in full Wilella Sibert Cather
born Dec. 7, 1873, near Winchester, Va., U.S.
died April 24, 1947, New York, N.Y.
American novelist noted for her portrayals of the settlers and frontier
life on the American plains.
At age 9 Cather moved with her family from Virginia to frontier
Nebraska, where from age 10 she lived in the village of Red Cloud. There
she grew up among the immigrants from Europe—Swedes, Bohemians,
Russians, and Germans—who were breaking the land on the Great Plains.
At the University of Nebraska she showed a marked talent for
journalism and story writing, and on graduating in 1895 she obtained a
position in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on a family magazine. Later she
worked as copy editor and music and drama editor of the Pittsburgh
Leader. She turned to teaching in 1901 and in 1903 published her first
book of verses, April Twilights. In 1905, after the publication of her
first collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, she was appointed
managing editor of McClure’s, the New York muckraking monthly. After
building up its declining circulation, she left in 1912 to devote
herself wholly to writing novels.
Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge (1912), was a factitious
story of cosmopolitan life. Under the influence of Sarah Orne Jewett’s
regionalism, however, she turned to her familiar Nebraska material. With
O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), which has frequently been
adjudged her finest achievement, she found her characteristic themes—the
spirit and courage of the frontier she had known in her youth. One of
Ours (1922), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and A Lost Lady (1923)
mourned the passing of the pioneer spirit.
In her earlier Song of the Lark (1915), as well as in the tales
assembled in Youth and the Bright Medusa (1920), including the
much-anthologized “Paul’s Case,” and Lucy Gayheart (1935), Cather
reflected the other side of her experience—the struggle of a talent to
emerge from the constricting life of the prairies and the stifling
effects of small-town life.
A mature statement of both themes can be found in Obscure Destinies
(1932). With success and middle age, however, Cather experienced a
strong disillusionment, which was reflected in The Professor’s House
(1925) and her essays Not Under Forty (1936).
Her solution was to write of the pioneer spirit of another age, that
of the French Catholic missionaries in the Southwest in Death Comes for
the Archbishop (1927) and of the French Canadians at Quebec in Shadows
on the Rock (1931). For the setting of her last novel, Sapphira and the
Slave Girl (1940), she used the Virginia of her ancestors and her
DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP
Type of work: Novel
Author: Willa Cather (1873-1947)
Type of plot: Historical chronicle
Time of plot: Last half of the nineteenth century
Locale: New Mexico and Arizona
First published: 1927
Based on the lives of two eminent nineteenth century French
clerics, this novel tells of the missionary efforts of the French
bishop, Jean Latour, and his vicar, Father Joseph Vaillant, to establish
a diocese in the territory of New Mexico. Besides a skillful
reconstruction of these dedicated lives, the novel also provides a vivid
picture of a particular region and culture. Tales and legends from
Spanish colonial history and from the primitive tribal traditions of the
Hopi and Navajo enter the chronicle at many points, creating an effect
of density and variety.
Father Jean Marie Latour, a devout French priest consecrated Vicar
Apostolic of New Mexico and Bishop of Agathonica in Partibus in 1850.
With Father Vaillant, his friend and fellow seminarian, he journeys from
his old parish on the shores of Lake Ontario to Santa Fe, seat of the
new diocese in territory recently acquired from Mexico. In those
troubled times he finds many of the old missions in ruins or abandoned,
the Mexican clergy lax and unlearned, the sacraments corrupted by native
superstitions. The travels of these two dedicated missionary priests
over a desert region of sand, arroyos, towering mesas, and bleak red
hills, the accounts of the labors they perform and the hardships they
endure to establish the order and authority of the church in a wild
land, make up the story of this beautifully told chronicle. Father
Latour is an aristocrat by nature and tradition. Intellectual,
fastidious, reserved, he finds the loneliness of his mission redeemed by
the cheerfulness and simple-hearted warmth of his old friend and by the
simple piety he often encounters among the humblest of his people; from
them, as in the case of old Sada, he learns lessons of humility and
grace. For years he dreams of building a cathedral in Santa Fe, and in
time his ambition is realized. By then he is an archbishop and an old
man. In the end he decides not to return to his native Auvergne, the
wet, green country of his youth that he had often remembered with
yearning during his years in the hot desert country. He retires to a
small farm outside Santa Fe, and when he dies his body rests in state
before the altar in the cathedral he had built. Father Latour's story is
based on the life of a historical figure, Jean Baptiste Lamy, the first
archbishop of Santa Fe.
Father Joseph Vaillant, Father Latour's friend and vicar. The son of
hardy peasant stock, he is tireless in his missionary labors. If Father
Latour is an intellectual aristocrat, Father Vaillant is his opposite,
the hearty man of feeling, able to mix with all kinds of people and to
move them as much by his good humor and physical vitality as by his
eloquence. Doctrine, he holds, is good enough in its place, but he
prefers to put his trust in miracles and the working of faith. When the
gold rush begins in Colorado, he is sent to Camp Denver to work among
the miners. There he continues his missionary labors, traveling from
camp to camp in a covered carriage that is both his sleeping quarters
and an improvised chapel. Borrowing and begging wherever he can, he
builds for the church and for the future. When he dies, the first Bishop
of Denver, there is not a building in the city large enough to hold the
thousands who come to his funeral. Like Father Latour, Father Vaillant
is modeled after a real person, Father Joseph P. Machebeuf.
