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My Antonia
Willa Cather




Few American novels are likely to be read longer than My Antonia. In it, theme, character, myth, and incident ride together comfortably on a clear, supple prose style. It is probably Willa Cather's greatest work. Everything went right- a splendid concept executed with perfect taste and mastery. Willa Cather combines the yea-saying vision of Whitman with a disciplined artistry learned from James, Flaubert, Sarah Orne Jewett, and others, and the novel goes considerably beyond either of its immediate predecessors.... The wonder of it all is that the novel, so rich in suggestiveness, is so artfully simple....

Emerson to Whitman to Willa Cather: The line in American literature is direct and clear. Although her methods were modern and her subjects the immigrant farmers of Nebraska, she belongs to the tradition of American romanticism.

James Woodress, Willa Cather: Her Life and Art, 1970


Where to place Willa Cather will always puzzle the literary historians. But the reader of her best novels is not likely to worry about that. These novels have a strength and an individuality that it is not easy for the critic formally to describe, virtues which can be experienced even if they cannot easily be talked about. Her position among American novelists is unique; no other has brought to bear quite her kind of perception on the American scene.... [Her work] transcends national problems to illuminate one of the great questions about civilization. To put the matter briefly, Miss Cather's novels are civilized; and if we interpret that term too narrowly, that is because we have not read Willa Cather carefully enough.

-David Daiches, Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction, 1951

It is customary to speak of Willa Cather as an "elegist" of the American pioneer tradition. "Elegy" suggests celebration and lament for a lost and irrevocable past; but the boldest and most beautiful of Willa Cather's fictions are characterized by a sense of the past not as an irrevocable quality of events, wasted in history, but as persistent human truth repossessed- salvaged, redeemed- by virtue of memory and art.

Her art is a singular one. The prose style is suave, candid, transparent, a style shaped and sophisticated in the great European tradition; her teachers were Homer and Virgil, Tolstoy and Flaubert. But the creative vision that is peculiarly hers is deeply primitive, psychologically archaic in an exact sense. In that primitivism was her great strength, for it allowed the back door of her mind to keep open, as it were, to the rumor and movement of ancestral powers and instinctive agencies.

Dorothy Van Ghent, Willa Cather, 1964

All of what Willa Cather wrote, it seems to me, is ultimately a metaphor of the conflict which Miguel de Unamuno referred to as an "inward tragedy," the conflict "between what the world is as scientific reason shows it to be, and what we wish it might be, as our religious faith affirms it to be." For Willa Cather, this conflict was most broadly expressed in terms of the world she knew in her childhood- the pioneer era which she clearly idealized and ennobled in her fictional recreation of it- and the post-World War I wasteland she so thoroughly repudiated. It is easy to lose sight of the essentially symbolic nature of this conflict and to read it too narrowly in terms of literal past versus literal present. Her theme was not the superiority of the past over the present, but, as Henry Steele Commager observed, "the supremacy of moral and spiritual over material values, the ever recurrent but inexhaustible theme of gaining the whole world and losing one's soul." Rather than being irrelevant to the modern world, the moral thrust of Willa Cather's art, her concern with pioneers and artists as symbolic figures representing the unending human quest for beauty and truth, places her among the number, not of the backward-looking (which she saw herself as being one of), but of the true spiritual pioneers of all ages in whose lives or work other men continue to find inspiration.

Dorothy Tuck McFarland, Willa Cather, 1972

...She thought the traditional themes of love and despair, truth and beauty, the struggle for artistic honesty, far from exhausted; indeed she held, with Henry James and Ellen Glasgow, that these were the only themes capable of inspiring great art. "Ideals," she wrote, "were not archaic things, beautiful and impotent; they were the real sources of power among men," and unlike so many of her contemporaries- Hemingway, for example- she was not embarrassed by this vocabulary. Sarah Orne Jewett had admonished her, when she was scarcely more than a girl, that "you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength... is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation, sentiment falls to sentimentality- you can write about life but never write life itself."... [She] wrote life itself, wrote it so passionately that the characters she created seem to us more authentic than the characters of history.

Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind, 1950


It is time to remove some of the pink and blue from our image of the apple-cheeked and prairie-blue- eyed Willa Cather. This writer we think of as Middle Westerner spent most of her life in the East. She chose to be a New Yorker. She was the hard-driving editor of a successful magazine and didn't start writing fiction full time until she was 40. Her literary ties were to Europe. The girl next door of American letters hated small-town America, rejected heterosexuality, and distrusted the family as the enemy of art. It is time to establish Willa Cather's complexity and her stature as a writer.

Phyllis Rose, "The Point of View Was Masculine," The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1983

[My Antonia Contents]


We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

[My Antonia Contents]



Bennet, Mildred R., The World of Willa Cather, New York: Dodd, Mead, 1951. A lively documentation of Willa Cather's Red Cloud years. An authority on whom all later biographers relied.

Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Willa Cather's Gift of Sympathy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1962. An enlightening study of Cather's themes and technique.

Brown, E.K., completed by Leon Edel. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. The first biography, and still the most comprehensive.

Daiches, David. Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1951. A critical but admiring guide to Cather's fiction by an English critic.

Gerber, Philip L. Willa Cather. Boston: Twayne, 1975. A well researched study, with a useful annotated bibliography.

Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1953. A first-hand memoir by the friend with whom Cather lived most of her life.

McFarland, Dorothy Tuck. Willa Cather. New York: Ungar, 1972. This short book is perhaps the best analysis of what Cather was attempting and how she achieved it.

Randall, John H., III. The landscape and the Looking Glass: Willa Cather's Search for Value. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960. Though this study is rather pedantic, it nonetheless presents provocative critical ideas.

Robinson, Phyllis C. Willa: The Life of Willa Cather. Garden City: Doubleday, 1983. This biography has found some popularity but is an undistinguished repetition of earlier material, enhanced only by a close study of Cather's letters to Elizabeth Sergeant.

Rose, Phyllis. "The Point of View Was Masculine," The New York Times Book Review, September 11, 1983, page 15. in a stinging review of the Phyllis Robinson biography, a noted biographer discusses Cather as one of the most valuable American writers, and points direction for further study.

Schroeter, James, editor. Willa Cather and Her Critics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967. This invaluable book is now the only readily available source for the best Cather criticism up to 1966.

Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. Philadelphia and New York: Lippincott, 1953. Informed by close friendship, this insightful account evokes Cather's robust character.

Slote, Bernice. "Willa Cather," Sixteen Modern American Authors: A Survey of Research and Criticism, edited by Jackson R. Bryer. New York: W.W. Norton, Inc., 1973. A thoroughly researched inventory of bibliographies, editions, manuscripts and letters, biographies and criticism by an excellent Cather scholar. Impartial.

Stouck, David. Willa Cather's Imagination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975. A sympathetic and original examination of all Cather's work.

Van Ghent, Dorothy. Willa Cather. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers Number 36, 1964. Van Ghent brings out the mythical dimensions of the fiction and emphasizes the instinctive in Cather's approach.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: Her Life and Art. New York: Pegasus, 1970. Possibly the best study to date, richly informative and well written. It combines the story of Cather's life with fresh interpretations of her work.



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