My Ántonia

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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 woman of dignity and strength.

Bibliography:

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.

Jessup, Josephine Lurie. The Faith of Our Feminists. New York: Richard R. Smith, 1950. An early feminist scholar, Jessup compares Cather favorably with Edith Wharton and Ellen Glasgow, particularly in her development of strong female characters. This is a short but important book.

Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon Books, 1989. In this major biography of Cather, Lee presents a sweeping, multilayered examination of her life and art. Utilizing the most recent scholarship and finely honed critical skills, she assays all the writings, often producing original and controversial interpretations. Her discussion of the pastoral is a significant contribution to understanding Cather’s use of the land motif. The book contains a valuable short bibliography.

Murphy, John J. “My Ántonia”: The Road Home. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Places the novel in historical and literary context and provides a reading of the text. Also includes a chronology and selected bibliography.

Rosowski, Susan J., ed. Approaches to Teaching Cather’s “My Ántonia.” New York: Modern Language Association, 1989. Interesting and readable essays by both established and newer Cather critics who consider the novel from a wide range of perspectives.

Stouck, David. Willa Cather’s Imagination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975. Although Stouck is primarily interested in an appreciation of all Cather’s writings, he does offer some valuable observations about memory and the pastoral in My Ántonia. His book also has a helpful selected bibliography.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: Her Life and Art. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Woodress, an established Cather expert, provides a clear, enthusiastic treatment of Cather’s accomplishments as an author. He argues that My Ántonia is her finest novel and one of the best written by an American.