Willa Cather (1873-1947) was an American writer of extraordinary emotional intelligence and unsurpassed literary excellence. Her writing is as crisp and clean as river ice, as luxurious as new-spun wool and as richly textured as farmland topsoil. She was an artist of incredible depth of feeling, for her characters, as well as for the land and the past that they grew out of. She was also the greatest admirer and chronicler of the kind of love, luck and endurance of hardship that it takes to be a pioneer. She brought all of these qualities and abilities to bear in My Ántonia.
It is the story of a love and a life-long reverence held by a man for a woman who was his childhood friend and companion, since the time they both were transplanted - he, an orphan at 10, from Virginia and she an immigrant child of 14, from Bohemia (the modern day Czech Republic) - to the unbroken, unploughed plains of Nebraska in the 1890’s.
While he joins his Grandparents on the family’s already successful farm, she and her family move into a turf-shed dwelling and begin the arduous task of learning to farm – and survive - in this strange, hard land. It is, at once, an enchanting prairie-pioneer tale of immigrant origins, hardships and endurance and a paean to the character, strength and real beauty of a woman who centers the story, Ántonia Shmirida, in the heart and soul of the narrator, Jim Burden. In a sense that can only be true in an authentic paean, Ántonia is the story.
Out of apparently conflicted feelings about life on the plains that she, herself, had grown up on (Willa Cather actually was that transplanted child from Virginia) Cather was able to embrace the mythology of the pioneer spirit, with its deep reverence for the virgin land and the sturdy, rough character of its early (late 19th century) settlers - farmers, herders, and businessmen, alike - and turn it into a personal odyssey. She did this out of a strongly felt preference and connection, not to her youth per se, but to her past, as such. Even after moving to Pennsylvania and finally New York, her first four novels and two short-story collections came out of, and recycled, the events and people she had come to know in Red Cloud, Nebraska between 9 and 15 years of age. Even, and especially, in her later years the past, itself, became more and more the dominant theme of her work. In an ecstasy of nostalgic romanticism, and taking her cue from the Georgics of Virgil, Willa Cather set out to
She was an unusual woman-writer of her age. A teacher, an editor, and a writer by turns, she rarely consorted with other writers socially (She also never wrote reviews of, or encouraged others to read, modern authors, instead recommending George Eliot and Shakespeare to her students and friends.), except for Sarah Orne Jewett, the great short-story writer from Maine, who advised and encouraged Cather to write her fiction from a woman’s point of view. Willa Cather demurred.
Like all of her fiction, this tale is told from the point of view of a man, in this case Jim Burden --the young companion of Ántonia Shmirida, and the chaste, life-long devotee of her adoration. Why? Well, it is probably the same reason (never explicitly given) for her not marrying: probably because same sex marriage was not legal then, as it is not, generally, legal now. You see, Willa Cather was decidedly gay.
There is little doubt in my mind, now having read My Ántonia, that the almost ecstatic adoration of Ántonia (whomever in Cather's memory she represents), which is lavishly and lovingly expressed in the novel, was the kind of feeling which the artist knew, in 1918, she could not express otherwise than directly, i.e. as an ardent lover speaking her mind in the first person. That option, however, being socially unacceptable left her with only the half-clever ruse of the chaste and lovelorn male narrator. Poor Jim must yearn and long for his beloved, Ántonia, with a love sanctified by renunciation and devotion, just as Willa Cather must have. For, the love is very real, no doubt about it. I felt it. But can an author fall in love with her own character. (Perhaps she had someone else in mind.) One cannot read this novel without an overwhelming sense of the author’s personal commitment. This novel is a claim-staking pronouncement as much as it is anything!
Accepting this caveat, the narration of this novel is exquisitely beautiful. The story is a Romance, in the literal and best sense of the term, episodically treating of the pioneer spirit and constituting a mini-saga of personal endurance. It is as focused on the ordinary trials and triumphs of immigrant life on the plains, generally, as it is on the unusual disruptions that inject themselves into the lives of the people –or on the love story. Interestingly, and pointedly I think, Ántonia does not need to endure greater hardships than many others to earn this paean from Jim/Cather. But the elegy rings as true about the land and, especially about the past, as it does about her singular heroism.
In a way, the heroine is, herself, a stand-in for posterity, and this is a large part of the charm of this story. Cather celebrates, in My Ántonia, her firmer grasp of that usually fleeting sense of how the people and things that once were important to us endure in memory as real presences in our lives forever after. And it is her inordinate power of evocation of such connections, moments and themes that makes this story thoroughly compelling. The poignant images and symbols that fairly abound from beginning to end are truly luscious:
The lush and detailed descriptions of nature, from the wildflowers to the red grasses of the plain, the heroic accent on characters as types, the antipodal flux of narrative tone from idyllic to utopian to dystopian to the mundane, with the recurrent resonance of destiny; the juxtaposition of occasional violence (even horror) with the bucolic routine, the tender velleity of nostalgia with the deep passion of enduring love; the palpably erotic fascination with the bare legs and feet of the farm-girls, with the etherial beauty of Antonia herself, the stark plough abandoned on the prairie, which is darkly silhouetted by the redness of the setting sun, and the vision of so many children pouring from the cavern of the fruit-cellar, like the very gush of life, itself. This is (late) Romanticism, with a capital-R, --at its best.
Lest my gushing enthusiasm mislead the reader, I hasten to add that this literary ebullience is carefully measured. In fact, the lack of quotation in this article is due, mainly, to the fact that Cather’s style is an inextricable fabric of brilliant emotional summations. To take one or two lines out of their context will inevitably result in mis-leading the reader.
Her episodic construction of My Ántonia is, likewise, a considered judgment. This theme and its amazing cast of characters has the makings, surely, of an epic, of a true American saga; but that is not what Willa Cather was after -–that’s why I have insisted on characterizing it as a paean. Hers, I believe, was primarily a personal and a poetic intent. And she succeeded, brilliantly, with a concision and acuity of form that Sappho, herself, would envy.
Perhaps, one should read this novel with the appropriate musical accompaniment and, perhaps even, a hanky – perhaps the Symphony from the New World, by Antonín Dvořák – played once before and once again after the reading!