Padre Antonio Jose Martinez, the vigorous but arrogant priest at Taos
credited with having instigated the revolt of the Taos Indians. A man of
violence and sensual passions, he has lived like a dictator too long to
accept the authority of Father Latour with meekness or reason. When
Father Latour visits him in Taos, he challenges his Bishop on the
subject of celibacy. After the Bishop announces his intention to reform
lax practices throughout his diocese, Padre Martinez tells him blandly
that he will found his own church if interfered with. As good as his
promise, he and Padre Lucero defy Father Latour and Rome and try to
establish a schism called the Old Holy Catholic Church of Mexico. Until
his death a short time later Padre Martinez carries on his personal and
ecclesiastical feud with Father Taladrid, appointed by Father Latour to
succeed the old tyrant of Taos.
Padre Marino Lucero, the priest of Arroyo Hondo, who joins Padre
Martinez in defying Father Latour's authority. Padre Lucero is said to
have a fortune hidden away. After he repents of his heresy and dies
reconciled to Rome, buckskin bags containing gold and silver coins
valued at almost twenty thousand dollars are found buried under the
floor of his house.
Padre Gallegos, the genial, worldly priest at Albuquerque, a lover of
whiskey, fandangos, and poker. Although Father Latour likes him as a
man, he finds him scandalous and impossible as a priest. As soon as
possible he suspends Padre Gallegos and puts Father Vaillant in charge
of the Albuquerque parish.
Manuel Lujon, a wealthy Mexican. During a visit at his ranch Father
Vaillant sees and admires a matched pair of white mules, Contento and
Angelica. The priest praises the animals so highly that Lujon, a
generous, pious man, decides to give him one of them. But Father
Vaillant refuses to accept the gift, saying that it would not be fitting
for him to ride on a fine white mule while his Bishop rides a common
hack. Resigned, Lujon sends the second mule to Father Latour.
Buck Scales, a gaunt, surly American at whose house Father Latour and
his vicar stop on one of their missionary journeys. Warned away by the
gestures of his frightened wife, they continue on to the next town. The
woman follows them to tell that in the past six years her husband has
murdered four travelers as well as the three children she has borne.
Scales is arrested and hanged.
Magdalena, the Mexican wife of Buck Scales, a devout woman who reveals
her husband's crimes. After her husband's hanging, she lives for a time
in the home of Kit Carson. Later Father Latour makes her the housekeeper
in the establishment of the Sisters of Loretto in Santa Fe. She attends
the old archbishop in his last days.
Kit Carson, the American trapper and scout. He and Father Latour become
friends when they meet after the arrest of Buck Scales.
Jacinto, an intelligent young Indian from the Pecos pueblo, often
employed as Father Latour's guide on the priest's missionary journeys.
On one of these trips the travelers are overtaken by a sudden snowstorm.
Jacinto leads Father Latour into a cave which has obviously been used
for ceremonial purposes. Before he builds a fire Jacinto walls up an
opening in the cave. Waking later in the night, Father Latour sees his
guide standing guard over the sealed opening. He realizes that he has
been close to some secret ceremonial mystery of the Pecos, possibly
connected with snake worship, but he respects Jacinto's confidence and
never mentions the matter.
Don Antonio Olivares, a wealthy rancher who has promised to make a large
contribution to Father Latour's cathedral fund. He dies suddenly before
he can make good his promise, leaving his estate to his wife and
daughter for life, after which his property is to go to the church. Two
of his brothers contest the will.
Dona Isabella Olivares, the American wife of Father Latour's friend and
benefactor. After her husband's death, two of his brothers contest the
will on the grounds that Dona Isabella is not old enough to have a
daughter of the age of Senorita Inez and that the girl is the child of
one of Don Antonio's indiscreet youthful romances, adopted by Dona
Isabella for the purpose of defrauding the brothers. Father Vaillant
convinces the vain woman that it is her duty to tell the truth about her
age in order for her and her daughter to win the case. Much against her
will Dona Isabella confesses in court that she is fifty-three years old
and not forty-two, as she has claimed. Later she tells Father Vaillant
and Father Latour that she will never forgive them for having made her
tell a lie about a matter as serious as a woman's age.
Senorita Inez, the daughter of Dona Isabella and Don Antonio Olivares.
Her age and her mother's are questioned when the Olivares brothers try
to break Don Antonio's will.
Boyd O'Reilly, a young American lawyer, the manager of Don Antonio
Sada, the wretched slave of a Protestant American family. One December
night she escapes from the stable where she sleeps and takes refuge in
the church. Father Latour finds her there, hears her confession, blesses
her, and gives her a holy relic and his own warm cloak.
