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Cather, Willa

Willa Cather

Born: December 7, 1873
Winchester, Virginia
Died: April 24, 1947
New York, New York

American author

The American author Willa Cather is noted for her strong and thoughtful descriptions of prairie life in the last years of the midwestern frontier. Her poetic style was greatly different from other kinds of writing at the time.

Early life

Willa Sibert Cather was born in Winchester, Virginia, on December 7, 1873 (although she often lied about her year of birth and other things). She was the first of Charles Fectigue and Mary Virginia Boak Cather's seven children. Her father moved the family to Red Cloud, Nebraska, when Cather was nine years old, where he ran a farm loan business. Her immediate love for the prairie and her involvement in the lives of Bohemian and Scandinavian immigrants provided her with both the material and a simple manner of expression for her novels.

Although Cather was educated mainly by her mother, she had enough knowledge of English literature and Latin to do excellent work at the University of Nebraska. At this time she became interested in a career in journalism. She began working as a drama critic for newspapers in Lincoln, Nebraska, while still in school. After receiving a degree in 1895, she moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and found employment as an editor, drama critic, and high school teacher.

First efforts

In 1903 Cather published a collection of poems, April Twilights. In 1905 a collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, was issued. Neither collection really displayed her talent. Her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, the story of an engineer's love for two women, was published in 1912.

With a moving story of the prairie, O Pioneers! (1913), Cather at last discovered her subject matter. This tale of Alexandra Bergson, daughter of Swedish settlers, whose devotion to the land and to her younger brother interferes with her own chance for happiness, is a major novel and an important source for Cather's later work. In Song of the Lark (1915), she presents the story of a young woman's attempt at artistic accomplishment in a small town. My Antonia (1918), generally considered her finest novel, is based on a successful city lawyer's memories of his prairie boyhood and his love for Antonia Shimerda, a bright Bohemian girl.

Cather's next novel, One of Ours (1922), about a man who goes to war in order to escape his midwestern farm environment, won the Pulitzer Prize. A Lost Lady (1923) tells the story of an educated, thoughtful young woman faced with the materialism (desire for wealth and material goods) of the post-pioneer period. The Professor's House (1925) is a study of the problems of youth and middle age. These three novels differ from Cather's earlier studies of prairie life in that the midwestern atmosphere is now described as a force working against the artistic dreams and intellectual development of the characters.

New location

With the passing of the frontier, Cather permanently left the Midwest, both physically and as a source of subject matter for her novels. She lived off and on in New York and Europe until the late 1920s, then she discovered the Southwest desert, which came to serve as a substitute for the prairie. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) describes the dedicated missionaries (religious workers who travel around to spread the word of their faith to others) in Mexico during the 1850s. Shadows on the Rock (1931) is a description of French-Catholic life in seventeenth-century Quebec. Both novels represent Cather's interest in Roman Catholicism and her admiration for the qualities of courage and endurance that she observed in her life.

Willa Cather's devotion to the land and her respect for those rooted to it are key elements of her work. Man and nature are viewed as characters of equal importance in a cosmic drama. Despite her love for the prairie, she realized that neither frontier life nor its people were perfect. She was aware of, and described honestly, the intellectual stagnation (failure to move forward) and small-minded prejudice that existed side by side with the good qualities of frontier life.

In her last years Cather devoted herself to nonfiction and criticism. Not Under Forty (1936) contains an expression of her ideas about writing. Partly in order to devote herself to her writing, Cather never married. She died on April 24, 1947, in New York City.

For More Information

Keene, Ann T. Willa Cather. New York: J. Messner, 1994.

Lee, Hermione. Willa Cather: Double Lives. New York: Pantheon, 1989.

Stout, Janis P. Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000.

