Portrait of Willa Cather from the Carl Van Vechten collection,
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory.
Willa Cather's classic pioneer novel My Antonia fuses two stories to produce a powerful literary work that details nineteenth-century pioneer life in Nebraska, with all its hardships and beauties, and explores traditional American pioneer values, such as hard work, self-reliance, and the refusal to submit to adversity. Cather fuses the fictional life story of Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant who symbolizes the grit and optimism of those coming to America to make a new start, with aspects of her own emotionally-rich life story to produce an archetypal tale that fully illustrates the struggle of American pioneers, the rewards of hard work, and the emotional price the pioneers sometimes paid for their modest successes.
Combining the study of history and literature, the goal of these activities is to guide students in a self-directed exploration of how Cather's novel interprets and represents the values of fortitude, hard work, and faithfulness that we associate with pioneer life. How does literary form affect the ways readers perceive and interpret these values? How does literary form shape our perception of history? To help students explore these questions in some detail, this lesson begins with a brief review of key historical topics. Subsequent activities ask students to work together to analyze how our perception of these historical and social contexts is shaped by the style and form of My Antonia.
After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to:
EVENING and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness, Its fierce necessity, Its sharp desire, Singing and singing, Out of the lips of silence, Out of the earthy dusk.
After you have begun your reading and discussion of My Antonia (see the third bulleted item in Preparing to Teach, above), ask students to produce, either individually or in pairs, a map of Nebraska in the late nineteenth century, then trace Jim's journey from the Blue Ridge (Virginia) to Nebraska. Suitable maps of Nebraska may be found on the online exhibit, Solomon D. Butcher Photographs of the Nebraska Homestead Experience, a link on the EDSITEment resource, American Memory Collection.
Additional maps suitable for this assignment can found on the following websites:
By examining the path of Jim's journey, can students predict some of the possible dangers and surprises? How can this map of his journey help us to better understand Jim's perspective? (And why is it so important to keep Jim's perspective in mind as we read this novel?)
Next, ask students to read and annotate historical background information gained from the some of the Internet addresses described above to gain insight into pioneer living conditions. So that students develop a shared focus and common body of evidence, it is recommended that they incorporate primary and secondary resources found in archives of Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters, part of the American Memory Collection's special exhibit, "Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters, 1862–1912," from the Nebraska State Historical Society.
Students can record notes in a journal, or can tie historical artifacts to specific passages in the text of the novel, perhaps modeling their annotation on the example of the annotated hypertext edition of My Antonia, as discussed in the Preparation Instructions section.
As an alternative to or extension of students' independent annotation of the text, you can assign groups of students to one of the following tasks:
Depending on the options chosen, students can then present their findings in class in one of several formats: an individual oral report, a presentation by each group, or an exchange of quizzes.
(For further ideas about projects for learning about pioneer living conditions in nineteenth-century Nebraska, see Extending the Lesson.)
Students can use information gathered thus far to explore parallels between Cather's own life and that of the Great Plains pioneers depicted in the novel. Further biographical materials are available from the following sources:
If each student or small group of students has access to a computer (if, for example, the class is held in the school's computer lab), students may go to the websites noted below and take notes individually. If this option is not available, you can go to the websites and collect resources, providing students with handouts or providing the information as a lecture.
However the biographical contexts of this novel are learned, there are several options for considering the links between Cather's life and the persons and events described in her novel. One option is for students to record notes in a journal, tying biographical information to specific passages in the text of the novel, and perhaps modelling their annotation on the example of the annotated hypertext edition of My Antonia (discussed in the Preparation Instructions section).
As an alternative to or extension of students' independent annotation of the text, you can assign groups of students to one of the following activities:
Depending on the options chosen, students can then present their findings in class in one of several formats: an individual oral report, a presentation by each small group, or an exchange of quizzes (one possibility is to collate the quizzes and choose the best five questions for use as a study guide).
There are several possible capstone activities for this lesson, each of which asks students to analyze the cultural context of a work of literature and to respond to the guiding question: How does Willa Cather represent and interpret the values of fortitude, hard work, and faithfulness that we associate with pioneer life?
6-7 class periods