Willa Cather (1918) – My Antonia

There is an elaborate hall-of-mirrors here. The text is encapsulated in three levels of indirection. This is a book written by Cather, a woman. The Introduction purports to have been written by a woman—a writer who lives in New York and who, “as a little girl,” knew the eponymous Antonia Cuzak (nee Shimerda). The narrator tells us that the main text was written by a man, an old friend, Jim Burden, who “grew up in the same Nebraska town” and that she and Burden both admired Antonia. It was “a friendship that meant a great deal to him” and the narrator recalls “all her old affection for her.” The narrator and Jim made a pact to write their separate remembrances of Antonia, but only Jim actually did so. Apparently with some sadness, the narrator declares at the end of the Introduction

My own story was never written … the following narrative is Jim’s … substantially as he brought it to me. (p.xii)

We never hear from the narrator again. Why was her story never written? We never learn. All we see is this tantalizing glimpse of regret. The word “substantially” would imply that the narrator actually made some changes to the text before publishing it, but we don’t know what they were, or why. And we never learn the identity of the narrator, who by implication may well be one of the characters in Jim’s narrative.

It is as odd an introduction as I can remember in any other work. It suggests that something about the story and its associations were fraught for the author, and compelled her (as far as an author may be said to be compelled by the process of writing) to flirt with those issues by distant implication and to leave their explication unresolved and hanging over her readers for all time. It sets a misty, almost mythical tone for the solid and generally unmysterious narrative that is the majority of the text.

Who is Antonia? We have no direct access to Antonia’s thoughts and feelings. Everything is hearsay. We learn only what Jim Burden chooses to tell us (subject, of course, to whatever the narrator of the Introduction has altered). And what Jim has chosen to record is as much an indication of who he is as of who Antonia is.

And whose Antonia is she, anyway? Jim lays claim to her when he gives his manuscript the title “My Antonia.” Antonia’s father refers to her that way when he begs Jim’s grandmother to teach her to read and write, but he doesn’t refer to Yulka that way when he shows Jim and his Grandmother the little hole in which Yulka and Antonia sleep. “Yulka; my Antonia,” he says. Jim notices. Later, after Mr. Shimerda’s death, Jim recalls that he

Mused to think of the tone in which Mr. Shimerda, who could say so little, yet managed to say so much when he exclaimed, ‘My Antonia!’ (p.91)

Mrs. Steavens, when she tells Jim the story of Antonia’s marriage disaster calls her “My Antonia that had so much good in her.” And later, the town photographer identifies a picture saying, “That’s Tony Shimerda’s baby. You remember her; she used to be the Harling’s Tony.” But ultimately, it is Jim’s Antonia—Antonia as he interprets her—that we come to know.

At the same time, this is very much Jim’s story, the story of an intelligent and sensitive boy who, at the age of ten was smitten by an intelligent and sensitive girl four years his senior; and the vicissitudes of that relationship as it is battered, nearly beyond recognition, by the realities of life. The four-year difference between them looms large in their eyes and, but not so large as to prevent them from developing a deep bond.

But a single incident—the apparent suicide of Antonia’s father—begins to separate them intellectually, and over the next three years they slowly and inexorably begin to separate emotionally as well. After the death of her father, Antonia’s brother Ambrosch is thrust into the role of family provider, a role that had been rather ineffectually played by their father. Antonia is correspondingly thrust into Ambrosh’s former role: that of the eldest son. No longer can the Shimerdas afford the luxury—a luxury her father would have favored—of Antonia obtaining a serious education. Antonia coarsens and an unsympathetic Jim reports.

Everything was disagreeable to me. Antonia ate so noisily now, like a man, and she yawned often at the table and kept stretching her arms over her head as if they ached. Grandmother had said, ‘Heavy field work’ll spoil that girl. She’ll lose all her nice ways and get rough ones.’ She had lost them already. (p.91)

Jim resents what he perceives as Antonia’s “indifference.” But his grandfather—a remarkably sensitive and pragmatic man—asks Antonia to come over and help Jim’s grandmother in the kitchen, ostensibly as a way to earn a little money. Jim discovers that, away from the tensions of her family, Antonia still contains her former self.

‘I like your grandmother, and all things here,’ she sighed. ‘I wish my papa live to see this summer. I wish no winter ever come again.’

‘It will be summer a long while yet,’ I reassured her. ‘Why aren’t you always nice like this, Tony?’

‘How nice?’

‘Why, just like this; like yourself. Why do you all the time try to be like Ambrosch?’

