My Ántonia by Willa Cather. Recommended.
Willa Cather is known as the chronicler of the American prairie and frontier, having written such novels as O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. My Ántonia is also set in the prairie midwest, Nebraska, where the Jim Burden finds himself living with his paternal grandparents after the death of his parents in Virginia and where Ántonia Shimerda and her family find themselves in search of a better life than that offered by their native Bohemia. The tale, or series of tales, are told by lawyer Jim Burden as his remembrances of Ántonia. Tellingly, when he hands over his manuscript to a journalist who also knew Ántonia, he adds the “My” in front of her name, which “seemed to satisfy him.”
My Ántonia is an episodic novel, and Ántonia herself is often absent from the story. In many ways, she did not seem to me to be a clearly defined, real character or even a part of the novel named for her, but more of a symbol of the westward expansion and growth of America.
Ántonia — daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother — seems to be an everywoman. She is sensual and maternal, intelligent and hard working, naïve and shrewd. While narrator Jim Burden finds her attractive and desirable, their relationship never extends beyond friendship. This is an interesting point, since the framing narrator does not find much to praise in the woman Jim Burden marries, whom he describes in oddly masculine terms: “handsome, energetic, executive, but to me she seems unimpressionable and temperamentally incapable of enthusiasm.” She may be Mrs. Burden but she is not my Ántonia.
Ántonia’s family, the Shimerdas, are a reminder that, despite snobbery on the part of long-settled families, there is no American who didn’t originate elsewhere. One character says, “So it’s Norwegians now, is it? I thought this was Americy.” Americy, poor and wealthy, rural and urban, is a society built not around a common history, past, or ethnic background, but around the land. For Ántonia’s father, Mr. Shimerda, the bleak land of winter cannot replace the richness of the camaraderie of his Bohemian friends at home. Even the Bohemians in the new country cannot compensate for the loss — they are, after all, now Americans. Fittingly, Mr. Shimerda rests at a crossroads, where man marks where the four directions meet.
Small-town America is no less provincial than its European prototype. In Blackhawk, Ántonia and the other “country girls” bring what the new country needs to grow as Jefferson envisioned: youth, enthusiasm, and unfettered sensuality that threatens the newly settled middle class.
As in other Cather novels, most notably The Song of the Lark, no matter how fond characters may be of their rural roots, opportunity in America lies elsewhere — for Jim Burden, as a lawyer working for a western railway and living in New York, far removed from Blackhawk and his life on his grandparents’ farm. Ántonia, however, after a disastrous sojourn in Denver, finds herself back in the country, doing what many American women had done before and have done since — raising the future generations the new country needs.
While Jim contributes to industrial growth, Ántonia is Earth Mother, producing the future. There may be a feminist dig here; Cather and her characters are well aware that, for now, the nature of opportunities for men and women are worlds apart, as is the nature of what they can accomplish. Indeed, the topic troubles Burden as he watches the activities of the country girls. In the end, he marries the woman the framing narrator does not like while Ántonia the sensualist seems spiritually free in her earthy existence.
My Ántonia is the story of America — written by those like Jim Burden, but also written by Norwegians, Swedes, Bohemians — and Africans, as Cather works in the story of the blind piano and his “instrument,” a double entendre for his piano and his sensuality. To understand America and her story, you must understand Jim, Ántonia, Ántonia’s grasping brother and mother — fand Mr. Shimerda, too. Each is the evolution of the new land born of the old.
24 May 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf