History of Literature

Willa Cather


Willa Cather


Willa Cather

American author
in full Wilella Sibert Cather

born Dec. 7, 1873, near Winchester, Va., U.S.
died April 24, 1947, New York, N.Y.

American novelist noted for her portrayals of the settlers and frontier life on the American plains.

At age 9 Cather moved with her family from Virginia to frontier Nebraska, where from age 10 she lived in the village of Red Cloud. There she grew up among the immigrants from Europe—Swedes, Bohemians, Russians, and Germans—who were breaking the land on the Great Plains.

At the University of Nebraska she showed a marked talent for journalism and story writing, and on graduating in 1895 she obtained a position in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on a family magazine. Later she worked as copy editor and music and drama editor of the Pittsburgh Leader. She turned to teaching in 1901 and in 1903 published her first book of verses, April Twilights. In 1905, after the publication of her first collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, she was appointed managing editor of McClure’s, the New York muckraking monthly. After building up its declining circulation, she left in 1912 to devote herself wholly to writing novels.

Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge (1912), was a factitious story of cosmopolitan life. Under the influence of Sarah Orne Jewett’s regionalism, however, she turned to her familiar Nebraska material. With O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), which has frequently been adjudged her finest achievement, she found her characteristic themes—the spirit and courage of the frontier she had known in her youth. One of Ours (1922), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and A Lost Lady (1923) mourned the passing of the pioneer spirit.

In her earlier Song of the Lark (1915), as well as in the tales assembled in Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), including the much-anthologized “Paul’s Case,” and Lucy Gayheart (1935), Cather reflected the other side of her experience—the struggle of a talent to emerge from the constricting life of the prairies and the stifling effects of small-town life.

A mature statement of both themes can be found in Obscure Destinies (1932). With success and middle age, however, Cather experienced a strong disillusionment, which was reflected in The Professor’s House (1925) and her essays Not Under Forty (1936).

Her solution was to write of the pioneer spirit of another age, that of the French Catholic missionaries in the Southwest in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) and of the French Canadians at Quebec in Shadows on the Rock (1931). For the setting of her last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), she used the Virginia of her ancestors and her childhood.




Type of work: Novel
Author: Willa Cather (1873-1947)
Type of plot: Historical chronicle
Time of plot: Last half of the nineteenth century
Locale: New Mexico and Arizona
First published: 1927

Based on the lives of two eminent nineteenth century French clerics, this novel tells of the missionary efforts of the French bishop, Jean Latour, and his vicar, Father Joseph Vaillant, to establish a diocese in the territory of New Mexico. Besides a skillful reconstruction of these dedicated lives, the novel also provides a vivid picture of a particular region and culture. Tales and legends from Spanish colonial history and from the primitive tribal traditions of the Hopi and Navajo enter the chronicle at many points, creating an effect of density and variety.