Eusabio, a man of influence among the Navajos. Though he is younger than
Father Latour, the priest respects him greatly for his intelligence and
sense of honor. Father Latour grieves when the Navajos are forced to
leave their country and rejoices that he has been able to live long
enough to see them restored to their lands. When the old Archbishop
dies, Eusabio carries word of his death to the Indians.
Bernard Ducrot, the young priest who looks after Father Latour in his
last years. He becomes like a son to the gentle old man.
Padre Jesus de Baca, the white-haired, almost blind priest at Isleta. An
old man of great innocence and piety, he lives surrounded by his tame
Irinidad Lucero, a slovenly young monk in training for the priesthood
whom Father Latour meets in the house of Padre Martinez. He passes as
Padre Lucero's nephew, but some say he is the son of Padre Martinez.
When Padre Martinez and Padre Lucero proclaim their schism, Trinidad
acts as a curate for both.
Padre Taladrid, the young Spanish priest whom Father Latour appoints to
succeed Padre Martinez at Taos.
In 1851 Father Jean Marie Latour reached Santa Fe, where he was to
become Vicar Apostolic of New Mexico. His journey from the shores of
Lake Ontario had been long and arduous. He had lost his belongings in a
shipwreck at Galveston and had suffered painful injury in a wagon
accident at San Antonio.
Upon Father Latour's arrival, in company with his good friend, Father
Joseph Vaillant, the Mexican priests refused to recognize his authority.
He had no choice but to ride three thousand miles into Mexico to secure
the necessary papers from the Bishop of Durango.
On the road he lost his way in an arid landscape of red hills and gaunt
junipers. His thirst created vertigo, and he could blot out his agony
only by repeating the cry of the Saviour on the Cross. As he was about
to give up all hope, he saw a tree growing in the shape of a cross. A
short time later he arrived in the Mexican settlement called Aqua
Secreta, or Hidden Water. Stopping at the home of Benito, Bishop Latour
first performed the marriage ceremonies and then baptized all the
At Durango he received the necessary documents and started the long trip
back to Santa Fe. Meanwhile Father Vaillant had won over the inhabitants
from enmity to amity and had set up the Episcopal residence in an old
adobe house. On the first morning after his return to Santa Fe, the
bishop heard the unexpected sound of a bell ringing the Angelus. Father
Vaillant told him that he had found the bell, bearing the date 1356, in
the basement of old San Miguel Church.
On a missionary journey to Albuquerque in March, Father Vaillant
acquired as a gift a handsome cream-colored mule and another just like
it for his bishop. These mules, Contento and Angelica, served the men in
good stead for many years.
On another such trip the two priests were riding together on their
mules. Caught in a sleet storm, they stopped at the rude shack of an
American, Buck Scales. His Mexican wife warned the travelers by gestures
that their lives were in danger, and they rode on to Mora without
spending the night. The next morning the Mexican woman appeared in town.
She told them that her husband had already murdered and robbed four
travelers, and that he had killed her three babies. The result was that
Scales was brought to justice, and his wife, Magdalena, was sent to the
home of Kit Carson, the famous frontier scout. From that time on Kit
Carson was a valuable friend of the bishop and his vicar. Magdalena
later became the housekeeper and manager for the kitchens of the Sisters
During his first year at Santa Fe, the bishop was called to a meeting of
the Plenary Council at Baltimore. On the return journey he brought back
with him five nuns sent to establish the school of Our Lady of Light.
Next, Bishop Latour, attended by the Indian Jacinto as his guide, spent
some time visiting his own vicariate. Padre Gallegos, whom he visited at
Albuquerque, acted more like a professional gambler than a priest, but
because he was very popular with the natives Bishop Latour did not
remove him at that time. At last he arrived at his destination, the top
of the mesa at Acoma, the end of his long journey. On that trip he heard
the legend of Fray Baltazar, killed during an uprising of the Acoma
A month after the bishop's visit, Latour suspended Padre Gallegos and
put Father Vaillant in charge of the parish at Albuquerque. On a trip to
the Pecos Mountains the vicar fell ill with an attack of the black
measles. The bishop, hearing of his illness, set out to nurse his
friend. Jacinto again served as guide on the cold, snowy trip. When
Bishop Latour reached his friend's bedside, he found that Kit Carson had
arrived before him. As soon as the sick man could sit in the saddle,
Carson and the bishop took him back to Santa Fe.
Bishop Latour decided to investigate the parish of Taos, where the
powerful old priest, Antonio Jose Martinez, was the ruler of both
spiritual and temporal matters. The following year the bishop was called
to Rome. When he returned, he brought with him four young priests from
the Seminary of Montferrand and a Spanish priest to replace Padre
Martinez at Taos.
Bishop Latour had one great ambition; he wanted to build a cathedral in
Santa Fe. In that project he was assisted by the rich Mexican rancheros,
but to the greatest extent by his good friend, Don Antonio Olivares.
