The Work as Autobiography
Of all of Willa Cather's works, My Ántonia seems to contain the most elements drawn from the author's life — with the possible exception of "Old Mrs. Harris." Cather is thinly disguised as Jim Burden; many of Jim's thoughts and feelings in the novel were Cather's own thoughts and feelings while growing up. In the introduction, Cather's description of Jim could easily be a description of herself. Like Jim, Cather enjoyed visiting with immigrant neighbors; like Jim, she had a love for the classics and for drama; and, like Jim, when he was middle-aged, she revisited "Ántonia" (Anna Sadilek Pavelka, her model for Ántonia) and renewed their friendship. This reunion inspired Cather to begin writing My Ántonia.
Cather's first three novels, after the immature Alexander's Bridge, can be viewed as paralleling Cather's development as an artist and as a person. In O Pioneers! (written on the advice of Sarah Orne Jewett, who suggested to Cather that she write about things that were important to her), the land is of primary importance. In Song of the Lark, written while O Pioneers! was proclaiming Cather's arrival as a significant new writer, the development of Thea's art is important. In My Ántonia, these two worlds — land and art — are united, suggesting that this novel may be one reason why Cather wrote herself so thoroughly into the novel: she is reliving her own life to that point.
Cather's characters are usually composites of people she knew. In My Ántonia, many of them bear striking resemblances to friends and neighbors. The Miner Family, the Cather family's nearest neighbors, became the Harlings; Mrs. Holland, the hotel keeper, became Mrs. Gardener; two musicians, Blind Boone and Blind Tom, became Blind d'Arnault; Herbert Bates, one of Cather's university teachers, became Gaston Cleric.
Ántonia is one of two major characters in Willa Cather's works who are closely drawn portraits of real people; the other is Mrs. Forester in A Lost Lady, who was closely modeled after a former Nebraska governor's wife, Mrs. Garber. Annie was a hired girl to the Miner family and was a trustworthy, hard-working girl, well-liked by the townspeople — but none of them, including the family for whom she worked, sensed anything special about her. Cather did, however. She grew up with Annie, just as Jim Burden grows up with Ántonia in the novel.
Cather has said that most of her knowledge about Annie Pavelka came from the impressions of young men who knew her; most of our impressions of Ántonia come from Jim Burden.
Three years after the publication of My Ántonia, Cather stated that Annie was "one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains." This statement also describes Cather's portrait of Ántonia.
Mr. Shimerda's suicide is based on the suicide of Francis Sadilek, Annie's father. Like Mr. Shimerda, Mr. Sadilek loved music. Like Mr. Shimerda, he grew depressed about his bleak Nebraska existence. And, like Mr. Shimerda, he shot himself in the barn. My Ántonia was not the first work in which Cather told this story; she told it as early as 1892 in "Peter," her first published story.
In late 1915 and early 1916, Cather, who so disliked change, received a double blow from which she never fully recovered. In November, Judge McClung died, signaling the breakup of Murray Hill House, which was put up for sale. Cather and Isabelle spent a final Christmas there, and, shortly afterward, Isabelle told her friend she planned to marry concert violinist Jan Hambourg. Cather was heartbroken, worrying that the newlyweds would move to Europe, thus ending her friendship with Isabelle.
Not only did Cather dislike change in her personal life, but she resisted change in society. She was concerned that the past could be lost by the advance of progress. This intermingling of old and new is woven throughout My Ántonia. The famous plough against the sun is commonly interpreted as a symbol of the last pioneers.
Jim makes a picture book for Yulka as a Christmas present, using colored pictures from cards he brought with him from Virginia. When Ántonia asks Jim to join her on what will be their final picnic as children, she says: "Couldn't you happen along, Jim? It would be like old times." On his visit home before beginning law school at Harvard, Jim compares the built-up, tamed prairie with its vast wildness when he was young.
My Ántonia, then, was written at a critical time in Willa Cather's life. She was in her mid-forties, had seen many changes — not all of which she felt were for the better — and had just suffered two major shocks: the death of Judge McClung and the marriage of his daughter. The time seemed right for her life and her art to meet.