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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Willa Cather was born in 1873 to Virginia and Charles Cather in the state of Virginia. In 1882, when she was nine years old, the family moved to Nebraska. They lived with her paternal grandparents for two years. Then they moved to a nearby town, Red Cloud, where Charles Cather opened a real estate office. On the prairie and in the town, Cather encountered a wide array of immigrants. A great majority had immigrated from Virginia as her family had, but there were many other nationalities represented in Nebraska during these years. In her later writing, Cather comes back again and again to Red Cloud as a setting. In My Antonia, it is named Black Hawk.
There are many other large-plot parallels between Catherís life in Nebraska and My Antonia and several oppositions. For instance, Cather like Jim Burden, went to Lincoln, Nebraska to study at the University of Nebraska and she eventually moved to New York, never returning to live in Nebraska. Unlike Jimís situation as an orphan who goes to live with his paternal grandparents, Cather was the eldest of seven children. In Catherís life, one can see parallels to several of her characters. Like Frances Harling, Cather was impatient with the constraints of feminine gender roles. She signed her name William Cather and wore her hair closely cut and wore menís clothes. Like Lena Lingard, Cather never married. On this point, there is a bit of a controversy. Cather refused to let her letters be quoted by any biographer and never wrote anything describing her personal life. From circumstantial evidence however, some scholars argue that Cather was a lesbian. She had several very close friendships with women. One was Isabele McClung, with whom Cather lived while teaching high school in Pittsburgh and with whom she traveled often. A second close feminine figure in Catherís life was her mentor, the great writer Sarah Orne Jewett. The third was Edith Lewis with whom Cather lived for forty years in New York. In My Antonia, readers might examine the lightly touched upon relationship between Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderwell as a lesbian relationship or the relationship between Peter and Pavel, the Russians who came to the U.S. when one of them was disowned in Russia, as a gay male relationship. These are, of course, only oblique references and Catherís wishes that her private life remain private keeps us in the dark about the extent of gay sexuality in her fiction.
After college, Cather moved to Pittsburg where she worked as an editor of a womenís magazine and taught high school English and Latin. Then she moved to New York City to work as an editor for McClureís Magazine. From her early college days, Cather was writing and publishing. She wrote reviews for the newspapers, and while living in Pittsburgh, published her first collection of poems, April Twilights (1903) and a collection of short stories, The Troll Garden (1905). The latter book helped her get the job in New York where she lived for the rest of her life.
Cather is most known for her novels, but she was a consummate short story craftsperson as well. Most readers find the story "Old Mrs. Harris" to be her best. She wrote her first novel when she was thirty-nine years old, Alexanderís Bridge (1912) set in England. The succeeding novels were all set in the American Midwest: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), My Antonia (1918) and others. Among her collections of short stories are Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920) and Obscure Destinies (1932). Cather also wrote of the broader history of European colonialism of the American continent. In Death Comes to the Archbishop (1927) she writes of New Mexico. In Shadows on the Rock (1931) she writes of Quebec.
Cather died in 1947 one of the most well respected fiction writers of her era.
Willa Catherís literary heritage is a complex one. She is most well known for her subject matter. It was a new thing in American literature to write about the immigrants who arrived in the United States to benefit from the U.S. governmentís sale of the prairie land of the Midwest at extraordinarily cheap prices. However, there is a uniquely American tradition of writing that Cather succeeds to. It is often termed regionalism in contemporary literary criticism, but often when it was written it was called local color fiction. One of the most important writers of regionalist fiction was Catherís mentor Sarah Orne Jewett, who wrote of her native New England with subtle sensitivity. Regionalism is not only a kind of fiction that pays close attention to place, especially the land, in the lives of characters, but it is also a kind of fiction which places usually marginal figures like children, unmarried women, and old women in the center of focus.
Cather thought of her fiction as doing something new, but doing it out of the materials of the past. She was no modernist in this sense. She quite owned the legacy of past writers as her influences in her fiction writing.
The land described in this novel is the Midwest of the late nineteenth century when of the Native Americans have been so displaced from their land that there is not one Native American character in the novel. They are only present in their mark on the land--the circles carved into the prairie by the horsesí hooves. The present inhabitants of the land donít even have contact with the history of the Native Americans. They only have the racist propaganda that helped displace them from the land, propaganda that depicted them as barbarous savages intent on torturing earnest white setters. The first Europeans on the land are assumed to be the Spanish explorer Coronado and his men who were searching for the mythical seven cities of gold. They only leave traces on the land as well, in their case, the relic of a Spanish sword. They, too, take up little space in the narrative. The present population of Nebraska traces its memories back to Europe or back to the first settlements of the U.S.--Virginia. The inhabitants of the new colonized land of the U.S. are those who have been Americans for generations and those who are newly immigrated. Much of the tension of the novel comes from the class differences of these two groups. While the immigrants might have come from middle-class backgrounds, in the Midwest, they are ignorant of the language and are therefore easily cheated by moneylenders. They are also often ignorant of the skills and knowledge required to settle a farm out of the prairie. It therefore takes them at least one generation to settle down and join the respectable middle class society of the Midwest.