First published in 1918, My Antonia is a modernist novel. Modernism was a literary movement that began at the very end of the nineteenth century and continued until the end of the 1930s. It reached its peak during the 1920s, and it was characterized by a tone of experimentation. Authors innovated with narrative voice and structure, often foregoing linear plots in favor of more creative forms of narration. There was also a greater emphasis on a character's interiority - his thoughts, motivations, and unique consciousness. While My Antonia follows a conventional plot structure (with the exception of the frame narrative of the introduction), it is full of the rich, complex symbols and detailed character development that characterizes the modernist novel.
Modernism was a movement that encompassed both sides of the Atlantic (hence the term Anglo-American modernism). However, My Antonia presents a distinctly American vision of modernism. Often, modernist works evoke a sense of disillusionment with modern society, a feeling of fragmentation and despair at the increasing trends towards industrialization and urbanization. At other times, they present an idealized view of pre-industrialized, still innocent society (a literary trend called primitivism). My Antonia follows the second path and offers a vision of the idyllic world of the American West. Although by the time of the novel's publication, the frontier had already been mostly settled, Cather idealizes the American frontier and depicts it as a perfect alternative to the modern, corrupt world that we now live in. Cather glorifies frontier values of independence, hard work, and asceticism, and she implicitly contrasts it to the competition and isolation of modern society. Because Cather praises the country in favor of the city, the novel can also be considered a pastoral novel.
While Willa Cather lived a very discreet life, modern biographers note that her long-time companion was a woman, in what was most likely a lesbian relationship. At the time of the novel's publication, it probably would have been scandalous for her to have written My Antonia in the voice of a woman. It is interesting to think about the novel in the context of Cather's biography and to consider how it might have been different had she written in a voice closer to her own.