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McClure, Alexander Kelly

Alexander Kelly McClure, 1828–1909, American journalist and political leader, b. Perry co., Pa. He edited and published the Juniata Sentinel of Mifflintown, Pa., before acquiring and editing (1850–56, 1862–64) the Franklin Repository at Chambersburg. He was an early and active Republican, and, at the party's national convention in 1860, he and Andrew G. Curtin swung the pivotal Pennsylvania delegation to Lincoln. As chairman of the state committee, McClure built up the Republican organization that secured the governorship for Curtin and Pennsylvania's electoral votes for Lincoln. He served in both houses of the state legislature and after the Civil War practiced law in Philadelphia. McClure supported Gen. U. S. Grant in 1868, but in 1872 was one of the leaders of the Liberal Republican party, which nominated Horace Greeley for President. In 1874 he was defeated for mayor of Philadelphia. He founded (1875) the Philadelphia Times and was its editor until 1901.

See his recollections (1902).

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Cather, Willa

Cather, Willa (1876–1947) US novelist and short story writer. She grew up among immigrant Nebraskan farmers who became the subject of her work. Her fiction explores the pioneer spirit: love of the land, loyalty to family, and the struggle with nature. Her books, often featuring strong characters who lead life as a noble endeavour, include O Pioneers (1913), A Lost Lady (1923), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

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Cather, Willa

Willa Cather

Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873, the first of seven children to Charles and Mary Cather. She spent her childhood at Willowshade, the family farm in Virginia . Cather enjoyed the freedom of a rural lifestyle, with much of her time spent outdoors. In 1883, the family moved to Red Cloud, Nebraska , leaving behind the farm for a life on the western frontier. Cather missed Willowshade, and the experience of having to leave it behind left her feeling resentful of change.

Red Cloud was a town populated by immigrants from all over the world: Russia, Poland, Germany, Sweden, and others. She forged friendships with foreign-born girls her own age, and her experiences on the frontier living among immigrants would later inform the themes of some of her novels.

At an early age, Cather decided she wanted to become a medical doctor, but that ambition changed as she aged. Cather began her career as a writer in 1891, when she entered the University of Nebraska. There she excelled at journalism and short story writing, and her first published piece appeared in the prestigious Boston magazine. Upon publication, Cather realized writing was her gift, and she devoted herself completely to the craft.

After graduating in 1865, Cather briefly wrote for a newspaper in Lincoln, Nebraska, before moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania . There she took a job as editor for a magazine called Home Monthly. Before long, she moved over to the Pittsburgh Daily Leader, a newspaper that employed her as copy editor and music/drama critic.

Becomes a serious writer

Cather gave up news writing to become a teacher in 1901. During this time, she met Isabelle McClung, daughter of a prominent Pittsburgh judge. The two formed a relationship that would last a lifetime, and Cather was later known to have said that every book she ever wrote was for McClung. Historians have long speculated on the nature of Cather's and McClung's relationship, and many believe the two were lovers. Cather's longest relationship was with her companion Edith Lewis; the two women were together for more than forty years.

McClung's wealth allowed Cather to write without the strain of having to earn a living. They traveled together to Europe in 1902, and the trip was followed by the publication of a book of poetry titled April Twilights in 1903. A collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, was published in 1905, and the two books came to the attention of S. S. McClure (1857–1949), publisher of the popular McClure's magazine. He gave Cather a job as managing editor in 1906, a position that allowed the writer to become part of the blossoming literary world rooted in the New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Cather kept her job with the magazine until 1912, when she resigned to write fiction.

That same year, Cather published her first novel, Alexander's Masquerade, which established the frontier theme that would weave its way into her other novels. Her next novel, O Pioneers!, was a literary success. Again, the story involved farm life and prairie scenes reminiscent of Cather's childhood experiences.

Cather's best known novel, My Antonia, was published in 1918. She followed that with two more titles by 1927, and by that time was recognized as a moral writer who embraced traditional values while writing about a world of changing standards and shifting morality. Though lesser known than some of her other works, One of Ours earned Cather the Pulitzer Prize in 1922.

Cather's later years were spent in New York City, where she established friendships with artists and musicians. She continued publishing novels and short stories until 1936. For her work, she was awarded the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1930, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters gold medal for fiction in 1944. In 1962, Cather became the first woman inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame. She was voted into the Hall of Great Westerners in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma , in 1974 and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York , in 1988.

Cather died on April 24, 1947, at the age of seventy-three. The Nebraska State Historical Society established the Willa Cather Historical Center in 1978. The Center includes the author's childhood home as well as other buildings connected to her writing.

