How the novel, My Antonia, reflects the authors own life and the American history and culture of its time

March 22, 2019

Golden Papers

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A literary work of an author, particularly a work of fiction often represents something real about the author. It can be a personal experience or a personal characteristic that the author consciously or unconsciously wishes to narrate to the reader through the work of fiction. Literary analysts around the world have proven time and again how some of the important aspects of a particular work of fiction are similar, representative or illustrative of one or many characteristics of the author. This is the same case in analyzing Willa Cather and her work “My Antonia.” This paper will establish the connection between the author’s life and the novel by explaining how the novel reflects the life of Willa Cather and at the same time the American history and culture during Cather’s time and the time of the novel’s setting, accomplishing this task through the use of credible referenced and published works authored by professionals who studied, criticized and analyzed Willa Cather and her works and created important inputs that are important credible sources for this paper.

My Antonia and Willa Cather’s Gender-bending

One of the characteristics of Cather’s writing is gender bending. This is evident in her works including My Antonia. “Coupled with being a tomboyish figure in her personal life, Cather showcased gender-bending young women in her professional writings (Abate 98).” Through her gender-bending, she is able to talk about what she is doing herself in real life. She was gender bending in real life by breaking accepted customs. “It was clear that even from an early age Cather was a nonconformist (Champion 67).” She attacked customs, like those on genders like what women should wear and what men should wear, what is an acceptable woman’s name and what is a name reserved for men alone.

Take for example, the use of name. Cather went against the norm by naming herself William – or Willa, a man’s name. “Cropping her hair, calling herself William and engaging in boys’ activities, her gender iconoclasm was infamous (Abate 98).” But she is not alone. She shared this characteristic with her My Antonia title-character. Antonia, Cather’s woman lead character who is the main tool of Cather’s gender-breaking efforts in the story, was also referred to as Tony, a name that is usually attributed to a man.

But the idea of gender bending that Cather has as a personal conviction and as a writing style is not a mere reflection of being someone who is counter culture purely for the sake of being not ordinary. Growing up in Nebraska where families like Cather’s worked hard, the gender bending style and instinct was a product of Cather’s personality as someone being strong and someone who can equal a man, a personality that Cather shared with the fictional Antonia. “Similarly, at various points throughout My Antonia, Antonia ‘Tony’ Shimerda flexes her muscles and prides herself n being able to work like a mans (Abate 98),” something that she said herself (Cather 80).

Cather’s penchant for going against the norm, illustrated by her being tomboyish, mixed with the unsure feeling about how she felt about her own sexuality and how she should sexually react to men (as tradition and norm dictates) and to women (as her anti-social instinct tells her) can be attributed to the logic presented by some critics who believe that included in Cather’s gender bending style in real life and in her writings (including My Antonia as well as her other works). Resulting to this particular approach in personal life and in character building in her story was that Cather ultimately became afraid of sex. And because of that, she sometimes made her male heroes in the story fearful of the same thing. “Gelfant’s essay is particularly significant not only in its reading of My Antonia but in its penetrating analysis of Cather’s fear of sex as revealed in her life and her fiction (Love 166).”

The author included in the analysis that this particular characteristic of Cather and her leading hero is hard to miss. It was Cather’s own weakness that made her hero weak too, in a way connecting the author and the person in her fictional literary work. “No careful reader of Cather can fail to find Gelfant’s thesis provocative and deep-going. She maintains that Jim Burden is an unreliable narrator because he is afraid of sex (Love 166).”

My Antonia, The Use of the Male Voice and Willa Cather’s Tomboyish Personality

 Cather is very notorious for using a male voice as the narrator for her stories. This is attributed to the fact that many believed that Cather was leaning towards being in the more masculine side. The use of the male voice – like using Jim Burden in My Antonia – is reflective of the inclination to be more boyish than to be a girl. In more popular explanation, it seems that Cather was finding an outlet where he can be a “man,” and her stories allowed her the chance. By using a man as a narrator, Cather – the real narrator since she is the writer and story teller, lived inside a man’s body, in the case of My Antonia inside Jim’s body.

She was Jim. Cather cannot deny her tomboyish tendencies. Many analysts, critics and literary historians saw Cather for her works as much as for her tomboyish tendencies. “During the same time that Willa Cather was crafting the tomboyish characters of My Antonia and O Pioneers!, gender bending female figures were making their way into an entirely new medium (Abate 118).” These lines refer to Cather as more than an author but a person who lived and set a particular milestone in a particular gender-centered change and movement.

There are several proofs that support the idea that somehow Cather was thinking that Jim – the narrator in My Antonia – was her. One of the proofs is the many parallelisms in the life of Jim. In the life of Cather, parallelisms that, in turn, support the idea that the novel was a reflection of the life of the author and illustrated many important aspects about Cather as a real person. Take for example, the journey that Jim made in his life, travelling from one place to another. According to some critics like Meisel, this particular aspect of Jim symbolizes a particular incident and/or experience that Cather had for herself, particularly the experience of migrating from one place to another. “As a boy, Burden reads a Life of Jesse James on his first journey west (Meisel 100).” This is something that is akin to a “trip resembling Cather’s own girlhood migration from Virginia to Nebraska (Meisel 100).”

