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My Anton ia 







My Antonia 



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Cather, Willa. MyAntonia. 1918. New York: Vintage, 1994. 


David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives 

Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education 

Writers: Erika Koss for the National Endowment for the Arts, with contributions by 
Philip Burnham and a preface by Dana Gioia 

Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, DC 

Image Credits 

Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for The Big Read. Page iv: Book cover of MyAntonia by Willa 
( at her courtesy of Vintage Books, an imprint of The Knopf Group, a division of Random House, 
Inc., New York; Field of Wheat, © Royalty-Free/Corbis. Page 1: Caricature of Dana Gioia by 
John Sherffius. Inside back cover: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Libraries Archives/Special 

Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

Suggested Teaching Schedule 2 

Lesson One: Biography 4 

Lesson Two: Culture and History 5 

Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6 

Lesson Four: Characters 7 

Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8 

Lesson Six: Symbols 9 

Lesson Seven: Character Development 10 

Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11 

Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12 

Lesson Ten: What Makes a Book Great? 13 

Essay Topics 14 

Capstone Projects 15 

Handout One: The Homestead Movement 16 

Handout Two: Bohemian and Swedish Immigrants 17 

Handout Three: The Triumph of Antonia Shimerda 18 

Teaching Resources 19 

NCTE Standards 20 

"There seemed to be 
nothing to see; no fences, 
no creeks or trees, no hills 
or fields. If there was a 
road, I could not make it 
out in the faint starlight. 
There was nothing but 
land... I had never before 
looked up at the sky when 
there was not a familiar 
mountain ridge against it. 
But this was the complete 
dome of heaven." 

— from My Antonia 


Welcome to The Big Read, a major initiative from the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to revitalize the role of literary reading 
in American culture. The Big Read hopes to unite communities through 
great literature, as well as inspire students to become life-long readers. 

This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through 
Willa Cather's classic novel, My Antonia. Each lesson has four sections: 
a thematic focus, discussion activities, writing exercises, and homework 
assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects and 
suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background 
information about the novel, the historical period, and the author. All 
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the 
fiction genre. 

The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews, 
commentaries, and excerpts from the novel, The Big Read CD presents 
first-hand accounts of why Cather's novel remains so compelling nine 
decades after its initial publication. Some of America's most celebrated 
writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to make Big Read 
CDs exciting additions to the classroom. 

Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with 
interviews, booklists, time lines, and historical information. We hope 
this guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while 
introducing them to the work of a great American author. 

From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year. 

"r^J&JlAfc WpAo^ 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment for the Arts 



Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

Activities: Listen to Track One from The 
Big Read CD. Distribute Reader's Guide 
essays, "Willa Cather," "The Model for 
Antonia Shimerda," and "Cather and Her 
Other Works." 

Homework: Read My Antonio, the 
Introduction (pp. 3-6)* and Book One, 
Chapters 1-7 (pp. 9-42). 

Day Two 

FOCUS: Culture and History 

Activities: Listen to Track Two from 
The Big Read CD. Distribute Handouts 
One and Two from this guide along with 
the essay "Willa Cathers Nebraska" from 
the Reader's Guide. 

Homework: Read My Antonio, Book One, 
Chapters 8-16 (pp. 43-91). 


Day Three 

FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View 

Activities: Tell a story by focusing on a 
significant person from your childhood. 

Homework: Read My Antonio, Book One, 
Chapters 17-19 (pp. 92-106) and Book Two, 
Chapters 1-5 (pp. 109-130). 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Explain protagonist and antagonist. 
Introduce foil. Perform character review 
of Antonia, Jim, Mr. Shimerda, Lena, and 
the Land. 

Homework: Read My Antonio, Book Two, 
Chapters 6-12 (pp. 131-169). 


Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Using imagery, write about a 
childhood memory. 

Homework: Read My Antonio, Book Two, 
Chapters 13-15 (pp. 170-189). 

"Page numbers refer to the 1994 Vintage Classics edition of My Antonia. 


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.Av'TI*. .• » 


Day Six 

FOCUS: Symbols 

Activities: Analyze the major symbols of the 
snake, the crossroads, and the plough. 

Homework: Read My Antonia, Book Three, 
Chapters 1-4 (pp. 191-218). 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Map the development of three 
major characters: Jim, Antonia, and Lena. 

Homework: Read My Antonia, Book Four, 
Chapters 1-4 (pp. 221-238). 


Day Eight 

FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Review the stages of plot 
development. See if students can identify the 
crisis, conflict, and resolution of the novel. 

Homework: Finish My Antonia, Book Five, 
Chapters 1-3 (pp. 241-272). 


Day Nine 

FOCUS: Themes of the Novel 

Activities: Develop an interpretation based 
on a theme: memory, the taming of the land, 
the immigrant experience in America, or 

Homework: Write outlines and begin essays. 
Read Handout Three. 


