My Ántonia

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Last Updated June 27, 2023.


My Ántonia is a novel by American author Willa Cather and was published in 1918. This work is the last book in her "prairie trilogy," following O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark. This novel, set in the prairies of Nebraska, is Cather’s best-known work and deals with themes of love, struggle, and the strength of human spirit.

Willa Cather was a prominent figure in American literature in the early 20th century, known for her vivid portrayals of life on the American frontier. She drew from her own experiences growing up in Nebraska, and her writing is imbued with a sense of the landscape and the people who lived there during the late 19th century.

What Happens

Narrated by Jim Burden, My Ántonia explores his life and relationship with Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant whom he meets upon moving to Nebraska to live with his grandparents. The narrative begins with an adult Jim, now a successful New York lawyer, recounting his past after a chance encounter with a childhood acquaintance.

In flashback, we're introduced to a young Ántonia, a spirited girl of vitality and passion. Her family, like many immigrant families, is beset by the hardships of life on the frontier - poverty, harsh winters, and the struggle to cultivate the untamed land. Ántonia's father, unable to adapt, dies by suicide, leaving the family in dire straits.

The narrative traces Jim and Ántonia's separate and joint experiences, offering interesting glimpses into pioneer life. Jim is an excellent student and eventually leaves for college. The two lose touch for a time, but Ántonia remains a powerful presence in his memories.

While away at school, Jim hears that Ántonia had a failed engagement and bore an illegitimate child. Despite societal norms of the time, Ántonia remains undaunted and raises her child on the Nebraska farm.

The narrative returns to the present as Jim visits Ántonia years later. She is now married to a fellow countryman, Anton Cuzak, and is the mother of a large family. Jim notes that despite her struggles, Ántonia maintains her indomitable spirit, symbolizing the strength and resilience of pioneer women.

Why it Matters

My Ántonia matters because it explores the immigrant experience and the hard realities of frontier life in America, offering a powerful commentary on cultural diversity, gender roles, and human resilience. The book was an immediate success when it was published in 1919. One reason for this is that Cather's vivid descriptions of the Nebraska landscape are more than mere settings; they become integral to the characters' identities and evoke the broader themes of nature, freedom, and the human struggle against adversity.

The novel's perspective on the female experience in a harsh and changing environment is particularly noteworthy. Ántonia, unlike the stereotype of the submissive and demure woman of the time, is resilient and strong, a testament to the strength and spirit of pioneer women. Her determination to build a fulfilling life despite societal judgments remains a compelling and relevant theme, even in contemporary discussions on gender and society.

The narrative's use of nostalgia is also significant. Jim, reflecting on his past, infuses his memories with sentimentality and longing. This exploration of memory and its unreliability, coupled with the tension between the past and the present, adds a layer of complexity to the novel.

Furthermore, the novel presents a nuanced view of the American Dream. Both Jim and Ántonia pursue their versions of this dream, with varying results. Cather seems to suggest that the American Dream is multifaceted and that success can take many forms.

Places Discussed

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Burden farm

Burden farm. Ranch in pioneer Nebraska owned by...

(This entire section contains 576 words.)

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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

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

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 made better by the presence of Ántonia and the other “hired girls” (immigrants from Europe like Ántonia) who work in town. Certainly, Cather shows, they have an energy and love for life missing in many of their neighbors. At the town dances, it is Ántonia and her friends who show the most spirit. Jim graduates from high school, dedicating his commencement oration to Ántonia’s father.


*Lincoln. Nebraska’s state capital, largest city, and home to the university where Jim starts his separation from his family and the prairie life. After succeeding at the university, he goes on to Harvard Law School. Jim hears about Ántonia and her family during his years away but visits her only once before starting his legal career.

*New York City

*New York City. Center of American financial and cultural life by the end of the nineteenth century. Jim becomes a lawyer for the railroads in New York and marries. It is clear from Cather’s fictional introduction to My Ántonia, however, that his marriage is loveless and produces no children. In the greatest city in the country, he has lost something of what he had as a young man growing up with Ántonia on the American prairie.