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Cather, Willa

Willa Cather

Excerpt from My Antonia

Published in 1918

A novel accurately relates the difficulties experienced by European immigrants in the United States in the late nineteenth century

"They ain't got but one overcoat among 'em over there, and they take turns wearing it. They seem awful scared of cold, and stick in that hole in the bank like badgers."

M y Antonia is a novel about life in Nebraska in the 1880s and 1890s, where author Willa Cather (1872–1947) lived from age nine. The Antonia in the title is fourteen-year-old Antonia Shimerda, whose family moved to Nebraska from Bohemia, in Europe, the land now known as the Czech Republic. Although My Antonia is fiction, it accurately represents how hard life was for European immigrants attracted to the United States in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Arriving with little money and unable to speak English, European immigrants were often attracted by the promise of free or inexpensive farmland made available through the Homestead Act of 1862 (see entry). But the Great Plains of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas offered a difficult, hostile environment. Pioneers dug holes into the earth and heaped bricks made of sod (dirt held together by grass roots) to make low houses that were a combination of a hole in the ground and a mud hut. Trees were scarce on the prairie, and wooden houses were a sign of economic success.

The Shimerda family in My Antonia suffered greatly. They arrived in Nebraska without enough money to buy food until their first crops could be harvested. One child was mentally challenged. The father was not coping well in his new circumstances, and sometimes slid into depression, a mental disorder characterized by feelings of sadness and disinterest in everyday activities. The family did not speak English and had few friends.

Antonia, who is introduced in the part of the book excerpted here, was about twelve when the story opens with the arrival of the Shimerdas in Black Hawk, Nebraska. They had taken the same train from Chicago that carried the book's narrator, Jim Burden, who was moving from Virginia to join his grandparents, just as Willa Cather did as a young girl.

My Antonia is not only a story about immigrants; some people living in Nebraska were American-born, like the narrator. But many European immigrants who headed west after arriving in the United States did have experiences like the Shimerdas. More than half the pioneers who filed for free land under the Homestead Act of 1862 gave up and left their land before the five-year minimum stay required to obtain title to the property.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from My Antonia:

  • Not all of history is about government institutions. Most immigrants to the United States were ordinary people in search of a better life. Most never wrote down their stories in detail. Sometimes it requires a writer of skill and talent, like Cather, to fill in the human touches of a great movement like the European migration to North America in the nineteenth century.
  • Cather went to live with her grandparents in Nebraska at age nine, after a childhood spent in Virginia. She
    spent about a year living on the prairie before her family moved into the town of Red Cloud, near Nebraska's southern border with Kansas. Her father opened a business lending money to buy land and houses. As a child, Cather was full of imagination, sometimes identifying herself as a doctor, "William Cather, M.D." She was interested in the many different immigrants she met, people from Denmark, Sweden, Bohemia, France, and Germany. They had followed the railroads west.

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

  • The model for Antonia was a girl named Annie, who worked as a servant in the home of Cather's best friends, the Miner children.
  • In the book, the narrator explains that Antonia's name is pronounced with an emphasis on the first syllable, like the name Anthony: AN-to-nia.

Excerpt from My Antonia

On Sunday morning Otto Fuchs was to drive us over to make the acquaintance of our new Bohemian neighbors. We were taking them some provisions, as they had come to live on a wild place where there was no garden or chicken-house, and very little broken land. Fuchs brought up a sack of potatoes and a piece of cured pork from the cellar, and grandmother packed some loaves of Saturday's bread, a jar of butter, and several pumpkin pies in the straw of the wagon-box. We clambered up to the front seat and jolted off past the little pond and along the road that climbed to the big cornfield.

Clambered: Scrambled.

I could hardly wait to see what lay beyond that cornfield; but there was only red grass like ours, and nothing else, though from the high wagon-seat one could look off a long way. The road ranabout like a wild thing, avoiding the deep draws, crossing them where they were wide and shallow. And all along it, wherever it looped or ran, the sunflowers grew; some of them were as big as little trees, with great rough leaves and many branches which bore dozens of blossoms. They made a gold ribbon across the prairie. Occasionally one of the horses would tear off with his teeth a plant full of blossoms, and walk along munching it, the flowers nodding in time to his bites as he ate down toward them.

