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THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES
Willa Cather was born, in 1873, during an exciting period in American history when the Middle West was settled by courageous pioneers, some from the East, some from Europe. The eldest of seven children, Cather spent her first years in the East, living in a lovely Virginia house that had been in the family for several generations.
When she was nine, Willa Cather's life changed. Relatives had sent glowing reports of farming opportunities in the central Nebraska region called "the Divide." The Cathers were susceptible to tuberculosis and hoped the dry Nebraska climate would be more favorable than that of humid Virginia. In 1883 Willa Cather and her family journeyed by rail to join their extended family in the small settlement west of Red Cloud that was already known as Catherton.
Although there were no longer many covered wagons, buffalo, or Indians in Nebraska, the huge prairie rippling with reddish grass seemed wild and foreign to Willa Cather. So did her new neighbors. Homesteading immigrants from all over Europe, they were farming previously unbroken prairie land. These people and this land inspired My Antonia and Cather's other Midwestern novels.
Until she was ten years old, Willa Cather was educated at home, first by her Virginia grandmother, then by her Nebraska grandmother. They introduced her to Shakespeare and the Greek and Latin classics, and encouraged the intelligent and outgoing girl to think for herself at a young age.
Many aspects of my Antonia are autobiographical. The fictional town of Black Hawk is based on Red Cloud. Just like Jim Burden (the novel's narrator), young Willa Cather arrived by train and then rode the rest of the way to her grandparents' house- about fifteen miles- in the straw-covered bed of a farm wagon. Her grandparents' house was exactly like Jim's. And, like him, the young Willa made friends with the immigrant families nearby.
One of these families, the Sadileks from Bohemia, now part of Czechoslovakia, provided the model for the Shimerda family in My Antonia. Mr. Sadilek, a musician, was so depressed by the bleak new country that he shot himself after breaking his violin across his knee. His daughter Annie was the inspiration for Antonia. She worked in the home of the Miner family, the model for the Harlings in the book.
A year or so after they arrived on the farm, Willa Cather's parents moved the family into Red Cloud. She and her mother were both homesick and ill, and her father didn't like the backbreaking farm work. He went into real estate loans and insurance, and Willa attended a school for the first time. In Red Cloud, as she always had, the girl spent much of her time math adults. An Englishman, who read Latin with her, let her help with experiments in his laboratory. She decided she wanted to become a doctor and persuaded two of the town's physicians to let her accompany them on their rounds. About this time, she began calling herself William Cather, M.D.
As you see, Cather not only thought of herself as a doctor, she thought of herself as a boy. She cut her hair very short (shocking in those days), dressed boyishly, and was close to her two younger brothers, who called her "Willie."
Not many girls went to college in those days, but it never occurred to Cather not to. At the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, the state capital, she continued to lead an independent and unconventional life. Among the influential friends she made were two families who owned newspapers. Coincidentally, during her first year at the university, a teacher gave one of her essays to the Nebraska State Journal, the largest of five papers in Lincoln. Once she had seen her initials in print, she decided to become an author, not a doctor.
For the college literary magazine and the Journal, she described people and places which would eventually make their way into her books. She sometimes insulted people by publishing thinly disguised character sketches of them. As the newspaper's drama and book critic, she expressed decisive views on art and life.
She was so busy during her senior year writing newspaper articles and practice-teaching that her other schoolwork suffered. In courses that interested her, she read far beyond the requirements (sometimes more than her teachers had read), but she resented "required reading." After she became famous, she said that she didn't want students to be forced to read her books, so she wouldn't let her work be printed in school editions or in anthologies.
As she had as a child, Cather continued to think "like a man." She didn't accept her generation's idea that women should be passive, domestic, and uneducated. Instead she actively pursued a literary life and a worldly perspective which gave her work universal appeal.
After being graduated from college in 1895, Cather moved back home for a year and wrote short stories as well as newspaper columns. When she was twenty-three, a publisher invited her to edit a new ladies' magazine in Pittsburgh. After she left the prairie she began to feel a nostalgia for the land and people of "the Divide" which lasted all her life. She liked to say that the years between eight and fifteen are the most important. Her own vivid memories of those years are recreated for you in My Antonia.
For the next ten years Willa Cather worked in Pittsburgh at various jobs, and continued to send columns about the books and culture of the East back to papers in Lincoln. For scholars today, those columns form a sort of diary of Cather's thoughts on the arts and artists during her twenties. Although she practiced journalism for more than half her life, she knew she would eventually write novels, and she already thought of herself as a literary artist. When she placed her first short story in a national magazine in 1900, she decided to devote herself to writing fiction instead of newspaper articles. To support herself she taught English in Pittsburgh high schools for five years.
By this time she had been invited to live in the home of Isabelle McClung and her parents. Isabelle was young, attractive, and a wealthy arts patron who encouraged Cather in her writing. The two became inseparable. Although Isabelle later married, their friendship remained so vital to Cather that one critic called Isabelle "the great love of her life." (Forty years later when Isabelle died, Cather said she realized that Isabelle had been the person for whom all her books had been written.)