Day Ten 

FOCUS: What Makes a Book Great? 

Activities: Explore the qualities of a great 
novel and the voice of a generation. Examine 
qualities that make Cather's novel successful. 
Have students review each other's paper 
outlines or drafts. 

Homework: Essay due next class period. 

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Lesson One 



Examining an author's life can inform and expand the reader's 
understanding of a novel. Biographical criticism is the practice of analyzing 
a literary work through the lens of an author's experience. In this lesson, 
explore the author's life to understand the novel more fully. 

Willa Cather did not want her novels to be read as veiled autobiography, 
but My Antonia (1918) parallels many of her life's experiences. Many literary 
scholars argue that Jim Burden is Willa Cather. For example, Jim and 
Cather both left Virginia as young children and lived on the Nebraska 
prairie. Cather's family then moved to Red Cloud a year later; Jim's family 
moves to the fictional town, Black Hawk. Cather gave her high school 
graduation speech, as does Jim; then they both studied at the University 
of Nebraska in Lincoln. After graduation, they leave Nebraska for the east: 
Jim to study law at Harvard; Cather to work as editor at Home Monthly in 

In addition, many of the characters in My Antonia are based on people 
Cather knew. Most importantly, Antonia Shimerda is drawn from a 
Bohemian immigrant, Annie Sadilek (later Pavelka). Cather taught Sadilek 
to speak English as they played together on the prairie. After the first 
terrible winter, the Cather and Sadilek families moved to town, where 
Annie became a "hired girl." Despite Cather's many travels, she and Sadilek 
remained friends until Cather's death in 1947. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to The Big Read CD, Track One. Have students take notes as they listen. 
Ask them to present the three most important points they learned from the CD. 

Copy the following essays from the Reader's Guide: "Willa Cather" (pp. 4-5), 
"The Model for My Antonia Shimerda" (p. 9), and "Cather and Her Other 
Works" (pp. 12-13). Divide the class into groups, and assign one essay to each 
group. After reading and discussing the essays, each group will present what they 

Writing Exercise 

Read the last paragraph of Chapter One aloud to your students, which describes 
Jim's first glimpse of Nebraska as he travels by wagon at night. Ask your students 
to write about a life-changing moment from their childhoods. 

Ul Homework 

Read My Antonia, the Introduction (pp. 3-6) and Book One, Chapters 1-7 
(pp. 9-42). Ten-year-old Jim Burden arrives in Nebraska at the same time as 
14-year-old Antonia Shimerda. Make a chart that describes several similarities and 
differences about their arrivals in a new land. 


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Culture and 

Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at 
the center or the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating intricate 
details of the time and place help readers understand the motivations of the 

Although life on the prairie was difficult for all pioneers in the late 
nineteenth century, European immigrants experienced even more challenges 
than their American neighbors. Use this lesson to focus upon the similarities 
a\k\ differences between the experiences of the Burdens and Shimerdas. 
For example, the Burdens 1 house is the only wooden house around except 
for the Norwegian settlement. At first the Shimerdas do not even have the 
typical sod house, and they have no garden or tools. As the first Bohemian 
family to come to Nebraska, they are often cheated financially because 
they cannot speak English. Mrs. Shimerda later says they never would have 
survived their first winter without the kindness of the Burdens. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to The Big Read CD, Track Two. Ask students to take notes as they listen. 

Copy Handouts One and Two from the back of this guide, as well as "Willa 
Cather's Nebraska" (pp. 7-8) from the Reader's Guide. Break your class into 
groups and ask them to describe specific ways this historical knowledge enhances 
their understanding of My Antonio. 

Writing Exercise 

Does life in Black Hawk feel anything like the town in which you were raised? 
What are the most distinctive similarities or differences? 

n Homework 

Read My Antonio, Book One, Chapters 8-16 (pp. 43-91). 

Interview an older family member, asking them about your family's history. When 
did your family first come to America? Why did they leave their homeland? 
Gather some songs, stories, or recipes from your family's native country. 

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and Point of 

The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed by his or 
her beliefs and experiences. Narrators can be major or minor characters, 
or exist outside the story altogether. The narrator weaves her or his point 
of view, including ignorance and bias, into telling the tale. A first-person 
narrator participates in the events of the novel, using "I." A distanced 
narrator, often not a character, is removed from the action of the story 
and uses the third-person (he, she, and they). The distanced narrator may 
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all the characters, or limited, 
describing only certain characters' thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, the 
type of narrator determines the point of view from which the story is told. 

Willa Cather begins My Antonia with an "Introduction" from an unnamed 
female acquaintance of Jim Burden. After this, the novel functions as 
a manuscript by Jim Burden, which he titles "My Antonia" Jim records 
his childhood memories as an adult, reflecting more than twenty years 
later upon his past. In addition to Jim's narration, there are several stories 
narrated by minor characters, and Book Four is told almost entirely from 
the perspective of Widow Stevens. The point of view often changes as Jim 
moves and grows. 

