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Background Info

Author Bio

Full Name: Willa Sibert Cather

Pen Name: Willa Cather

Date of Birth: December 7, 1873

Place of Birth: Back Creek Valley, Virginia

Date of Death: April 24, 1947

Brief Life Story: Willa Cather was born into a large farming family in rural Virginia. In 1883, when Cather was ten years old, her family relocated to Red Cloud, Nebraska. She attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she paid her way by working for the Nebraska State Journal, and later moved to Pittsburgh to teach high school English. In 1906 she moved to New York City to work for McClure's Magazine, but began to write full-time in 1912. In her lifetime, Cather published 12 novels and many short stories, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for her novel One of Ours. A fiercely private person, Cather never married. Her most significant relationships were with women, most notably the editor Edith Lewis, with whom she lived in New York City from 1912 until her death in 1947.

Key Facts

Full Title: My Ántonia (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable)

Genre: Fiction

Setting: Black Hawk, Nebraska in the 1880s

Climax: When Ántonia starts attending the town dances, she asserts her independence by quitting her job with the Harlings and isolates herself from the Harlings and the Burdens.

Antagonist: Ántonia. Although not a typical antagonist, her separation from Jim influences the course of his life. Minor antagonists: Wick Cutter; the winter.

Point of View: First person

Historical and Literary Context

When Written: 1916–1918

Where Written: New York City

When Published: 1918

Literary Period: Modernism

Related Literary Works: In the early 20th century, writers were concerned about the growing industrialization of American society. They felt a sense of disillusionment and a nostalgia for simpler days. My Ántonia, set in rural Nebraska, captures this longing, and can be compared to such works as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie (1935) and Sinclair Lewis' Main Street (1920). All of these works explore the mainstream desire of the time to abandon the city and live a more wholesome life out West in a small town.

Related Historical Events: When My Ántonia was published, its story of American prairie life captured the imagination of an American public that was exhausted by Word War I. Cather's readers looked to literature as an escape from wartime politics and were proud of the United States' new post-war position as a global power. My Ántonia also appealed to progressives who were interested in social and economic issues because the novel explored women's strength and adaptability, and also brought attention to the hardships of immigrant life in the United States.

Extra Credit

Prairie Life: My Ántonia, the last of Cather's "prairie trilogy" of novels, is heavily autobiographical. Like Cather, Jim moves from Virginia to Nebraska at the age of ten, to a place heavily populated by Eastern European immigrants. The fictional Black Hawk, with its sod houses and bee bush, is largely based on Red Cloud, the Nebraska town where Cather lived. Throughout her life, Cather felt a great homesickness for her childhood years in Nebraska. Memories of the West fueled her writing throughout her career.

Willa the Tomboy: As a college student, Cather dressed as a tomboy and sometimes used the name "William." Most of her novels are written from the point of view of a male character. Though she never declared her sexual orientation, it has been a topic of debate among scholars.