"I know of no novel that makes the remote folk of the western prairies more real . . . and I know of none that makes them seem better worth knowing." H. L. Mencken, 1919
An enduring literary masterpiece first published in 1918 by Houghton Mifflin, this eloquent novel is an ode to the pioneering soul and to the rich possibilities of the frontier. Willa Cather's lustrous prose, infused with a passion for the land, summons forth the hardscrabble days of immigrants' pioneer experience on the Nebraska plains while etching a deeply moving portrait of an entire community. As Jim Burden revisits his childhood friendship with 聲tonia Shimerda, we come to understand the sheer fortitude of homesteaders on the prairie, the steadfast bonds cultivated on the frontier, and the abiding memories that such vast expanses inspire. Holding the pastoral society's heart, of course, is the bewitching 聲tonia, whose unfailing industry and infectious enthusiasm for life exemplify the triumphant vitality of an era.
Willa Cather (1873-1947) moved with her family from Virginia to Nebraska when she was nine years old. She was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the author of more than fifteen books, including O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark.
1. Kathleen Norris writes in her foreword that "in many ways the world of My 聲tonia is still with us, a neglected but significant part of America." What relevance does the novel have today, and what does it reveal to us about our collective past?
2. Jim states that "some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again." Does this explain why he is constantly looking at the past instead of toward the future? How is this sentiment reflected in the overall elegiac tone of the novel?
3. The narrator of the prologue in My 聲tonia is an unnamed speaker who knew Jim Burden in youth and meets him years later on a train. How do the details revealed in this prologue foreshadow the events of the rest of the novel? Cather rewrote the prologue in 1926; the version published in the original 1918 edition is included as an appendix in the Mariner Books paperback edition. What did Cather accomplish by revising the prologue, and how do you think it changed your reading of the novel?
4. The main narrator of My 聲tonia is Jim Burden, 聲tonia's childhood friend, who reminisces from the vantage point of adulthood about their childhood together. Why did Cather choose Jim, a corporate lawyer, to tell this American frontier story? Is Jim a reliable narrator? What do we learn about both Jim and 聲tonia from his recollections?
5. Jim's first reaction to the Nebraska frontier is a sense of being overwhelmed by the environment and powerless against its magnitude. He recalls, "Between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be." How does Jim enjoy this newfound sense of being a small part of a vast universe, and how is his reverence for nature and the seasons reflected in the course of the novel?
6. Just as the Nebraska landscape initially seems formless to Jim, his narrative begins in a seemingly unstructured, haphazard way. Many early critics of My 聲tonia complained about the lack of structure and did not consider it a proper novel. The book has little in the way of a conventional plot, but it still forms a cohesive whole. What unifies the narrative? How does Cather bring the novel full circle, mirroring Jim's obervation "What a little circle man's experience is"?
7. In describing 聲tonia, Jim Burden remarks, "More than any other person we remembered, this girl seems to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood." How does 聲tonia come to represent so much of what Jim misses from his youth? Which of her qualities lend themselves to this description?
8. What drives Jim's affection for 聲tonia, and what is the nature of that affection? Does 聲tonia reciprocate these feelings? Is it fair to say their relationship is a romantic one? In what ways does the picnic scene at the river represent the end of 聲tonia's and Jim's carefree youth?
9. What is the nature of 聲tonia's feelings for her native Bohemia? Does she have stronger ties to Bohemia or to Nebraska? How do her feelings mirror Jim's feelings about New York and Nebraska? How are 聲tonia's feelings similar or dissimilar to the feelings of other immigrants of her time? Do you think the conflict she feels is also felt by immigrants today?
10. As in Willa Cather's other novels, the land in many ways symbolizes terrific hardships and great rewards. What is each character's relationship to the land, and how is each saved or destroyed by the relationship?
11. At the center of the novel is 聲tonia's creativity, her harmony with her environment, and her contribution to the forging of a new country and the building of a family and a community. Near the novel's beginning, Jim defines happiness as being "dissolved into something complete and great." Does 聲tonia achieve this kind of happiness? What is the complete, great thing in her life? Can the adult Jim ever achieve this kind of happiness?
12. The epigraph for My 聲tonia is a quote from Virgil: Optima dies . . . prima fugit "The best days are the first to flee." What is the significance of this quotation, and how does it relate to the last line of the novel: "Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past"?
Recommendations for further reading
by Willa Cather
With a foreword by Doris Grumbach
"A direct, human tale of love and struggle and attainment American in the best sense of the word." New York Times
Cather's first great novel tells the story of pioneer life as embodied by one remarkable woman and her singular devotion to the land. After Alexandra Bergson inherits her family's homestead, she strives to create a prosperous farm on the wind-blasted prairie of Nebraska. More faithfully and perhaps more fully than any other work of fiction, O Pioneers!
conveys the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier.
The Song of the Lark
by Willa Cather
With a foreword by Doris Grumbach
"The time will come when she'll be ranked above Hemingway." Leon Edel
Perhaps Cather's most autobiographical work, The Song of the Lark
charts a young woman's awakening as an artist. Thea Kronborg, a gifted singer, leaves the confines of her small hometown to pursue a career in opera, traveling from Colorado to Chicago, New York, and Arizona to realize her dream. Cather's lyrical, resonant novel is a story of American determination and its inextricable connection to the land.