I have a confession to make. In the past, My Antonia was NOT one of Cather’s novels that I gushed over. I attribute this to a condition from which I’m healing, a condition that inhibited me from reading and/or enjoying books that are “popular.” This condition is a form of book snobbishness that can be both the cause and effect of the closing of the mind and spirit that has been known to plague people such as English majors and booksellers. Those afflicted with the condition avoid reading what is considered popular or trendy and either stick with their core “masters” or champion the underdog, be they overlooked or forgotten writers or books.
In my case, I wanted to champion other Cather novels that didn’t seem to get enough attention. I was resistant to My Antonia back in the early days of reading Cather because, to me, its wide-spread readership, praise, and scholarly attention seemed to come at the cost of neglect or disparagement of other Cather novels which are less commonly read.
Thankfully I’ve let go of such thinking and with this reading, I fell in love with My Antonia. I was able to appreciate it so much more than during past readings because I tried to give myself over to the story. It probably also helps that I’m no longer in graduate school and continually looking for paper ideas or support for a current thesis.
This time Jim Burden was no longer an annoying little golden boy and I “got” the attraction of Antonia at a much deeper level. In the past, I thought her a hokey kind of Mother-Earth/baby-factory in contrast to Lena Lingard who I read as being judged for going into business for herself rather than marrying & reproducing. Now I see a much more harmonious balance between Antonia and Lena. There’s mutual respect based on a deep understanding of each woman’s true nature. In fact, there is much of such balance throughout the entire story.
There is so much beauty and violence in this novel and so many, many things to say about both. I’m going restrain myself and comment on three aspects of the novel that have been most on my mind.
Questions to Ponder
A few things that I’ve been pondering about My Antonia.
1. Sex. What did you think of all the sexual activity in the novel? I’ve heard My Antonia referred to as a conservative novel. What does that mean? Do you agree? I was struck by the amount and variety of sex and desire presented in the novel: from Lena being accused of making eyes at Ole, to Tiny showing her ankles, to the dances that Jim sneaks out to attend, to grinning college boys, to Wick Cutter turning one of his hired girls into a whore (“One of them he had taken to Omaha and established in the business for which he had fitted her. He still visited her,” Book II, Chapter XI). And of course, there’s Antonia’s betrayal. I didn’t recall that Antonia’s mother had been a hired girl herself who had been put into a precarious position by the son of her employers. Of her father’s treatment of her mother Antonia says, he “could have paid my mother money, and not married her…He lived in his mother’s house, and she was a poor girl come in to do the work” (Book II, Chapter XIV). Mr. Shimerda marries the hired girl whom he apparently compromised, is ostracized by his family, and ends up on the Nebraska prairie, a place which does not suit his psyche. This leads to–
2. Loneliness, Depression, and Suicide. Where you surprised by the number of suicides in this novel? Mr. Shimerda’s suicide is such a gruesome scene, but I could really see it coming in this reading. Cather does such a brilliant job describing Mr. Shimerda’s emotional isolation and withdrawal. The tramp’s suicide still seems so odd and harkens back to the clown tramp’s suicide in The Song of the Lark. They both make me wonder how many tramps did commit suicide during this time period. Then there’s Wick Cutter’s murder of his wife and suicide. That’s another connection between Mr. Shimerda and Cutter: not only how they’ve treated the hired girls in their lives, but that they both commit suicide, albeit for different reasons. At one point Antonia seems at risk of suicide herself. When she returns home from her abandonment, “She was so crushed and quiet that nobody seemed to want to humble her.” Later on, Antonia says to Widow Stevens, “Up here I can pick out the very places where my father used to stand. Sometimes I feel like I’m not going to live very long, so I’m just enjoying every day this fall” (Book IV, Chapter III). Alarm bells when off in my head worrying that Antonia was contemplating suicide. Unlike her father, Antonia is rejuvenated by the Nebraska landscape and it’s her true place of belonging. She says to Jim late in the novel, “You remember what sad spells I used to have, when I didn’t’ know what was the matter with me? I’ve never had them out here” (Book V, Chapter I). In contrast, Mr. Shimerda, Jim, and Lena all thrive in larger towns and cities. I hear Cather saying that living on a farm is not better than living in a town or city. Rather, people have to find what type of place best suits their personality in order to thrive.
