Cather’s Promotes Regional Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The publication of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia opened new possibilities for regional literature and expanded novelists’ alternatives for plot structure.

Summary of Event

In October, 1918, when Willa Cather was forty-four years old, she was considered a promising “young” novelist by critics and reviewers such as H. L. Mencken. She had by then published an unheralded collection of poems (April Twilights, 1903), a collection of short stories (The Troll Garden, 1905), and three novels: Alexander’s Bridge (1912), Alexander’s Bridge (Cather)[Alexanders Bridge (Cather)] O Pioneers! (1913), O Pioneers! (Cather) and The Song of the Lark (1915). Song of the Lark, The (Cather) My Ántonia (Cather) Literature;regional [kw]Cather’s My Ántonia Promotes Regional Literature (1918)[Cathers My Ántonia Promotes Regional Literature (1918)] [kw]My Ántonia Promotes Regional Literature, Cather’s (1918) [kw]Regional Literature, Cather’s My Ántonia Promotes (1918) [kw]Literature, Cather’s My Ántonia Promotes Regional (1918) My Ántonia (Cather) Literature;regional [g]United States;1918: Cather’s My Ántonia Promotes Regional Literature[04410] [c]Literature;1918: Cather’s My Ántonia Promotes Regional Literature[04410] Cather, Willa

Although Cather had been publishing short fiction in magazines since 1892 and by 1918 usually was able to sell her stories for good prices, she was not yet very strongly established as a fiction writer. She had begun her professional career in journalism and eventually served as managing editor at the muckraking magazine McClure’s (1908-1911), yet she had long aspired to write fiction. Her brief acquaintance with author Sarah Orne Jewett in 1908-1909 brought her advice that she gradually took to heart: to seek to write truly about the Nebraska experiences that clearly were important to her.

Cather had moved with her family to the area of Red Cloud, Nebraska, when she was ten years old, and she lived there until after her graduation from the University of Nebraska in 1895. After moving to Pittsburgh and then to New York, she returned home often to visit with her family and friends, many of whom were immigrants. In O Pioneers! she was notably successful in making use of late nineteenth century Nebraska and its pioneer farming culture, made up of a diversity of immigrants, and this novel earned for her the recognition that led reviewers such as Mencken to pronounce her promising. My Ántonia (1918), like O Pioneers!, is set in southeastern Nebraska in the second half of the nineteenth century and vividly presents the unique rural and small-town culture of that period. Upon its publication, it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece.

My Ántonia is a complex novel simply told, accessible to younger readers yet challenging and provocative for professional scholars. It is constructed as a memoir in five books. The introduction presents Jim Burden, author of the memoir, for whom Ántonia Shimerda, an immigrant Bohemian girl, has become a symbol of the whole meaning of his experience of growing up in and around the Nebraska prairie town of Black Hawk. Jim’s youth exactly parallels Cather’s, and most of the characters are based on people Cather knew in Red Cloud. Ántonia is based on Cather’s friend Annie Sadilek.

Book 1 of the novel tells of Jim’s move to Nebraska and his early friendship with Ántonia; book 2 recounts Jim’s adolescence in Red Cloud as he prepares for college and Ántonia prepares for becoming a rural wife and mother; book 3 covers Jim’s college days, when he sees little of Ántonia; and book 4 tells the story of Ántonia’s hard life after the man who had promised to marry her deserts her and she bears an illegitimate daughter. The final book shows Jim returning after twenty years without seeing Ántonia. She has married and reared a large family, while he has become a corporation lawyer and has made a bad marriage. He finds her still a vital person and a dear friend who has preserved their youthful friendship in the stories she tells her children.

Although the overall plot is governed by a pattern of separation and return that emphasizes a kind of nostalgic treasuring of a beautiful shared past, the novel is not simply nostalgic, nor is it sentimental. Jim treasures the moments of communion with friends and the landscape, but he does not forget the pains and horrors of hard and greedy people, the often forbidding landscape, and the narrow-mindedness and materialism that tend to dominate his rural culture. The novel forms a moving, realistic portrait of its setting and time.

