My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Willa Cather’s 1918 novel, My Ántonia, places itself in the history of world literature about two-thirds of the way through, when its narrator, Jim Burden, goes to college and contemplates the career of Virgil:
After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the Aeneid unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the Georgics, where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, “I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.”
Disclaiming epic heroism, modeling poetry on manual labor, consecrating in pastoral literature a new patria, Cather announces her desire to go beyond mere regionalism or local color writing, like that of her mentor Sarah Orne Jewett, and inaugurate instead an austere American classicism. In this intention, she is akin to her modernist contemporaries (especially Pound and Eliot) despite her surface-level smoothness and realism.
My Ántonia begins with a nameless narrator encountering her old small-town friend Jim Burden on a train; both now professionals in New York City, they like to reminisce about their prairie youth, among the Bohemian and Norwegian immigrants in Nebraska, now that they are middle-aged. Jim reveals that he has written a “formless” manuscript, a memoir of his relationship with a Bohemian girl named Ántonia. On a “stormy” afternoon, the “romantic” Jim delivers the manuscript to the narrator—it is the novel we are about to read.
Divided into five episodic sections—it is really a cycle of two novellas and three short stories, its plotlessness and fragmented structure also joining it to modernism (cf. Ulysses, Cane, To the Lighthouse, The Sound and the Fury, etc.)—the novel is Jim’s account of his own life insofar as it has touched Ántonia’s.
The first and longest section, “The Shimerdas,” tells of how Jim, having lost both his parents, is sent from Virginia to the rudimentary settler society of Nebraska in the late nineteenth century to live with his grandparents. There, he meets the titular immigrant family, with whose oldest daughter Ántonia he develops a special rapport. The early passages cast the initially unpromising prairie as a natural utopia where men and woman and nature may join. Here are Jim and Ántonia (and her sister Yulka) in the wild:
We sat down and made a nest in the long red grass. Yulka curled up like a baby rabbit and played with a grasshopper. Ántonia pointed up to the sky and questioned me with her glance. I gave her the word, but she was not satisfied and pointed to my eyes. I told her, and she repeated the word, making it sound like “ice.” She pointed up to the sky, then to my eyes, then back to the sky, with movements so quick and impulsive that she distracted me, and I had no idea what she wanted. She got up on her knees and wrung her hands. She pointed to her own eyes and shook her head, then to mine and to the sky, nodding violently.
“Oh,” I exclaimed, “blue; blue sky.”
She clapped her hands and murmured, “Blue sky, blue eyes,” as if it amused her.
American and European, human and animal, word and gesture, eye and sky—all blend here in a Wordsworthian or Emersonian unity of all things. In this fusion with his world, Jim is richly compensated for the loss of his family and homeland.
Such pastoralism is high artifice in disguise as artlessness; it is the yearning of the city mouse for a simplicity the country mouse never actually experiences. Virgil knew this as well as anyone, and Cather knows it too. Over the course of the long first section, nature shows itself to be no “nest” for human beings. On an excursion, Jim and Ántonia encounter a snake:
I whirled round, and there, on one of those dry gravel beds, was the biggest snake I had ever seen. He was sunning himself, after the cold night, and he must have been asleep when Ántonia screamed. When I turned, he was lying in long loose waves, like a letter “W.” He twitched and began to coil slowly. He was not merely a big snake, I thought—he was a circus monstrosity. His abominable muscularity, his loathsome, fluid motion, somehow made me sick. He was as thick as my leg, and looked as if millstones couldn’t crush the disgusting vitality out of him.
Jim later implies that the snake is the devil (“the ancient eldest Evil), while the psychoanalytic critic will see a phallus; both interpretations are too crude and literal, but the snake is akin to the devil in revealing that not all of the universe means humanity well and akin to sexuality in showing nature to be an overmastering and devouring force rather than a benevolent womb. One of the novel’s many interpolated stories echoes this theme, when the dying Russian immigrant Pavel tells of how, back in the Old Country, he sacrificed both bride and groom to a pack of wolves pursuing a bridal party across the snowbound landscape. And this section’s central event, the grisly suicide of Mr. Shimerda, is not one simple pastoral can accommodate. Jim’s grandfather’s solemn Protestant piety (he says of the Catholic Mr. Shimerda’s religious practice, “The prayers of all good people are good”) does not quite apply to the realities of the world.
The second section, “The Hired Girls,” moves the action three years ahead and from country to town. From pastoral regionalism, the novel becomes a “revolt from the village.” As he passes through adolescence, Jim grows more and more disgusted with the life of small-town America:
This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny. People’s speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution. The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their own kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark. The growing piles of ashes and cinders in the back yards were the only evidence that the wasteful, consuming process of life went on at all.
