Review: My Ántonia , by Willa Cather
by Rich Horton
When I was younger -- even just 20 years younger -- I don't think I'd ever have thought that my two favorite American writers might end up being Edith Wharton and Willa Cather -- two near contemporaries (Wharton about a decade older) and two otherwise very different women, and very different writers, to each other. As that time I had a completely false view of Willa Cather's fiction, assuming it was dour, dreary, and message bound; and I had read nothing by Wharton save Ethan Frome, which is a novella I like but which is not characteristic of her work. My eventual entrée to Cather was also a novella: A Lost Lady (which is actually somewhat characteristic of much of her work.) I loved A Lost Lady (much as I also loved Wharton's The House of Mirth, which I read at about the same time) and I've since acquired many of her books. But I hadn't had time to get to her masterful "Prairie Trilogy": O Pioneers!, Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia. (I consider A Lost Lady a sort of pendant to those books.) But the time has finally come!Willa Cather Archive, maintained by the University of Nebraska, which has the text of her books (sometimes multiple editions) along with critical commentary, textual discussion, illustrations, etc.
Willa Cather was born in 1873 in Virginia. Her family moved to Nebraska in 1883. Cather published pieces in the Red Cloud, NE, newspaper early, but planned to become a doctor. But at the University of Nebraska she continued to write, and switched to an English major, graduating in 1894. She moved to Pittsburgh in 1896, and taught school while also working for magazines and newspapers, and publishing occasional stories. She moved to New York to join the editorial staff at McClure's in 1906. (I encountered some editorial correspondence between Cather and a McClure's contributor, H. G. Dwight, when I was writing about Dwight's collection Stamboul Nights.) McClure's serialized her first novel, Alexander's Bridge, in 1912, and the "prairie novels" soon followed. She won a Pulitzer in 1923 for her World War I novel One of Ours. (Wharton, in 1921, was the first woman to win the Pulitzer for Best Novel, and Cather was the second.)
Cather lived in New York from 1906 (summering in New Brunswick eventually), and from 1908 she lived with Edith Lewis. Her only other close relationships were with women, and so it is (plausibly) assumed by many that she was a Lesbian, but she never so identified (publicly.) Of course that last is easy to understand given societal pressures.
My Ántonia is introduced in (we presume) Cather's voice, as she recounts a meeting with an old friend from her Nebraska childhood, Jim Burden. Jim is now a successful New York lawyer, but they discuss their childhood, and especially the remarkable woman they knew, Ántonia Shimerda; and Jim proposes a dual memoir of her. A few months later, he dumps the manuscript on Cather's desk, and she confesses that she hadn't had time to write her half -- so the rest of the book is Jim Burden's story of his relationship with Ántonia.
(And already I have to make a comment -- that introduction is from the first edition, and from the audiobook version I listened to. I also have a print version, and the introduction is quite different there -- it's somewhat shorter, it lessens some critical (and rather snarky) comments about Jim Burden's wife, and it is not written so as to imply that the narrator of the introduction is Cather herself (for example, it removes a line that identified the narrator as a young girl when they knew Ántonia.) The critical consensus seems to be that the changes -- which occurred in the 1926 reissue -- are an improvement; and I can see the point, but I have to say I was intrigued by the paragraph or so about "Mrs. James Burden", and I didn't mind the identification of the narrator of the introduction as probably Cather.)
The novel (that is to say, Jim Burden's story) has five sections: "The Shimerdas", "The Hired Girls", "Lena Lingard", "The Pioneer Woman's Story", and "Cuzak's Boys". The first tells of Jim's few years on his grandparents' farm, of other local farmers and hands, in particular the Shimerdas, Bohemian immigrants who arrived with their daughter Ántonia (or Tony), who is 14 to Jim's 10, but who becomes his close friend (in part because at first she is the only Shimerda with any English.) The second is set after Jim and his grandparents move into town, followed soon by Ántonia and a number of other girls (most or all also immigrants) who work in town to make money for their families. The third follows some of the career of one of those girls, Lena Lingard, who moves to Lincoln around the same time Jim goes there to university. The fourth concerns Ántonia, and her disastrous "marriage" to a train man everyone but she knew was a cad, and her subsequent return, pregnant, to her family farm. And the final part is set around the time of Jim's meeting recounted in the introduction, when he had, for the first time in many years, visited Black Hawk and caught up with Ántonia, now truly married and the mother of a large family.