She put her arms under her head and lay back, looking up at the sky. ‘If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.’ (p.101)

When Jim is thirteen or fourteen, Jim’s grandparents move from their farm to a house in town. Jim still has a crush on Antonia, but the four years separating their ages are still something of a problem, at least (by Jim’s report) in the eyes of those whose tongues wag maliciously because in high school he spends time with Antonia and her friends rather than Girls His Own Age. Ah, high school. I remember the scandalous tint that colored reports of High School Girls dating College Men (admittedly, an age difference in the other direction). As a junior in high school, I was rebuffed by a senior girl whom I asked to a dance. Whether it was true or not, what she told me (which would have stood up as a valid excuse in the court of high school social law) was that she didn’t date below her grade.

It is clear by this point, that as a practical matter Jim and Antonia are growing farther and farther apart socially and intellectually. Whatever hopes the reader may have had of Jim and Antonia marrying to settle down on a farm and raise a family are now just wishful thinking. They are still friends, but Antonia is being courted by Larry Donovan and Jim, who plans to go to college, is not ready for marriage and knows it enough to settle for carping about how Larry Donovan is not right for her. We later discover just how right Jim was, but there is no satisfaction for Jim in knowing that his assessment was correct.

Eventually, after the peculiar episode of Mr. Cutter (about which, more, later), Jim breaks with Antonia. He goes east, she goes west (at least for the duration of her not-to-be marriage). On a visit home, he visits her briefly and finds that they both still have fond, unspoiled memories of their relationship.

‘I’ll come back,’ I said earnestly, through the soft, intrusive darkness.

‘Perhaps you will’—I felt rather than saw her smile. ‘But even if you don’t, you’re here, like my father. So I won’t be lonesome.’

As I went back alone over that familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass. (p.234)

But it is twenty years before Jim is able to return—emotionally able, that is, because as we know from the Introduction he has prospered and travels widely for his work. His explanation to the reader is that, “life intervened.” When he visits her they are now fully separate individuals with fully separate lives. They have the knowledge of what they were to one another and the satisfaction of knowing it to be a treasure that they both share and cherish

So, My Antonia is a coming-of-age story and it is Jim Burden who comes of age and it is precisely because he has finally come of age that he is able to draw for us the picture of Antonia’s coming of age. And somewhere in all of this is Willa Cather, who thought this book was her best work and perhaps it was also part of her own coming of age.

Three Puzzles

1) Did Antonia’s father really commit suicide or did Krajiek murder him? The preponderance of the evidence supports a finding of suicide, but the alternative is not definitively ruled out.

2) Why was Jim so angry with Antonia after Cutter’s sneak attack, which obviously was intended as rape against Antonia? Jim took a beating when Cutter discovered Jim where Cutter had taken for granted he would find Antonia. Surely Jim didn’t think Antonia had known in advance what Cutter planned. Did Cutter in his fury manage to subdue Jim and sodomize him? I don’t think the text supports such a surmise. The best I can come up with (and I can’t say I find myself fully persuasive) is that Jim was already upset with Antonia for hanging out with Larry Donovan and Jim was further upset by what he might see as Antonia’s naïve decision to work for and live with the Cutters. Add to those upsets the trauma of Cutter’s attack and the full force of that emotional turmoil gets displaced into anger directed at the element common to all three, viz. Antonia. As I say, I’m not convinced. Any ideas?

3) Is Jim a sexually underdeveloped individual? My vote is no. Remember the context of Jim’s narrative. He writes it to share with his friend, the narrator of the Introduction. His sexuality is not (particularly in 1918 when the book was published) an aspect of his life one would expect him to share to voluble excess, as has become something of a fad over the past fifty years. What he chooses to share is significantly shaped by how his behavior will be seen and judged by those who read his manuscript. Accordingly, Jim is coy about his sexual attractions to, and experiences with, women, but he reveals enough to let us find between the lines an apparently healthy, heterosexual libido.

He shares with us an (apparently self-censored) account of his high school fantasies about Lena.

One dream I dreamed a great many times, and it was always the same. I was in a harvest-field full of shocks, and I was lying against one of them. Lena Lingard came across the stubble barefoot, in a short skirt, with a curved reaping-hook in her hand, and she was flushed like the dawn, with a kind of luminous rosiness all about her. She sat down beside me, turned to me with a soft sigh and said, ‘Now they are all gone, and I can kiss you as much as I like.’

I used to wish I could have this flattering dream about Antonia, but I never did. (pp.166-167)

He tells us of a time he kissed Antonia.

One evening when Donovan was out on his run, Antonia came to the hall…, and that night I took her home. When we were in the Cutters’ yard … I told her she must kiss me good night.

‘Why, sure, Jim.’ A moment later she drew her face away and whispered indignantly, ‘Why, Jim! You know you ain’t right to kiss me like that. I’ll tell your grandmother on you!’