Principal Characters

Father Jean Marie Latour, a devout French priest consecrated Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico and Bishop of Agathonica in Partibus in 1850. With Father Vaillant, his friend and fellow seminarian, he journeys from his old parish on the shores of Lake Ontario to Santa Fe, seat of the new diocese in territory recently acquired from Mexico. In those troubled times he finds many of the old missions in ruins or abandoned, the Mexican clergy lax and unlearned, the sacraments corrupted by native superstitions. The travels of these two dedicated missionary priests over a desert region of sand, arroyos, towering mesas, and bleak red hills, the accounts of the labors they perform and the hardships they endure to establish the order and authority of the church in a wild land, make up the story of this beautifully told chronicle. Father Latour is an aristocrat by nature and tradition. Intellectual, fastidious, reserved, he finds the loneliness of his mission redeemed by the cheerfulness and simple-hearted warmth of his old friend and by the simple piety he often encounters among the humblest of his people; from them, as in the case of old Sada, he learns lessons of humility and grace. For years he dreams of building a cathedral in Santa Fe, and in time his ambition is realized. By then he is an archbishop and an old man. In the end he decides not to return to his native Auvergne, the wet, green country of his youth that he had often remembered with yearning during his years in the hot desert country. He retires to a small farm outside Santa Fe, and when he dies his body rests in state before the altar in the cathedral he had built. Father Latour's story is based on the life of a historical figure, Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first archbishop of Santa Fe.
Father Joseph Vaillant, Father Latour's friend and vicar. The son of hardy peasant stock, he is tireless in his missionary labors. If Father Latour is an intellectual aristocrat, Father Vaillant is his opposite, the hearty man of feeling, able to mix with all kinds of people and to move them as much by his good humor and physical vitality as by his eloquence. Doctrine, he holds, is good enough in its place, but he prefers to put his trust in miracles and the working of faith. When the gold rush begins in Colorado, he is sent to Camp Denver to work among the miners. There he continues his missionary labors, traveling from camp to camp in a covered carriage that is both his sleeping quarters and an improvised chapel. Borrowing and begging wherever he can, he builds for the church and for the future. When he dies, the first Bishop of Denver, there is not a building in the city large enough to hold the thousands who come to his funeral. Like Father Latour, Father Vaillant is modeled after a real person, Father Joseph P. Machebeuf.
Padre Antonio Jose Martinez, the vigorous but arrogant priest at Taos credited with having instigated the revolt of the Taos Indians. A man of violence and sensual passions, he has lived like a dictator too long to accept the authority of Father Latour with meekness or reason. When Father Latour visits him in Taos, he challenges his Bishop on the subject of celibacy. After the Bishop announces his intention to reform lax practices throughout his diocese, Padre Martinez tells him blandly that he will found his own church if interfered with. As good as his promise, he and Padre Lucero defy Father Latour and Rome and try to establish a schism called the Old Holy Catholic Church of Mexico. Until his death a short time later Padre Martinez carries on his personal and ecclesiastical feud with Father Taladrid, appointed by Father Latour to succeed the old tyrant of Taos.
Padre Marino Lucero, the priest of Arroyo Hondo, who joins Padre Martinez in defying Father Latour's authority. Padre Lucero is said to have a fortune hidden away. After he repents of his heresy and dies reconciled to Rome, buckskin bags containing gold and silver coins valued at almost twenty thousand dollars are found buried under the floor of his house.
Padre Gallegos, the genial, worldly priest at Albuquerque, a lover of whiskey, fandangos, and poker. Although Father Latour likes him as a man, he finds him scandalous and impossible as a priest. As soon as possible he suspends Padre Gallegos and puts Father Vaillant in charge of the Albuquerque parish.
Manuel Lujon, a wealthy Mexican. During a visit at his ranch Father Vaillant sees and admires a matched pair of white mules, Contento and Angelica. The priest praises the animals so highly that Lujon, a generous, pious man, decides to give him one of them. But Father Vaillant refuses to accept the gift, saying that it would not be fitting for him to ride on a fine white mule while his Bishop rides a common hack. Resigned, Lujon sends the second mule to Father Latour.
Buck Scales, a gaunt, surly American at whose house Father Latour and his vicar stop on one of their missionary journeys. Warned away by the gestures of his frightened wife, they continue on to the next town. The woman follows them to tell that in the past six years her husband has murdered four travelers as well as the three children she has borne. Scales is arrested and hanged.
Magdalena, the Mexican wife of Buck Scales, a devout woman who reveals her husband's crimes. After her husband's hanging, she lives for a time in the home of Kit Carson. Later Father Latour makes her the housekeeper in the establishment of the Sisters of Loretto in Santa Fe. She attends the old archbishop in his last days.
Kit Carson, the American trapper and scout. He and Father Latour become friends when they meet after the arrest of Buck Scales.
Jacinto, an intelligent young Indian from the Pecos pueblo, often employed as Father Latour's guide on the priest's missionary journeys. On one of these trips the travelers are overtaken by a sudden snowstorm. Jacinto leads Father Latour into a cave which has obviously been used for ceremonial purposes. Before he builds a fire Jacinto walls up an opening in the cave. Waking later in the night, Father Latour sees his guide standing guard over the sealed opening. He realizes that he has been close to some secret ceremonial mystery of the Pecos, possibly connected with snake worship, but he respects Jacinto's confidence and never mentions the matter.
Don Antonio Olivares, a wealthy rancher who has promised to make a large contribution to Father Latour's cathedral fund. He dies suddenly before he can make good his promise, leaving his estate to his wife and daughter for life, after which his property is to go to the church. Two of his brothers contest the will.
Dona Isabella Olivares, the American wife of Father Latour's friend and benefactor. After her husband's death, two of his brothers contest the will on the grounds that Dona Isabella is not old enough to have a daughter of the age of Senorita Inez and that the girl is the child of one of Don Antonio's indiscreet youthful romances, adopted by Dona Isabella for the purpose of defrauding the brothers. Father Vaillant convinces the vain woman that it is her duty to tell the truth about her age in order for her and her daughter to win the case. Much against her will Dona Isabella confesses in court that she is fifty-three years old and not forty-two, as she has claimed. Later she tells Father Vaillant and Father Latour that she will never forgive them for having made her tell a lie about a matter as serious as a woman's age.
Senorita Inez, the daughter of Dona Isabella and Don Antonio Olivares. Her age and her mother's are questioned when the Olivares brothers try to break Don Antonio's will.
Boyd O'Reilly, a young American lawyer, the manager of Don Antonio Olivares' affairs.
Sada, the wretched slave of a Protestant American family. One December night she escapes from the stable where she sleeps and takes refuge in the church. Father Latour finds her there, hears her confession, blesses her, and gives her a holy relic and his own warm cloak.
Eusabio, a man of influence among the Navajos. Though he is younger than Father Latour, the priest respects him greatly for his intelligence and sense of honor. Father Latour grieves when the Navajos are forced to leave their country and rejoices that he has been able to live long enough to see them restored to their lands. When the old Archbishop dies, Eusabio carries word of his death to the Indians.
Bernard Ducrot, the young priest who looks after Father Latour in his last years. He becomes like a son to the gentle old man.
Padre Jesus de Baca, the white-haired, almost blind priest at Isleta. An old man of great innocence and piety, he lives surrounded by his tame parrots.
Irinidad Lucero, a slovenly young monk in training for the priesthood whom Father Latour meets in the house of Padre Martinez. He passes as Padre Lucero's nephew, but some say he is the son of Padre Martinez. When Padre Martinez and Padre Lucero proclaim their schism, Trinidad acts as a curate for both.
Padre Taladrid, the young Spanish priest whom Father Latour appoints to succeed Padre Martinez at Taos.


