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My Ántonia | Study Guide

Willa Cather

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My Ántonia | Context


Settling the West

A number of events in American history at the end of the 19th century helped fuel the country's western expansion, including the end of the Mexican-American War (1846–48), which was fought over the American annexation of Texas. In the treaty that resulted, called the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty, Mexico ceded territory, including what is now New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas, and western Colorado, to the United States. This made more than a million square miles of new land available for settlement. To encourage people to move west and settle the vast wilderness once occupied by Native Americans, then Mexican and Spanish explorers, the U.S. government passed the Homestead Act of 1862, which promised 160 acres of land to those who lived on the land for five years. The benefits of the Homestead Act were open to anyone over age 21, including women, blacks, and immigrants. As a result, huge waves of settlers poured into the Midwestern plains—settlers like Jim Burden's grandparents and the Shimerdas. By 1900 over 600,000 claims for property had been filed.

Because the benefits of the Homestead Act were available to settlers regardless of citizenship, immigrants could gain free land—an amazing opportunity for those from feudal European countries where lands were held by a family of rulers for centuries. Immigrants like the Bohemians Shimerdas made up a large percentage of the settlers, particularly in the Midwest. Some 40 percent of the population of Nebraska, where Cather lived as a child, was made up of European immigrants, and by 1910 immigrants accounted for 900,000 of Nebraska's 1.2 million residents. Of course, many immigrants continued their journeys farther westward, settling the true West—like Otto Fuchs, who decides to return to life as a cowboy when the Burdens move to town, and Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball, who eventually settle together in California after Tiny makes her fortune in Alaska.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made it possible to travel from coast to coast in under a week, a journey that had once taken months of dangerous, difficult transport by wagon. Many settlers arrived on the frontier by train, like Jim Burden and the Shimerdas, carrying their few belongings with them in suitcases. Trains also carried supplies to the many new towns that sprang up along the railroad route, facilitating their growth and providing vital connections to relatives and friends far off. The American rail system continued to expand in the following decades, crisscrossing the country in all directions, further encouraging settlement of the West.


Bohemia was a kingdom in Europe for hundreds of years, in the region known as Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, just north of Austria. It was once part of the Holy Roman Empire, although sectarian conflicts between Catholics and Protestants mark much of its history after the middle ages. In 1620 Protestant rebels were suppressed by the Austrian emperor Ferdinand II. As part of the Austrian kingdom, much of the population of Bohemia converted to Catholicism, the religion of the Bohemian Shimerda family in the novel. The capital city of Prague has been historically known as a center of European intellectualism and art. In 1918 at the end of World War I, the Republic of Czechoslovakia was created, and Bohemia became a western province.

Although the country of Bohemia ceased to exist, its cultural influences and connotations persisted. The first popular novel to feature the Bohemian experience, Scènes de la vie de Bohème (1847) by French novelist Henri Murger, was the inspiration for La Bohème (1896), the opera created by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, which tells the tragic romantic tale of a few Bohemian writers, artists, and intellectuals who live in poverty in Paris in the 1840s. The more colloquial use of the word bohemian most commonly refers to people who live unconventionally and often connotes artists, musicians, or traveling performers.

In the novel Mr. Shimerda and Ántonia support the reputation of Bohemians as intellectuals and artists. Although he is a poor farmer in Nebraska, in Bohemia, Mr. Shimerda had been a respected tailor and a revered musician. Ántonia has the intellectual ability to quickly learn a new language from Jim, as well as an artistic sensitivity, in that she deeply appreciates music and poetry.

Writing and Reception of the Novel

In 1916 Cather visited Annie (Sadilek) Pavelka in Nebraska. Friends with Cather from childhood, Annie, a Bohemian immigrant, had been the hired girl of Cather's neighbors in Red Cloud. By 1916 Annie was the mother of a large number of children and lived on a farm near the town. The visit inspired both the novel My Ántonia, as well as the final chapters of the novel featuring Jim's visit to Ántonia, her husband, and children. Cather explained her idea for the novel as focusing on the main character like a beautiful object in the center of a table, viewed from all angles. Several parts of the novel draw directly from Annie Pavelka's life, including the suicide of Ántonia's father Mr. Shimerda, Annie's father having killed himself, too. Annie's employers in Red Cloud, the Miners, inspired Ántonia's employers, the Harlings. Other stories in the novel draw from the tales of immigrants who surrounded and fascinated Cather as a child.

My Ántonia represents the very best of Cather's work, written after 30 years of honing her craft. She herself recognized it as her highest achievement. The last of the prairie trilogy, three novels depicting the Nebraska of her youth, it remains her most well-known novel. Although it was not initially a best seller, for which Cather blamed her publisher, reviewers like American journalist H.L. Mencken recognized its value, touting it as one of the finest American novels ever written. In the years following Cather's Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, and her increasing acclaim, My Ántonia assumed its place in the canon of American literature. The novel was adapted and aired on television in 1995 and was the subject of a script written by playwright Charles Jones the same year.

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