When Don Antonio died, his will stated that his estate was left to his
wife and daughter during their lives, and after their decease to the
church. Don Antonio's brothers contested the will on the grounds that
the daughter, Sen-orita Inez, was too old to be Dona Isabella's
daughter, and the bishop and his vicar had to persuade the vain,
coquettish widow to swear to her true age of fifty-three, rather than
the forty-two years she claimed. Thus the money was saved for Don
Antonio's family and, eventually, the church.
Father Vaillant was sent to Tucson, but after several years Bishop
Latour decided to recall him to Santa Fe. When he arrived, the bishop
showed him the stone for building the cathedral. About that time Bishop
Latour received a letter from the Bishop of Leaven worth. Because of the
discovery of gold near Pike's Peak, he asked to have a priest sent there
from Father Latour's diocese. Father Vaillant was the obvious choice.
Father Vaillant spent the rest of his life doing good works in Colorado,
though he did return to Santa Fe with the Papal Emissary when Bishop
Latour was made an archbishop. Father Vaillant became the first Bishop
of Colorado. He died there after years of service, and Archbishop Latour
attended his impressive funeral services.
After the death of his friend, Father Latour retired to a modest country
estate near Santa Fe. He had dreamed during all his missionary years of
the time when he could retire to his fertile green Auvergne in France,
but in the end he decided that he could not leave the land of his
labors. Memories of the journeys he and Father Vaillant had made over
thousands of miles of desert country became the meaning of his later
years. Bernard Ducrot, a young seminarian from France, became like a son
When Father Latour knew that his time had come to die, he asked to be
taken into town to spend his last days near the cathedral. On the last
day of his life the church was filled with people who came to pray for
him, as word that he was dying spread through the town. He died in the
still twilight, and the cathedral bell, tolling in the early darkness,
carried to the waiting countryside the news that at last death had come
for Father Latour.
When writing of her great predecessor and teacher, Sarah Orne Jewett,
Willa Cather expressed her own belief that the quality that gives a work
of literature greatness is the "voice" of the author, the sincere,
unadorned, and unique vision of a writer coming to grips with his
material. If any one characteristic can be said to dominate the writings
of Willa Cather, it is a true and moving sincerity. She never tried to
twist her subject matter to suit a preconceived purpose, and she
resisted the temptation to dress up her homely material. She gave
herself absolutely to her chosen material, and the result was a series
of books both truthful and rich with intimations of the destiny of the
American continent. By digging into the roots of her material, she found
the greater meanings and expressed them with a deceptive simplicity. Her
vision and craftsmanship were seldom more successfully joined than in
Death Comes for the Archbishop. So completely did Willa Cather merge her
"voice" with her material, that some critics have felt that the book is
almost too polished, without the sense of struggle necessary in a truly
great novel. But this, in fact, indicates the magnitude of the author's
achievement and the brilliance of her technical skill. Death Comes for
the Archbishop resonates with the unspoken beliefs of the author and the
resolved conflicts that went into its construction. On the surface, it
is cleanly wrought and simple, but it is a more complicated and profound
book than it appears at first reading. Cather learned well from Jewett
the secret of unadorned art, of craftsmanship that disarms by its very
simplicity, but which is based in a highly sophisticated intelligence.
It is true that this novel is an epic and a regional history, but, much
more than either, it is a tale of personal isolation, of one man's life
reduced to the painful weariness of his own sensitivities. Father Latour
is a hero in the most profound sense of the word, at times almost a
romantic hero, with his virtues of courage and determination, but he is
also a very modern protagonist, with his doubts and inner conflicts and
his philosophical nature. His personality is held up in startling
contrast to that of his friend and vicar, Father Vaillant, a more
simple, although no less admirable, individual. Cather's austere style
perfectly captures the scholarly and urbane religious devotion that
compose Father Latour's character. Always in this book, the reader is
aware of a sense of the dignity of human life. Cather was not afraid to
draw a good man, a man who could stand above others because of his deeds
and because of his innate quality. The novel must stand or fall on this
character, and it stands superbly.
Although this book is based on a true sequence of events, it is not a
novel of plot. It is a chronicle and a character study, and, perhaps
more specifically, an interplay of environment and character. Throughout
the book, the reader is aware of the reaction of men to the land, and of
one man to the land he has chosen. Subtly and deeply, the author
suggests that the soul of man is profoundly altered by the soul of the
land, and Cather never doubts for a moment that the land does possess a
soul or that this soul can transform a human being in complex and
important ways. Willa Cather was fascinated by the way the rough
landscape of the Southwest, when reduced to its essences, seemed to take
human beings and reduce them to their essences. She abandoned
traditional realism in this book, turning toward the directness of
symbolism. With stark pictures and vivid styles, she created an
imaginary world rooted in realism, but transcending realism. The rigid
economy with which the book is written forces it to stand with a unique
power in the reader's mind long after his reading. And the personality
of Bishop Latour stands as the greatest symbol, like a wind-swept crag
or precipice in the vast New Mexico landscape, suggesting the nobility
of the human spirit, despite the inner conflicts against which it must
The descriptions of place set the emotional tone of the novel. The
quality of life is intimately related to the landscape, and the accounts
of the journeys and the efforts to survive despite the unfriendliness of
the barren land, all help to create an odd warmth and passion in the
narrative. The personalities of Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant
establish a definite emotional relationship with the country, and if the
other characters in the book are less vividly realized as individuals,
perhaps it is because they do not seem to have this relationship with
the land. Some of them have become part of the land, worn down by the
elements like the rocks and riverbeds, and others have no relationship
to it at all; but none of them is involved in the intense love-hate
relationship with the land with which the two main characters struggle
for so many years.