‘Lena Lingard lets me kiss her,’ I retorted, ‘and I’m not half as fond of her as I am of you.’

‘Lena does?’ Tony gasped. ‘If she’s up to any of her nonsense with you, I’ll scratch her eyes out!’ (p.165)

So, Jim knows how to “kiss like that,” which takes at least a modicum of enthusiastic practice.

When Jim reports that at college in Lincoln he took up (again) with Lena, he is at pains to spin his relationship with her as prim and proper. Thus, his exchange with Ordinsky, the violinist who lives across the hall from Lena and has been keeping a suspicious eye on Jim.

‘Kindness of heart,… sentiment, are not understood in a place like this…. Grinning college boys, ignorant and conceited, what do they know of delicacy!’

I controlled my features and tried to speak seriously.

‘If you mean me, Mr. Ordinsky, I have known Miss Lingard a long time, and I think I appreciate her kindness. We come from the same town, and we grew up together.’

His gaze travelled slowly down from the ceiling and rested on me. ‘Am I to understand that you have this young woman’s interests at heart? That you do not wish to compromise her?’

‘That’s a word we don’t use much here, Mr. Ordinsky. A girl who makes her own living can ask a college boy to supper without being talked about. We take some things for granted.’

‘Then I have misjudged you, and I ask your pardon’–he bowed gravely. ‘Miss Lingard,’ he went on, ‘is an absolutely trustful heart. She has not learned the hard lessons of life. As for you and me, noblesse oblige’–he watched me narrowly….

After that Ordinsky was friendly to me, and behaved as if there were some deep understanding between us. (pp.209-210)

What with Jim declaring that he was controlling his features and trying to speak seriously, and Jim’s later admission that his relationship with Lena worked so much to the detriment of his studies that he decided he had to leave, I think we can rule out the possibility that their relationship was chaste or Platonic. I’m not saying that Jim was (in the phrase popularized by “Saturday Night Live” of yore) “a wild and crazy guy,” but we can rule out prissy asceticism.

The Text

Cather is at her best when describing small, relatively circumscribed scenes.

The patch of yellow sunlight on the floor travelled back toward the stairway, and
grandmother and I talked about my journey, and about the arrival of the new Bohemian family. (p.7)

[Fuchs] got out his best cowboy boots, with tops stitched in bold design–roses, and true-lover’s knots, and undraped female figures. These, he solemnly explained, were angels. (p.8)

Occasionally one of the horses would tear off with his teeth a plant full of blossoms, and walk along munching it, the flowers nodding in time to his bites as he ate down toward them. (p.13)

I find, however, that she gets into trouble when she tries to create broad brush similes and metaphors. All too often, they seem to barely graze their targets or miss altogether. Consider this description of Jim’s first impressions of Antonia’s father:

I noticed how white and well-shaped his own hands were. They looked calm, somehow, and skilled. His eyes were melancholy, and were set back deep under his brow. His face was ruggedly formed, but it looked like ashes–like something from which all the warmth and light had died out. (pp.16-17, emphasis added)

Everything goes well until the ashes simile. The problem is that she writes that his face looked like ashes, which is a visual image, but she has to explain that what she means is that it looked like cold ashes, but ashes look the same whether they are cold or hot, so the simile just ends up a muddle.

It happens, too, when she tries to capture the grand sweep of the prairie landscape as it appeared to Jim in his first experiences.

MThe light air about me told me that the world ended here: only the ground and sun and sky were left, and if one went a little farther there would be only sun and sky, and one would float off into them, like the tawny hawks which sailed over our heads making slow shadows on the grass. (p.10)

I’ve been a boy of ten faced with the grandeurs of nature. I was about that age the first time my parents took me to Yosemite National Park. I’ll never forget the experience, but I find it hard to think that under any circumstances I would have (even metaphorically) thought that “the world ended” there or just beyond there. The only thing that saves this paragraph is Cather’s return to detail at the end: the exquisite evocation of soaring hawks above linked to the earth below by their shadows. Now, consider her description of sundown on the prairie:

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. (pp.29-30)

To my mind, this excerpt begins to go wrong with the introduction of the burning bush. Burning conjures up smoke and fire, but there is none of that here. Then, she goes off the deep end into exultations of victory then a hero’s death, then young heroes dieing gloriously, and finally a transfiguration glossed as a “lifting-up.” It’s not that I am opposed to eloquent and enthusiastic similes. I am always in awe and admiration when presented with a good simile. But a simile that immediately requires an explanation—or a metaphor inexplicably arrived at—arrests the flow of one’s thoughts and it takes some effort to recover.

All told, though, My Antonia is a pleasure to read, one of the high points of American literature.

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