If there is one book I remember from high school, it's a book I never read. It was a book that my English teacher (can't remember now which year) would wax lyrical about. We were never required to read Willa Cather's My Ántonia (I'm not sure why it wasn't part of the curriculum), but it's a book she practically pleaded with us to read. And being a rebellious teenager and despite my bookish nature, I avoided it like the plague. You know how it goes. It's one thing to choose on your own and an entirely different story to have something thrust upon you. Superficially speaking it's an easy read really, despite being a masterpiece of twentieth century American literature. But would I have appreciated it? It's a novel of landscapes, both of the sweeping prairie and about interior landscape of the mind. It's about dreams and desires and a quest for happiness. Maybe it was the Nebraska setting. I was ready to get out and the last thing I wanted to read about was immigrants trying to reinvent themselves on the harsh Nebraska Prairie.
Although Willa Cather is identified with Nebraska she was born in Virginia in 1873 and moved with her family to Nebraska when she was nine. Much like the narrator of My Ántonia, Jim Burden, who also traveled from Virginia to Nebraska as a young boy, Willa lived for a time on a farm but later moved to Red Cloud. She was a fascinating woman by any standard, but she achieved so much in the early part of the twentieth century when life was anything but easy for women authors. I've already got Hermione Lee's Willa Cather: A Life Saved Up in the back of my mind to read soon--it's waiting patiently on my library's shelves for me. Cather attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (again like Jim) and edited the campus magazine. She published hundreds of essays, book and play reviews for local newspapers as well as for University magazines. When she was only twenty-three she moved to Pittsburgh where she was an editor, teacher and journalist, but it was later in New York where she really hit her stride and became the editor of McClure's magazine and then later a full-time and highly regarded writer.
My Ántonia, written in 1918, was Cather's breakthrough novel, which has never been out of print. She was forty-five, had four other books under her belt, and was on the cusp of having real success and acclaim. Critic H.L. Mencken called it "one of the best novels ever written by an American". And only four years later Cather would win the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, One of Ours. By this time she was becoming one of the most influential writers in the U.S., and according to the introduction to my book Truman Capote, newly arrived to New York City and only nineteen "stalked Cather for weeks in the Society Library until she finally spoke to him and invited him for hot chocolate at Longchamps (Capote said that he ordered a martini)."
Autobiographical in nature, Cather based My Ántonia on her experiences as a child in Red Cloud and much research has gone into discovering just who each character was based on. By the time she wrote the book life was changing quickly on the prairie. My Ántonia is an elegiac tale, one looking back with nostalgia to childhood events. The story begins with an unnamed narrator traveling by train through Iowa with her companion, Jim Burden. They grew up together in Black Hawk, but later both made their homes in New York. Crossing those heat soaked plains, they reminisce over their childhoods.
"The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one's childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron. We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said."
Their conversation that day turns again and again to one woman, Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian girl they knew long ago and admired. "More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhoods." Although the narrator had lost contact with her, Jim had found her again after many years and renewed their friendship. The two decide to write down their recollections of Ántonia. What follows is Jim's reminiscences of Ántonia, which begin with yet another train journey many years earlier when as an orphaned boy he travels to his grandparents who live in Nebraska. On that same train is an immigrant family including Ántonia, only a few years older than Jim.
Ántonia steals the show, but the story is as much about memory--Jim's memory of growing up with Ántonia, as it is about the immigrant experience in America. Ántonia is a true heroine. She arrives on the Plains with her family knowing not a word of English and constantly redefines herself to suit the often uncompromising conditions. Her indomitable spirit represents the men and women who settled these lands. Starting out in the most primitive of living conditions--a cave-like structure, then a sod house and then later a more traditional farmhouse, the Shimerdas endure tragedies and hardships. And Ántonia forgoes any sort of proper education in order to help work the land alongside her brother dressing in men's clothing and doing a man's work. She never gives in to defeat, even when she is betrayed. And you wonder who ultimately finds contentment and happiness--Ántonia who remains close to her newly formed roots or those who travel further abroad to New York or California.
Although this is a relatively simple and fast read, it's a carefully (and interestingly) structured novel. In the novel's introduction it's mentioned that Cather followed in the tradition of American writers such as Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Sarah Orne Jewett (another author I must get to soon I think), rather than in the footsteps of Anglophile Henry James who was one of her first models. The editor writes that "like Mark Twain, she worked to achieve the fluidity and improvisational energy of oral storytelling." And there are indeed many stories within this story--myths and folktales woven into it. What I especially like and would love to learn more about is that the novel has been called a work of Modernism.
"Recent criticism has recognized that My Ántonia--with its fluid structure, its self-consciousness about writing, its complicated, often unreliable narrators, its celebration of storytelling--is a major work of Modernism. Its inventiveness now seems all the more adventurous for having been published before James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), before F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), before Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927), before Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Absolom! Absolom! (1936)."
This isn't something I know much about, but I might just have to dig around a bit more and see what else the critics have to say about her.
This is a really lovely story--subtle in its message yet powerful in its telling. Twenty years later I feel I should thank you to my English teacher (wherever she is now) for urging me to read Willa Cather's My Ántonia. It's one I'll be revisiting someday, but until then I'll be working through the rest of her oeuvre.