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Sara Orne Jewett, a local colorist from Maine, once suggested that Willa Cather

write from her own background. Cather followed that advice and became famous for

her stories of the American frontier; especially those about heroic women who

struggled to tame the prairies of Nebraska and the Southwest. Cather’s first

novel was published in 1912 and was called Alexander’s Bridge. In 1913 came O

Pioneers! which took its title from a poem by Walt Whitman. My Antonia,

published in 1918, is probably her best known work, and features the hardy,

sensitive women who led courageous, simple lives of endurance in the harshly

beautiful wilderness. These immigrants would become the mothers of a new race of

Americans, and the book spans the few generations that saw the prairie

transformed into modern farmland and cities. In 1927, Willa Cather wrote what is

considered her best work, Death Comes for the Archbishop, about missionary

priests in New Mexico. In 1923, she won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, the

story of an American farmer who dies in battle in World War I. Like the narrator

in My Antonia, Willa Cather was born in Virginia, the oldest child in an Irish

family, and moved to Nebraska with her family when she was eleven. It was 1883.

In the book, the boy, Jim Burden, compares the gentler land of Virginia to the

wild beauty of the prairies. Like him, Willa lived with her grandparents, and

like Jim’s grandparents, her family emphasized intellect, morality and ladylike

behavior. Like her protagonist, Cather grew up among European immigrants and

enjoyed the simple pleasures of a rural childhood, like giving plays. Willa

Cather had an interest in medicine and a lifelong love of music and theater. One

of her books, Song of the Lark, was about a frontier girl who becomes a great

opera singer. Cather never married, and according to one source, she sometimes

wore men’s clothes and passed as a male doctor, in order to avoid the prejudice

against women that was common in society in those days. Though she chose a man

as her narrator, My Antonia is more concerned with the lives of the immigrant

girls who grew up strong on prairie farms, worked in town to earn their way, and

then made lives for themselves in their new country. The author seems especially

sympathetic to the women when Lena faces a double standard, and is blamed for

the attention her beauty arouses in a married admirer. Antonia also suffers

rejection when her fianc? gets her pregnant before he abandons her. The

author’s preference for the openhearted farmers and sensitive women over the

town snobs is similar to Sinclair Lewis’s judgments in Main Street. Not only is

farming the land hard on these women, but marriage and small town society are

too. But in America, the hired girls can decide to leave or stay and build new

lives. Like many artists, Willa Cather may not have felt fully accepted in small

rural towns because the theme of the misunderstood artist recurs in her work. In

My Antonia, the heroine’s father is the transplanted artist, a musician who is

unprepared for prairie life. He has been taken advantage of by the man who sells

him the farm. He is not respected as he was in his homeland, and his skills do

not help him in farming. He is obviously depressed by the changes in his life,

and when his premature death is suspected of being a suicide, he is even

punished in death. No local cemetery will bury him in their hallowed ground, so

he is buried under a future crossroads according to a brutal custom. Again, like

her narrator in My Antonia, Willa Cather graduated from the University of

Nebraska in 1895 and went east. She taught English and Latin in high school in

Pittsburg while writing poetry and short stories from 1901 to 1906. Later, in

New York, she joined the staff of "McClure’s Magazine" and became an

editor. In 1912, she first visited the Southwest, where she "discovered

herself" and was especially impressed with the Anasazi cliff dwellings. On

later travels west, Willa Cather revisited Nebraska and became reacquainted with

Annie Sadilek Pavelka, the childhood friend who inspired the character of

Antonia. In 1917, Cather wrote My Antonia in New Hampshire and published it the

following year. Willa Cather traveled to Europe and visited the original homes

of her immigrant characters. She was especially fond of Czechoslovakia, which is

where the fictional family, the Shimerdas, came from. She spent her last years

in New York and New England, where she became a very private person. To the end

of her life, she was devoted to the arts and books. When she died in 1947, she

was buried in New Hampshire. Like many of her characters, she had seen America

develop from frontier to a modern country in her lifetime.

483

"Cather, Willa" Discovering Authors CD-ROM, Detroit:

Gale 1996 "Cather, Willa" World Book Encyclopedia, 1990 "Cather

Timeline" Cather Biography Internet, http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~cather/biographical.html

"Cather" Twentieth-Century Criticism Reference


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