The Bohemian family, grandmother told me as we drove along, had bought the homestead of a fellow countryman, Peter Krajiek, and had paid him more than it was worth. Their agreement with him was made before they left the old country, through a cousin of his, who was also a relative of Mrs. Shimerda. The Shimerdas were the first Bohemian family to come to this part of the county. Krajiek was their only interpreter, and could tell them anything he chose. They could not speak enough English to ask for advice, or even to make their most pressing wants known. One son, Fuchs said, was well-grown, and strong enough to work the land; but the father was old and frail and knew nothing about farming. He was a weaver by trade; had been a skilled workman on tapestries and upholstery materials. He had brought his fiddle with him, which wouldn't be of much use here, though he used to pick up money by it at home.

Tapestries: Woven materials, often showing a pattern and hung on a wall.

Upholstery: Woven material used to cover furniture.

"If they're nice people, I hate to think of them spending the winter in that cave of Krajiek's," said grandmother. "It's no better than a badger hole; no proper dugout at all. And I hear he's made them pay twenty dollars for his old cookstove that ain't worth ten."

Badger: A burrowing mammal, related to the weasel.

"Yes'm," said Otto; "and he's sold 'em his oxen and his two bony old horses for the price of good workteams. I'd have interfered about the horses—the old man can understand some German—if I'd 'a' thought it would do any good. But Bohemians has a natural distrust of Austrians."

Grandmother looked interested. "Now, why is that, Otto?"

Fuchs wrinkled his brow and nose. "Well, ma'm, it's politics. It would take me a long while to explain."

The land was growing rougher; I was told that we were approaching Squaw Creek, which cut up the west half of the Shimerdas' place and made the land of little value for farming. Soon we could see the broken, grassy clay cliffs which indicated the windings of the stream, and the glittering tops of the cottonwoods and ash trees that grew down in the ravine. Some of the cottonwoodshad already turned, and the yellow leaves and shining white bark made them look like the gold and silver trees in fairy tales.

As we approached the Shimerdas' dwelling, I could still see nothing but rough red hillocks , and draws with shelving banks and long roots hanging out where the earth had crumbled away. Presently, against one of those banks, I saw a sort of shed, thatched with the same wine-colored grass that grew everywhere. Near it tilted a shattered windmill frame, that had no wheel. We drove up to this skeleton to tie our horses, and then I saw a door and window sunk deep in the draw-bank. The door stood open, and a woman and a girl of fourteen ran out and looked up at us hopefully. A little girl trailed along behind them. The woman had on her head the same embroidered shawl with silk fringes that she wore when she had alighted from the train at Black Hawk. She was not old, but she was certainly not young. Her face was alert and lively, with a sharp chin and shrewd little eyes. She shook grandmother's hand energetically.

Hillocks: Small hills.

Draw-bank: A ridge of earth surrounding a shallow gully.

"Very glad, very glad!" she ejaculated. Immediately she pointed to the bank out of which she had emerged and said, "House no good, house no good!"

Ejaculated: Spoke suddenly and vehemently.

Grandmother nodded consolingly. "You'll get fixed up comfortable after while, Mrs. Shimerda; make good house."

Consolingly: Sympathetically.

My grandmother always spoke in a very loud tone to foreigners, as if they were deaf. She made Mrs. Shimerda understand the friendly intention of our visit, and the Bohemian woman handled the loaves of bread and even smelled them, and examined the pies with lively curiosity, exclaiming, "Much good, much thank!"—and again she wrung grandmother's hand.

The oldest son, Ambroz—they called it Ambrosch—came out of the cave and stood beside his mother. He was nineteen years old, short and broad-backed, with a close-cropped, flat head, and a wide, flat face. His hazel eyes were little and shrewd, like his mother's, but more sly and suspicious; they fairly snapped at the food. The family had been living on corncakes and sorghum molasses for three days.

Sorghum molasses: A thick syrup made from a form of grass called sorghum.

