather herself, and Jim’s growing understanding in the book’s later passages of the importance of those early years parallels Cather’s own.

My Ántonia is also filled with a wealth of memorable supporting characters: Jim’s strong, loving grandparents, the family’s colorful farmhands, Ántonia’s friends, Lena Lingard, who becomes a successful dressmaker, Tiny Soderball, who makes her...

(The entire section is 3889 words.)