Willa Cather, My Antonia, 1918
Some suggestions for further reading – by no means complete!
Bridget Bennett has an interesting essay on My Antonia in: ed. Helen M. Dennis, Willa Cather and European Cultural Influences, Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.
Two books that adopt contemporary approaches to Cather are:
O’Brien, S. ed. 1999 New Essays on My Antonia, Cambridge University Press
This should be the first port of call, if you want to get a sense of the current critical debates about Willa Cather’s work. However, I wonder if you will find it that useful. The contributors seem to choose to focus on previously neglected aspects of the novel, so that if this is the only volume you read, you will get a very skewed impression about its significance.
Lindemann, M. 1999 Willa Cather: Queering America, New York: Columbia University Press
Marilee Lindemann’s essay in the New Essays offers a subtle and convincing interpretation of the novel, addressing issues of gender and power and demonstrating the complexity of Cather’s narrative figuring of Jim Burden figuring Antonia and the rest of the hired girls. I enjoyed this monograph even more. Her thesis is that “queer literary history [...] must [...] account [...] for the bodily terms through which many writers negotiate questions of literary power, authority, marginality, and history.” Lindemann negotiates such questions ably and with great verve. Her prose in itself makes the case for the significant presence of eroticism in Cather’s letters and art, and traces connections in the texts of the novels, which reinforce her general conclusions as regards how Cather transformed her youthful lesbianism in her mature writing. Students on the module have preferred this monograph to the C.U.P. New Essays.
Brienzo, G. 1994, Willa Cather’s Transforming Vision: New France and the American Northeast, Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press / London: Associated University Presses.
Concentrates mainly on laborious tracing of changes between historical sources texts and characterisation of main historical characters in Shadows on the Rock (1931). Derives much from contemporary feminist critics, and offers a reappraisal of the literary merits of this late novel. Does not explore influence of French writers such as Maupassant or Flaubert on this text, although arguably there would have been a good case for so doing.
Harvey, S.P. 1995, Redefining the American Dream: the Novels of Willa Cather, Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University / London: Associated University Presses.
Critical reassessment of all of Cather’s novels, plus selected major short stories, within the framework of an American studies, cultural history approach. Emphasizes Cather’s intellectual consonance with mainstream, American intellectual movements of the day. Tightly argued thesis that throughout her oeuvre Cather reflects upon conflicting versions of the cultural myth of the American dream, in particular the tension between material success and spiritual fulfilment.
Harrell, D. 1992, From Mesa Verde to The Professor’s House, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Building on Bernice Slote’s and Susan Rosowski’s discovery of Cather’s 1916 newspaper article about the Mesa Verde, Harrell maps the various influences on the conception of her 1925 novel The Professor’s House. He argues that Cather’s art synthesises actual archaeological and topographic details, and synthesises characteristics from a number of individuals associated with the Mesa Verde excavations. He further argues that Cather as author should not be associated exclusively with the character of Godfrey St. Peter, since much of her early reactions to the Cliff Palace and associated scenery is transmuted into Tom Outland’s character as well. A rewarding example of specific scholarship leading to an illuminating reading of a major text.
Lee, H. 1989, Willa Cather: a Life Saved Up, London: Virago.
A literary biography, which synthesises previous biographies and memoirs, aimed at a general as well as student readership. Lee’s study is adept and stimulating and negotiates the problematic terms of Cather’s will with tact and discretion. Along with an account of the ‘life,’ Lee offers expositions and plot summaries of the major novels and descriptive, critical appraisals. A useful, balanced, liberal humanist, introduction to Cather’s life and work.
O’Brien, S. 1987, Willa Cather: the Emerging Voice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
A feminist literary biography which investigates in detail the early childhood and adolescent influences which arguably informed Cather’s emergence as a mature writer. Much emphasis is put on family, environment and female friendship, and Cather’s artistic development is interpreted through recent feminist theory, e.g. the work of Gilbert and Gubar and of Nancy Chodorow. The result is a very readable and intelligent re-interpretation of Cather’s literary apprenticeship which implicitly offers feminist models for reading her mature work.
Quantic, D. D. The Nature of the Place: A Study of Great Plains Fiction, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995
Quantic alludes to a number of literary enunciations of the settler’s response to the inhuman scale and monotonous repetition of the Great Plains. For example Jim Burden’s memory of his arrival in Nebraska: ‘There was nothing but land ... I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction’ (quoted p. 2) reiterates the sense that this whole region is a space which offers the possibilities of realizing the westering myths, but is also so lacking in landmarks and distinctive features, so vast and so flat that the only boundary appears to the human eye to be the horizon, that it can induce feelings of psychological isolation and terror rather than offer the necessary security of a sense of place. Her study surveys the fiction of a ‘vernacular’ region, i.e. ‘a definable place perceived by the inhabitants to exist’ (p.4) with the insight of an inhabitant of that region. Her perimeters are those of physical and cultural geography, not of political (both federal and national) boundaries which cut across the region’s discernible identity.
Reynolds, G. Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race Empire, London: Macmillan, 1996
Reynolds’ study of Willa Cather adopts a historicist approach to her work and argues that the subtleties and complexities of Cather's art cannot be accounted for by a unitary ideological frame. His analysis of early criticism of Cather illuminates the uniqueness of her cultural position. He demonstrates how she showed a prescient interest in issues concerning immigration and Americanization and how she went against the grain of contemporary prejudice in valuing the significance of pioneer culture. He argues that her novels cut across a cultural anxiety that American art was genteel and effeminate, and that in doing so her art fell victim to a backlash in critical thought which sought to masculinize and elevate American cultural products, and thus judged hers as too involved in “pots and pans”. From early put-downs of Cather he proceeds to demonstrate the intellectual vigor and scope of her writing and the extent to which her art contains and works through some of the most progressive and radical thought of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He suggests that her reading of history is informed by sophisticated European models and that her thinking about science, technology and primitivism reveals an intellectual formation analogous to Veblen's. His readings emphasize her attention to quotidian detail rather than grand plots, and foreground the relaxation of formal constraint together with her preparedness to contain cultural complexity and contradiction in unconventional narrative forms.
Rosowski, S. 1986, The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather’s Romanticism, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
A reappraisal of all the major novels and selected short stories which argues that Cather can best be understood as an inheritor of nineteenth century Romanticism. Building on the work of Bernice Slote, Rosowski argues that Cather’s romanticism is closer to English romantic poets, notably Keats and Wordsworth, than to European Continental Romanticism. In her reading My Antonia becomes Cather’s Prelude; and Cather’s novels are described in relation to major preoccupations of the English Romantics; e.g. the discovery of ‘organic’ form; the synthesis of the ideal and the real; the educative power of the natural landscape; the gravitation towards symbolic utterance; the Gothic tendency.
Thomas, S. 1990, Willa Cather, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
In the Key Women Writers series, this is presented as an introduction to Cather’s writing. Thomas’s doctoral dissertation was a study of Willa Cather and Europe. She is therefore in a strong position to lay more emphasis on European culture than other studies, and she offers a sensible map of European influences on Cather’s work.
Woodress, J. 1987, Willa Cather: A Literary Life, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Recent and most complete scholarly biography, which completes the work of Cather scholar Bernice Slote.
Other books to consult include:
Bennett, M.R. The World of Willa Cather, Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1961
Bohlke, L.B. Willa Cather in Person, Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986
Cather, W. Not Under Forty, Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1988
O’Brien, S. Willa Cather, New York: Chelsea House, 1995
A useful gateway site for Willa Cather is on The American Collection Educators’ Site. Its URL is: