A Wagner Matinée

A Wagner Matinée Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Willa Cather's A Wagner Matinée. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Willa Cather

The eldest of seven children, Willa Cather was born to a family whose roots near Winchester, Virginia, extended back to the 1700s. In 1883, when Cather was nine years old, her family moved to Webster County, Nebraska, near the town of Red Cloud, where her grandparents, aunt, and uncle were already homesteading. Moving from northern Virginia to the unsettled prairie had a profound effect on Cather as a child and later shaped her as a writer. Growing up, she spent time exploring the countryside and listening to stories from other pioneers, who were often recent immigrants. After high school, Cather attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln with hopes of becoming a doctor, but decided to become a writer after one of her essays was published in the newspaper. After graduating in 1895, she spent ten years in Pittsburgh teaching, writing, and establishing herself as a journalist. In 1906, she began working as an editor for the prominent McClure’s magazine in New York, a breakthrough for her literary career. After many years of establishing connections and friendships across the literary world, the 1910s were Cather’s most fruitful period—she published her “prairie trilogy,” O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918). In 1923 she won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, a novel of World War I. By the 1920s, Cather had established herself as a leading American novelist, turning to historical subjects with Death Comes for the Archbishop (1928) and the bestselling Shadows on the Rock (1931). Among other awards, she received honorary degrees from Princeton and Yale, and her views on literary Modernism influenced such contemporary writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cather never married. However, she had a number of intimate female friendships throughout her life, living for almost forty years with editor Edith Lewis. Cather divided her later years between New York City and a secluded New Brunswick cottage. She died in Manhattan at the age of 73.
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Historical Context of A Wagner Matinée

By the time “A Wagner Matinée” was written, Americans were a decade or two removed from the settling of the Great Plains and were beginning to look back with nostalgia on the pioneer generation, especially in light of increased industrialization in urban areas. The hardworking pioneer wife, vital to the all-consuming work of maintaining a homestead, was an especially romanticized figure. It is worth noting that, in 1904, the Homestead Act was amended in hopes of repopulating western Nebraska, which had seen decline following the initial settlement boom of the 1870s and 1880s; the provision allowed for homesteaders to claim ownership over a new section of Nebraskan counties free of charge, and, as such, homesteading and land use were still live issues at the time Cather wrote. The operatic works of German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883), hugely influential on modern classical music, would also have been relatively fresh to American audiences at this time.

Other Books Related to A Wagner Matinée

Cather’s prairie fiction fits into the tradition of literary naturalism, which focuses on ordinary farming families contending with their environment. Other examples include Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1935) and Ole Rølvaag’s Giants in the Earth (1927), about Norwegian homesteaders in the 1870s. Much like “A Wanger Matinée,” Sinclair Ross’ As for Me and My House (1941) is the story of a Saskatchewan woman whose passion for music is thwarted by prairie life.
Key Facts about A Wagner Matinée
  • Full Title: A Wagner Matinée
  • When Written: Early 1900s
  • Where Written: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • When Published: 1904
  • Literary Period: Naturalism
  • Genre: Short story
  • Setting: Boston, Massachusetts
  • Climax: The end of the concert
  • Antagonist: The Carpenters’ Nebraska homestead
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for A Wagner Matinée

Culture on the Prairie. Willa Cather appreciated music from an early age, and she enjoyed attending traveling opera productions at the Red Cloud Opera House, which was built in 1885. She also delivered her high school graduation speech from its stage in 1890.

Operatic Inspiration. Cather’s lifelong love of opera is also reflected in the second novel of her prairie trilogy, The Song of the Lark, whose heroine, Thea Kronborg, is based on the Wagnerian soprano Olive Fremstad. Cather befriended Fremstad in 1913, and the two exchanged letters discussing their respective art forms over a number of years.