Discussion Activities 

Divide your class into four groups. Ask each group to answer one of the 
following questions, using evidence from the text to support its answers. Each 
group will then present its opinions to the class. 

• As an adult, Jim Burden "is legal counsel for one of the great Western railways," 
and he is unhappily — though prosperously — married to Genevieve Whitney. 
How do these adult experiences inform the point of view of the novel? 

• Cather once said, "One's strongest emotions and one's most vivid pictures 
are acquired before one is fifteen." How is this true for Jim Burden? Does Jim 
romanticize the past? Does he idealize Antonia? 

• Why does Jim title his manuscript "My Antonia" 7 . What does he mean when he 
says, "It's through myself that I knew and felt her"? 

• Do you feel the stories narrated by others — such as the story of the young 
bride and the wolves — are essential to the novel? Why or why not? 

Writing Exercise 

Try to imitate Jim Burden, and tell a story about yourself by focusing on a 
significant person from your childhood. Is this technique easy or difficult? 

EJ Homework 


Read My Antonia, Book One, Chapters 17-19 (pp. 92-106), and Book Two, 
Chapters 1-5 (pp. 109-130). Ask students to consider how the land might be 
considered a character in this novel. 

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The central character in a work of literature is called the protagonist. 
The protagonist usually initiates the main action of the story and often 
overcomes a Haw, such as weakness or ignorance, to achieve a new 
understanding by the works end. A protagonist who acts with great 
honor or courage may be called a hero. An antihero is a protagonist 
lacking these qualities. Instead of being dignified, brave, idealistic, or 
purposeful, the antihero may be cowardly, self-interested, or weak. The 
protagonists journey is enriched by encounters with characters who hold 
differing beliefs. One such character type, a foil, has traits that contrast 
with the protagonists and highlight important features of the main 
characters personality. The most important foil, the antagonist, opposes the 
protagonist, barring or complicating his or her success. 


Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

Divide the class into five groups, giving one of the following main characters to 
each. The group will describe the personality and motivations of its assigned 
character. Who is the protagonist, hero, foil, and antagonist according to your 
students' reading so far? 

Antonia Shimerda — Remember that the reader only sees Antonia through 
the lens of the adult Jim Burden. What are her strengths and weaknesses, 
according to Jim? How does his view of her differ from others in the town of 
Black Hawk? 

Jim Burden — Pay special attention to the scene where he "saves" Antonia from 
the rattlesnake. What does the novel reflect about his maturity and masculinity? 

Mr. Shimerda — What drove him to end his life? What are the consequences 
for the family, especially for Antonia? Why does his death affect Jim so much? 

Lena Lingard — This Norwegian immigrant is Antonia's foil, which will become 
even more apparent in Book Four. How are Antonia and Lena alike? How are 
they different? 

The Land — Can the land be seen as the novel's protagonist? Could it also 
be the antagonist? Identify some passages that describe the land with human 

E3 Homework 

Read My Antonia, Book Two, Chapters 6-12 (pp. 131-169). Describe the changing 
social situation between Jim and Antonia as she becomes a "hired girl" in town. 
Why were "hired girls" "considered a menace to the social order"? How do the 
different ways Lena and Antonia dance highlight their contrasting personalities? 

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Writers use figurative language such as imagery, similes, and metaphors 
to help the reader visualize and experience events and emotions in a story. 
Imagery — a word or phrase that refers to sensory experience (sight, sound, 
smell, touch, or taste) — helps create a physical experience for the reader and 
adds immediacy to literary language. 

Some figurative language asks us to stretch our imaginations, finding 
the likeness in seemingly unrelated things. Simile is a comparison of two 
things that initially seem quite different but are shown to have significant 
resemblance. Similes employ connective words, usually "like," "as," "than," 
or a verb such as "resembles." A metaphor is a statement that one thing is 
something else that, in a literal sense, it is not. By asserting that a thing is 
something else, a metaphor creates a close association that underscores an 
important similarity between these two things. 

Cather frequently uses figurative language. A description of the Nebraska 
Divide incorporates metaphor, simile, and personification: 

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. 
The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of 
certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion 
in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running. 

Cather's metaphors describe the landscape: 

[Sunflowers] made a gold ribbon across the prairie. 
Cather uses simile to expand her ideas: 

The grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island. 

Discussion Activities 

Divide the class into groups. Assign each group a different chapter from Book 
One, and ask them to identify several images, similes, and metaphors that are 
vivid, evocative, and beautiful. How important is figurative language to Cather's 
writing style? Groups will present their findings to the class, highlighting their 
favorite example. 

