NEA Big Read
My Ántonia

My Ántonia

by Willa Cather

An artist should have no moral purpose in mind other than just his art.

Willa Cather as managing editor of McClure's, 1908 (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Archives & Special Collections)

The Life and Times of Willa Cather

  1. 1870s
    • 1873: Willa Cather is born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia on December 7.
    • 1877: Cather's paternal grandparents move from Virginia to Nebraska.
    • 1873-78: Drought and grasshopper infestations drive many American farmers to despair.
  2. 1880s
    • 1883: Charles Cather moves his wife and four children, including nine-year-old Willa, from Virginia to Nebraska.
    • By the mid-1880s, Bohemian composer Antonín Dvorák's international fame is firmly established with works such as his "Slavonic Dances."
    • Thousands of Scandinavians and Bohemians immigrate to the United States.
  3. 1890s
    • 1892: New York's Ellis Island opens as an immigration depot, serving more than 17 million people until its closure in 1954.
    • 1896: Cather leaves Nebraska for Pittsburgh.
    • 1899: Cather meets Isabelle McClung, who will become "the one person for whom all [her] books are written."
  4. 1900s
    • 1901: Cather begins five years as a high school teacher.
    • 1903: Cather's first book, a collection of poetry, April Twilights, is published.
    • 1909: The death of American author Sarah Orne Jewett devastates Cather.
  5. 1910s
    • Cather's novels O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918) are published to critical acclaim.
    • World War I begins in 1914. America enters in 1917, joining the Allies-France, Britain, Italy, and Russia. Armistice ending the war signed on November 11, 1918.
    • 1916: Isabelle McClung marries Jewish violinist Jan Hambourg.
  6. 1920s
    • 1923: One of Ours (1922) receives the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
    • 1924: Nearly 40% of New York's population is foreign-born. New laws drastically curtail U.S. immigration.
    • 1929: Cather elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
    • 1929: Stock Market crashes, triggering the Great Depression.
  7. 1930s
    • Franklin Roosevelt is elected U.S. president in 1932; Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany in 1933.
    • 1934: Angered by two films of A Lost Lady, Cather takes legal measures to prevent further adaptations of her fiction.
    • Cather's Lucy Gayheart (1935) and Not Under Forty (1936) are published.
  8. 1940s
    • 1941: Japanese forces bomb Pearl Harbor; America enters World War II. The Axis surrenders in 1945.
    • 1942: Nobel Prize-winning novelist Sigrid Undset, exiled from Norway to New York, becomes friends with Cather.
    • 1947: Cather dies in New York, leaving a will that forbids any reprinting of her letters.

"The fact that I was a girl never damaged my ambitions to be a pope or an emperor."
—Willa Cather, 1897

Willa Cather's Nebraska

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."
—Willa Cather

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