Published in quick succession between 1913 and 1918, Cather’s Prairie Trilogy experienced both critical and mainstream success. Cather’s novels were praised for a use of the then ‘casual’ American vernacular that told the story of regular American people of the frontiersmen era. The trilogy’s opening novel, O Pioneers!, was published in 1913. O Pioneers! tells the story of the Bergson family, a group of immigrants living in a fictional Nebraska town. It chronicles the life and times of Alexandra Bergson in the wake of her father’s death, when she must dedicate her life to sustaining the family farm in times of economic hardship. Alexandra struggles to support her family and the land her father has left. Her story features her own coming of age in her growing attraction to Carl Linstrum and explores notions typical of life in the Midwest, most notably, the idea of isolation.
The Song of the Lark would quickly follow its predecessor with publication in 1915. The second installment of Cather’s Prairie Trilogy tells the story of the artistically gifted Thea Kronborg in the fictitious Colorado town of Moonstone at the turn of the 20th century. Thea’s narrative begins with her departure of her family home in an ambitious pursuit of big city dreams, becoming a classically trained pianist. The novel explores Thea’s professional and personal struggles as she is driven desperately by her musical aspirations. Thea’s cross-country journey chronicles not only her professional journey, but an emotional one in her discovery of own her true gift, her voice.
The Prairie Trilogy’s arguably most famous episode and closing chapter was published in 1918. My Antonia received an overwhelmingly positive critical reception and remains Cather’s most loved work today. The novel opens with Jim Burden’s arrival in Black Hawk, Nebraska. Following his parents death he moves to the fictional town of the Great Divide to live with his aging grandparents. Jim quickly becomes infatuated with the beautiful Antonia, and their stories are tied together, knotted and unravel throughout Cather’s epic text. Cather’s use of tightly structured vignettes within the over-arching novel allow the reader to thoroughly explore Jim and Antonia’s characters, even though Jim is the text’s first person narrator. The vignettes encompass Jim’s life in its entirety from his move to Black Hawk into his adulthood, as well as dually telling Antonia’s story. The vignette narrative sketches of Jim’s time spent with Antonia (featuring the use of sexualized language to emulate the awakening of the text’s female characters, Antonia and Lena), Jim’s time spent at university and his budding relationship with Lena Lingard, and the corresponding fates of Jim and Antonia in their adulthood.
Following the release of her Prairie Trilogy, Willa Cather was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1923 for One of Ours, a novel of domestic turmoil and the sometimes convoluted infection of family inheritance. But it is Cather’s Prairie Trilogy that remains a true accomplishment in regional literature. Much like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor’s for the American South, Cather’s fiction of the Midwest still today embodies the fundamental beliefs in exploration and discovery and the commensurate pathos of isolation and loneliness.
By Lindsay Parnell