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B E T H B O H L I N G Superior, Nebraska The Husband of My Antonia “I am the husband of My Antonia!” Thus John Pavelka once proudly identified himself at a Hastings hospital.1Students of Willa Cather and members of the Pavelka family know that, in addition to being Anton Cuzak, in My Antonia,2John Pavelka was also the prototype for Anton Rosicky, who emerges in the short story “Neighbour Rosicky”3as one of the few strong male characters in Cather fiction. Much has been written of Anna Pavelka, prototype for Antonia, but what of her husband, John? Was he the good-natured man of little force who had kept to the land only because of Antonia’s leadership, as he appears in the novel, or the bulwark of strength, holding his family to the land through love, understanding and example, which he seems in the short story? Or both of these? Or neither, given Cather’s insistence that of all her characters only Mrs. Harling in My Antonia was lifted directly from real life? All other characters, she maintained, were composite figures, even Antonia herself.4 The real-life John Pavelka was born April 9, 1859, in Czechoslovakia near Prague. At the age of 13 he went to the city of Vienna where he learned the trade of a tailor. He remained in Vienna until he was 18, when he was inducted into the army of Austria and served 18 months.5 In 1879, his parents decided to come to the United States. In a questionnaire on file at the Willa Cather Pioneer Museum in Red Cloud, Lucille Pavelka, Anna’s first-born whom John raised as his own, says that he came with his parents in order to escape war training.0 At any rate, he secured a discharge and accompanied them. The parents and some other relatives apparently settled in the north part of Catherland, near Blue Hill and Bladen. Either immediately, as Lucille’s questionnaire indi­ 30 Western American Literature cates, or after two years as a tailor’s apprentice in New York City, accord­ ing to an interview with his son Leo, John visited in the Catherton area for some time. Leo says his father “liked Nebraska fairly well,” but never­ theless decided to go to California. Rather than returning to his trade as a tailor, he took a job in either vineyards (Lucille) or a winery (Leo) for a couple of years.7 His children agree that he then served as foreman of a lumber mill for a number of years. At the time of his death, the Bladen Enterprise said he had served “for fourteen years as foreman and nightwatchman for the Korbel Bros., owners of the largest lumber mills in the state of Cali­ fornia.”8 While working in California, John began putting money away to purchase a farm in Nebraska. Upon his return he met Anna Sadilek, and they were married on February 9, 1896, at the Catholic Church in Red Cloud and settled in the Prairie Gem neighborhood between Red Cloud and Blue Hill. After a few years on one farm, they moved to a farm nearer Bladen, where John was to live the rest of his life, and where Willa Cather visited them prior to writing My Antonia. This farm had a two-room house on it, and here some of the children, including Leo, were born. Later they moved another house onto the farm and the first house became the granary. As the family grew, additional rooms were added to the new house. The farm was one quarter section in size, and Leo remembers it as “a long time before we had more land to farm.” In real life, John and Anna had 13 children, three of whom died in infancy. This number included Anna’s illegitimate daughter, Lucille. Leo said he never knew Lucille was his half-sister until a cousin got mad at him at school and taunted him about his illegitimate sister. There were six boys, Hugo, Louis, Leo, Clement, Emil and Edward, and four girls, Lucille, Julia, Antonette and Elizabeth. John and Anna planted the orchard — all kinds of trees. To...


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