"The fact that I was a girl never damaged my ambitions to be a pope or an emperor."
—Willa Cather, 1897
Willa Cather is celebrated for her portrayal of the American frontier, describing with poignant beauty the brave immigrant pioneers for whom exile and trials led to a better life for many in the next generation.
The 1862 Homestead Act offered free land in the new territories to those who would live on it, and the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad made the dream of fertile, cheap land a possibility for more than a million European immigrants in the 1880s. No one told them about the grasshopper plagues, the severe droughts, or the rising price for the best land. Due to the shortage of timber, many early settlers and immigrants were forced to live in dugouts or sod houses. Although hogs often ate the snakes, women still carried a rattlesnake cane, especially in the hen and milk houses.
The deaths of six family members led the Cathers to leave Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. After their first eighteen months on the Nebraska Divide, they moved to the small, poor town of Red Cloud, where, under different names, she set most of her novels. In 1883, Cather was one of sixteen students in the township's one-room schoolhouse. The daily arrival of eight passenger trains led hundreds of travelers to stop for meals. The still-standing opera house was completed in 1885, and by 1889 Nebraska Governor Silas Garber (the model for A Lost Lady's Captain Forrester) had built his grand bank on the main street. The populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan often visited Red Cloud. By the time Cather left for college, the town's population rose from 1,200 to almost 3,000.
Forty-five percent of Nebraska's population comprised immigrants. Within a wagon's drive, Cather could have attended a church service in Swedish, Norwegian, Bohemian, French, German, Danish, or English. She once remembered a day spent in town without hearing a word of English.
Amid this cultural diversity, Cather pursued an unconventional education. A Jewish couple who spoke French and German let her borrow books from their vast European library. Cather befriended two of the town's most intellectual men: Herr Schindelmeisser, the German piano teacher who taught her about music and Europe, and William Ducker, the Englishman who taught her Latin, Greek, and how to perform vivisection. She loved listening to immigrant women's stories, later saying: "I never found any intellectual excitement any more intense than I used to feel when I spent a morning with one of these old women at her baking or butter-making.... I always felt ... as if I had actually got inside another person's skin."
This is exactly what her fiction does. Cather's protagonists often feel homesick, restless, displaced, or discontented, and they are almost all exiles. After Cather left Nebraska in 1896, she never lived there permanently again. After the death of her mother in 1931, Cather never returned at all to "that shaggy grass country" that she later said had "been the happiness and curse" of her life.
Willa Cather commissioned Bohemian artist W.T. Benda to create illustrations for the first edition of My Ántonia. When her publisher balked at the cost, Cather fought to keep them in, without success. The University of Nebraska scholarly edition has restored the images according to Cather's original intent.
"Of course Nebraska is a storehouse of literary material.... If a true artist were born in a pigpen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for his work. The only need is the eye to see."