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My Ántonia Story, by Will Fellows

My Ántonia Story, by Will Fellows

A golden memory: that dull midwinter weekend almost forty years ago when, as a twenty-something college student, I was handed a paperback of a strangely titled novel, its author unfamiliar. Urged to give it a try, I was soon transfixed by the story, the characters, the narrative voice, the qualities of the prose, the vanished era it evoked.And, before long, by an unaccountably strong desire to know as much as I could about the life of its author.

I soon came to realize that I was just the sort of fan Willa Cather would have abhorred, given her deep privacy, her aversion to biographers, her belief that all anyone needed to know about her could be found in her published works. As I read more of Cather’s fiction, I was interested to see that even as she insisted on a solid wall of privacy for herself, she freely disclosed so much about the lives of others—individuals who were often easily recognized in her hometown.

It seems that Annie Pavelka, though apparently happy to have been the prototype for Ántonia, might have wished that the particulars of her first pregnancy had not been broadcast in the book. And what about Mathew and Agnes Bentley, that deeply unhappy couple on Cedar Street? Their deaths in 1912, a murder-suicide, cleared the way for Cather when she was writing My Ántonia several years later. Her portrayal of Mathew as the licentious Wick Cutter has a rascally quality—which is rather flattering when compared to her harsh, ridiculing portrait of Agnes as the ugly and desperate Mrs. Cutter.

“Willie” Cather never met the conventional standards for what a girl or woman was supposed to be. And it seems she never made much effort to do so. I have been intrigued and inspired by how confidently and well she seems to have made her own queer way, intact, amidst the profoundly conformist forces of her times. Her defiant self-possession, coupled with the sensibilities of one whose deepest romantic attractions were always to those of her own sex, must have been central to Cather’s desire to transform the seemingly mundane lives of Anna Sadilek Pavelka and others into the perennial treasure that is My Ántonia. It is Cather’s most deeply autobiographical account of her early years in Nebraska, framed as a boy’s story, told in a man’s voice.

Author's Bio

A longtime member of the Willa Cather Foundation, Will Fellows lives in Milwaukee with his husband, Bronze Quinton. He is the author of three books, from University of Wisconsin Press, exploring gay men’s lives: Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest; A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture; and Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s.