The little girl was pretty, but Antonia—they accented the name thus, strongly, when they spoke to her—was still prettier. I remembered what the conductor had said about her eyes. They were big and warm and full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood. Her skin was brown, too, and in her cheeks she had a glow of rich, dark color. Her brown hair was curly and wild-looking. The littlesister, whom they called Yulka (Julka), was fair, and seemed mild and obedient. While I stood awkwardly confronting the two girls, Krajiek came up from the barn to see what was going on. With him was another Shimerda son. Even from a distance one could see that there was something strange about this boy. As he approached us, he began to make uncouth noises, and held up his hands to show us his fingers, which were webbed to the first knuckle, like a duck's foot. When he saw me draw back, he began to crow delightedly, "Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo!" like a rooster. His mother scowled and said sternly, "Marek!" then spoke rapidly to Krajiek in Bohemian.

Uncouth: Rude, impolite.

"She wants me to tell you he won't hurt nobody, Mrs. Burden. He was born like that. The others are smart. Ambrosch, he make good farmer." He struck Ambrosch on the back, and the boy smiled knowingly.

At that moment the father came out of the hole in the bank. He wore no hat, and his thick, iron-gray hair was brushed straight back from his forehead. It was so long that it bushed out behind his ears, and made him look like the old portraits I remembered in Virginia. He was tall and slender, and his thin shoulders stooped. He looked at us understandingly, then took grandmother's hand and bent over it. I noticed how white and well-shaped his own hands were. They looked calm, somehow, and skilled. His eyes were melancholy , and were set back deep under his brow. His face was ruggedly formed, but it looked like ashes—like something from which all the warmth and light had died out. Everything about this old man was in keeping with his dignified manner. He was neatly dressed. Under his coat he wore a knitted gray vest, and, instead of a collar, a silk scarf of a dark bronze-green, carefully crossed and held together by a red coral pin. While Krajiek was translating for Mr. Shimerda, Antonia came up to me and held out her hand coaxingly. In a moment we were running up the steep drawside together, Yulka trotting after us.

Melancholy: Sad.

Dignified: Sedate, proper.

Coaxingly: Persuasively.

Drawside: The side or bank of a draw, which is a shallow ravine in the earth.

When we reached the level and could see the gold tree-tops, I pointed toward them, and Antonia laughed and squeezed my hand as if to tell me how glad she was I had come. We raced off toward Squaw Creek and did not stop until the ground itself stopped—fell away before us so abruptly that the next step would have been out into the tree-tops. We stood panting on the edge of the ravine, looking down at the trees and bushes that grew below us. The wind was so strong that I had to hold my hat on, and the girls' skirts were blown out before them. Antonia seemed to like it; she held her little sister by the hand and chattered away in that language whichseemed to me spoken so much more rapidly than mine. She looked at me, her eyes fairly blazing with things she could not say.

"Name? What name?" she asked, touching me on the shoulder. I told her my name, and she repeated it after me and made Yulka say it. She pointed into the gold cottonwood tree behind whose top we stood and said again, "What name?"

We sat down and made a nest in the long red grass. Yulka curled up like a baby rabbit and played with a grasshopper. Antonia pointed up to the sky and questioned me with her glance. I gave her the word, but she was not satisfied and pointed to my eyes. I told her, and she repeated the word, making it sound like "ice." She pointed up to the sky, then to my eyes, then back to the sky, with movements so quick and impulsive that she distracted me, and I had no idea what she wanted. She got up on her knees and wrung her hands. She pointed to her own eyes and shook her head, then to mine and to the sky, nodding violently.

"Oh," I exclaimed, "blue; blue sky."

She clapped her hands and murmured, "Blue sky, blue eyes," as if it amused her. While we snuggled down there out of the wind, she learned a score of words. She was alive, and very eager. We were so deep in the grass that we could see nothing but the blue sky over us and the gold tree in front of us. It was wonderfully pleasant. After Antonia had said the new words over and over, she wanted to give me a little chased silver ring she wore on her middle finger. When she coaxed and insisted, I repulsed her quite sternly. I didn't want her ring, and I felt there was something reckless and extravagant about her wishing to give it away to a boy she had never seen before. No wonder Krajiek got the better of these people, if this was how they behaved.

