My Antonia And Willa Cather
My Ãntonia by Willa Cather is a novel that is based on the memories of the protagonist, Jim Burden. Many critics have assessed this novel, and they have focused on such literary elements as symbolism, motif, and characterization. Although, the most agreed upon argument is the one that says that the groundwork of every section of the book is based on the personal memories of Willa Cather. It seems that her ideas for characters, settings, and plots all come from her own personal memories. In the introduction, Cather’s description of Jim could easily be a description of herself. It is possible that Cather has camouflaged herself as Jim Burden in My Ãntonia because many of Jim’s thoughts and feelings in the novel were Cather’s own thoughts and feelings while growing up. Also, like Jim, Cather enjoyed visiting with immigrant neighbors, she had a love for the classics and for drama; and, like Jim, when he was middle-aged, she revisited “Ãntonia” A.K.A. Anna Sadilek, her model for the character Ãntonia, and renewed their friendship. This reunion inspired Cather to begin writing My Ãntonia. Willa Cather was considered to be one of the best writers about pioneer life during the 20th century.
Cather was born in rural Virginia in 1873 and moved with her family to Red Cloud, Nebraska in 1883. At this time, most of Nebraska could be described as unforgiving and harsh, and Cather’s first impressions of the land filled her with both trepidation and wonder. Willa Cather’s writing celebrates the settings of Webster County, Lincoln, and Red Cloud, Nebraska. She vividly conveys the unforgettable impression that the land possesses- power, strength, American folklore, and symbolic meaning. Therefore, it is much more than a place on the map to her- it has an existence of its own. Willa Cather said in her later years about Nebraska: “that country was the happiness and the curse” of her life. She greatly admired the pioneers who struggled to cope with the wilderness and to make a better life for themselves and their families. She loved the trees and the wildflowers; especially the sunflowers along the roads, which she wrote always “seemed the roads to freedom”. Cather knew and wrote passionately not only about the ingenuity, grit, and courageousness of the first group of pioneers who tried to survive on their hope in the American dream, but also of the harshness, coldness and cruelty of pioneer life in the Nebraska prairie.
In My Ãntonia, the protagonist Jim Burden first arrives in Nebraska at the age of ten when he goes to live with his grandparents after becoming an orphan in while he was living in Virginia. Jim moves from Virginia to Nebraska, just as Cather did in her real life. During his train trip, Jim learns of a Bohemian immigrant family that is also traveling to Black Hawk. The town he moved to was called Black Hawk, which was Cather’s version of her real life town of Red Cloud. Around 1906, Cather went on to the university in Lincoln and soon began a promising journalism career, just as Jim moves to New York to attend the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. The character Jim and the writer also have a lot of similar personality characteristics. Both people have a strong attachment to the people from their childhood and to the Nebraska landscape as well. In the novel, Jim’s character says “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 still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or a gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things.” (Cather 226). Jim Burden comes to have a very close friendship with Antonia, but the trials and tribulations of life continue to test their relationship. Jim goes off to college while Ãntonia has to stay in the small town of Black Hawk and work to help support her family, and continue to struggle against various hardships. After her mother died in 1931, Cather returned to Red Cloud for a short while to visit old friends and tie up family affairs. Although she would continue writing letters and sending gifts to people she knew, including Annie Pavelka, she never went home again.
As a child and adolescent on the Nebraska prairie, Willa Cather grew to know many people, some of whom would later show up in her writing. It was in Nebraska that she met a range of immigrants who spoke a variety of different languages. Later on she used these details of her life in her novels and other writings. Most of her novels and short stories used real people and places from her life in Nebraska. She would use the actual buildings, streets and citizens of Red Cloud to write her stories. Cather’s characters are usually composites of people she knew. In My Ãntonia, many of them bear striking resemblances to friends and neighbors. Ãntonia is one of the major characters in Willa Cather’s works who are closely drawn portraits of real people. She grew up with Annie, just as Jim Burden grows up with Ãntonia in the novel. When the Cather family left their country farm and moved into the small town of Red Cloud, Nebraska, in 1884, Mary Miner, the second Miner daughter, brought Willa a gift and so began Cather’s lifetime friendship with the Miner family, who were to become the models for the Harlings in My Ãntonia. Ãntonia is based on an actual figure from Cather’s childhood- a girl named Annie Sadilek, like Ãntonia, an immigrant and a hired girl in town whose father committed suicide. Cather’s friendship with Annie Sadilek grew when Annie was employed as the Miner family’s “hired girl”, who was an immigrant from Bohemia who later served as the inspiration for Cather’s novel My Ãntonia.” Cather admired Annie’s inner radiance and her independence, and wanted to display those qualities in her character Ãntonia. In the process, she created a character from whom the heart of her novel developed. Ãntonia symbolizes the past, possesses a deep rapport with her landscape, and embodies the experiences of both immigrants and the Nebraska pioneers. Jim’s most important relationship is his friendship with Ãntonia, just as Cather befriends Annie Sadilek in true life.
In the novel, Mr. Shimerda’s suicide is based on the real life suicide of Francis Sadilek, Annie’s father. Like Mr. Shimerda, he grew depressed about his bleak Nebraska existence. And, like Mr. Shimerda, he shot himself in the barn. “The hard living conditions on the prairie, the dugouts, and the roads that were no more than a set of wagon tracks disillusioned Francis Sadilek. On February 15, he told his wife that he was going rabbit hunting. He took the shotgun he’d brought from the Old Country and went out. When he hadn’t returned by 5:00 p.m., Mrs. Sadilek, Annie’s older brother, and the man whom the Sadileks lived with went to search for him. They found him half-sitting in an old barn; he had shot himself in the head. He was buried on a corner of the Sadilek farm, at the crossroads, although his son Anton later moved the body to the Catholic section of the Red Cloud cemetery. Mrs. Sadilek and the two Sadilek boys are also buried there.” Like Ãntonia, Annie took over her father’s chores after his death, but the work eventually proved to be too difficult, and she was finally forced to become a hired girl in the Miner home. She was a hard worker. Although she’d never cooked before, she soon learned how to prepare meals and how to sew.
Of all of Willa Cather’s works, My Ãntonia seems to contain the most elements drawn from the author’s life. One critic said that memory has a few different purposes in My Ãntonia. For example, the memories help the reader to “discover and imagine an almost endless number of ways in which memory inspires and terrifies, comforts and haunts, sustains and shocks not only individuals but also communities, cultures, and nations” (Happiness). The strongest criticism is the one that affirms that Willa Cather uses memories over and over again throughout many of her novels to represent many different things. Despite this, Cather denied that the novel had anything to do with the country, or the city, or that it had any formula. She declared that it was “a story of people I knew. I expressed a mood, the core of which was like a folk-song… The thing worthwhile is always unplanned.” (Art).