Writing Exercise 

Ask students to reflect on and write about an important memory of their 
childhood, using imagery — words that draw on the five senses — to take a reader 
beyond a literal description. 

E3 Homework 

Read My Antonia, Book Two, Chapters 13-15 (pp. 170-189). What happens to 
Jim when he spends the night at Wick Cutter's? Why does Jim respond with 
hatred for Antonia? 


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Symbols are persons, places, or things in a narrative that have significance 
beyond a literal understanding. The craft of storytelling depends on 
symbols to present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most frequently, 
a specific object will be used to refer to (or symbolize) a more abstract 
concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal, or 
figurative, meaning attached to the object. Symbols are often found in 
the books title, at the beginning and end of the story, within a profound 
action, or in the name or personality of a character. The life of a novel is 
perpetuated by generations of readers interpreting and reinterpreting the 
main symbols. By identifying and understanding symbols, readers can 
reveal new interpretations of the novel. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

A symbol is a visible object or action that suggests additional meanings. Use 
this class period to analyze three major symbols in My Antonia: the snake, the 
crossroads, and the plough. 

The Snake (Book One, Chapter 7) 

After Jim kills the snake in Book One, he becomes boastful and then considers 
himself "a big fellow." Why does Jim compare this snake to "the ancient, eldest 
Evil." To what evil does he refer? Is Jim right to be so proud? The allusion to the 
Garden of Eden extends this symbol even deeper. 

The Crossroads (Book One, Chapter 16) 

Mr. Shimerda could not have a Catholic funeral or burial since he killed himself 
without — presumably — repenting. European folklore taught that the crossroads 
were the haunts of demons, ghosts, or witches — the only appropriate place for 
murderers to be buried. Why does Cather choose "Jesus, Lover of my Soul" 
as the hymn sung at Mr. Shimerda's burial? Why does Jim recollect "in all that 
country it was the spot most dear to me"? 

The Plough (Book Two, Chapter 14) 

One of Cather's most famous symbols, the plough "stood out against the sun, 
was exactly contained within the circle of the disk. There it was, heroic in size, 
a picture writing on the sun." How does this image correspond to the novel's 
epigraph? What does this ordinary farm object have to do with Jim's and 
Antonia's diminishing childhood? 

23 Homework 

Read My Antonia, Book Three, Chapters 1-4 (pp. 
title, why is Antonia absent from Book Three? 

191-218). In light of the novel's 

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Novels trace the development of characters who encounter a series of 
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices. 
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves, 
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist may undergo 
profound change. A close study of character development maps, in each 
character, the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief. The tension 
between a characters strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing 
about what might happen next and the protagonist's eventual success or 

Jim Burden recounts his coming-of-age from a backward glance, always 
weaving into his story his immigrant friend, Antonia. Willa Cather s 
characters rarely make long speeches; instead, they reveal their personalities 
through their actions. 

Discussion Questions 

Re-evaluate three major characters analyzed in Lesson Four. Ask students 
to discuss these characters' external changes of setting, profession, and/or 
landscape. Do these outward changes result in internal change? Have their 
motivations altered? 

Jim Burden 

The prairie orphan boy leaves Black Hawk to attend the University of Nebraska, 
and later Harvard Law School. What does he learn from Gaston Cleric? How 
does this inform his view of Antonia and his past? 

Antonia Shimerda 

Antonia leaves Nebraska to get married, only to find herself a deserted woman 
carrying an illegitimate child. Why does she return to Black Hawk? Does she act 
in the way you would expect? 

Lena Lingard 

Lena becomes a well-respected dressmaker in Lincoln and has a brief romantic 
relationship with Jim. Why does it not last? Why does she remain in Lincoln? Is 
she content with her life? 

Writing Exercise 

How does Jim's education remove him further from his past? How does it bring 
him closer? Discuss the relevance of the novel's epigraph: "Optima dies... prima 
fugit" (The best days are the first to flee). 


Read My Antonia, Book Four, Chapters 1-4 (pp. 221-238). Consider Cather's 
choice to structure the novel in five books. Why would she break up her book 
this way? Identify two important turning points in the novel's action. 

1 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Lesson Eight 


The Plot 

The author crafts a plot structure to create expectations, increase suspense, 
and develop characters. The pacing of events can make a novel either 
predictable or riveting. Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the author to 
defy the constraints of time. Sometimes an author can confound a simple- 
plot by telling stories within stories. In a conventional work of fiction, the 
peak of the story s conflict — the climax — is followed by the resolution, or 
denouement, in which the effects of that climactic action are presented. 

According to Betty Kort, there are three levels to My Antonia: first, the 
obvious plot line of Jims and Antonias friendship; second, the development 
of the Nebraskan land; third, the "story-scape," which includes the retelling 
of myths and stories Gather integrates throughout her novel. 

