100 year book club 1918: 8 things you might not know about My Antonia and its awesome feminist author

nebraska barn

1) In the first edition, an unnamed narrator chats with Jim Burden during a train journey and Jim talks about his unhappy marriage to a wealthy female activist. The narrator in the introduction to the first edition is female, many think it is meant to be Cather herself. Cather’s publisher asked for a revision for the second edition so we now have the milder opening without the mean, wealthy, female activist. The publisher sold Cather on the idea by telling her a new introduction would allow them to market the second edition as a brand new version – removing Jim Burden’s unhappy marriage just made good business sense.

2) You can buy a first edition (although with a facsimile dust jacket) for $2500 USD which is a pretty great price for the first edition of an American classic! Though still more than my monthly rent. There were 3500 copies made of the first printing and they’ve survived very well with many available in good condition. The dust jackets haven’t fared as well and it’s virtually impossible to find a copy with the original dust jacket.

3) The character of Antonia was based on a real woman, Annie Sadilek Pavelka. Annie Sadilek was a Czech immigrant who Cather came to know during her time in Nebraska. When Annie Sadilek was 24 she went west with a railroad employee but soon returned home, pregnant with her first child. She went on to have enough children to field a soccer team and establish a farm with her husband John Pavelka. The Pavelka farmstead is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

4) Annie Sadilek’s father Francis committed suicide during an awful blizzard and is buried under a crossroads, just like Antonia’s father in the book. Francis Sadilek’s suicide occurs three years before Cather meets the Sadilek family.

5) Cather, a feminist and all-around badass, decided at an early age to be a surgeon. She cut her hair, wore men’s clothing and began to refer to her self as William Cather, MD. She eventually attended the University of Nebraska and became a respected journalist and editor. Cather went on to receive an honorary degree from every university you can think of and became the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Princeton.

6) Cather was disappointed by by a 1934 film adaptation of her A Lost Lady and so she stipulated in her will that she did not allow any future adaptations of her work. Meaning the world is forever spared the Lifetime original movie My Antonia, with Lindsay Lohan in the title role. That said, her wishes were denied when in 1995 a TV movie (sadly  now only available on VHS) of My Antonia was made, with Neil Patrick Harris in the role of Jimmy Burden.

7) W.T. Benda created illustrations for the first edition at the request of Cather. An accomplished painter and illustrator, Benda is best know for the life-like masks he created for the stage.  Benda was a contemporary to Norman Rockwell but Benda’s version of the “American Girl” was dark and exotic, nothing at all like the rosy-cheeked, apple-pie beauty we think of as the classic American girl.

8) My Antonia lives on as we all hope to, as a beer. A hoppy pilsner from Dogfish Head Brewery to be exact. Beer Advocate gives the beer a score of 90 which is almost as good as the Pulitzer Willa Cather got for her version of My Antonia.



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