Cuzak farm

Cuzak farm. Farm where Ántonia, her husband, and their many children live. In the last scene of the novel, Jim visits this farm years later and discovers the richness and happiness of immigrant life on the prairie. Ántonia has aged, but she has “not lost the fire of life.” With Ántonia and her family, Jim feels at home again, and the novel has circled back to the prairie. It is the land, Cather implies, and the immigrants who bring their dreams and energy to it, which sustains this country. Jim Burden no longer shares either the dreams or the land, but he personally understands the prairie’s power and the heroism of people like “my Ántonia.”

Form and Content

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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 immigrant farm daughters who came to work in Black Hawk. Free-spirited, they labored diligently, played hard, and saved their money. They particularly loved dancing and mingling with the boys. Black Hawk’s old stock citizens were scandalized, especially the women. Young females did not dance; indeed, exercise was seen as unladylike and possibly scandalous. These country girls seemingly threatened the prevailing morality, but they would not be intimidated. Ántonia and her friends Lena and Tiny Soderball were the leaders of these exuberant young women. Jim Burden thought that they brought vitality to the town’s barren social life. He also later realized that most of these girls would be extremely successful, either in their own careers, like Lena and Tiny, or as dominant heads of successful farm families.

Jim leaves for college and loses contact with Ántonia. After graduation, he returns home briefly to learn she had fallen in love with a young railroad conductor who had promised to marry her and then deserted her, unmarried and pregnant. Jim journeys out to visit the Shimerdas. Ántonia once more is working in the fields. Determined to make a good life for her baby, she will not despair. In an emotional scene, they assure each other that whatever else happens in life, spiritually they will always be close.

Burden goes to law school and will not see Ántonia for twenty years. Although his business for the railroad often involves western travel, he avoids her, afraid he will find her aged and broken. Finally he seeks her out, discovering that she has flourished. Happily married, she has a home full of children and is the undisputed mistress of a prosperous farm. Although she is older in looks, her irrepressible vitality is undiminished. Awash in memories and believing that Ántonia has achieved true fulfillment, he is determined never to be so far away again. He will take some of her sons on hunting trips, befriend her husband, and maintain vital connections with Ántonia and her own.


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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, and the prairie gave way to a fascination with the arid Southwest. Her focus on women diminished, became blurred. The females became weaker, while the males gained somewhat in stature. One should look to her earlier works for Cather’s true impact on the discussion of women’s issues. These works, such as My Ántonia, made Willa Cather one of the major American women writers.

Historical Context

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Immigration 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 quadrupled between the Civil War and 1880, and then doubled again during the 1880s. Low prices for farm products in the late 1880s and early 1890s compounded by drought in the mid-1890s made success elusive for many on the Great Plains until almost the turn of the century. By the time Cather was writing My Ántonia, immigration to the Great Plains had slowed. Urban immigration, however, continued to cause miserable situations in the cities. As a journalist in Pittsburgh and New York City and as a newspaperwoman and editor for a radical magazine, McClure's, Cather was exposed to the conditions in which numerous urban immigrants lived. She also saw the mounting fear that the arrival of cheap foreign labor was not only undesirable competition but a contribution to the widening and hardening gap between rich and poor. During World War I, German-Americans were definitely suspect and stories of their victimization can be found in almost any midwestern state histories. Even the Czechs, who were eager to help free their homeland from the domination of Austria-Hungary, suffered during the war years. The country's anxiety over the role immigrants were to play in our society did not ease, even though the "tide" of immigration was stemmed briefly by World War I.

Theories of Americanization By the time Willa Cather was writing My Ántonia, reaction to the massive European immigration of the nineteenth century had fostered two opposing theories of Americanization. These models have come to be called the "melting pot" theory and the "salad bowl" theory and still define the debate on difference even today, almost a century later. In the 1890s Fredenck Jackson Turner popularized the image of the American West as a crucible where European immigrants would be "Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race." One can read My Ántonia as a tribute to this view and appreciate Ántonia herself as "the rich mine of life, like the founders of early races" that produces the American people from the raw material that has been gathered on its shores. At its best, this view can serve as a model of assimilation. At its worst, it argues for a nativism, or favoring of native-born citizens, which is vulnerable to a fear or hatred of foreigners. Indeed, the American Nativists of the 1910s and 1920s fiercely opposed the waves of immigration. An alternative view of Americanization was articulated by philosopher Horace M. Kallen in an article in the Nation, circulated three years before My Ántonia was published. Each nationality should express its "emotional and voluntary life in its own language, in its own inevitable aesthetic and intellectual form," according to Kallen. This idea has since been termed cultural pluralism. Carl Degler coined the expression "salad bowl."

