Term Paper: Willa Cather Willa Sibert

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[. . .] They agree that, for them, growing up on the prairie was such a unique experience that it is completely ineffable and that one can only understand it by having lived through it. Nonetheless, their memory of the land and the time of their childhoods are completely symbolized by one person in particular, Antonia:

During that burning day when we were crossing Iowa, our talk kept returning to a central figure, a Bohemian girl whom we had known long ago and whom both of us admired. More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood. To speak her name was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going in one's brain. I had lost sight of her altogether, but Jim had found her again after long years, had renewed a friendship that meant a great deal to him, and out of his busy life had set apart time enough to enjoy that friendship.

Cather My Antonia Introduction)

Here again we see the profound link between people and the land. Here Cather shows that the entirety of a place and time can be said to reside wholly in the person of Antonia. Like in O Pioneers! In which she discusses the effect of the human heart on the Great Divide, My Antonia demonstrates the link between the characters' memories of Antonia and their memories of childhood itself. Indeed, she is linked not only to a place, but to a time as well, to the golden days of Jim Burden's childhood. Indeed, later in the book, Cather identifies Antonia with the entire cycle of fertility itself.

When Jim, as a much older adult, goes back to visit Antonia, who is now married and has several children, he realizes that, even despite her increased age, she still reminds him of the goodness and vigor of his childhood years:

She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. 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 in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

Cather My Antonia Chapter 5)

Again, Cather identifies Antonia with nature, with the land. But here, in specifically identifying her with the harvest, she reveals an even deeper connection that she is making between Antonia and fertility and rebirth. Here Antonia is equated with the harvest, with the possibility of creation in the world. This is underscored by her role as a mother as well, which this section of the novel very much emphasizes. Thus, Cather shows that in her prairie novels in particularly, the land and the people are deeply interlinked with one another in ways that cannot be understood by those who never grew up on the prairie. Perhaps part of the importance of this link stems from the struggle that those on the prairie underwent in order to survive and eventually thrive and this closeness to the land and to landscape is ultimately what is responsible for creating this intensely intimate bond between them.

Not surprisingly, then, reviewers have noted that Cather herself seemed to share this connection with the land, herself, and found it equally important to her own psychology and in her own personal process of creation. At one point while drafting My Antonia, some critics have noted that she attempted in some small way to recreate the landscape that inspired her:

James Woodress reports that Willa Cather wrote Book II ("The Hired Girls") of My antonia -- a portrait drawn from her early memories in Red Cloud, Nebraska-in a tent pitched in an open meadow outside of Jaffrey, New Hampshire. To refresh herself after each writing session, she took long sojourns on Mount Monadnock and through the surrounding countryside (286)....Cather's living and working spaces in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, far from her childhood home, served as a re-creation of her Nebraska "parish" transplanted into the world.


Here, we can see the personal collection that Cather felt between the landscape and herself. Indeed, Willa Cather was an extremely private person and throughout her life was extremely hesitant to give interviews and even forbid the publication of her private letters in her will. Nonetheless, through the eyes of her characters and the interaction with the land, as well as the above evidence we can see that the land and landscape was just as influential for Cather as it was for her characters. Like them, she understood the profound link between the land and the human heart, and clearly this link affected her in her writing.

Some critics, however, take the role of Antonia within the text of My Antonia even further. They argue that by identifying Antonia with the land, Jim Burden mythologizes her and turns her into an analytical construction rather than a person. Some critics, however, claim that beneath this obvious trope, she is subtly emphasizing Antonia's own creativity as a storyteller within the narrative tradition:

Most recent critics agree that Jim's portrayal of antonia at the end of the novel is reductive-she has become a "mythic" figure, an "Earth Mother"- but they differ on whether antonia transcends this objectification. Cather does, however, offer us a way to read against Jim's narrative to find an alternative view of both antonia and Jim himself. Throughout the novel, antonia enters Jim's narrative by telling her own stories, so that, if we listen for her voice, My antonia is as much the story of antonia's development as an artist as it is the story of Jim's vision of her. That is, the growing recognition of the oral tradition in literary studies allows us to reread the novel with a new emphasis on antonia as a storyteller.


From this perspective, Woolley argues that Antonia should not be simply read as another "symbol" in the book, which stands for an embodiment of nature. Rather, here, the emphasis is on Antonia as a creative force in her own right whose ability to weave oral narratives with precision is a type of artistry that Cather identifies with and, perhaps, even champions. While Woolley's argument is persuasive in a certain way, however, it seems to smack more of wish-fulfillment than actual analysis. Ultimately, our views of Antonia are framed by Jim Burden, but nowhere does he claim to represent her as she is. Indeed he considers her to be "my" Antonia, meaning that he is presenting his version of her as she has meaning only to him.

Willa Cather stands as one of the greatest and most important authors within the American tradition even half a century after her death. Cather writes beautiful and complex characters with a beguiling simplicity and sparseness of language that belies her thematic complexity and lyrical phrasing. Her prairie novels in particular detail the intense and important relationship between the people of the prairie and the landscape itself, and, in that connection, her works reveal a truth that is both eternal and uniquely American in its form of expression.


Briggs, Cynthia K. "Insulated Isolation: Willa Cather's Room with a View." Cather

Studies, vol. 1 (1990). May 9, 2003. http://www.unl.edu/Cather/scholarship/cs/vol1/index.htm

Brown, E.K. And Edel, L. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography. May 9, 2003. http://www.bartleby.com/65/ca/Cather-W.html

Cather, Willa. My Antonia. May 9, 2003. http://encyclopediaoftheself.com/classic_ books_online/myant10.htm>

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! May 9, 2003. http://encyclopediaoftheself.com/classic_ books_online/opion11.htm>

Cather, Willa (1873-1947)." May 9, 2003. http://www.glbtq.com/literature/cather_w.html

Woolley, Paula. "Fire and Wit': Storytelling and the American Artist in Cather's My antonia." Cather Studies, vol. 3 (1996). May 9, 2003 http://www.unl.edu/Cather/scholarship/cs/vol3/index.htm [END OF PREVIEW]

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