The Story

In 1851 Father Jean Marie Latour reached Santa Fe, where he was to become Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico. His journey from the shores of Lake Ontario had been long and arduous. He had lost his belongings in a shipwreck at Galveston and had suffered painful injury in a wagon accident at San Antonio.
Upon Father Latour's arrival, in company with his good friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, the Mexican priests refused to recognize his authority. He had no choice but to ride three thousand miles into Mexico to secure the necessary papers from the Bishop of Durango.
On the road he lost his way in an arid landscape of red hills and gaunt junipers. His thirst created vertigo, and he could blot out his agony only by repeating the cry of the Saviour on the Cross. As he was about to give up all hope, he saw a tree growing in the shape of a cross. A short time later he arrived in the Mexican settlement called Aqua Secreta, or Hidden Water. Stopping at the home of Benito, Bishop Latour first performed the marriage ceremonies and then baptized all the children.
At Durango he received the necessary documents and started the long trip back to Santa Fe. Meanwhile Father Vaillant had won over the inhabitants from enmity to amity and had set up the Episcopal residence in an old adobe house. On the first morning after his return to Santa Fe, the bishop heard the unexpected sound of a bell ringing the Angelus. Father Vaillant told him that he had found the bell, bearing the date 1356, in the basement of old San Miguel Church.
On a missionary journey to Albuquerque in March, Father Vaillant acquired as a gift a handsome cream-colored mule and another just like it for his bishop. These mules, Contento and Angelica, served the men in good stead for many years.
On another such trip the two priests were riding together on their mules. Caught in a sleet storm, they stopped at the rude shack of an American, Buck Scales. His Mexican wife warned the travelers by gestures that their lives were in danger, and they rode on to Mora without spending the night. The next morning the Mexican woman appeared in town. She told them that her husband had already murdered and robbed four travelers, and that he had killed her three babies. The result was that Scales was brought to justice, and his wife, Magdalena, was sent to the home of Kit Carson, the famous frontier scout. From that time on Kit Carson was a valuable friend of the bishop and his vicar. Magdalena later became the housekeeper and manager for the kitchens of the Sisters of Loretto.
During his first year at Santa Fe, the bishop was called to a meeting of the Plenary Council at Baltimore. On the return journey he brought back with him five nuns sent to establish the school of Our Lady of Light. Next, Bishop Latour, attended by the Indian Jacinto as his guide, spent some time visiting his own vicariate. Padre Gallegos, whom he visited at Albuquerque, acted more like a professional gambler than a priest, but because he was very popular with the natives Bishop Latour did not remove him at that time. At last he arrived at his destination, the top of the mesa at Acoma, the end of his long journey. On that trip he heard the legend of Fray Baltazar, killed during an uprising of the Acoma Indians.
A month after the bishop's visit, Latour suspended Padre Gallegos and put Father Vaillant in charge of the parish at Albuquerque. On a trip to the Pecos Mountains the vicar fell ill with an attack of the black measles. The bishop, hearing of his illness, set out to nurse his friend. Jacinto again served as guide on the cold, snowy trip. When Bishop Latour reached his friend's bedside, he found that Kit Carson had arrived before him. As soon as the sick man could sit in the saddle, Carson and the bishop took him back to Santa Fe.
Bishop Latour decided to investigate the parish of Taos, where the powerful old priest, Antonio Jose Martinez, was the ruler of both spiritual and temporal matters. The following year the bishop was called to Rome. When he returned, he brought with him four young priests from the Seminary of Montferrand and a Spanish priest to replace Padre Martinez at Taos.
Bishop Latour had one great ambition; he wanted to build a cathedral in Santa Fe. In that project he was assisted by the rich Mexican rancheros, but to the greatest extent by his good friend, Don Antonio Olivares. When Don Antonio died, his will stated that his estate was left to his wife and daughter during their lives, and after their decease to the church. Don Antonio's brothers contested the will on the grounds that the daughter, Sen-orita Inez, was too old to be Dona Isabella's daughter, and the bishop and his vicar had to persuade the vain, coquettish widow to swear to her true age of fifty-three, rather than the forty-two years she claimed. Thus the money was saved for Don Antonio's family and, eventually, the church.
Father Vaillant was sent to Tucson, but after several years Bishop Latour decided to recall him to Santa Fe. When he arrived, the bishop showed him the stone for building the cathedral. About that time Bishop Latour received a letter from the Bishop of Leaven worth. Because of the discovery of gold near Pike's Peak, he asked to have a priest sent there from Father Latour's diocese. Father Vaillant was the obvious choice.
Father Vaillant spent the rest of his life doing good works in Colorado, though he did return to Santa Fe with the Papal Emissary when Bishop Latour was made an archbishop. Father Vaillant became the first Bishop of Colorado. He died there after years of service, and Archbishop Latour attended his impressive funeral services.
After the death of his friend, Father Latour retired to a modest country estate near Santa Fe. He had dreamed during all his missionary years of the time when he could retire to his fertile green Auvergne in France, but in the end he decided that he could not leave the land of his labors. Memories of the journeys he and Father Vaillant had made over thousands of miles of desert country became the meaning of his later years. Bernard Ducrot, a young seminarian from France, became like a son to him.
When Father Latour knew that his time had come to die, he asked to be taken into town to spend his last days near the cathedral. On the last day of his life the church was filled with people who came to pray for him, as word that he was dying spread through the town. He died in the still twilight, and the cathedral bell, tolling in the early darkness, carried to the waiting countryside the news that at last death had come for Father Latour.