Although the chronology of the book encompasses many years, the novel is
essentially static, a series of rich images and thoughtful moments
highlighted and captured as by a camera. This quality of the narrative
is not a fault; it is a fact of Cather's style. The frozen moments of
contemplation, the glimpses into Father Latour's inner world and
spiritual loneliness, are the moments that give the book its greatness.
Despite the presence of Kit Carson, the novel is not an adventure story
any more than it is merely the account of a pair of churchmen attempting
to establish their faith in a difficult new terrain. The cathedral
becomes the most important symbol in the final part of the book,
representing the earthly successes of a man dedicated to nonworldly
ambitions. This conflict between the earthly and the spiritual is at the
heart of Bishop Latour's personality and at the heart of the book. But
the reader understands, at the end, when the bell tolls for Father
Latour, that the temptations were never very deep and that the good
man's victory was greater than he ever knew. The author does not spell
out her meaning, but the emotional impact of her narrative brings it
home to the reader.
Type of work: Novel
Author: Willa Cather (1873-1947)
Type of plot: Regional chronicle
Time of plot: Late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
Locale: Nebraska prairie
First Published: 1918
My Antonia is the story of a Bohemian girl whose family came from
the Old Country to settle on the open prairies of Nebraska. While she
lives on her farm and tills the soil, she is a child of the prairie, but
when Antonia goes to the city, she faces heartbreak, disillusionment,
and social ostracism. Only after her return to the land, which is her
heritage, does she find peace and meaning in life.
Antonia Shimerda, a young immigrant girl of appealing innocence, simple
passions, and moral integrity, the daughter of a Bohemian homesteading
family in Nebraska. Even as a child she is the mainstay of her gentle,
daydreaming father. She and Jim Burden, the grandson of a neighboring
farmer, become friends, and he teaches her English. After her father's
death her crass mother and sly, sullen older brother force her to do a
man's work in the fields. Pitying the girl, Jim's grandmother finds work
for her as a hired girl in the town of Black Hawk. There her quiet, deep
zest for life and the Saturday night dances lead to her ruin. She falls
in love with Larry Donovan, a dashing railroad conductor, and goes to
Denver to marry him, but he soon deserts her and she comes back to Black
Hawk, unwed, to have her child. Twenty years later Jim Burden, visiting
in Nebraska, meets her again. She is now married to Cuzak, a dependable,
hardworking farmer, and the mother of a large brood of children. Jim
finds her untouched by farm drudgery or village spite. Because of her
serenity, strength of spirit and passion for order and motherhood, she
reminds him of stories told about the mothers of ancient races.
James Quayle Burden, called Jim, the narrator. Orphaned at the age
often, he leaves his home in Virginia and goes to live with his
grandparents in Nebraska. In that lonely prairie country his only
playmates are the children of immigrant families living nearby, among
them Antonia Shimerda, with whom he shares his first meaningful
experiences in his new home. When his grandparents move into Black Hawk
he misses the freedom of life on the prairie. Hating the town, he leaves
it to attend the University of Nebraska. There he meets Gaston Cleric, a
teacher of Latin who introduces the boy to literature and the greater
world of art and culture. From the university he goes on to study law at
Harvard. Aided by a brilliant but incompatible marriage, he becomes the
legal counsel for a Western railroad. Successful, rich, but unhappy in
his middle years and in the failure of his marriage, he recalls his
prairie boyhood and realizes that he and Antonia Shimerda have in common
a past that is all the more precious because it is lost and almost
incommunicable, existing only in memories of the bright occasions of
Mr. Shimerda, a Bohemian farmer unsuited to pioneer life on the prairie.
Homesick for the Old World and never happy in his Nebraska surroundings,
he find his loneliness and misery unendurable, lives more and more in
the past, and ends by blowing out his brains.
Mrs. Shimerda, a shrewd, grasping woman whose chief concern is to get
ahead in the world. She bullies her family, accepts the assistance of
her neighbors without grace, and eventually sees her dream of prosperity
Ambroz Shimerda, called Ambrosch, the Shimer-das' older son. Like his
mother, he is insensitive and mean. Burdened by drought, poor crops, and
debt, he clings to the land with peasant tenacity. Even though he repels
his neighbors with his surly manner, sly trickery, and petty
dishonesties, everyone admits that he is a hard worker and a good
Yulka Shimerda, Antonia's younger sister, a mild, obedient girl.
