Part 1: American Novel 1914 to Present: Introduction to Modernism and to My Antonia

American Modernism: An Overview
Commentary | Approach Study Guide Study Questions | Class Discussion Topics Cather Projects   | Close Reading Passage
Further Your Learning  


Major Writers and Genres

Influential Texts of Modernism Major Themes of Modernism Literary Techniques Modernism Influential Intellectual and Historical Events back to top
Representative Text: Willa Cather’s My Antonia , 1918


 Willa Cather’s fiction chronicles the pioneer experience of newcomers from Northern and Central Europe, especially Scandinavians, and Bohemians, i. e., Czechs, who live amid older American families in the West.  Her characters struggle to establish homes and families and to cultivate the land in the beautiful but often lonely and harsh mid-western landscapes.  Cather celebrates the virtues of faith, hard work, endurance, communal bonds, and living close to and in harmony with the land; but she also writes insightfully about the encroaching modern world of business, wealth, technology, and of the increasing alienation of those who must live in this modern world.

Her descriptions of geographical settings and the changing seasons bear kinship to impressionistic landscape paintings of the late nineteenth century, but her work is decidedly modern.  Cather spiritualizes her landscapes while never idealizing them or belying their naturalistic qualities.  And her introduction of bold images emblazoned against an impressionistic backdrop offers further evidence that Cather is distinctively and innovatively modern rather than the simplistically nostalgic writer some readers have mistaken her for.

In My Antonia the protagonist, Jim, records his childhood and coming of age. As he grows to manhood, Jim’s rich and nurturing childhood memories sustain him but he does not truly belong to this past, as does his friend Antonia. Jim contemplates truth, beauty, fertility, and harmony, such as Antonia achieves, but is unable to achieve these things in his own life.   Jim foreshadows other prominent twentieth century fictional characters whose alienation and homelessness will become much deeper, for example Hemingway’s Nick Adams, Jake Barnes, and Fredrick Henry; the male protagonists of Eliot’s poetry; and Faulkner’s Joe Christmas and Quentin Compton.

But Antonia, the central figure of Jim’s memory, exemplifies the opposite of alienation and homelessness.  She marries, has many children, and turns the poor cave in which her family first lived when they emigrated from Bohemia to Nebraska into a bountiful cellar to store food (reaped from the land that is her home) for her large family.  Jim cannot, as an adult, live in Antonia’s world, but he can honor that world of “physical harmony” and pay tribute to Antonia as proof that it exists:

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true . . . She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she had something which fires the imagination . . . . she had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last.  All the strong things of her heart came out of her body that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.  It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight.  She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.  (261)

Although Jim prefigures other modern male protagonists, Antonia’s domestic happiness and fertility are the antithesis of the next generation of modern fictional women who unlike Antonia are from older American families.  Characters such as Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan and Nicole Diver, and Faulkner’s Caddy Compson, Temple Drake, and Addie Bundren are restless women, often promiscuous, and either childless or disastrous as mothers.

Cather’s ultimate achievement is two-fold: first, she never completely closes the door to the past (the traditions of close families and living close to the land) as a present possibility, though that possibility becomes increasingly more remote, anticipating high modernists novels that depict estrangement from past traditions and alienation in the present culture. Second, her work vividly depicts how the most enduring of American cultural traditions (such as the work ethic and being a good neighbor in hard times) are constantly being reinvigorated by immigrants.  Cather’s work insists that immigration has been America’s greatest source of vitality.  As such, her fiction at the beginning of the twentieth century anticipates American literature at the end of the century in which first and second generation Americans from all regions of the world define themselves and their families as American—a theme to which we will return in Contemporary Multiculturalism in American Literature with Sandra Cisneros’s novel Caramelo as the representative text.
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1. Your Study Plan: Review the course materials posted here for part 1, and visit web sites briefly.
2. Immerse yourself in the text : Read the novel in three sittings if possible, and use the study guide and study questions as you read.  When you finish the first complete reading of the novel, go to the next suggestion # 3.
3. Step back and view the work as a whole: Review the novel and the passages you have marked and see how they work together to create a larger vision.  This step is the basis for analysis.
4. Class Discussion: Exchange ideas with other readers.
5. Revisit the course materials and web sites.  You will discover that these materials are far more meaningful to you now that you have grappled with the text and that you are able to select for yourself what you see as most valuable.
6. Experience greater confidence as a reader and interpreter.  Feel great about how much you have learned in one week, and move on to the next course novel, A Farewell to Arms, with curiosity and enthusiasm.
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Whenever you study literary works, it’s a good idea to make a page of notes regarding the work’s essential features.  Make sure you note the correct title, the correct spelling of the author’s name, and the date of original publication.  Then note the genre (or form)—novel, non-fiction novel, short story, poem, longer poem (published as a book, The Waste Land, for example), play, autobiography, memoir,  essay, and so forth.