Critical Evaluation

When writing of her great predecessor and teacher, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather expressed her own belief that the quality that gives a work of literature greatness is the "voice" of the author, the sincere, unadorned, and unique vision of a writer coming to grips with his material. If any one characteristic can be said to dominate the writings of Willa Cather, it is a true and moving sincerity. She never tried to twist her subject matter to suit a preconceived purpose, and she resisted the temptation to dress up her homely material. She gave herself absolutely to her chosen material, and the result was a series of books both truthful and rich with intimations of the destiny of the American continent. By digging into the roots of her material, she found the greater meanings and expressed them with a deceptive simplicity. Her vision and craftsmanship were seldom more successfully joined than in Death Comes for the Archbishop. So completely did Willa Cather merge her "voice" with her material, that some critics have felt that the book is almost too polished, without the sense of struggle necessary in a truly great novel. But this, in fact, indicates the magnitude of the author's achievement and the brilliance of her technical skill. Death Comes for the Archbishop resonates with the unspoken beliefs of the author and the resolved conflicts that went into its construction. On the surface, it is cleanly wrought and simple, but it is a more complicated and profound book than it appears at first reading. Cather learned well from Jewett the secret of unadorned art, of craftsmanship that disarms by its very simplicity, but which is based in a highly sophisticated intelligence.
It is true that this novel is an epic and a regional history, but, much more than either, it is a tale of personal isolation, of one man's life reduced to the painful weariness of his own sensitivities. Father Latour is a hero in the most profound sense of the word, at times almost a romantic hero, with his virtues of courage and determination, but he is also a very modern protagonist, with his doubts and inner conflicts and his philosophical nature. His personality is held up in startling contrast to that of his friend and vicar, Father Vaillant, a more simple, although no less admirable, individual. Cather's austere style perfectly captures the scholarly and urbane religious devotion that compose Father Latour's character. Always in this book, the reader is aware of a sense of the dignity of human life. Cather was not afraid to draw a good man, a man who could stand above others because of his deeds and because of his innate quality. The novel must stand or fall on this character, and it stands superbly.
Although this book is based on a true sequence of events, it is not a novel of plot. It is a chronicle and a character study, and, perhaps more specifically, an interplay of environment and character. Throughout the book, the reader is aware of the reaction of men to the land, and of one man to the land he has chosen. Subtly and deeply, the author suggests that the soul of man is profoundly altered by the soul of the land, and Cather never doubts for a moment that the land does possess a soul or that this soul can transform a human being in complex and important ways. Willa Cather was fascinated by the way the rough landscape of the Southwest, when reduced to its essences, seemed to take human beings and reduce them to their essences. She abandoned traditional realism in this book, turning toward the directness of symbolism. With stark pictures and vivid styles, she created an imaginary world rooted in realism, but transcending realism. The rigid economy with which the book is written forces it to stand with a unique power in the reader's mind long after his reading. And the personality of Bishop Latour stands as the greatest symbol, like a wind-swept crag or precipice in the vast New Mexico landscape, suggesting the nobility of the human spirit, despite the inner conflicts against which it must struggle.
The descriptions of place set the emotional tone of the novel. The quality of life is intimately related to the landscape, and the accounts of the journeys and the efforts to survive despite the unfriendliness of the barren land, all help to create an odd warmth and passion in the narrative. The personalities of Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant establish a definite emotional relationship with the country, and if the other characters in the book are less vividly realized as individuals, perhaps it is because they do not seem to have this relationship with the land. Some of them have become part of the land, worn down by the elements like the rocks and riverbeds, and others have no relationship to it at all; but none of them is involved in the intense love-hate relationship with the land with which the two main characters struggle for so many years.
Although the chronology of the book encompasses many years, the novel is essentially static, a series of rich images and thoughtful moments highlighted and captured as by a camera. This quality of the narrative is not a fault; it is a fact of Cather's style. The frozen moments of contemplation, the glimpses into Father Latour's inner world and spiritual loneliness, are the moments that give the book its greatness. Despite the presence of Kit Carson, the novel is not an adventure story any more than it is merely the account of a pair of churchmen attempting to establish their faith in a difficult new terrain. The cathedral becomes the most important symbol in the final part of the book, representing the earthly successes of a man dedicated to nonworldly ambitions. This conflict between the earthly and the spiritual is at the heart of Bishop Latour's personality and at the heart of the book. But the reader understands, at the end, when the bell tolls for Father Latour, that the temptations were never very deep and that the good man's victory was greater than he ever knew. The author does not spell out her meaning, but the emotional impact of her narrative brings it home to the reader.



