Willa Cather’s My Antonia is one of those novels I saw as having faded into a genteel but deserved obscurity. Anything that struck readers in 1918 as innovative or shocking had long since become quaint, I believed, leaving little to command the attention of modern men and women.
So I was delighted by how good I found My Antonia. Much of my delight came from Cather’s quietly exquisite prose. Her descriptions of the natural world are masterful, although she does a pretty good job of making her characters and situations feel real and convincing, too.
Here is a sample from the narrator’s first impression of the prairie:
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
My Antonia’s episodic structure – the novel is a collage of stories – has a pleasantly proto-modernist flavor (without the tricky syntax). The novel made me wonder about its relationship to Cather’s own life. And in the end, it delivered a grand thematic and emotional wallop.
I warmly recommend it. Here are some details.
My Antonia – The Obligatory Plot Summary
Cather’s novel takes the form of a memoir written by James Quayle Burden, a childhood friend of Antonia’s four years her junior, who arrives in the Nebraska town of Black Hawk on the same day she does. Jim is an orphan from Virginia who has traveled west to be raised by his grandparents. Antonia has immigrated with her family to America from Bohemia (the present day Czech Republic).
For many years, their lives run parallel to each other. First, they are neighbors on country farms situated near each other on a prairie just beginning to be brought under cultivation. Later, they are neighbors in Black Hawk where Jim has moved with his grandparents and Antonia has been hired as a cook and housekeeper. They are separated when Jim leaves Black Hawk to attend university and then settles down to a job and a marriage in New York City. Twenty years later, at the end of the novel, Jim finally returns to Nebraska and seeks out Antonia.
Despite the title, My Antonia is primarily Jim’s story and Antonia and her family can disappear for pages and even chapters at a stretch. The novel finds the time to tell the stories of the hired men who work for Jim’s grandparents; to talk about other immigrant families besides Antonia’s, especially other young farm girls who are hired to work for households in Black Hawk; to describe the residents and observe the culture of the town; and to relate the details of Jim’s love affair with one of Antonia’s friends, Lena Lingard.
Is Jim Burden Willa Cather?
In general, I think it is a bad idea to make inferences about a writer’s life from her novels.
One of the great advantages of fiction is that it allows you to tell readers everything and nothing about yourself – to be wholly candid and entirely private at the same time. And Willa Cather seems to have valued her privacy, considering how many of her private letters and papers she destroyed before her death.
Nevertheless, Willa does make it hard to resist the temptation to equate her with Jim Burden in My Antonia, even though Cather almost certainly intended us to see her as the “I” that appears in the introduction.
Both Burden and Cather moved from Virginia to Nebraska when they were ten years old. Both attended the University of Nebraska (although Jim ultimately earns his degrees from Harvard). Both settled in New York City although their lives are possessed my memories of the prairie. Both write their books, the same book as it happens, in their forties.
Both also admire the same women: the strong, self-supporting, and independent immigrant hired girls who – with the exception of Antonia – never marry or have children.
This brings up the inevitable question of whether Cather was a lesbian and transposed herself into Jim’s character in order to write inconspicuously.
I’m an agnostic on the “Was Willa Cather a lesbian?” question (if that is actually the right question). That she sometimes dressed as a man and used the nickname “William” at university, and that she lived for nearly 40 years with the editor Edith Lewis, are generally known and rather indicative facts.
Whether Cather had sex with Edith or other women is, to the best of my knowledge, unknown and I believe it is equally unknown what Cather considered herself to be, sex or no sex. Cather’s opinion is the only valid one in the matter, of course, and she is beyond the means of telling.
Which leaves the questions of what My Antonia meant to Cather a tantalizing mystery which gives the novel, to me, some extra shimmers of meaning.
My Antonia – The Great America Novel?
This is the crown that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has worn for decades but I wonder if he didn’t steal it from Cather.
For all their differences, both The Great Gatsby and My Antonia are books profoundly occupied with the past and how happiness resides there rather than the present. They both locate the past in the Midwest and the present in New York City. They are both occupied with a woman from the past, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Antonia in Cather’s novel. And they both derive their greatest emotional power by evoking the natural world of the new continent before it came to be corrupted by men and society.
In Gatsby, it is Nick Carraway dreaming on the last page of the novel of the “fresh, green breast of the new world” the Dutch sailors first saw when they arrived in America, and concluding, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
In My Antonia, this fresh world still exists during Jim and Antonia’s childhood, although it slowly disappears as they age.
Indeed, the great thematic arch of My Antonia is the parallel motion of Jim growing from child to adult, and moving from the natural world to the city. Jim spends his childhood on farms in Virginia and then the great unsettled prairie. As an adolescent, he moves into a small country town. As a young man, he goes the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and then Harvard in Boston. As an adult, he settles, marries, and works in New York City.
There Jim finds a world of money and machines, work and relationships as unsatisfactory as Fitzgerald’s characters found it. The difference is that for Jim his old life isn’t utterly irretrievable.
In the last line of the novel he tells us, speaking of himself and Antonia, “Whatever we have missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”