Literary Style

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Style 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.

Imagery 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 images as symbols of fertility and abundance. Ántonia's children come up out of the well-stocked larder like "a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight." One image has become almost emblematic of the novel. A plough, magnified through the distance, "heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun," freezes the moment when Jim picnics for the last time with his childhood friends. The vision disappears, the sun sets, and "that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie."

Realism Jim Burden gives voice to a romanticism, or overly sentimental or positive outlook, that Cather was not quite distant from. The homesteading German, Danish, Bohemian, and Scandinavian settlers were the embodiment of a cultural tradition she cherished. However, the novel is saved from sentimentality by the evocative depiction of the harsh realities of pioneer and immigrant life and the complexity of the characters, who are rarely, if ever, only sympathetic or only despicable.

Literary Techniques

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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. Because many of these images depict her unsentimentally as a woman who labors on the land, some critics have likened them to the portraits of strong peasant women painted in the nineteenth century by the French Realists Jules Breton and Jean-Francois Millet.

The vast panorama of untamed land that dominates the first half of the novel is presented to the reader both as a realistic presence in the characters' lives and as a symbolic landscape. Symbolically, the land links the lives of the protagonists since, from first to last, a shared love of nature and the prairie is what makes Antonia and Jim so important for one another, no matter how different their aspirations, experiences, and destinies.

The symbol which best encapsulates Cather's vision of the pioneer era is that of the plough momentarily magnified to heroic size against the setting sun. For Cather, what triumphed on the prairie was the spirit of agriculture, which led to the creation of homesteads, settlements, and communities and created the conditions for the flowering of civilization. Just as the plough experiences a moment of apotheosis before shrinking back to its realistic size somewhere on the prairie, so too the pioneer era exploded in all its vigor in Nebraska in the late 1800s and then faded into the obscurity of history. This symbol is also emblematic of Cather's overall technique in her Nebraska novels, for only with the special illumination of her imagination are her ordinary materials transformed and glorified.

Social Concerns

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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 his youth on the prairie touch on a crucial part of the national experience, the pioneer endeavor, and in particular, on its brief flowering and rapid fading from the national memory. More to the point, they contain a series of episodes and images which counterbalance both the predominantly affirmative nature of his individual dream of the past and the positive agrarian vision of the frontier as defined and exalted by political theorists and many artists in the period between the founding of the Republic and the end of the nineteenth century.

As in all of her work, Cather avoids open didacticism and the pessimistic excesses of naturalism. Nevertheless, through the lives of the Shimerdas — which can be revealingly set alongside such mythic ideas as "free" land, agrarian uplift, primitivism as rebirth, and the "melting pot" — she emphasizes the tragic side of the pioneer experience and how it was costly beyond measure in terms of human suffering and sacrifice. Like so many of their counterparts from the Old World in the decades following the Civil War, the Shimerdas emigrate to the plains of the Midwest in pursuit of the Jeffersonian promise of decency, independence, and prosperity through honest farm labor. What actually awaits them is an untamed wilderness they must subdue, an endless struggle with the basic facts of toil, fatigue, and deprivation, as well as loneliness and isolation because of linguistic and cultural barriers, in short, all that is antithetical to the dream of bucolic contentment in a farming community. Far from entering a world of social cohesion where all prior differences disappear in the crucible of the frontier experience, they find that their life in Nebraska is shaped by social distinctions and ethnic tensions.