Type of work: Novel
Author: Willa Cather (1873-1947)
Type of plot: Regional chronicle
Time of plot: Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
Locale: Nebraska prairie
First Published: 1918


My Antonia is the story of a Bohemian girl whose family came from the Old Country to settle on the open prairies of Nebraska. While she lives on her farm and tills the soil, she is a child of the prairie, but when Antonia goes to the city, she faces heartbreak, disillusionment, and social ostracism. Only after her return to the land, which is her heritage, does she find peace and meaning in life.


Principal Characters

Antonia Shimerda, a young immigrant girl of appealing innocence, simple passions, and moral integrity, the daughter of a Bohemian homesteading family in Nebraska. Even as a child she is the mainstay of her gentle, daydreaming father. She and Jim Burden, the grandson of a neighboring farmer, become friends, and he teaches her English. After her father's death her crass mother and sly, sullen older brother force her to do a man's work in the fields. Pitying the girl, Jim's grandmother finds work for her as a hired girl in the town of Black Hawk. There her quiet, deep zest for life and the Saturday night dances lead to her ruin. She falls in love with Larry Donovan, a dashing railroad conductor, and goes to Denver to marry him, but he soon deserts her and she comes back to Black Hawk, unwed, to have her child. Twenty years later Jim Burden, visiting in Nebraska, meets her again. She is now married to Cuzak, a dependable, hardworking farmer, and the mother of a large brood of children. Jim finds her untouched by farm drudgery or village spite. Because of her serenity, strength of spirit and passion for order and motherhood, she reminds him of stories told about the mothers of ancient races.
James Quayle Burden, called Jim, the narrator. Orphaned at the age often, he leaves his home in Virginia and goes to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. In that lonely prairie country his only playmates are the children of immigrant families living nearby, among them Antonia Shimerda, with whom he shares his first meaningful experiences in his new home. When his grandparents move into Black Hawk he misses the freedom of life on the prairie. Hating the town, he leaves it to attend the University of Nebraska. There he meets Gaston Cleric, a teacher of Latin who introduces the boy to literature and the greater world of art and culture. From the university he goes on to study law at Harvard. Aided by a brilliant but incompatible marriage, he becomes the legal counsel for a Western railroad. Successful, rich, but unhappy in his middle years and in the failure of his marriage, he recalls his prairie boyhood and realizes that he and Antonia Shimerda have in common a past that is all the more precious because it is lost and almost incommunicable, existing only in memories of the bright occasions of their youth.
Mr. Shimerda, a Bohemian farmer unsuited to pioneer life on the prairie. Homesick for the Old World and never happy in his Nebraska surroundings, he find his loneliness and misery unendurable, lives more and more in the past, and ends by blowing out his brains.
Mrs. Shimerda, a shrewd, grasping woman whose chief concern is to get ahead in the world. She bullies her family, accepts the assistance of her neighbors without grace, and eventually sees her dream of prosperity fulfilled.
Ambroz Shimerda, called Ambrosch, the Shimer-das' older son. Like his mother, he is insensitive and mean. Burdened by drought, poor crops, and debt, he clings to the land with peasant tenacity. Even though he repels his neighbors with his surly manner, sly trickery, and petty dishonesties, everyone admits that he is a hard worker and a good farmer.
Yulka Shimerda, Antonia's younger sister, a mild, obedient girl.
Marek Shimerda, the Shimerdas' youngest child. Tongue-tied and feebleminded, he is eventually committed to an institution.
Mr. Burden, Jim Burden's grandfather, a Virginian who has bought a farm in Nebraska. Deliberate in speech and action, he is a just, generous man; bearded like an ancient prophet, he sometimes speaks like one.
Mrs. Burden, his wife, a brisk, practical woman who gives selfless love to her orphan grandson. Kindhearted, she gives assistance to the immigrant families of the region, and without her aid the needy Shimerdas would not have survived their first Nebraska winter.
