A beloved American classic, Willa Cather's My Ántonia (1918) is best summarized by its epigraph-"the best days are the first to flee." In it, the adult narrator, Jim Burden, remembers his childhood through the memory of his friend, Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant. As Cather herself did, ten-year-old Jim has left Virginia for Nebraska by train and is shocked by the barren prairie on his first wagon ride. Unlike Cather, Jim is an orphan joining his paternal grandparents on the Nebraska Divide.
The novel comprises five sections, called "books" by the author, and may appear at first to lack a cohesive structure. As Cather intended, there is no plot in the usual sense of the word. Instead, each book contains thematic contrasts. Book One, for example, begins with an idyllic autumn of exploration for Jim and Ántonia; it ends with a bitter winter and an unforeseen family tragedy that changes Ántonia's life forever.
In Book Two, Jim's family leaves the prairie for the small town of Black Hawk, where many of the young immigrant women help alleviate their families' financial hardships by becoming the town's "hired girls." After Jim leaves Black Hawk to attend the University of Nebraska, he reunites with Norwegian Lena Lingard, who has become a successful dressmaker in Lincoln. He flees to Boston to avoid a lasting romance with her.
Still, Jim cannot escape his love for either Ántonia or the prairie. Similar to Cather, Jim regards the land as "the happiness and curse" of his life. While living in New York, Jim hears rumors of Ántonia's ruin. More than fifteen years pass before he musters up enough courage to find out what really happened to her.
The novel owes its enduring appeal partly to its universal themes of time, death, youth, and friendship. Children grow up and lose their innocence; the virgin land becomes productive but fenced. Cather's friend Edith Lewis once reflected, "The whole book was a sort of love story of the country." The beautiful elegiac tone of My Ántonia captures the taming of the American frontier as no other work of fiction ever has. Perhaps most of all, the novel is about memory, as Jim concludes at the novel's end: "Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the previous, the incommunicable past."
"There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land.... I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven."
-from My Ántonia
Willa Cather once set a jar filled with orange-brown flowers in the middle of an antique table and told a friend, "I want my new heroine to be like this-like a rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides."
The character of Ántonia Shimerda embodied all Cather's feelings about the early immigrants to the prairie country. Cather told an interviewer in 1921 that one of the people who had interested her most as a child was Anna Sadilek, later Anna Pavelka, the Bohemian "hired girl" who worked for one of her neighbors: "She was one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains. I did not realize all this as a child, but Annie fascinated me and I always had it in mind to write a story about her." Since the most popular American novels featured upper-class ladies and gentlemen, it was a radical aesthetic move for Cather to feature lower-class, immigrant "hired girls." In fact, the Pavelka family was upset that a novel had been written about them because, according to Anna's granddaughter Antonette Willa Skulpa Turner, the book so clearly described their poverty. In addition, Cather accurately described Anna's disgrace: When she went west to marry a brakeman, he deserted her as an unmarried pregnant woman with no choice but to return to her mother's Nebraskan dugout.
Cather's later story, "Neighbor Rosicky" (from 1931's Obscure Destinies), centers on the quiet kindnesses of a Bohemian farmer at the end of his life-a man based upon Anna's husband, with whom she bore twelve children.
"She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things."
-from My Ántonia
Willa Cather as managing editor of McClure's, 1908 (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Archives & Special Collections)
Willa Cather commissioned these illustrations from Bohemian artist W.T. Benda for the first edition of My Ántonia, but the publisher did not include the images because of the cost. (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Archives & Special Collections)
The University of Nebraska scholarly edition restored the W.T. Benda illustrations according to Cather's original intent. (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Archives & Special Collections)
Eleven-year-old "Willie" Cather holds her bow and arrow as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Hiawatha, 1885. (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Archives & Special Collections)