True to the pattern of development outlined in the Turner thesis, the most important statement about the significance of the frontier in the shaping of American history and the American character, the Shimerdas undergo a reversion to the primitive. Theirs, however, is not a healing return to nature attended by regeneration but is the more crude primitivism of poverty and alienation. Having left behind their country and civilization, lacking the tools and skills of their Anglo-American neighbors, and bewildered by their strange new environment, they are literally compelled to forget their prior knowledge and attainments and start over from the beginning. They live, like badgers and prairie dogs, in a dwelling dug out of the ground and, with animal-like tenacity, they do battle with the land and the elements for their most essential needs. Furthermore, the economic system keeps them in subjugation since they are in debt to Krajiek, the man who sold them their farm and demands a part of all they produce. Mrs. Shimerda and her sullen son Ambrosch take the brutalization in stride, but for gentle Mr. Shimerda, a weaver by trade and a violinist by avocation, the experience is fatally traumatic and just after Christmas he commits suicide.

When Jim's grandparents leave the prairie for the town of Black Hawk so that he can attend high school, Jim is exposed to the beginnings of commercial and social life on the frontier and to the accompanying intensification of economic and class distinctions. For Jim, this historically inevitable step forward represents a decline in heroism, as the pioneer spirit starts to dissipate in the face of prudence and conformity.

In the American imagination, the myth of country virtue often embraced not only the farm but also the small town. Viewed as the second stage in a cycle of positive development, as the pioneers set up permanent communities and established schools, churches, governmental and legal centers on the frontier, the small town was believed to have preserved such classic rural virtues as innocence, simplicity, and goodness, was exalted for its sense of community and human solidarity, and was seen as a healthy alternative to the vices and complexities of the city. This vision of the small town as a version of Eden persisted throughout the Industrial Revolution and well into the twentieth century.

Through Jim's responses to life in Black Hawk, Cather calls into question that positive vision. For Jim, the constraints, prejudices, and lack of imagination in this emerging provincial town are most evident in the prevailing view that the daughters of Black Hawk merchants were "refined" and that the country girls who "worked out" were not. He similarly condemns the unjustifiable superiority the townspeople often feel towards the immigrants, demonstrated by their refusal to view them as individuals or to respect their Old World heritage. Cather's critique of the self-satisfied and limited modes of thought and behavior in the prairie town just out of the pioneer stage resembles those later expressed by Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and Sinclair Lewis in Main Street (1920).

After graduation, Jim moves to Lincoln to study at the University of Nebraska, the city and the university being symbolic of the expansion of learning and refinement on the frontier. When he returns to the prairie several years later, he finds that it has reached the stage of fulfillment. As Jim heads for the countryside to visit Antonia, he notes with pleasure the changes that have occurred on the prairie in terms that clearly allude to both the agrarian myth of cultural evolution on the frontier and the georgic vision of work as a civilizing force divinely ordained to create good order out of chaos. Jim, however, chooses not to share the destiny of the farmers and leaves for the East where he will become a lawyer for a railroad company, thereby linking his life to one of the institutions that, for better or worse, contributed to the transformation of America into a modern world power. Many years later, Jim finally returns to the prairie and spends an idyllic day and night with his old friend Antonia on her fertile farm. But the world of his childhood that the farm evokes, and the pioneer era in which he grew up, are slipping away and remain vivid and treasured only in memory and myth.

Compare and Contrast

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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, the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution and stated that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied by the United States or any State on account of sex."

Today: In 1963, Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique jumpstarted a stalled women's rights movement. Issues such as the right for equal pay, the need for child-care services, and the problem of gender stereotyping became the critical concerns on the agenda of the current feminist movement.

Literary Precedents

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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 Cather, they elevate their regional materials to universal significance. Finally, My Antonia can be read against the background of literary Romanticism, not only for its presentation of the themes of love of nature, exaltation of youth, and reverence for the past, but also for its emphasis on the ability of the imagination to create a new order and on the transformation of the past into myth.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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 Voyage Perilous. Willa Cather's Romanticism, University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Carl Van Doren, Nation, July 27, 1921, reprinted in his Contemporary American Novelists: 1900-1920, Macmillan, 1922.

Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977.

