Celebrating 100 years of Cather’s ‘My Antonia’

Willa Cather's book, "My Antonia," turns 100. Ginger Perry/For The Northern Virginia Daily

WINCHESTER — To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Willa Cather’s novel “My Antonia,” the Friends of the Handley Library will hold a panel discussion on Saturday.

Considered one of Cather’s best novels, “My Antonia” tells the story of immigrants trying to make a life on the lonely Nebraska prairie.

With its themes of Westward expansion and the difficulties of immigration, the novel is a favorite of college professors seeking a fine example of early 20th-century literature.

 But reading the 1918 novel is more than an academic exercise. A century later, the novel can still delight modern-day readers, especially those living in the northern Shenandoah Valley where Cather was born and spent her early years.

“Like all good writers, Willa Cather doesn’t have a single audience. She is able to appeal to many different readers,” said John Jacobs, professor of English, emeritus, at Shenandoah University.

Jacobs will moderate the program — called “My Antonia”: New Readings for A Centennial Celebration — that features academics Ann Romines and Col. Max Frazier.

The free discussion will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Robinson Auditorium at Handley Library.

An audience question and answer period will follow the scholarly presentations, Jacobs said.

The Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Neb., has donated 75 paperback copies of “My Antonia” to Handley Library. Library patrons may pick up a copy while supplies last.

“It was their hope that people will pick it up before the program,” Jacobs said.

One reason “My Antonia” is worthy of a celebration 100 years later is because it is so well-written, Jacobs said.

Cather did not load her prose with unnecessary description or pad it with a belabored back story simply to give the novel density, he said.

Cather is able to evoke life on the prairie with the sparest of language, he said. Unlike her contemporaries Henry James and Theodore Dreiser — both authors Cather admired, Jacobs said — Cather kept her prose lean in “My Antonia.”

“People feel very at ease with that,” Jacobs said. “They feel they are part of the text if you will.”

Helping to keep the novel fresh is its examination of such universal themes as the nature of love and family and the value of material goods, Jacobs said.

Cather, Jacobs said, is not only admired in the United States but enjoys an international reputation because of her “broad and perceptive view of America.”

“My Antonia” takes place in Nebraska, but there is a strong Virginia influence throughout.

Born in 1873, Cather lived at Willow Shade near Gore for the first nine years of her life, before she moved with her family to Nebraska.

To be pulled from the forests and greenery of Virginia to the barren prairie of Nebraska was a jarring experience for a young girl, but one that gave Cather rich material for her writing.

Romines, professor of English emerita at George Washington University, will speak to the Virginia connection in the novel. The narrator of “My Antonia” is the orphan Jim Burden, who left Virginia at the age of 10 to live with his grandparents in Nebraska.

Jim’s grandparents are successful farmers on the prairie, bringing with them farming and cooking skills from Virginia. Jim, open to new experiences, befriends the Bohemian immigrant Antonia Shimerda and becomes her tutor. The reader watches Antonia grow into womanhood through Jim’s eyes.

Frazier, a retired professor of English at the U.S. Air Force Academy, will focus her talk on the shadow of World War I that loomed as Cather was writing the book. She will make the case that “My Antonia” is Cather’s first war novel, providing examples of Cather’s use of war-like language and images.

Linda Cather, president of the Virginia Cather Family Reunion, will also join the discussion to provide her expertise on family genealogy.

A reception in the lower lobby will follow the panel discussion.

Jacobs, a Cather scholar, has led previous book discussions at Handley Library and always looks forward to meeting more Cather fans.

“We’ll be happy whether five or 50 people attend,” Jacobs said. “As long as they are interested in ‘My Antonia.'”