Discussion Questions 

Which key events lead to the novel's crisis, climax, and resolution? Discuss the 
significance of Mr. Shimerda's suicide, Antonias desire to leave the Harlings' 
home, Jim's move to Boston, Lena's move to Lincoln, and Antonias return to 
Black Hawk. 

Writing Exercise 

Some of Cather's contemporary readers criticized My Antonia for its lack of plot 
and structure. Do you agree with this opinion? Why or why not? 

[JJ Homework 

Finish My Antonia, Book Five, Chapters 1-3 (pp. 241-272). Ask students to 
consider the parallels between the Nebraska Divide and Antonia Shimerda. 

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Themes of 
the Novel 

Themes are the central, recurring subjects of a novel. As characters grapple 
with circumstances such as racism, class, or unrequited love, profound 
questions will arise in the readers mind about human life, social pressures, 
and societal expectations. Classic themes include intellectual freedom versus 
censorship, the relationship between one's personal moral code and larger 
political justice, and spiritual faith versus rational considerations. A novel 
often reconsiders these age-old debates by presenting them in new contexts 
or from new points of view. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercises 

Use the following questions to stimulate discussion or provide writing exercises 
in order to interpret the novel in specific ways. Using historical references to 
support ideas, explore the statements My Antonia makes about the following: 


How is Jim a nostalgic, romantic, and an idealistic narrator? Does this make 
him an unreliable storyteller? What does Jim mean by the final line of the 
novel: "Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the 
incommunicable past"? 

The Taming of the Land 

By the novel's end, the once virgin land is fenced and filled with roads, houses, 
and train tracks. What does this suggest about the way humans affect the 
environment? How is the Nebraskan land both the novel's most significant 
symbol as well as a major theme? Does the development of the land parallel the 
development of Antonia Shimerda? 

The Immigrant Experience in America 

The heroism of the settlers is evident by their determination to create a new and 
better life for their families. How do the women especially contribute to making 
such a life possible? How is this novel a story about the building of a specific 
Nebraskan community? How does it transcend Nebraska to become a story 
about the making of America and of what it means to be American? 


An important moment of the novel occurs when Jim says, "That is happiness; 
to be dissolved into something complete and great." What does this mean? 
According to Jim's definition, which characters in the novel end up happy? Is he 
one of them? 

P] Homework 

Have students read Handout Three in this guide. Ask them to begin their essays, 
using the Essay Topics in this guide. Outlines are due the next class period. 

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Lesson Ten 


What Makes 
a Book Great? 

Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily lives in the 
larger context of the human struggle. The writers voice, style, and use of 
language inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities 
to learn, imagine, and reflect, a great novel is a work of art that affects 
main generations of readers, changes lives, challenges assumptions, and 
breaks new ground. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Write these on 
the board. What elevates a novel to greatness? In small groups, ask students to 
discuss specific books that include some of these characteristics. Do any of these 
books remind them of My Antonia 7 . How is Cather's novel different? 

A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does Cather 
create through My Antonia 7 . What does this novel tell us about the concerns and 
dreams of those who immigrate to America? 

Divide students into groups and have each one choose the single most important 
theme of the novel. Have spokespersons from each group explain their decision. 
Write these themes on the board. Are all the groups in agreement? 

B Writing Exercise 

Ask students to write a persuasive letter to a friend, perhaps one who does not 
like to read, explaining why My Antonia is a good book. The student should make 
an argument that explains why the novel has meaning for many people, not just a 
particular group. 

Have students work on their essays in class. Be available to assist with outlines, 
drafts, and arguments. Have students partner together to edit outlines and/or 
rough drafts. Provide students with characteristics of a well-written essay. 

|23 Homework 

Students will turn in a rough draft of their essay at the next class. 

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The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, 
as do the Discussion Questions in the Readers Guide on pp. 14-15. Advanced students can come 
up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays 
are provided here. 

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This thesis should 
be specific and focused, with clear evidence from the text to support its conclusion. 

1. Jim Burden begins his study of Virgil during 
his sophomore year of college. What is the 
significance of the novel's epigraph, and what 
is the connection between it and his view of 
Antonia? Is it important that Lena reenters his 
life while he reflects on his lesson from Gaston 
Cleric? Explain. 

2. Why does Mr. Shimerda commit suicide? 
Take into account as many different factors 
as possible. How does his death change his 
family's fate, especially Antonia? Why does it 
affect Jim so deeply? 

3. What double standard do the immigrant 
women in Black Hawk face? What unexpected 
results occur because of this standard? How 
does Jim feel about the "hired girls"? 

4. Lena and Antonia take different paths as adults. 
How do their personalities and choices in 
Black Hawk foreshadow their future destinies? 
By the end of the novel, are they both 
content? Have they both succeeded? Explain. 