Repulsed: Fended off.

Extravagant: Excessive.

While we were disputing about the ring, I heard a mournful voice calling, "Antonia, Antonia!" She sprang up like a hare. "Tatinek! Tatinek!" she shouted, and we ran to meet the old man who was coming toward us. Antonia reached him first, took his hand and kissed it. When I came up, he touched my shoulder and looked searchingly down into my face for several seconds. I became somewhat embarrassed, for I was used to being taken for granted by my elders.

Tatinek: Bohemian for "father."

We went with Mr. Shimerda back to the dugout, where grandmother was waiting for me. Before I got into the wagon, he took a book out of his pocket, opened it, and showed me a page with twoalphabets, one English and the other Bohemian. He placed this book in my grandmother's hands, looked at her entreatingly , and said, with an earnestness which I shall never forget, "Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Antonia!"…

Entreatingly: In the manner of begging.

[Book One Part X]

For several weeks after my sleigh-ride, we heard nothing from the Shimerdas. My sore throat kept me indoors, and grandmother had a cold which made the housework heavy for her. When Sunday came she was glad to have a day of rest. One night at supper Fuchs told us he had seen Mr. Shimerda out hunting.

"He's made himself a rabbit-skin cap, Jim, and a rabbit-skin collar that he buttons on outside his coat. They ain't got but one overcoat among 'em over there, and they take turns wearing it. They seem awful scared of cold, and stick in that hole in the bank like badgers…."

After breakfast grandmother and Jake and I bundled ourselves up and climbed into the cold front wagon-seat. As we approached the Shimerdas', we heard the frosty whine of the pump and saw Antonia, her head tied up and her cotton dress blown about her, throwing all her weight on the pump-handle as it went up and down. She heard our wagon, looked back over her shoulder, and, catching up her pail of water, started at a run for the hole in the bank.

Jake helped grandmother to the ground, saying he would bring the provisions after he had blanketed his horses. We went slowly up the icy path toward the door sunk in the drawside. Blue puffs of smoke came from the stovepipe that stuck out through the grass and snow, but the wind whisked them roughly away.

Mrs. Shimerda opened the door before we knocked and seized grandmother's hand. She did not say "How do!" as usual, but at once began to cry, talking very fast in her own language, pointing to her feet which were tied up in rags, and looking about accusingly at everyone.

The old man was sitting on a stump behind the stove, crouching over as if he were trying to hide from us. Yulka was on the floor at his feet, her kitten in her lap. She peeped out at me and smiled, but, glancing up at her mother, hid again. Antonia was washing pans and dishes in a dark corner. The crazy boy lay under the only window, stretched on a gunny-sack stuffed with straw. As soon as we entered, he threw a grain-sack over the crack at the bottom of the door. Theair in the cave was stifling, and it was very dark, too. A lighted lantern, hung over the stove, threw out a feeble yellow glimmer.

Mrs. Shimerda snatched off the covers of two barrels behind the door, and made us look into them. In one there were some potatoes that had been frozen and were rotting, in the other was a little pile of flour. Grandmother murmured something in embarrassment, but the Bohemian woman laughed scornfully , a kind of whinny-laugh, and, catching up an empty coffee-pot from the shelf, shook it at us with a look positively vindictive.

Scornfully: Full of open contempt or disrespect.

Vindictive: Full of revenge.

Grandmother went on talking in her polite Virginia way, not admitting their stark need or her own remissness , until Jake arrived with the hamper, as if in direct answer to Mrs. Shimerda's reproaches. Then the poor woman broke down. She dropped on the floor beside her crazy son, hid her face on her knees, and sat crying bitterly. Grandmother paid no heed to her, but called Antonia to come and help empty the basket. Tony left her corner reluctantly. I had never seen her crushed like this before.

Remissness: Carelessness or negligence.

Reproaches: Expressions of disapproval.

"You not mind my poor mamenka , Mrs. Burden. She is so sad," she whispered, as she wiped her wet hands on her skirt and took the things grandmother handed her.

Mamenka: Bohemian for "mother."