Note the setting or time and place and pay attention to the details of setting as you read.  Cather’s domestic details of prairie homes and landscapes, and her careful attention to seasons, for instance, will contrast sharply with Fitzgerald’s details of houses, lawns, and landscapes in The Great Gatsby’s Great Neck and New York City setting, even though the novels’ time periods and broad themes interrelate.  Make notes, too, about main characters and significant secondary characters.  These details will help you review later.

In addition to these fundamentals of literary texts, begin to notice and describe how texts are structured and from whose point of view they are narrated.  Ask yourself why the author created this structure and the specific point of view.  Writers, much like painters, may begin with a vision of what they want to accomplish, but are often uncertain about the exact tools and techniques they will use to accomplish the vision. Just as the painter experiments with the arrangement of the picture and the viewpoint from which the subject is painted and later seen, the writer most often also goes through a trial and error process before achieving a finished work of art ready for readers.

Here is an example of a study guide to My Antonia that a serious student might create.  This example is intended to enrich your appreciation of the specific text and to give you significant points of comparison and contrast that will help you see important continuities and differences from text to text.   This framework, emphasizing the tools of the literary trade, will also strengthen your ability to make aesthetic judgments.  As the semester proceeds, I will, while continuing to provide the framework, will leave more and more of the detail up to you, allowing you to develop useful and creative literary skills through guided practice.   You may use the framework below of as a model to create your own study guides for literary texts:

Willa Cather’s My Antonia, 1918

Setting: Nebraska prairie late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Form: Novel

Introduction: A frame narrator
Book I: The Shimerdas
Book II: The Hired Girls
Book III: Lena Lingard
Book IV: The Pioneer Woman’s Story
Book V: Cuzak’s Boys

The novel has a linear chronology that begins when Jim is orphaned at age ten and moves from Virginia to Nebraska to live with his grandparents; the novel ends with his visit as an adult to his friend Antonia who by then has a large family.  Each of the five sections, or “Books,” contains untitled chapters depicting formative episodes from Jim’s life that live in his memory.

Narrative Point of View: An unnamed frame narrator sets up the context for the story and introduces the principal narrator, Jim Burden, then disappears.   The sections that follow the introduction are from a manuscript Jim writes about his childhood and about his friend Antonia and has given to the frame narrator.

Main Characters: List and jot down the essential traits of characters so that you can keep track of who is who in class discussions and  when you study for tests.

Recommendation for Reading Strategy: Try to read the book in three sittings, approximately 100 pages a sitting.  First, read the Introduction and Book I, then Books II and III, and then Books IV and V.  When you have finished the novel, reread the introduction, the significant passages, and the ending.  Review this guide and the study questions, and participate in the class discussions.
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Study Questions

These questions help you to focus on and synthesize important aspects of the text and to prepare for possible essay questions and character and quotation identifications on the examinations. You are not, however, required to answer them in writing for your instructor unless otherwise indicated.

1. What do you know about Jim Burden—his background, his personality and character, and his present life—from reading the brief introduction?  You might make a list in your class notebook.  Would you have know these things from if Cather had not created the introduction.

2. Mark the last paragraph of Book I, chapter I in which Cather depicts ten-year-old Jim’s state of mind as he leaves behind his boyhood home and enters in to a wholly, new and formative way of life.  How would you describe Cather’s style in this passage?  How would you summarize Jim’s state of mind?  Look for similar passages as you read, such as the last paragraph of Book I, chapter II in which Jim once again contemplates himself and nature with awe.

3. What kind of relationship does Antonia have with her father?   What does the father mean to Jim?

4. Briefly summarize the character traits of the adults who make positive, lasting impressions on Jim as a boy: his grandfather, grandmother, Otto, and Jack.  Can you think of adults who might have made similar impressions on you when you were growing up? What kinds of impressions do you think you make on children?

5. Contrast Antonia’s life in the country and in the city.

6. If Antonia prevails as the most central female figure in Jim’s life, why does he remain detached from her?  Would Cather’s novel be stronger or weaker if she had allowed Jim and Antonia to fall in love, get married, and have a family?

7. Discuss Jim’s work as a lawyer and his avocation as a writer.  Do these activities provide him with a satisfying identity as an adult?  Does Jim get to develop his childhood potentials for love and work and the creative expression of his imagination?
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Class Discussion Topics

1. Discuss and analyze Jim’s character.  What is Jim’s role as an adult?  What does he contribute to society?  He records much off his inner life as a child, but what do you imagine his inner life to be like as an adult.  Is your final assessment of Jim mostly positive or negative or a mixture of both?  Do you think men today deal with any of the same conflicts as Jim?  And, if so, how do they deal with these conflicts compared to Jim?  Do they have more or fewer resources for coping with adulthood roles, such as work, family, friends, and otherwise making a positive contribution to society?  Do you have additional questions that seem important to you?

2. What are the most important contributions that Cather’s My Antonia makes to American literature?
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  Suggestions for Cather Projects

Interdisciplinary Approaches

English Majors Web Projects: Search and research current web resources.  Review what is available, build a case that an additional project in needed, and create it.