5. When Jim finally tries to kiss Antonia, she 
pushes him away and tells him never to 
succumb to Lena's temptations. Why do 
Jim and Antonia never have a romantic 
relationship? Why does Jim pursue one 
with Lena? 

6. How important is figurative language to 
Cather's writing style? How does Cather's use 
of imagery communicate the themes of her 
novel? Focus your essay on one chosen theme. 

7. As an adult, Jim tells Antonia, "I'd have liked 
to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my 
mother or my sister — anything that a woman 
can be to a man," and he tells her sons, "I was 
very much in love with your mother once." Do 
you believe him? Why does Jim never try to 
marry her? 

14 • THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read 
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, or 

a bookstore. 

1. Commencement Speech: Jim Burden 
gives the commencement speech for his Black 
Hawk high school, but we never learn what 
he said in it. You can find Willa Cather's high 
school graduation speech at: http://cather. writings/bohlke/speeches/1890. 
html. Ask students to imagine what Jim might 
have said to his peers and their parents, and 
then have the students compose their own 
commencement speech. 

2. Photo Gallery: Have one group of students 
find historical photographs of immigrants on 
the Great Plains. Then ask another group to 
find modern photographs of these same areas. 
The photos may come from books, from the 
Internet, or from family photo albums. 

3. Immigrants in Nebraska: Break up your 
class into the immigrant groups and characters 
represented in My Antonia from the following 
countries: Bohemia, Sweden, Russia, Norway, 
Denmark, and Germany. Each group will 
prepare a report to present to the class, 
describing the reasons why the character 
might have left his or her homeland. What was 
life like when he or she arrived in America? 

4. In Performance: Ask students to act out 
a scene in which they illustrate the hardships 
of the American frontier, using characters 
from Cather's novel. The scene may be taken 
directly from My Antonia, or it can be invented. 

5. Artists' Gallery: Using the illustrations that 
Cather commissioned W.T. Benda to draw 
as examples, ask students to draw or paint a 
scene in the novel. 

6. Cultural Heritage: Ask students to collect 
songs, stories, and recipes from their own 
cultural backgrounds. Create a class book that 
reflects the diverse traditions in your class. 
This book could also include the photography 
and art of Capstones 2 and 5, above. 

National Endowment for the Arts 



The Homestead Movement 

In 1862, Congress passed and President Abraham 
Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. The act 
provided 160 acres to the head of a household, 
or to an applicant at least 21 years old, including 
former slaves, single women, and immigrants. 
The homesteader had to pay a minimal application 
fee, live on the land for five years, and make 
improvements, such as cultivating a farm or 
building a house. The applicant had to be a U.S. 
citizen (or a declared candidate for citizenship) 
who had never borne arms against the United 
States. Confederate soldiers could not apply. 

The Union Pacific Railroad was chartered on July 
1, 1862, when President Lincoln selected a route 
that would pass through Kansas and Nebraska. 
When the Union Pacific met up with the Central 
Pacific railroad in 1869, the transcontinental 
railroad made transportation more affordable. The 
federal government gave railroad companies large 
amounts of land to provide incentives for more 
development. These companies then advertised the 
sale of cheap land in foreign countries, which often 
led to unrealistic expectations among non-English- 
speaking immigrants. These changes — along 
with the 1862 Morrill Act authorizing land grant 
colleges to educate farmers — led thousands of 
eastern Americans and even more Europeans to 
move to Nebraska and Kansas. 

For all its virtues, homesteading had a tragic 
side. Native Americans were pushed aside as the 
homesteading wave moved westward. Land fraud 
was common, especially as non-English-speaking 

families tried to negotiate with native businessmen 
or farmers. Large companies applied for multiple 
homesteads, each one signed for by a company 
representative until sufficient acreage was amassed 
for large-scale ranching. Failure was a constant 
companion. As the homesteaders moved westward 
into the dry plains, they discovered that 160 acres 
was insufficient for a family farm. The land was 
not always cooperative, and heads of families — like 
Mr. Shimerda and Willa Cather's father — were not 
necessarily successful farmers. Over 60 percent of 
homestead applicants never stayed the required five 
years to get their deed. 

The original 1862 act was later amended to 
accommodate the harsh realities of life on 
the Plains. Land grants were expanded to a 
more reasonable 640 acres, and the residency 
requirement was lowered from five years to three. 

The Homestead Act and the transcontinental 
railroad were benchmarks of American history. 
By the end of the nineteenth century, over half 
a million homestead farmers had claimed more 
than 80 million acres of America. The West was 
forever changed by the settlement of families who 
left their homelands for a chance to obtain land to 
call their own. 

16 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


Bohemian and Swedish Immigrants 

The three novels that \\ ilia Cather wrote between 
1913 and 1918— Pioneers.', The Song of the Lark 

and My Antonia — center on immigrant female 
artists from Sweden and Bohemia: Alexandra 
Bergson, Thea Kronborg, and Antonia Shimerda. 
Between 1850 and 1950, some 50 million 
Europeans left their homelands — mostly for North 
America. What motivated so many thousands of 
Bohemians and Swedes to immigrate to Nebraska? 