Upon its publication, My Ántonia was reviewed enthusiastically, and positive evaluation of the novel continued even through the 1930’s, when Cather’s apparent lack of direct concern for social and political issues brought her much negative criticism from reviewers. Critics praised Cather for bringing the people of the American West to life vividly and showing them to be worth knowing. Sophisticated readers noted the apparent artlessness of her technique, especially the power of giving subtle unity and epic scope to a work that appeared episodic in plot. Such readers also recognized the hard-edged realism behind Jim Burden’s somewhat romantic nostalgia and emphasized that the overall portrait was not an idealized one. Cather was seen as moving beyond the local-color writers who preceded her by giving universal significance to local settings and characters.

My Ántonia established Cather as one of the most respected writers of her generation. After 1918, each of her novels was eagerly awaited and reviewed by senior reviewers in all the important national magazines and newspapers. Magazines clamored for her short stories, offering very high prices, although she preferred to write novels and resorted to stories mainly when she needed more money than her novels earned. Her next novel, One of Ours (1922), One of Ours (Cather) was inspired by the loss of a relative in World War I. Although usually considered not among her best works, One of Ours was very popular and won a Pulitzer Prize.

The encouragement of fame led Cather to bold experimentation in her writing, although she always strove for a clarity of style and representation that would make her work appealing to general readers. Among her most highly regarded works that followed My Ántonia are A Lost Lady (1923), Lost Lady, A (Cather) The Professor’s House (1925), Professor’s House, The (Cather)[Professors House, The] Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Death Comes for the Archbishop (Cather) and a collection of three short works, Obscure Destinies (1932). Obscure Destinies (Cather)


The importance of My Ántonia may be seen best, perhaps, in the context of the general movement in U.S. cultural history to produce great literature that proceeded from and represented the unique localities and cultures existing within the nation. Cather’s most famous predecessors in fiction tend to be best known for works that vividly represent unique locales and tell moving, universal stories that seem to belong to and grow naturally out of their settings, works such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900).

Cather began her literary career as a disciple of Henry James. James, Henry An enthusiastic admirer of the Greek and Roman classics, Cather sought to bring to her own fiction the aesthetic principles she associated with classical art and with James. Her heart and imagination, however, were most impressed by the life and culture she experienced growing up in rural Nebraska, a locale that might not seem to lend itself easily to her artistic ambitions. Her greatest success as a novelist seemed to come when she brought these devotions together: the realism and artfulness of James; the simplicity, clarity, and universality of the classical; and her deep love for the people and places among which she was reared. Cather had to distinguish herself from the cosmopolitan James if she was going to make fiction out of her rural background. As a woman, moreover, she found herself inclined to focus on women’s experiences and to create structures rather unlike those that tended to dominate the realistic fiction of her famous male predecessors.

In My Ántonia, she moved decisively away from the quest as a dominant plot form, and her subsequent experimentation with fictional plots is largely a search for structural forms that offer an alternative to the quest narrative. Several of Cather’s contemporaries, notably Sherwood Anderson, were also experimenting with alternative forms, and one important influence on Cather’s experiments was local-color writing, especially that of Sarah Orne Jewett. Jewett, Sarah Orne “Local color” is a term used to describe the works of a group of post-Civil War authors who sought to preserve in fiction unique regional cultures that began to disappear as the nation was unified by industrialization, mass communication, rapid transportation, and urbanization after the war. Although this literature, often written by women, tended to be considered ephemeral despite its popularity, it became one foundation for the realistic and naturalistic movements in American literature and produced such illustrious writers as Mark Twain.

Cather saw in the work of women writers such as Jewett ways of structuring plots that would allow the unification of a substantial novel without recourse to romance, action, and adventure. Certainly, a key example for her was Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), Country of the Pointed Firs, The (Jewett) which pretends to be the journal of a summer spent by a city writer in a rural town, much as My Ántonia pretends to be an unstructured memoir, a collection of a middle-aged man’s memories of a childhood friend. Scholars also have documented Cather’s indebtedness to European Impressionist and Symbolist writers and painters.

As a result of her success with My Ántonia and her subsequent experimentation, Cather became an important influence on younger writers. She continued a trend, most visibly begun by James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain, of making widely appreciated fiction out of local and western materials, helping to earn worldwide respect for American authors. Her work contributed to the later success of authors such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, who also drew their fiction from regions that could have been considered remote and unimportant.