The story is centrally about Jim Burden and Ántonia, but there is a horde of further characters. The Shimerdas: Mr. Shimerda -- a skilled weaver and musician but a terrible farmer -- who has a hard time adapting. His elder son, Ambrosch, is surly, not terribly intelligent, but strong. The other son, Marek, is mentally disabled. The cranky and suspicious mother and her youngest daughter, Yulka. The Shimerdas' crooked countryman, Peter Kraijek, who lured them to Nebraska. Two Russian men, Pavel and Peter, who are trying to establish their farm near the Burdens. The Burdens' two farmhands, Otto Fuchs and Jake Marpole, who serve as sort of archetypes of the kind of lonely men who headed West to try to make a life, without the resources to really thrive, despite some real skills. All the "hired girls": Lena Lingard, Tiny Soderball, the "Bohemian Marys". The Harlings, who employ Ántonia when she moves to town: the father a successful businessman, his much admired son, who will go in the Navy, his impressive elder daughter, Frances, who becomes his business partner, Mrs. Harling, indulgent but rigid in some ways. Ántonia'a other employer, Wick Cutter, the crooked moneylender, and his wife, who hates him. Gaston Cleric, the professor at the university who becomes a mentor to Jim, and who is obviously coded as gay. (Jim's sexuality is less clear -- he marries, but there are no children and perhaps the couple are not close, his only other extended relationship with a woman is with Lena, and seems mostly or entirely platonic, he clearly adores Ántonia but there never seems a question that they'd be romantically involved (though at least to begin with that's explained by their age difference.)) The Widow Steavens, who buys the Burdens' farmhouse and is there to help Ántonia through her first pregnancy. Ántonia's eventual husband, Anton Cuzak, and their huge family, especially Ántonia's favorite, Leo.
There is little conventional plot but much in the way of incident. The Shimerdas' early struggles. Jim and Tony's encounter with a huge rattlesnake in a prairie dog colony. The horrifying story of the reason Pavel and Peter had to leave Russia. Controversy over the cow the Burdens sell the Shimerdas, and Ambrosch's careless ways with harnesses they lend him. Mr. Shimerda's suicide, and Otto making his coffin. Lena being attacked by Crazy Mary, who is convinced Lena is corrupting her husband. The sudden fashion for dancing in Black Hawk, when a couple of dancing instructors come to town. The story Ántonia tells of a tramp who convinces the men operating the threshing machine at harvest to let him help, then purposely falls into the machinery to commit suicide. The blind black piano player who comes to perform at the hotel in town. Ántonia nearly being raped. Ántonia running off to Denver on the promise of marriage to the slimy Larry Donovan, who soon deserts her. Her return, to go back to work on the farm and have her baby. Tiny Soderball's adventures -- running an inn in Seattle, then heading to Alaska for the Klondike Gold Rush, and returning, a wealthy woman, to live in Salt Lake City and San Francisco, with Lena nearby to keep her dressed even as Tiny makes sure Lena takes care of her own money. And finally Jim's visit to Ántonia -- which provides real closure.
So much to admire here -- so much to love. The characters are all completely real (and, to be sure, many were based to some extent or another on people Cather knew as a child ... with Jim Burden, arguably, being based somewhat on herself.) Ántonia is a wonderful character, though neither a saint nor a prodigy. (Unlike Alexandra Bergson, from O Pioneers!, who though flawed in many ways is truly a farming prodigy.) The novel is profoundly feminist, it seems to me -- so many of the major and minor women characters are powerful women making their own way: Ántonia of course, and Frances Harling, and Tiny Soderball, Lena Lingard, Mrs. Gardener (the innkeeper in town.) The book is also a story of immigrants -- who face problems including language, finance, homesickness, prejudice; and who sometimes surive heroically and sometimes fail. It's tremendously moving at times. And it's beautifully written.
A few short passages:
At Mr. Shimerda's funeral: "Years later, when the open grazing days were over, and the red grass had been plowed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie, when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines; Mr. Shimerda's grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross."
Ántonia and Jim watching a sunset: "All those fall afternoons were the same, but I never got used to them. As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero's death — heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day.
"How many an afternoon Ántonia and I have trailed along the prairie under that magnificence! And always two long black shadows flitted before us or followed after, dark spots on the ruddy grass."
The prairie under snow: "The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. As Ántonia said, the whole world was changed by the snow; we kept looking in vain for familiar landmarks. The deep arroyo through which Squaw Creek wound was now only a cleft between snow-drifts -- very blue when one looked down into it. The tree-tops that had been gold all the autumn were dwarfed and twisted, as if they would never have any life in them again. The few little cedars, which were so dull and dingy before, now stood out a strong, dusky green. The wind had the burning taste of fresh snow; my throat and nostrils smarted as if some one had opened a hartshorn bottle. The cold stung, and at the same time delighted one. My horse's breath rose like steam, and whenever we stopped he smoked all over. The cornfields got back a little of their color under the dazzling light, and stood the palest possible gold in the sun and snow. All about us the snow was crusted in shallow terraces, with tracings like ripple-marks at the edges, curly waves that were the actual impression of the stinging lash in the wind."
Jim at the end, following the track of the first road he and Ántonia took to their farms, as children: "On the level land the tracks had almost disappeared -- were mere shadings in the grass, and a stranger would not have noticed them. But wherever the road had crossed a draw, it was easy to find. The rains had made channels of the wheel-ruts and washed them so deep that the sod had never healed over them. They looked like gashes torn by a grizzly's claws, on the slopes where the farm wagons used to lurch up out of the hollows with a pull that brought curling muscles on the smooth hips of the horses. I sat down and watched the haystacks turn rosy in the slanting sunlight.
"This was the road over which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past."
Truly, Cather has no equal in depicting the great landscapes of the prairies. My Ántonia is a masterwork, one of the great American novels, on one of the most central American themes.