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Willa Cather was born on
December 7, 1873,
in rural Virginia. At the age of nine, she moved with her family
to Red Cloud, Nebraska, where she spent the remainder of her childhood.
After graduating from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1895,
she moved to Pittsburgh to begin a career in journalism. In all,
Cather spent five years in the Pittsburgh newspaper and magazine
trade, working at Home Monthly and the Pittsburgh
Leader. Between 1901 and 1906 she
taught high school English and Latin in Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh
area. During this period, she began to publish her first short stories.
These early successes led to a position in New York City with McClure’s, a
magazine that often featured investigative journalism, where Cather
served as an editor for six years.
In 1912 Cather published her first
novel, Alexander’s Bridge, which received a lukewarm
reception. The next year, Cather caught the attention of the literary
world with the appearance of O Pioneers!, exploring
and celebrating frontier life in the American West. In 1918 she
made her most lasting contribution to her status as one of the most
celebrated post–Civil War American authors with the publication
of My Ántonia. Like many of Cather’s novels, My
Ántonia fictionalizes recollections of her youth in rural
Though the narrative of My Ántonia is
fictional, there are many similarities between Cather’s life and
that of the novel’s protagonist. As Cather did, Jim Burden moves
from Virginia to Nebraska as a child to live with grandparents;
the town of Black Hawk, to which Jim and his grandparents move,
is a fictionalized version of the Red Cloud of Cather’s youth. Also
as Cather did, Jim attends the University of Nebraska at Lincoln
and eventually moves from Nebraska to New York.
If certain of the situations in the novel derive from
Cather’s recollections of her youth, however, the novel’s high stature
in American literature results from Cather’s ability as a writer.
Her sensitivity to the prairie landscape and her elegantly uncomplicated
prose style have earned her a spot among America’s finest novelists,
and My Ántonia continues to stand as the most lasting
hallmark of her skill. My Ántonia is generally
considered a modernist novel. In the early twentieth century, many
authors were concerned with the alienation from society that resulted
from ongoing processes of mechanization and industrialization. These
writers responded to what they perceived as an increased fragmentation
of the world by creating narratives and stories that were themselves
fragmented. Cather participates in this tradition both by creating
a novel whose plot does not have a highly structured form and by
idealizing a preindustrial life far from the noise and speed of
Cather was most prolific during the 1920s,
when she published many of her finest works. After being awarded
the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours in 1922,
she also enjoyed popular successes with The Professor’s
House in 1925, My Mortal
Enemy in 1926, and Death Comes
for the Archbishop in 1927. In her
final two decades, Cather continued to write short stories and novels,
albeit with less frequency and refinement. Nevertheless, she enjoyed
an extraordinary amount of attention and critical esteem in her
lifetime. In 1930 she won the Howells Medal
for Fiction, and in 1944 she was awarded the
gold medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Willa Cather died on April 24, 1947,
in New York City, where she lived for thirty-nine years with her
companion, Edith Lewis. Her reputation equalled that of any published
American female novelist of her day, and critical and popular attention
to her work continues to expand. Many -critics place her firmly
among such lauded -American authors as -William Faulkner and Ernest
Hemingway, and there are those who would argue that hers is the
single finest craft of her generation.
Ace your assignments with our guide to My Ántonia!