Connected to the instinct that Cather was thinking that she was Jim was the idea that Cather was tomboyish. Her selection of a male character as her chief story teller in many of her works reflects just one of the many efforts that she took to satiate her tomboyish instincts and needs.  “The latter adoption of ‘Willa’ was a compromise between the tomboy she was and the girl she was supposed to be (Champion 67).” Cather was tomboyish and the two central characters in the story My Antonia was both Cather’s reflection in separate yet connected ways.  Jim was the real man character that Cather wanted to be in real life, and Antonia represent Cather, as both of them are tomboyish have families with immigrant backgrounds. “Four years after the appearance of O Pioneers! Willa Cather published a second novel about a tomboyish immigrant on the prairie: My Antonia (Abate 107).”

How the Novel Reflects and is Influenced by the American History and Culture of its Time

The novel was trying to capture the essence of a particular time and place in the American history. Cather allowed the story and the characters to be influenced by how Nebraska and America was during the time. It showed how the real situations affected real people (which she witnessed first hand), making the novel an important testament in the Nebraska (and American) lifestyle and culture, especially in the discussion of the lifestyle, culture and tradition in Nebraska during the time of Cather and during the time of the life of her characters Jim Burden and Antonia. Indeed, the narration of the life of Jim, as well as of Antonia while they were both in Nebraska, was somewhat symbolic of the life of Cather, in many different ways – her personality, her family life, her experiences, her thoughts and her imaginations. “Like My Antonia, its grounds are Cather’s own girlhood Nebraska (Meisel 86).”

Cather’s passion for the place where she grew up (Nebraska) is reflected in her writing style, largely in the selection of the setting where Cather would place the story. Critics notice this particular trend in Cather’s writing style; proof enough is that three of her best works – O Pioneers!, A Lost Lady and of course My Antonia are all set in Nebraska, the central location is the same place where she grew up. Critics are not surprised by this because they believe the Cather saw and felt many things about Nebraska. She tried to encapsulate all of these things by immortalizing the place, the culture inside it, the people, the practice, the belief and tradition inside a literary work that can outlive many generations. “Though Cather would set novels in the American Southwest, in Quebec, and in Avignon, France, Nebraska would provide the inspiration for her best work…that enact the promise, fruitition, and decline of the Garden of the West (Greasley 100).”

But it was not only the place that Cather wanted to capture through the inclusion of the place in her work. More important than that, Cather was trying to immortalize the essence and ethos which she believes in some point represent the place she holds a deep affinity with, and this is reflective in the story My Antonia. “In My Antonia Cather represents the Midwest at its peak, with its vast fertile farmlands offering a new chance to everyone who is willing to work hard (Greasley 100).” Somehow the idea of living in Nebraska and working hard was a similar characteristic found in Antonia and her household, as with Cather and her family during her younger days. Cather was one of the select few who talked about Nebraska in her works after “spending the bulk of her childhood in Nebraska (Abate 98).”

Besides working hard, the story was also illustrative of what Cather believed she was detached or removed from as someone who grew up in a place like Nevada. She came from a family who migrated from one place to another, and so was the Shimerda family of Antonia.  In the story My Antonia, Cather had the chance to talk about what she felt was the absence that is experienced by people like her, by people like the Shimerda, something that they shared commonly. “The first book of My Antonia describes the grinding poverty of the Bohemian immigrants, but their worst privations are not material (Meyering 18).”  This idea of being deprived not in the material way is a feeling that Cather felt that was noticed by the critics and analysts, explaining that the “first nine years of Cather’s life in the Blue Ridge Mountains provided a sense of safeness, perhaps even of smallness (Champion 67).”


 There is no question that Willa Cather was one of the literary geniuses that contributed several works in the annals of American literature which is widely appreciated today. Cather’s works, no doubt, were a reflection of part of herself, or of her whole self scatted in many different pieces throughout the entire My Antonia story. Equally significant is the fact that besides the story reflecting the author as was the case in many other work of fiction, My Antonia was also able to capture an important part of the American culture and history. It was through the effective, evocative and skilled story telling of Cather that this was captured.

The theme of struggle, immigration, hard work, isolation, love, gender iconoclasm and everything else in between was effectively written in a story that has captured the inspiration of many other individuals who considered Cather as an important pillar of the literary world, during and past her time.

Cather was remarkable not just because of the stories that she told, but also because of the fact that she tried to approach story telling in a slightly different way and touched an aspect of gender and social life that was not usually tackled in other works. She was doing it in a way that empowers and inspires rather than create disdain, in the process allowing herself to create her own mark. “Tomboyism continued as a theme in Cather’s later and more well- known novels. Two of the narratives with which she established her reputation and for which she is commonly remembered today – the prairie novels O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918) – showcase tomboyish main characters (Abate 98).”

Works Cited

Abate, Michelle Ann. Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History. Temple University Press,


Cather, Willa Sibert. My Antonia. Forgotten Books, 1954.

Champion, Laurie. American Women Writers, 1900-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical

Sourcebook. Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2000.

Greasley, Philip A. Dictionary of Midwestern Literature: The Authors, Vol. 1. Indiana

University Press, 2001.

Love, Glen. New Americans: The Westerner and the Modern Experience in the American

Novel. Bucknell University Press, 1982.

Meisel, Perry. The Cowboy and the Dandy: Crossing Over from Romanticism to Rock and

Roll. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Meyering, Sheryl L. Understanding O Pioneers! and My Antonia: A Student Casebook to

Issues, sources and Historical Documents. Greenwood Publishing Group,

Incorporated, 2002.