Marek Shimerda, the Shimerdas' youngest child. Tongue-tied and
feebleminded, he is eventually committed to an institution.
Mr. Burden, Jim Burden's grandfather, a Virginian who has bought a farm
in Nebraska. Deliberate in speech and action, he is a just, generous
man; bearded like an ancient prophet, he sometimes speaks like one.
Mrs. Burden, his wife, a brisk, practical woman who gives selfless love
to her orphan grandson. Kindhearted, she gives assistance to the
immigrant families of the region, and without her aid the needy
Shimerdas would not have survived their first Nebraska winter.
Lena Lingard, the daughter of poor Norwegian parents, from childhood a
girl attractive to men. Interested in clothes and possessing a sense of
style, she is successful as a designer and later becomes the owner of a
dress shop in San Francisco. She and Jim Burden become good friends
while he is a student at the University of Nebraska. Her sensuous beauty
appeals greatly to his youthful imagination, and he is partly in love
with her before he goes to study at Harvard.
Tiny Soderball, a girl of all work at the hotel in Black Hawk. She moves
to Seattle, runs a sailors' boarding house for a time, and then goes to
Alaska to open a hotel for miners. After a dying Swede wills her his
claim, she makes a fortune from mining. With a comfortable fortune put
aside, she goes to live in San Francisco. When Jim Burden meets her
there, she tells him the thing that interests her most is making money.
Lena Lingard is her only friend.
Wycliffe Cutter, called Wick, a miserly moneylender who has grown rich
by fleecing his foreign-born neighbors in the vicinity of Black Hawk.
Antonia Shimerda goes to work for him and his suspicious, vulgar wife.
Making elaborate plans to seduce Antonia, he puts some of his valuables
in his bedroom and tells her that she is to sleep there, to guard them,
while he and his wife are away on a trip. Mrs. Burden sends her grandson
to sleep in the Cutter house, and Wick, returning ahead of his wife, is
surprised and enraged to find Jim Burden in his bed. Years later, afraid
that his wife's family will inherit his money if he should die first, he
kills her and then himself.
Mrs. Cutter, a woman as mean and miserly as her husband, whom she nags
constantly. He murders her before committing suicide.
Larry Donovan, a railroad conductor and gay ladies' man. He courts
Antonia Shimerda, promises to marry her if she will join him in Denver,
seduces her, and then goes off to Mexico, leaving her pregnant.
Mrs. Steavens, a widow, the tenant on the Burden farm. She tells Jim
Burden, home from Harvard, the story of Antonia Shimerda's betrayal by
Otto Fuchs, the Burdens' hired man during their farming years. Born in
Austria, he came to America when a boy and lived an adventurous life as
a cowboy, a stage driver, a miner, and a bartender in the West. After
the Burdens rent their farm and move into Black Hawk he resumes his
Jake Marpole, the hired man who travels with young Jim Burden from
Virginia to Nebraska. Though a kind-hearted man, he has a sharp temper
and is violent when angry. He is always deeply ashamed if he swears in
front of Mrs. Burden.
Christian Harling, a prosperous, straitlaced grain merchant and cattle
buyer, a neighbor of the Burden family in Black Hawk.
Mrs. Harling, his wife, devoted to her family and to music. She takes a
motherly interest in Antonia Shimerda, who works for her as a hired girl
for a time, but feels compelled to send her away when the girl begins to
go to the Saturday night dances attended by drummers and town boys.
Peter and Pavel, Russian neighbors of the Burden family and Mr.
Shimerda's friends. Just before he dies Pavel tells a terrible story of
the time in Russia when, to save his own life, he threw a bride and
groom from a sledge to a pack of wolves.
Anton Jelinek, the young Bohemian who makes the coffin for Mr.
Shimerda's funeral. He becomes a friend of the Burdens and later a
Cuzak, Anton Jelinek's cousin, the sturdy farmer who marries Antonia
Shimerda. Though he has had many reverses in his life, he remains
good-natured. Hardworking, dependable, considerate, he is a good husband
Rudolph, Anton, Leo, Jan, Anna, Yulka, Nina, and Lucie, Antonia's
children by Cuzak.
Martha, Antonia's daughter by Larry Donovan. She marries a prosperous
Gaston Cleric, the young Latin teacher who introduces Jim Burden to the
classics and the world of ideas. When he accepts an instructorship at
Harvard, he persuades Jim to transfer to that university.
Genevieve Whitney Burden, Jim Burden's wife. Though she does not figure
in the novel, her presence in the background helps to explain her
husband's present mood and his nostalgia for his early years in
Nebraska. Spoiled, restless, temperamental, independently wealthy, she
leads her own life, interests herself in social causes, and plays
patroness to young poets and artists.