Bohemia was a former kingdom bounded by 
Germany, Poland, Austria, and Moravia. In 1918, 
Bohemia became the core of the newly formed 
state of Czechoslovakia. On January 1, 1993, 
Czechoslovakia was split into two independent 
states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The 
Czech Republic comprises the former province 
of Bohemia. 

My Antonia begins in 1883, when Bohemia 
was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 
A growing Czech nationalism led to ethnic 
tension between the Czech-speaking population 
of Bohemia and their German-speaking rulers. 
Such divisions encouraged many Bohemians to 
immigrate to the Great Plains, especially since the 
circulation of railroad company advertisements in 
Czech newspapers and magazines offered cheap 
land in Nebraska. Worsening economic conditions 
and overpopulation pushed most Czechs out of 
their homeland. Many Czechs relied on weaving 
industries for their livelihoods, but increased 
industrialization made it impossible to support a 
family that way. 

Contrary to negative stereotypes, many Bohemian 
immigrants had education, money, and respect in 
their homeland. Coming to America — where they 
were lonely, poor, and often manipulated — was 

simply too much to bear for many men and 
women who, like Mr. Shimerda, "died from a 
broken heart." All told, between 1856 and 1914, 
over 50,000 Czechs moved to Nebraska. 


Between 1845 and 1865, severe crop failures and 
poverty in Sweden — due partly to large population 
growth — caused the first spike in Swedish 
immigration. By 1890, approximately 478,000 
Swedes had immigrated to America, ultimately 
reducing Sweden's total population by one fourth. 
As in Bohemia, economic and social circumstances 
motivated many to leave. As it became unfeasible 
to buy land in Sweden, the Homestead Act made 
such a dream possible in America. Religious 
persecution, personal misfortune, failing farms, 
and unfair employment practices led other Swedes 
to leave their homeland. After the Civil War, 
Swedish settlements expanded from Illinois, Iowa, 
and Minnesota, to the Great Plains of Kansas 
and Nebraska. Between 1845 and 1930, over 1.2 
million Swedes migrated to America. 

My Antonia accurately reflects some of the 
difficulties faced by immigrant pioneers, although 
the novel should not be read as a history book. For 
example, many early settlers had to survive without 
wood. Even after the railroad connected Hastings 
to Red Cloud in 1878, the transportation and 
price of lumber remained too expensive for most 
families. Sod houses (built with bricks made from 
various kinds of grass) attracted snakes and other 
varmints. Dirt floors and leaking roofs made these 
homes especially unwelcoming during rainstorms 
and blizzards. Most families replaced them as soon 
as they earned enough money from their efforts to 
tame the Nebraska Divide. 

National Endowment for the Arts 




The Triumph of Antonia Shimerda 

"There was the material in [My Antonia] for a 
lurid melodrama. But I decided that in writing it 
I would dwell very lightly on those things that a 
novelist would ordinarily emphasize, and make 
up my story of the little, every-day happenings 
and occurrences that form the greatest part of 
everyone's life and happiness." — Willa Cather 

When Willa Cather wrote O Pioneers! (1913), she 
did not expect anyone to see greatness in a slow- 
moving Nebraskan novel that featured Swedish 
and Bohemian immigrants. Most American writers 
had perpetuated comic, negative stereotypes of 
these groups, yet in Alexandra Bergson (from 
O Pioneers!) and Thea Kronborg (from The Song 
of the Lark), Cather created strong Swedish women 
who triumphed in the midst of great adversity. 

The character of Antonia Shimerda especially 
embodied all Cather's feelings about the early 
immigrants to the Great Divide. Cather told an 
interviewer in 1921 that one of the people who had 
interested her most as a child was Annie Sadilek, 
later Annie Pavelka, the Bohemian "hired girl" 
who worked for one of her neighbors: "She 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. I did 
not realize all this as a child, but Annie fascinated 
me and I always had it in mind to write a story 
about her." 

