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 eautiful 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 er 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.