Jim Burden's father and mother died when he was ten years old, and the
boy made the long trip from Virginia to his grandparents' farm in
Nebraska in the company of Jake Marpole, a hired hand who was to work
for Jim's grandfather. Arriving by train late at night in the prairie
town of Black Hawk, the boy noticed an immigrant family huddled on the
station platform. He and Jake were met by a lanky, scar-faced cowboy
named Otto Fuchs, who drove them in a jolting wagon across the empty
prairie to the Burden farm.
Jim grew to love the vast expanse of land and sky. One day Jim's
grandmother suggested that the family pay a visit to the Shimerdas, an
immigrant family just arrived in the territory. At first the newcomers
impressed Jim unfavorably. The Shimerdas were poor and lived in a dugout
cut into the earth. The place was dirty. The children were ragged.
Although he could not understand her speech, Jim made friends with the
oldest girl, Antonia.
Jim found himself often at the Shimerda home. He did not like Antonia's
surly brother, Ambrosch, or her grasping mother, but Antonia, with her
eager smile and great, warm eyes won an immediate place in Jim's heart.
One day her father, his English dictionary tucked under his arm,
cornered Jim and asked him to teach the girl English. She learned
rapidly. Jim respected Antonia's father. He was a tall, thin, sensitive
man, a musician in the Old Country. Now he was saddened by poverty and
burdened with overwork. He seldom laughed any more.
Jim and Antonia passed many happy hours on the prairie. Then tragedy
struck the Shimerdas. During a severe winter, Mr. Shimerda, broken and
beaten by the prairie, shot himself. Antonia had loved her father more
than any other member of the family, and after his death she shouldered
his share of the farm work. When spring came, she went with Ambrosch
into the fields and plowed like a man. The harvest brought money. The
Shimerdas soon had a house, and with the money left over they bought
plowshares and cattle.
Because Jim's grandparents were growing too old to keep up their farm,
they dismissed Jake and Otto and moved to the town of Black Hawk. There
Jim longed for the open prairie land, the gruff, friendly companionship
of Jake and Otto, and the warmth of Antonia's friendship. He suffered at
school and spent his idle hours roaming the barren gray streets of Black
At Jim's suggestion, his grandmother arranged with a neighbor, Mrs.
Harling, to bring Antonia into town as her hired girl. Antonia entered
into her tasks with enthusiasm. Jim saw a change in her. She was more
feminine; she laughed oftener; and though she never shirked her duties
at the Harling house, she was eager for recreation and gaiety.
Almost every night she went to a dance pavilion with a group of hired
girls. There in new, handmade dresses, the immigrant girls gathered to
dance with the village boys. Jim Burden went, too, and the more he saw
of the hired girls the better he liked them. Once or twice he worried
about Antonia, who was popular and trusting. When she earned a
reputation for being a little too gay, she lost her position with the
Harlings and went to work for a cruel moneylender, Wick Cutter, who had
a licentious eye on her.
One night, Antonia appeared at the Burdens and begged Jim to stay in her
bed for the night and let her remain at the Burdens. Wick Cutter was
supposed to be out of town, but Antonia suspected that, with Mrs. Cutter
also gone, he might return and harm her. Her fears proved correct, for
as Jim lay awake in Antonia's bed Wick returned and went to the bedroom
where he thought Antonia was sleeping.
Antonia returned to work for the Harlings. Jim, eager to go off to
college, studied hard during the summer and passed his entrance
examinations. In the fall he left for the state university and although
he found there a whole new world of literature and art, he could not
forget his early years under the blazing prairie sun and his friendship
with Antonia. He heard little of Antonia during those years. One of her
friends, Lena Lingard, who had also worked as a hired girl in Black
Hawk, visited him one day. He learned from her that Antonia was engaged
to be married to a man named Larry Donovan.
Jim went on to Harvard to study law, and for years heard nothing of his
Nebraska friends. He assumed that Antonia was married. When he made a
trip back to Black Hawk to see his grandparents, he learned that
Antonia, deceived by Larry Donovan, had left Black Hawk in shame and
returned to her family. There she worked again in the fields until her
baby was born. When Jim went to see her, he found her still the same
lovely girl, though her eyes were somber and she had lost her old
gaiety. She welcomed him and proudly showed him her baby.
Jim thought that his visit was probably the last time he would see
Antonia. He told her how much a part of him she had become and how sorry
he was to leave her again. Antonia knew that Jim would always be with
her, no matter where he went. He reminded her of her beloved father,
who, though he had been dead many years, still lived nobly in her heart.
She told Jim good-bye and watched him walk back toward town along the
It was twenty years before Jim Burden saw Antonia again. On a Western
trip he found himself not far from Black Hawk, and on impulse he drove
out in an open buggy to the farm where she lived. He found the place
swarming with children of all ages. Small boys rushed forward to greet
him, then fell back shyly. Antonia had married well, at last. The grain
was high, and the neat farmhouse seemed to be charged with an atmosphere
of activity and happiness. Antonia seemed as unchanged as she was when
she and Jim used to whirl over the dance floor together in Black Hawk.