The crazy boy, seeing the food, began to make soft, gurgling noises and stroked his stomach. Jake came in again, this time with a sack of potatoes. Grandmother looked about in perplexity.

"Haven't you got any sort of cave or cellar outside, Antonia? This is no place to keep vegetables. How did your potatoes get frozen?"

"We get from Mr. Bushy, at the post-office what he throw out. We got no potatoes, Mrs. Burden," Tony admitted mournfully.

When Jake went out, Marek crawled along the floor and stuffed up the door-crack again. Then, quietly as a shadow, Mr. Shimerda came out from behind the stove. He stood brushing his hand over his smooth gray hair, as if he were trying to clear away a fog about his head. He was clean and neat as usual, with his green neckcloth and his coral pin. He took grandmother's arm and led her behind the stove, to the back of the room. In the rear wall was another little cave; a round hole, not much bigger than an oil barrel, scooped out in the black earth. When I got up on one of the stools and peered into it, I saw some quilts and a pile of straw. The old man held the lantern. "Yulka," he said in a low, despairing voice, "Yulka; my Antonia!"

Grandmother drew back. "You mean they sleep in there—your girls?" He bowed his head.

Tony slipped under his arm. "It is very cold on the floor, and this is warm like the badger hole. I like for sleep there," she insisted eagerly. "My mamenka have nice bed, with pillows from our own geese in Bohemie. See, Jim?" She pointed to the narrow bunk which Krajiek had built against the wall for himself before the Shimerdas came.

Grandmother sighed. "Sure enough, where would you sleep, dear! I don't doubt you're warm there. You'll have a better house after while, Antonia, and then you will forget these hard times…."

What happened next …

In the story, the Shimerda family does not recover and suffers even more. Eventually, Antonia moves into town to work as a servant, has a child, and eventually marries another Bohemian. Antonia's story is one of a hard life. The narrator, Jim Burden, goes to college at the University of Nebraska and eventually to Harvard University.

For the pioneers of Nebraska, like the Shimerdas, life was a mixed bag. Some families survived and even thrived. Many others were forced to abandon their farms, unable to make a living, especially in the 1890s when the American economy underwent a severe slowdown.

One result of the economic slowdown was the emergence of politician William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) of Nebraska, who was elected governor and ran for president of the United States three times, in 1896, 1900, and 1908. Bryan represented the interest of struggling farmers on the Great Plains. Bryan insisted that the U.S. government should issue paper currency (money) that was backed by either gold or silver. At the time, paper money represented deposits of gold owned by the U.S. government; this meant that only a limited amount of currency could be issued, which Bryan thought made life hard for poor people. Bryan argued that using silver to back up paper currency would allow more money to come into circulation, and thereby benefit ordinary people like the pioneer families of Nebraska. Bryan lost his elections, and the United States remained committed to currency backed by gold until World War I (1914–18).

Did you know …

  • The population of Nebraska surged between 1870 and 1890, the prime time for settlements under the Homestead Act of 1862 and the time in which My Antonia took place. In 1870, the census showed 122,993 people living in Nebraska. By 1880, the population had jumped to 454,402, and in 1890 it reached 1,062,656. Thereafter, the population grew at a much slower pace; there were only about 4,000 more people in the state in 1900 than had been counted ten years earlier. In the 2000 census, the population of Nebraska was about 1.7 million.

For More Information

Books

Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1918. Multiple reprints.

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1913. Multiple reprints.

Dary, David. True Tales of the Old Time Plains. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935. Reprint, New York: Crown Publishers, 1979.

Sandoz, Mari. Old Jules. Boston: Little, Brown, 1935. Multiple reprints.

Stout, Janis P. Willia Cather: The Writer and Her World. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Periodicals

Holmes, Catherine D. "Jim Burden's Lost Worlds: Exile in My Antonia." Twentieth Century Literature (Fall 1999): p. 336.

Web Sites

Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Project Gutenberg online edition. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/gutbook/lookup?num=242 (accessed on February 25, 2004).

University of Nebraska Lincoln. The Willa Cather Electronic Archive.http://www.unl.edu/Cather/ (accessed on February 25, 2004).

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