3. Military activity. One of Ours and The Professors House are usually the novels that get attention regarding Cather’s writing about World War I, but I was struck by the instances of military activity in My Antonia. Charles Harling, one of Jim Burden’s neighbors in Black Hawk, is early on in the novel getting ready for Annapolis, midway through the novel he’s at Annapolis, and later in the novel he’s on a battleship in the Carribean (where the US Navy conducted some of their training exercises prior to World War I). There’s also mention that Jim had to take drill as a male student at the University in Lincoln and of cadets camping at Plattsmouth (a town along the Missouri River south of Omaha and the Platte River). World War I started in 1914 and was raging while Cather was writing My Antonia. Her cousin G.P. Cather fought in the war and was killed in action on May 28, 1918 (My Antonia was published on September 21, 1918). Cather’s inclusion of this military activity seems to foreshadow America’s involvement in World War I. There also seems to be a hint of Claude Wheeler (the protagonist of One of Ours) in Jim who is becoming restless with his life, “I was moody and restless that winter, and tired of the people I saw every day. Charley Harling was already at Annapolis, while I was still sitting in Black Hawk, answering to my name at roll-call every morning, rising from my desk at the sound of a bell and marching out like the grammar-school children” (Book II, Chapter XII). Of course, the irony here is that Charley’s life at Annapolis is controlled even more by bells and marching.
Share Your Thoughts!
Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about My Antonia, even if it’s just a sentence.
Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.
I really enjoyed your comments, reflections of My Antonia. You touched on something that is true of Cather, in my opinion. When you go back and reread Cather, you see parallels in her novels in relationships, personalities, events, etc.
I love this book – it always makes me teary-eyed even though I know how it ends! And, it is a different story, depending on what decade I happen to be in…
One of my favorite characters is Lena. She is interesting and unpredictable. I admire her ability to do what she wants, and how it ultimately leads her to a very successful career.
Have a good April, and we will chat over One of Ours!
I agree with your past assessment that Antonia was set up as a “hokey kind of Mother-Earth/baby-factory”, at least at the end of the book. Lena, the entrepreneur, was more to my liking. I didn't see her as being judged in the book.
The countryside was definitely the star of this book. She also captured what it's like to live in a small town as a teen and be so ready to leave and go out in the world. Jim's walking around town with nothing to do brought back something of the feeling of my teenage years that I had completely forgotten about.
It constantly seemed strange to me that this story was written from the perspective of a 10 year old (to 19) boy. Why did Cather do that? Was it believable?
Thanks, Leslie. I am enjoying re-reading Cather even more than I anticipated! So far there's been no ho-hum reaction–each novel does seem like a different story.
One of Ours is my current favorite novel (that also seems to change from decade to decade) so I'm really looking forward to re-reading it.
Great questions about perspective, Judy! I think it's believable that the story was told through the eyes of Jim mainly because I don't know how the story would have worked without a male narrator.
I've also heard the theory that as a lesbian Cather uses Jim as a stand-in for herself since a woman writing about another women in such a reverential manner would obviously have not been acceptable or deemed “realistic”.
Whatever the case, I've always thought that presenting the story as if it's a collection of one man's memories was a pretty smooth move. I wonder if Cather was taking a walk one afternoon and had a eureka moment on how to set-up the story as a re-telling of Jim's memories and second hand information that he hears from others.
Try as I may to keep it in mind that this is one person's memory/construction of Antonia and therefore in some ways more about himself than her, I always forget to “pay attention” and get sucked into the story. So I don't think Jim is a reliable narrator at all. He's seems to be rather passive throughout the story and in the end I wonder if he'll actually follow-through and get together with Antonia's sons and husband like he thinks about in the end.
Sooo many things to think about regarding perspective. What are your thoughts?
Easter and school holidays held up my reading this month but I finally finished My Antonia at the weekend. It's the first time I've read it and overall I thought it was a lovely story. I did keep in mind that it was a young boy's memories and his perspective was likely distorted at times.
I love Willa Cather's ability to paint pictures with words – I felt as though I was looking through a photograph album while someone told me the stories behind the images. As a first reading it was the nostalgia theme, the beautiful descriptions of the environment and the history that I liked most.
Very interesting to read your thoughts on other themes. Sex I never thought about, deaths I expected – Mr Shimerda's seemed inevitable early on but I didn't like the tramp story at all. It didn't seem necessary and to tell it to a sensitive child I thought was awful. I only thought about war as I finished – the thought of what lay ahead and what would happen to Antonia's sons.
I plan to write a blog post soon and will come back and add the link.
Isn't she marvelous at painting pictures? I sometimes I forget I'm reading a novel. Please do come back and post the link! I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.
I've fallen behind on my Cather, having just now finished last month's read. Like you, Chris, I was resistant to “the hype” around this novel and I think this added to my delay. I'm so happy to have overcome my qualms. What an immersive, vivid story. It was my grandmother's favorite Cather and I can see why.
How fabulous to know it was your grandmother's favorite Cather novel! I love reading books that I know were well-loved by older generations in my family. I'd never met my paternal grandfather, but his favorite writer was Zane Grey, so reading him made me feel a bit of a connection with my grandfather. Did you and your grandmother have conversations about Cather's novels?