Since most popular early-twentieth-century 
novels highlighted the lives of upper-class ladies 
and gentlemen, it was a radical choice in 1918 
for Cather to center My Antonia on a lower-class 

immigrant "hired girl." Cather always possessed 
great respect for her immigrant neighbors, 
and a great deal of her education derived from 
her German, English, and Jewish friends. She 
especially loved listening to the stories of the older 
immigrant women and later said, "I have never 
found any intellectual excitement any more intense 
than I used to feel when I spent a morning with 
one of these old women at her baking or butter- 
making. . .1 always felt. . .as if I had actually got 
inside another person's skin." In several letters and 
interviews, Cather claimed that housewives and 
farmers were true artists, once even saying that 
they contributed "more to art than all the culture 

With this definition in mind, Antonia is certainly 
one of Cather's greatest artists. While most 
women — in both history and literature — were 
ostracized, exiled, or killed as a result of an 
illegitimate pregnancy, Cather writes a different 
ending for her heroine. Antonia returns to her 
mother's home "crushed and quiet," but she 
perseveres, never choosing the path of her father. 
She farms the land and is not ashamed of her first 
daughter. The real-life John Pavelka (the model for 
Anton Cuzak) also defied convention by marrying 
a "fallen" woman. With him, Annie bore thirteen 
children, and ten survived into adulthood. When 
Jim Burden finally returns to Nebraska, he finds 
his childhood friend "a battered woman now, not a 
lovely girl; but she still had that something which 
fires the imagination." 

I 8 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 


The W.T. Benda illustrations, reprinted as Willa Cather 
desired, are featured in the scholarly edition of My Antonia, 
published by the University of Nebraska Press, edited by 
Charles Mignon with Kari A. Ronning. 

Biography and Criticism 

Acocella, Joan. Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. 
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. 

Bennett, Mildred R. The World of Willa Cather. Lincoln: 
University of Nebraska Press, 1995. 

Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. 
Introduction by John J. Murphy. Lincoln: University of 
Nebraska Press, 2000. 

O'Brien, Sharon. New Essays on My Antonia. Cambridge 
University Press, 1988. 

Woodress, James. Willa Cather: A Literary Life. Lincoln: 
University of Nebraska Press, 1987. 

Especially for Teachers 

Cather, Willa. Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies on 
Writing as an Art. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 

Curtin, William M., ed. The World and the Parish: Willa 
Cather's Articles and Reviews, 1893-1902. Lincoln: University 
of Nebraska Press, 1970. 

Murphy, John J. My Antonia: The Road Home. Boston: 
Twayne, 1989. 

Rosowski, Susan J., ed. Approaches to Teaching Cather's My 
Antonia. New York: Modern Language Association, 1989. 

Urgo, Joseph R. Willa Cather and the Myth of American 
Migration. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995. 


Willa Cather: The Road Is All. The American Masters series 
by PBS, 2005. (See 

Web sites 

The Willa Cather Electronic Archive 

This superb site includes a wonderful photo gallery, as wel 

as interviews, speeches, and biographical information. 

The Cather Foundation 

Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial and Educational 


Willa Cather State Historic Site 

Teachers will find many helpful links to the study and 

teaching of Willa Cather. 

For more information about the biannual publication, 
Teaching Cather, see: 

Nebraska Studies 

The Nebraska Studies site provides information that 

will deepen your students' understanding of the pioneer 

experience in Nebraska. 

National Endowment for the Arts 


National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards" 

1. Students read a wide range of print and non- 
print texts to build an understanding of texts, 
of themselves, and of the cultures of the 
United States and the world; to acquire 
new information; to respond to the needs 
and demands of society and the workplace; 
and for personal fulfillment. Among these 
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and 
contemporary works. 

2. Students read a wide range of literature from 
many periods in many genres to build an 
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., 
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human 

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies 
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and 
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior 
experience, their interactions with other 
readers and writers, their knowledge of 
word meaning and of other texts, their 
word identification strategies, and their 
understanding of textual features (e.g., 
sound-letter correspondence, sentence 
structure, context, graphics). 

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, 
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, 
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a 
variety of audiences and for different purposes. 

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as 
they write and use different writing process 
elements appropriately to communicate with 
different audiences for a variety of purposes. 

6. Students apply knowledge of language 
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling 
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative 
language, and genre to create, critique, and 
discuss print and non-print texts. 

7. Students conduct research on issues and 
interests by generating ideas and questions, and 
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and 
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., 
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to 
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit 
their purpose and audience. 

8. Students use a variety of technological and 
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, 
computer networks, video) to gather and 
synthesize information and to create and 
communicate knowledge. 

9. Students develop an understanding of and 
respect for diversity in language use, patterns, 
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, 
geographic regions, and social roles. 

10. Students whose first language is not English 
make use of their first language to develop 
competency in the English language arts and to 
develop understanding of content across the 

1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable, 
reflective, creative, and critical members of a 
variety of literary communities. 

12. Students use spoken, written, and visual 
language to accomplish their own purposes 
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and 
the exchange of information). 

* This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and 
develop your application of the curriculum. 

20 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

That is happiness; 
to be dissolved into 
something complete 
and great." 

from My Antonia 


The Big Read is an initiative of the National 
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading 
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents 
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of 
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation 
with Arts Midwest. 

'••>;: - -INSTITUTE ol , ., 

■•:.:, Museum.ndLibrary 

' .•-•• SERVIfF"; 

A great nation deserves great art.