For Further Study Joan Acocella, "Cather and the Academy," in New Yorker, November 27, 1995, pp. 56-71. An insightful essay examining the varying responses of the "literary establishment" to Cather's fiction during this century.

Mildred R. Bennett, The World of Willa Cather, Dodd, Mead, 1951; University of Nebraska Press, 1961. This book is of primary value in understanding the influence of Cather's childhood on her fiction.

Edward Bloom and Lillian Bloom, Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy, Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. A book-length appraisal of Cather's place in American literature, with comparisons to Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and James, especially valuable for its contribution in exploring Cather's literary theories and practices.

Harold Bloom, editor, Willa Cather's My Ántonia, Chelsea House, 1987. A useful collection of essays on Cather's novel, representing a range of critical perspectives.

Brent L. Bohlke editor, Willa Cather in Person. Interviews, Speeches, and Letters, University of Nebraska Press, 1986 This selection of Cather's written and spoken words offers insight into her fictional writing.

Willa Cather, The World and the Parish, University of Nebraska Press, 1970. A two-volume set of Cather's early articles and reviews, published in periodicals between 1893 and 1902.

Robert W. Cherney, "Willa Cather's Nebraska" in Approaches to Teaching Cather's My Ántonia, edited by Susan J. Rosowski, Modern Language Association of America, New York, 1989, pp. 31-36. An essay that focuses specifically on the socio-economic and demographic climate in Willa Cather's Nebraska at the end of the 19th century.

Judith Fryer, Felicitous Space: The Imaginative Structures of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Attending to the painted quality of Cather's landscape, this book focuses on the influence Millet and the Barbizon painters had on Cather.

Blanche H. Gelfant, "The Forgotten Reaping-hook: Sex in My Ántonia" American Literature, Vol. 43, 1971, pp. 60-82. Gelfant questions the reliability of Jim's narration and argues that "Jim Burden belongs to a remarkable gallery of characters for whom Cather consistently invalidates sex."

Phihp Gerber, Willa Cather, Twayne, 1995 A recently revised critical overview of Cather's life and work, including a brief character study of Ántonia.

Sally Allen McNall, "Immigrant Backgrounds to My Ántonia: A Curious Social Situation in Black Hawk" inApproaches to Teaching Cather's My Ántonia, edited by Susan J. Rosowski, Modern Language Association of America, 1989, pp. 22-30. A fact-filled essay on the social conditions that provided the background for Cather's My Ántonia and the questions that arise from the novel.

John J. Murphy, My Ántonia. The Road Home, Twayne's Masterwork Studies, Twayne Publishers, 1989. A comprehensive book including textual analysis, critical summary, chronology, and historical context.

Paul A. Olsen, "The Epic and Great Plains Literature: Rolvaag, Cather and Neihardt," Prairie Schooner, Vol. 55, 1981, pp. 263-85. This article attempts to show that when a redefined epic tradition is applied to My Ántonia, Ántonia becomes the heroic creator of the new civilization and Jim the hymner singing her accomplishments.

Susan J. Rosowski editor, Approaches to Teaching Cather's My Ántonia, Modern Language Association, 1989. Though intended primarily for teachers, this collection, of brief essays also offers the first-time reader several productive avenues into Cather's novel.

David Stouck, Willa Cather's Imagination,, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975. A book-length study using the pastoral mode as key to understanding Jim's compulsion to return to the past.

William J. Stuckey, "My Ántonia: A Rose for Miss Cather," Studies in the Novel, Vol. 4, 1972, pp. 473-83. In this article, Cather, is compared to Fitzgerald and is faulted for not making a clear distinction between realistic skepticism and romantic vision.

James Woodress, Willa Cather, A Literary Life, University of Nebraska Press, 1987. A recent biography in which the author praises My Ántonia for its breadth of appeal and its depth of intellectual and emotional content.

James Woodress, "Willa Cather," in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography. Realism, Nationalism and Local Color, 1986-1917, Gale, 1988, pp. 36-51. A comprehensive essay of both Cather's life and work by Cather's biographer with a special focus on her novels.


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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.




Critical Essays