To this self-inflicted impotence, he contrasts the liveliness of the titular “hired girls”—Ántonia and a number of other young immigrant women from the country now working in domestic service or hospitality in town. Jim judges these to be “real women,” in distinction to his pallid, vapid, neotenous female classmates. Yet Jim never goes beyond dancing and kissing with the hired girls, neither Ántonia nor her formidable foil, Lena Lingard. Lena was also a barefoot country girl when Jim first encountered her, but she has become a figure of fashionable and urbane eroticism. She represents to him an engulfing sexuality from which he flees, but he also cannot choose the comparatively sexless Ántonia, with whom he has shared only innocent and childish energy. Cather makes this clear, in her subtle way, by contrasting the women’s dancing styles:
To dance “Home, Sweet Home,” with Lena was like coming in with the tide. She danced every dance like a waltz, and it was always the same waltz—the waltz of coming home to something, of inevitable, fated return. After a while one got restless under it, as one does under the heat of a soft, sultry summer day.
When you spun out into the floor with Tony, you didn’t return to anything. You set out every time upon a new adventure. I liked to schottische with her; she had so much spring and variety, and was always putting in new steps and slides. She taught me to dance against and around the hard-and-fast beat of the music.
This section of the novel ends with a frightening encounter with the town debt-collector, the cruel and dissolute seducer and rapist Wick Cutter, his almost ludicrously suggestive name implying that this novel narrates a failure of the sexual impulse.
Subsequent chapters—all three of them much shorter—are a falling off. Though Jim is bound, like his creator, for the east and the city, he returns three times to the scenes and persons of his youth. One year after “The Hired Girls,” he almost marries Lena Lingard, now a successful clothier; two years after that, he comes back to hear of Ántonia’s abandonment by her fiancé and her delivery of a child out of wedlock; and twenty years later, he travels back to greet Ántonia’s enormous family on their successful farm. Eulogizing her children as “an explosion of life” and herself as “a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races,” he realizes that they have shared “the precious, the incommunicable past,” which is, the novel everywhere suggests, infinitely superior to the degraded present.
The novel has other pleasures besides nostalgia. I love the characters’ deadpan way with death, as when Ántonia describes the suicide of a tramp who threw himself into a thresher and concludes, “and the machine ain’t never worked right since”; this is more convincing than anything else in the book of the superiority of laboring, immigrant, rural life to the oversensitivity of the urbane.* And the novel’s episodic nature is fragmented even further by all the vital oral tales Jim is privy to, from the aforementioned horror story of the Russian bridal party to the interpolated account of how some of the immigrant girls got rich in the Klondike, like a tantalizing little précis of a Jack London novel as re-written by a feminist. The tale-telling motif, like the Virgil allusions, links the novel to much older traditions.
Cather’s renovation of pastoral is worth remarking too. The landscape of pastoral usually involves the Greeks’ and Romans’ Mediterranean sunlight or Shakespeare’s and the Romantics’ “green and pleasant land,” not the flat plains of middle America. Cather invokes their cultural emptiness early on—
There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land—slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction.
—and to watch her fill them with significance is to see literary history in the making.
But nostalgia is the novel’s keynote all the same. Jim’s (and Cather’s) nostalgia is powered by the novel’s depiction of endless missed connections. Jim’s life is erotically incomplete, as his inadequate marriage, described on the first page, attests. Yet he could never have consummated his love for Ántonia; she may be a mine of life, but he has consistently described her as androgynous and sexually self-sufficient, and he moreover associates her with the pre-sexual pleasures of childhood. But when raw desire in the form of Lena Lingard presents itself, he talks a big game in his narration (“I knew where the real women were”) but flees all the same. Sexuality, like the rest of adult life, is fallen. Only childhood’s nest of nature is pure and true, never mind that nature is also the disgusting snake and the devouring wolf and Lena’s sultriness.
Critics may like to explain the novel’s portrayal of inevitable sexual failure with reference to what they presume to be Cather’s closeted lesbianism, but this is insulting (as if to say that lesbians could not love!). Think rather of what sexual renunciation meant to Cather’s literary models: James, Flaubert—and Virgil. The artist on their model may pay tribute to the worker and the mother, the soldier and the lover, but at the cost of becoming none of these. Art is the fire that purges the desire out of which families and nations are made. Every real poet is not Aeneas planting his flag but Dido burning on her pyre.
* Politically, the novel could be said to endorse the conservative case for immigration. The populist or nationalist cases against immigration, whether left or right, are based on claims that immigration harms the current populace economically or culturally, while the left-liberal case for immigration holds that individual and collective identity is sufficiently fluid and malleable to render the very concept of the nation untenable. Cather’s view is rather that America’s founding stock is enervated—either shut up in piously hypocritical small towns or mired in the complex triviality of the cities—and in need of quite literal new blood. Jim Burden himself, presumably a scion of Virginia planters, is portrayed as a great financial success and a participant in the country’s economic advancement as a lawyer for “one of the great Western railways,” yet he is caught in a childless and loveless marriage to a New York society hostess described as a kind of 1918 version of Lena Dunham; no wonder his only solace is his reminiscence of “the real women” of the immigrant communities with whom he used to dance the Nebraska nights away. Accordingly, Cather suggests, this enfeebled old order needs the refreshment of a people more vital in both labor and love if the country is not to sink into decadence. Note the implication that multiculturalism—like the very concept of culture itself, with its underlying organic (“cultivation”) and religious (“cult”) meanings—is inherently conservative.