Cather also continued and brought more decisively into the mainstream of modern fiction what might be considered feminine alternatives to the traditional quests for love, enlightenment, and power that tended to dominate in popular and successful fiction, helping to make way for the acceptance of later experiments in plot form such as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Go Down, Moses (1942), Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples (1949), Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984), and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985) and Searoad: Chronicles of Klatsand (1991).

In addition to continuing important traditions and helping to open up new possibilities in fictional structure, My Ántonia dealt with and questioned traditional American themes. Jim Burden’s relationship with Ántonia parallels Huck Finn’s relationship with the slave Jim. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain) As in several ways opposites to their observers, Ántonia and the slave Jim seem capable of giving their friends, who represent the more powerful and dominant cultural values, a wisdom they lack, a wisdom that calls into question seemingly pervasive American values such as materialism, commercialism, and overconfidence in moral systems and technology. Jim Burden seems to see negative values triumphing in North American culture, and his nostalgia reflects a general theme of U.S. literature during and after World War I: the sense that a sort of innocent idealism has passed from the scene with the closing of the frontier and the entrance of the United States into world politics.

Another main theme of My Ántonia is the importance of cultural diversity to the richness of a community. One of the negative developments in the novel is the town of Black Hawk’s insistence on conformity to a set of “American” values that devalues the rich contributions of the diverse European cultures that Cather herself experienced and treasured in Nebraska. This theme echoes through all of Cather’s works, notably Death Comes for the Archbishop, and it helped to make her an especially important example to ethnic writers at the end of the twentieth century.

When literary critics look back on the first half of the twentieth century in American fiction, two authors, Willa Cather and William Faulkner, tend to stand out. Each produced short stories (such as Cather’s “Neighbor Rosicky,” which first appeared in Obscure Destinies) that are studied by almost every college student who takes a modern American literature course, and each produced several novels that are widely recognized as belonging to world literature. My Ántonia (Cather) Literature;regional

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, Marilyn. Willa Cather: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Includes a discussion of Cather’s literary reputation followed by a bibliography of writings by Cather and an annotated bibliography of writings about Cather from 1895 to 1984. Also includes author and subject index. An excellent source for gaining an impression of how each of Cather’s novels was reviewed when it appeared as well as for surveying literary criticism of her work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Collects eleven discussions of the novel by literary historians and critics such as David Stouck, Blanche Gelfant, Evelyn Helmick, and James E. Miller, Jr. Includes a variety of approaches to structure and theme, with emphasis on Cather’s concept of time and on representations of gender and sexuality. Includes a chronology of Cather’s life and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gerber, Philip. Willa Cather. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1995. A biographical and critical study of Cather’s literary career. Less detailed than James Woodress’s biography (cited below) but offers an informative introduction to Cather and her works as well as scholarship on her works. Includes a chronology of her life and an annotated bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lindemann, Marilee, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Collection of essays covering the full range of Cather’s career, including most of her novels and short stories. Contributors place the works in their cultural and literary contexts. Includes chronology and suggestions for further reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, John J., ed. Critical Essays on Willa Cather. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Valuable introduction traces the progress of Cather’s critical reception. Includes essays and reviews from 1912 to 1984. Provides a good mixture of contemporary reviews and later interpretations of Cather’s major work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______.“My Ántonia”: The Road Home. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Study emphasizes the novel’s realism and the complexity of its narrative construction. Summarizes its historical context, literary importance, and critical reception and then looks closely at historical and biographical sources, discusses how Cather composed the novel, and comments on major aspects of the story. Conclusion compares Cather with Walt Whitman. Includes related documents and annotated bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosowski, Susan J. Approaches to Teaching Cather’s “My Ántonia.” New York: Modern Language Association, 1989. Designed for college teachers, the short essays in this volume present a broad range of ways of looking at and thinking about the novel, making this a primary tool for stimulating ideas for further thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. Detailed and readable account of Cather’s life and works, with many photographs and a good index. Includes a chapter on each of Cather’s books, telling about her activities and research during the period of composition, describing the novel, detailing biographical elements she included, and summarizing how the book was received by reviewers.

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Categories: History