Cather Fans or Scholars: Use this assignment as a way to focus on and get to know one American novelist well. beginning a life long interest.  Suggestion for project: In addition to My Antonia, also read O' Pioneers, and Death Comes for the Archbishop and examine and analyze Cather's depiction of feelings and  ideas about and experiences with death figures into the lives and sensibilities of her major characters. A project such as this would also fill you open novel choice requirement.

Selected Bibliography

Tip on lacating book-lenght studies and collections of essays in the library: PS3505.

Acocella, Joan. "Cather and the Academy."  The Best American Essays . Ed. Geoffrey C. Ward .Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. 

---.   Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. New York: Vintage, 2002. Chapter 8: "The Tragic Sense of Life" 77-90 is an excellent, brief  introduction to Cather.

Arnold, Marilyn. Willa Cather: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1986.

Aronson, Marilyn A. "Plains Goddesses: Heroines in Willa Cather's Prairie Novels," Heritage of the Great Plains 28 (Fall/Winter 1995): 5-16.

Bloom, Harold, E d. Antonia. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.

---, Ed. Willa Cather's My Antonia. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A volume in the Modern Critical Interpretations series, gathering a group of essays on the work. Includes Blanche H. Gelfant's on sexuality.

Cather, Willa. On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art . New York: Knopf, 1949. Two essays here are important to Cather's style in Pioneers and Antonia: "The Novel Demeuble" and "My First Novels [There Were Two]."

---. O Pioneers! Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913. . For context, contrast, and comparison, read Antonia in juxtaposition with Pioneers.

Howarth, William. "The Country of Willa Cather," National Geographic 162 (July 1982): 70-93. Many are the personal narratives of visitors to Cather country, among which this stands as one of the most professional, although not the most insightful.

Lindemann, Marilee. Willa Cather .    : Columbia UP, 1999.  

Murphy, David. "Jejich Antonie: Czechs, the Land, Cather, and the Pavelka Farmstead," Great Plains Quarterly 14 (Spring 1994): 85-106. This is a  rich piece on the interaction of ethnic culture and plains landscape that is essential to Antonia, focusing on the material culture of the farmstead.

Murphy, John J. "Nebraska Naturalism in Jamesian Frames," Great Plains Quarterly 4 (Fall 1984): 231-37. Antonia has always been a problem for critics intent on categorization (regional, Realistic, Romantic). This article helps to explain some of the ambivalence.

My Antonia. Video, Gideon Productions, 1995. Not very good. 92 minutes.

O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. This work treats Cather's life and writing through publication of O Pioneers!  Makes argument for Cather's lesbianism.

Olson, Paul A. "The Epic and Great Plains Literature: Rolvaag, Cather, and Neihardt," Prairie Schooner 55 (Spring/Summer 1981): 263-85. Olson considers Antonia the most clearly epic of the works treated and develops the analogy to Virgil's Aeneid.

Rosowski, Susan J., ed. Approaches to Teaching Cather's My Antonia . New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1989.

Schach, Paul. "Russian Wolves in Folktales and Literature of the Plains: A Question of Origins," Great Plains Quarterly 3 (Spring 1983): 67-78. background for the notable set piece in Antonia.

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life . Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. Excellent.  

Close Reading Passage

We sat looking off across the country, watching the sun go down. The curly grass about us was on fire now. The bark of the oaks turned red as copper. There was a shimmer of gold on the brown river. Out in the stream the sandbars glittered like glass, and the light trembled in the willow thickets as if little flames were leaping among them. The breeze sank to stillness. In the ravine a ringdove mourned plaintively, and somewhere off in the bushes an owl hooted. The girls sat listless, leaning against each other. The long fingers of the sun touched their foreheads.

Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disc; the handles, the tongue, the share — black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.

Further Your Learning

During the semester, you may discover particular authors or periods you are eager to learn more about.  At the end of each section, I will provide you with further learning suggestions to pursue if you are so inclined. Do not hesitate to ask  me for additional suggestions.

The most recent, interesting, and critically astute introduction to Cather and Cather Studies is:   Acocella, Joan. ---.   Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. New York: Vintage, 2002. Chapter 8: "The Tragic Sense of Life" 77-90 is an excellent, brief  introduction to Cather

If Cather especially interests you, you might want to read more of her work when the semester is over. In addition to My Antonia (1918), the novels O Pioneers! (1913), The Professor’s House (1925), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) give readers an excellent overview of Cather’s major work and development. For a book-length biography, see Sharon O’Brien’s Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (New York: Oxford UP, 1987), Philip L. Gerber’s Willa Cather (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995) provides a reliable, informative critical view of Cather’s work.  The Twayne series publishes college student guides to the work of significant American writers.

Hallmark Hall of Fame released a film version of O Pioneers! in 1992, which is in most video stores.

Internet Resources:

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