Lena Lingard, the daughter of poor Norwegian parents, from childhood a girl attractive to men. Interested in clothes and possessing a sense of style, she is successful as a designer and later becomes the owner of a dress shop in San Francisco. She and Jim Burden become good friends while he is a student at the University of Nebraska. Her sensuous beauty appeals greatly to his youthful imagination, and he is partly in love with her before he goes to study at Harvard.
Tiny Soderball, a girl of all work at the hotel in Black Hawk. She moves to Seattle, runs a sailors' boarding house for a time, and then goes to Alaska to open a hotel for miners. After a dying Swede wills her his claim, she makes a fortune from mining. With a comfortable fortune put aside, she goes to live in San Francisco. When Jim Burden meets her there, she tells him the thing that interests her most is making money. Lena Lingard is her only friend.
Wycliffe Cutter, called Wick, a miserly moneylender who has grown rich by fleecing his foreign-born neighbors in the vicinity of Black Hawk. Antonia Shimerda goes to work for him and his suspicious, vulgar wife. Making elaborate plans to seduce Antonia, he puts some of his valuables in his bedroom and tells her that she is to sleep there, to guard them, while he and his wife are away on a trip. Mrs. Burden sends her grandson to sleep in the Cutter house, and Wick, returning ahead of his wife, is surprised and enraged to find Jim Burden in his bed. Years later, afraid that his wife's family will inherit his money if he should die first, he kills her and then himself.
Mrs. Cutter, a woman as mean and miserly as her husband, whom she nags constantly. He murders her before committing suicide.
Larry Donovan, a railroad conductor and gay ladies' man. He courts Antonia Shimerda, promises to marry her if she will join him in Denver, seduces her, and then goes off to Mexico, leaving her pregnant.
Mrs. Steavens, a widow, the tenant on the Burden farm. She tells Jim Burden, home from Harvard, the story of Antonia Shimerda's betrayal by Larry Donovan.
Otto Fuchs, the Burdens' hired man during their farming years. Born in Austria, he came to America when a boy and lived an adventurous life as a cowboy, a stage driver, a miner, and a bartender in the West. After the Burdens rent their farm and move into Black Hawk he resumes his drifting life.
Jake Marpole, the hired man who travels with young Jim Burden from Virginia to Nebraska. Though a kind-hearted man, he has a sharp temper and is violent when angry. He is always deeply ashamed if he swears in front of Mrs. Burden.
Christian Harling, a prosperous, straitlaced grain merchant and cattle buyer, a neighbor of the Burden family in Black Hawk.
Mrs. Harling, his wife, devoted to her family and to music. She takes a motherly interest in Antonia Shimerda, who works for her as a hired girl for a time, but feels compelled to send her away when the girl begins to go to the Saturday night dances attended by drummers and town boys.
Peter and Pavel, Russian neighbors of the Burden family and Mr. Shimerda's friends. Just before he dies Pavel tells a terrible story of the time in Russia when, to save his own life, he threw a bride and groom from a sledge to a pack of wolves.
Anton Jelinek, the young Bohemian who makes the coffin for Mr. Shimerda's funeral. He becomes a friend of the Burdens and later a saloon proprietor.
Cuzak, Anton Jelinek's cousin, the sturdy farmer who marries Antonia Shimerda. Though he has had many reverses in his life, he remains good-natured. Hardworking, dependable, considerate, he is a good husband to Antonia.
Rudolph, Anton, Leo, Jan, Anna, Yulka, Nina, and Lucie, Antonia's children by Cuzak.
Martha, Antonia's daughter by Larry Donovan. She marries a prosperous young farmer.
Gaston Cleric, the young Latin teacher who introduces Jim Burden to the classics and the world of ideas. When he accepts an instructorship at Harvard, he persuades Jim to transfer to that university.
Genevieve Whitney Burden, Jim Burden's wife. Though she does not figure in the novel, her presence in the background helps to explain her husband's present mood and his nostalgia for his early years in Nebraska. Spoiled, restless, temperamental, independently wealthy, she leads her own life, interests herself in social causes, and plays patroness to young poets and artists.