Cather's early boyishness and her later close friendship with several women (including her companion of forty years, Edith Lewis) make it unsurprising that she never married. Although the nature of these friendships remains a matter of speculation, Cather herself always claimed that generally art and marriage don't mix because an artist must become a "human sacrifice" to the god of art.
Eventually, Cather's single-mindedness paid off. Her poetry and short stories drew the attention of the New York publisher S.S. McClure. In 1906 she moved there to work on the staff of the famous McClure's magazine. She stayed six years, three of them as managing editor. While researching articles, hunting for talented contributors in Europe and at home, and meeting people in the publishing world, she still found time to write her own stories.
Still, at nearly forty she had not yet written a novel. Some people have called this journalistic period a "literary detour" which delayed her career as a novelist until the second half of her life. She herself called it her "apprenticeship." She evidently learned her trade well, because in the next thirty years she produced a dozen novels, several of which have become classics of American literature. My Antonia is probably the most famous.
A reader must look to the novels for clues about Cather's later life. When she became well known, she grew intensely private. She avoided publicity. Burning all the personal letters she could get back from her friends, she specified that no surviving letters were ever to be published (though nearly a thousand are now available to scholars in libraries). Film versions of her works were prohibited. She authorized only certain of her writings to be collected. Cather wanted to be remembered for her best work, and she did everything she could to protect it from being tarnished by her lesser efforts.
Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge (1912), was influenced by the works of Henry James and Edith Wharton, both of whom Cather admired. Then she met the Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett, who encouraged her to write about a more familiar geographical region and to develop her own style. She was ripe for this advice, and later commented that "life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember."
In the next three books, Cather found the subjects and personal style that made her famous. She drew on her memories of prairie spaces and pioneer life. Sometimes called her pastoral or Western novels, they create vibrant portraits of three strong women. O Pioneers! (1913) is divided into two parts. Experimenting, she abandoned the conventional plot structure of novels of her day, and found that she could still create an effective story. (You will note how she carried this experiment even further in My Antonia.) The next novel, Song of the Lark (1915), deals with one of Cather's favorite themes: the escape of a gifted person from unsympathetic surroundings. About Thea, the novel's heroine (and the most autobiographical of all her characters), she wrote later that she wanted to show "the way in which commonplace occurrences fell together to liberate her from commonness."
My Antonia (1918) is a variation on the same theme. Antonia, an immigrant from Bohemia, has been called a natural earth mother who by the end of the story fulfills her destiny by taming the wild prairie and making it fruitful. She creates a kind of paradise of beauty, resourcefulness, and pure, traditional values. To match this sense of purity, Cather used a strong, uncluttered language, and a loose, unconventional structure of which she was now a master. The book is stocked with images and experiences from her past.
Other American novelists writing in the early twentieth century also chose to look back and recapture the strenuous, yet inspired, pioneer life. Among the most well known of these works are: O.E. Rolvaag's depiction of Norwegians in Minnesota, Giants in the Earth; Conrad Richter's three-part work, The Awakening Land, about pioneers in Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley; and the series of frontier memoirs for young people by Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose second volume, Little House on the Prairie, was the inspiration for a popular television series.
Like many Americans, Cather was disillusioned when World War I brought not peace but more materialism to the world. "The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts," she later wrote. Her next group of novels, sometimes called her "middle period," reflect this sadness. She turned away from realism. She tried to create a world of emotions with her characters, images, and symbols.
The most successful of these novels was A Lost Lady (1923), which many readers have termed a small masterpiece. A less well-written novel, One of Ours (1922), had brought her the Pulitzer Prize, securing her literary reputation.
Cather withdrew more and more from the modern world in her writing. She established a comfortable home for herself in New York City where she lived with her friend, Edith Lewis, and a French housekeeper. She traveled a great deal- to New Hampshire, New Brunswick (Canada), Europe, and to the Southwest where she visited her favorite brother.
Her next two novels became bestsellers, although some critics at the time dismissed them as escapist. One, Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927), is now considered to be one of Cather's best works. It is based on historical figures, two French missionaries in New Mexico just after the Mexican War. Interwoven in the story are local legends, stories of saints and miracles, and facts about the region and landscape. The other, Shadows on the Rock (1931) has a similar theme, the spread of French Catholicism in the wilderness, but this time in fifteenth century Quebec.
Cather published three excellent short stories under the title Obscure Destinies in 1932. Further recollections of her Nebraska youth, two of the stories, "Neighbor Rosicky" and "Old Mrs. Harris," may be read as sequels to My Antonia.
The author lived the last fifteen years of her life quietly, surrounded by her friends. Many, like the family of violinist Yehudi Menuhin, were from the world of music. She published two minor novels and a group of essays during this period and continued to receive honors. By the end of her life she had accumulated nine honorary degrees and many literary awards.
Cather wrote that her fiction was her "cremated youth." Yet she insisted that no one had the right to draw connections between her real life and her fiction. Her fierce privacy during her life has not stopped scholars from investigating those connections since her death in 1947. Since then, eight books of her other writings have been published as well as many studies of her life and evolution as a writer.
When she died at the age of 73, her love of the land was reflected in these words from My Antonia carved on her tombstone: "...that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great."
[My Antonia Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]