Cuzak, her husband, seemed to know Jim before they were introduced, for
Antonia had told all her family about Jim Burden. After a long visit
with the Cuzaks, Jim left, promising that he would return the next
summer and take two of the Cuzak boys hunting with him.
Waiting in Black Hawk for the train that would take him East, Jim found
it hard to realize the long time that had passed since the dark night,
years before, when he had seen an immigrant family standing wrapped in
their shawls on the same platform. All his memories of the prairie came
back to him. Whatever happened now, whatever they had missed, he and
Antonia had shared precious years between them, years that would never
The character of the pioneer woman Antonia Shimerda represents a
complexity of values, an axis about which My Antonia revolves. The novel
in turn illustrates two classical themes of American literature. Written
in 1918, it reaches back into the nineteenth century and beyond for its
artistic and moral direction.
Willa Cather, the product of a genteel Virginia upbringing, found
herself early in life transplanted to the frontier and forced to
confront those vast blank spaces over which men had not yet succeeded in
establishing the domination of custom and convention. She saw a few
brave settlers confronting the wilderness, meeting the physical
challenge as well as the moral one of having to rely on their instincts
without benefit of civilized constraints; for her these people,
particularly the women, were a race apart. Antonia, with her noble
simplicity, is among other things a monument to that vigorous race.
She is also an embodiment of a long tradition of fictional heroes of
British and American romance. At the time the novel was written,
literature and criticism in America were undergoing a change of
direction. The thrust of literature in the new century owed much to the
developing sciences; Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser appeared on the
scene with their sociological novels, signaling the rise of naturalism.
Fictional characters would henceforth be viewed as interpreting in their
acts the flaws and beauties of laws, institutions, and social
structures. My Antonia fits an older mold, a form in which the effects
of colonial Puritanism can be detected. Specifically, the mode demands
that the hero overcome or try to overcome the strictures and hazards of
his situation by his own wit, strength, or courage. This convention
draws from the very wellspring of American life, the democratic belief
in the wholeness and self-sufficiency of the individual, that is, in
personal culpability, and in the absolute value of the personal
conscience. Cather makes no real indictment of the society that scorns
and undervalues Antonia and the other hired girls; the social
conventions are, with the land, simply the medium through which she
fulfills her destiny. It is the peculiarly American sense of starting
out brand-new in a new land, that sense of moral isolation, that adds
poignance to the struggles of the individual against the vagaries of
fortune. This theme of American newness and innocence, which R.B.W.
Lewis calls "the theme of the American Adam," has as a natural
concomitant elements of temptation and fortunate fall. The serpent in
Antonia's story is the town of Black Hawk, where she quarrels with her
benefactors and runs afoul of Larry Donovan. Seduced and abandoned, she
returns to the land; but her experience has made her better able, as she
tells Jim Burden, to prepare her children to face the world.
But if the town is Antonia's downfall in terms of one theme, it is the
gray backdrop against which she shines in terms of another; in the same
way the prairie is her antagonist in one sense, and the natural force of
which she is the flower in another. Jim Burden first finds her,
significantly, actually living in the earth. Early on she begins to take
on characteristics of the land: "Her neck came up strongly out of her
shoulders, like the bole of a tree out of the turf. . . . But she has
such splendid color in her cheeks—like those big dark red plums." She
works the land; she makes gardens; she nourishes the Harling children
with food and stories. Her connection with the fertile earth is insisted
upon. And the earth, the virgin land, is in this novel the source of
physical vigor and the best resource of the soul. Jim Burden describes
his first experience of the land as a feeling of cosmic unity: "Perhaps
we feel like that when we die and become part of something entire,
whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that
is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great." The
people who live on the prairie seem to him open and giving like the
land; for instance, he says of Antonia that "everything she said seemed
to come right out of her heart." By contrast, the life of the town is
pinched and ungenerous: "People's speech, their voices, their very
glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every
natural appetite, was bridled by caution."
Antonia, in all her acts, shows the naturalness and boundless generosity
of the plains; gives freely of her strength and loyalty to her surly
brother, to Jim and the Harling children, to Larry Donovan, and to her
husband Cuzak; and showers love and nurturance upon her children. She
alludes several times to her dislike of towns and cities and to her
feeling of familiar friendship with the country. Toward the end of the
book the figure of Antonia and the infinite fertility of the land come
together symbolically in an extremely vivid and moving image. Antonia
and her children have been showing Jim Burden the contents of their
fruit cellar, and as they step outside, "[the children] all came running
up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and
brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out
of the dark cave into the sunlight." The cave might be the apotheosis of
Antonia's first home on the prairie, the latter redeeming the former by
Above all, the novel celebrates the early life on the plains of which
Jim Burden and Antonia were a part. The long digressions about Peter and
Pavel, Blind D'Ar-nault, the Cutters and others, the profoundly elegaic
descriptions of Jake Marpole and Otto Fuchs, the sharply-caught details
of farm life, town life, landscape—these things are bent to the
re-creation of a simpler and better time, a hard life now gone beyond
recall, but lovingly remembered.