The Story

Jim Burden's father and mother died when he was ten years old, and the boy made the long trip from Virginia to his grandparents' farm in Nebraska in the company of Jake Marpole, a hired hand who was to work for Jim's grandfather. Arriving by train late at night in the prairie town of Black Hawk, the boy noticed an immigrant family huddled on the station platform. He and Jake were met by a lanky, scar-faced cowboy named Otto Fuchs, who drove them in a jolting wagon across the empty prairie to the Burden farm.
Jim grew to love the vast expanse of land and sky. One day Jim's grandmother suggested that the family pay a visit to the Shimerdas, an immigrant family just arrived in the territory. At first the newcomers impressed Jim unfavorably. The Shimerdas were poor and lived in a dugout cut into the earth. The place was dirty. The children were ragged. Although he could not understand her speech, Jim made friends with the oldest girl, Antonia.
Jim found himself often at the Shimerda home. He did not like Antonia's surly brother, Ambrosch, or her grasping mother, but Antonia, with her eager smile and great, warm eyes won an immediate place in Jim's heart. One day her father, his English dictionary tucked under his arm, cornered Jim and asked him to teach the girl English. She learned rapidly. Jim respected Antonia's father. He was a tall, thin, sensitive man, a musician in the Old Country. Now he was saddened by poverty and burdened with overwork. He seldom laughed any more.
Jim and Antonia passed many happy hours on the prairie. Then tragedy struck the Shimerdas. During a severe winter, Mr. Shimerda, broken and beaten by the prairie, shot himself. Antonia had loved her father more than any other member of the family, and after his death she shouldered his share of the farm work. When spring came, she went with Ambrosch into the fields and plowed like a man. The harvest brought money. The Shimerdas soon had a house, and with the money left over they bought plowshares and cattle.
Because Jim's grandparents were growing too old to keep up their farm, they dismissed Jake and Otto and moved to the town of Black Hawk. There Jim longed for the open prairie land, the gruff, friendly companionship of Jake and Otto, and the warmth of Antonia's friendship. He suffered at school and spent his idle hours roaming the barren gray streets of Black Hawk.
At Jim's suggestion, his grandmother arranged with a neighbor, Mrs. Harling, to bring Antonia into town as her hired girl. Antonia entered into her tasks with enthusiasm. Jim saw a change in her. She was more feminine; she laughed oftener; and though she never shirked her duties at the Harling house, she was eager for recreation and gaiety.
Almost every night she went to a dance pavilion with a group of hired girls. There in new, handmade dresses, the immigrant girls gathered to dance with the village boys. Jim Burden went, too, and the more he saw of the hired girls the better he liked them. Once or twice he worried about Antonia, who was popular and trusting. When she earned a reputation for being a little too gay, she lost her position with the Harlings and went to work for a cruel moneylender, Wick Cutter, who had a licentious eye on her.
One night, Antonia appeared at the Burdens and begged Jim to stay in her bed for the night and let her remain at the Burdens. Wick Cutter was supposed to be out of town, but Antonia suspected that, with Mrs. Cutter also gone, he might return and harm her. Her fears proved correct, for as Jim lay awake in Antonia's bed Wick returned and went to the bedroom where he thought Antonia was sleeping.
Antonia returned to work for the Harlings. Jim, eager to go off to college, studied hard during the summer and passed his entrance examinations. In the fall he left for the state university and although he found there a whole new world of literature and art, he could not forget his early years under the blazing prairie sun and his friendship with Antonia. He heard little of Antonia during those years. One of her friends, Lena Lingard, who had also worked as a hired girl in Black Hawk, visited him one day. He learned from her that Antonia was engaged to be married to a man named Larry Donovan.
Jim went on to Harvard to study law, and for years heard nothing of his Nebraska friends. He assumed that Antonia was married. When he made a trip back to Black Hawk to see his grandparents, he learned that Antonia, deceived by Larry Donovan, had left Black Hawk in shame and returned to her family. There she worked again in the fields until her baby was born. When Jim went to see her, he found her still the same lovely girl, though her eyes were somber and she had lost her old gaiety. She welcomed him and proudly showed him her baby.
Jim thought that his visit was probably the last time he would see Antonia. He told her how much a part of him she had become and how sorry he was to leave her again. Antonia knew that Jim would always be with her, no matter where he went. He reminded her of her beloved father, who, though he had been dead many years, still lived nobly in her heart. She told Jim good-bye and watched him walk back toward town along the familiar road.
It was twenty years before Jim Burden saw Antonia again. On a Western trip he found himself not far from Black Hawk, and on impulse he drove out in an open buggy to the farm where she lived. He found the place swarming with children of all ages. Small boys rushed forward to greet him, then fell back shyly. Antonia had married well, at last. The grain was high, and the neat farmhouse seemed to be charged with an atmosphere of activity and happiness. Antonia seemed as unchanged as she was when she and Jim used to whirl over the dance floor together in Black Hawk. Cuzak, her husband, seemed to know Jim before they were introduced, for Antonia had told all her family about Jim Burden. After a long visit with the Cuzaks, Jim left, promising that he would return the next summer and take two of the Cuzak boys hunting with him.
Waiting in Black Hawk for the train that would take him East, Jim found it hard to realize the long time that had passed since the dark night, years before, when he had seen an immigrant family standing wrapped in their shawls on the same platform. All his memories of the prairie came back to him. Whatever happened now, whatever they had missed, he and Antonia had shared precious years between them, years that would never be forgotten.


Critical Evaluation

The character of the pioneer woman Antonia Shimerda represents a complexity of values, an axis about which My Antonia revolves. The novel in turn illustrates two classical themes of American literature. Written in 1918, it reaches back into the nineteenth century and beyond for its artistic and moral direction.
Willa Cather, the product of a genteel Virginia upbringing, found herself early in life transplanted to the frontier and forced to confront those vast blank spaces over which men had not yet succeeded in establishing the domination of custom and convention. She saw a few brave settlers confronting the wilderness, meeting the physical challenge as well as the moral one of having to rely on their instincts without benefit of civilized constraints; for her these people, particularly the women, were a race apart. Antonia, with her noble simplicity, is among other things a monument to that vigorous race.
She is also an embodiment of a long tradition of fictional heroes of British and American romance. At the time the novel was written, literature and criticism in America were undergoing a change of direction. The thrust of literature in the new century owed much to the developing sciences; Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser appeared on the scene with their sociological novels, signaling the rise of naturalism. Fictional characters would henceforth be viewed as interpreting in their acts the flaws and beauties of laws, institutions, and social structures. My Antonia fits an older mold, a form in which the effects of colonial Puritanism can be detected. Specifically, the mode demands that the hero overcome or try to overcome the strictures and hazards of his situation by his own wit, strength, or courage. This convention draws from the very wellspring of American life, the democratic belief in the wholeness and self-sufficiency of the individual, that is, in personal culpability, and in the absolute value of the personal conscience. Cather makes no real indictment of the society that scorns and undervalues Antonia and the other hired girls; the social conventions are, with the land, simply the medium through which she fulfills her destiny. It is the peculiarly American sense of starting out brand-new in a new land, that sense of moral isolation, that adds poignance to the struggles of the individual against the vagaries of fortune. This theme of American newness and innocence, which R.B.W. Lewis calls "the theme of the American Adam," has as a natural concomitant elements of temptation and fortunate fall. The serpent in Antonia's story is the town of Black Hawk, where she quarrels with her benefactors and runs afoul of Larry Donovan. Seduced and abandoned, she returns to the land; but her experience has made her better able, as she tells Jim Burden, to prepare her children to face the world.
But if the town is Antonia's downfall in terms of one theme, it is the gray backdrop against which she shines in terms of another; in the same way the prairie is her antagonist in one sense, and the natural force of which she is the flower in another. Jim Burden first finds her, significantly, actually living in the earth. Early on she begins to take on characteristics of the land: "Her neck came up strongly out of her shoulders, like the bole of a tree out of the turf. . . . But she has such splendid color in her cheeks—like those big dark red plums." She works the land; she makes gardens; she nourishes the Harling children with food and stories. Her connection with the fertile earth is insisted upon. And the earth, the virgin land, is in this novel the source of physical vigor and the best resource of the soul. Jim Burden describes his first experience of the land as a feeling of cosmic unity: "Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great." The people who live on the prairie seem to him open and giving like the land; for instance, he says of Antonia that "everything she said seemed to come right out of her heart." By contrast, the life of the town is pinched and ungenerous: "People's speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution."
Antonia, in all her acts, shows the naturalness and boundless generosity of the plains; gives freely of her strength and loyalty to her surly brother, to Jim and the Harling children, to Larry Donovan, and to her husband Cuzak; and showers love and nurturance upon her children. She alludes several times to her dislike of towns and cities and to her feeling of familiar friendship with the country. Toward the end of the book the figure of Antonia and the infinite fertility of the land come together symbolically in an extremely vivid and moving image. Antonia and her children have been showing Jim Burden the contents of their fruit cellar, and as they step outside, "[the children] all came running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight." The cave might be the apotheosis of Antonia's first home on the prairie, the latter redeeming the former by its fruitfulness.
Above all, the novel celebrates the early life on the plains of which Jim Burden and Antonia were a part. The long digressions about Peter and Pavel, Blind D'Ar-nault, the Cutters and others, the profoundly elegaic descriptions of Jake Marpole and Otto Fuchs, the sharply-caught details of farm life, town life, landscape—these things are bent to the re-creation of a simpler and better time, a hard life now gone beyond recall, but lovingly remembered.



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