Willa Cather & My Antonia

Betty Suchar

BRLSI Member

16 March 2005

As a writer Willa Cather does not fit neatly with her contemporaries, Eliot, Pound, Joyce or Wharton, nor can she be categorised with the younger writers of the 20th century such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Cather required an extensive apprenticeship emerging with a style very much her own. During her lifetime she received recognition and honours such as the Pultizer Prize and the first honorary degree to be awarded to a woman by Princeton University (1931). After her death in 1947, continual reassessments of her work have resulted in her growing reputation as an important American writer.

Willa Cather was born in Virginia in 1873. Her ancestors had settled in Back Creek near Winchester overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. Unlike their neighbours whose crops and livestock were stolen or destroyed during the American Civil War, the Cathers having declared for the union prospered. In l883, the family decided to move to Nebraska. By this date new arrivals no longer had to undertake the risky and difficult journey by covered wagon as the transcontinental railway had been completed in l869. Red Cloud, the town they would ultimately make their home, had been established only 14 years previously.

The contrast between Virginia with its lush rolling hills peppered with dogwood trees and grazing sheep and the flat treeless prairies was dramatic. An abundance of formless space with few hidden places compared to the picturesque, cultivated landscape occupied by the Cather family's substantial red brick home.

While living in Virginia Cather realised that unlike her mother she was totally unsuited to become mannered lady of the house in this homogeneous structured southern society.

The transplantation provided Cather with an opportunity. Her mother found adjustment to the Plains uneasy and was frequently ill and homesick. Consequently she retreated from the normal socialisation of her daughter leaving her free to explore.

America in the late 19th century continued to look toward Western Europe for its culture. In Nebraska Cather found herself surrounded by immigrants from various European countries.

Unlike most of her neighbours Cather was curious and eager to learn from these European immigrants. Each day she rode her pony to the nearby farms or accompanied the local doctor on his rounds. While the women did their chores, she listened to their individual stories about the things they missed, the items they had brought with them, their literature, music and various customs.

Although fascinated, Cather rejected for herself the conventional domesticity of these pioneer women. She was ambitious for a place in the public sphere but discovered only men occupied positions such as doctor, lawyer, and politician. Concluding it was a man's world, she re-launched herself as William Cather, Jr. In the guise of a radical non-conformist, she caused quite a stir in the small town of Red Cloud but her stance demonstrated her courage and determination.

Other authors such as Edith Wharton, lacked the support of their parents. However, Cather was fortunate in that her parents sanctioned her love of books and encouraged her in her intense desire to be better educated. In spite of their lack of money, they financed her attendance at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln until a severe draught forced Cather to find employment. Her job on the local paper launched a career in journalism, interrupted only by a short interval of teaching, that lasted from l893 to l912 and took her after graduation first to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and later to New York City.

Cather's early literary interest had been the heroic as articulated by Thomas Carlyle, the male role sustained by force and energy as portrayed by Kipling, Stevenson, and Dumas and independence and self-reliance as advocated by Emerson. Later she fell under the influence of Henry James. She embraced his unswerving devotion to art, his commitment to the mastering of form and style and his defence of the individual's right to be free of manipulation and coercion by others. For Cather James was the ultimate representative of the genteel literary tradition.

In l907 while working for McClure's Magazine, Cather was sent on assignment to Boston where at 148 Charles Street she met Annie Fields, the widow of a famous Boston publisher. Annie knew all the major 19th century literary figures from Charles Dickens to Henry James. Cather was mesmerised by this living embodiment of the literary tradition she so desperately wanted to know and to understand.

At this literary salon, Cather encountered the person who gave her the courage and confidence to become a full time writer and to abandon her imitative tendency toward Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett. Jewitt, 25 years older than Cather, was already a known author particularly for her book, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1897) about her native Maine.

Cather discovered in Jewitt a person who valued friendships and female storytelling. Cather started to become more receptive to the achievements of pioneer women, their harmonious relationship with the land now appeared preferable to the rough dominating spirit championed in male literature of the mid-west. Cather also began to recognise communal enterprises such as quilting bees as creative activities and most importantly to accept that the role of artist and woman were compatible.

Cather said her first book written with this new understanding was O' Pioneer, its title taken from Walt Whitman's jingoistic hymn to manifest destiny and the western movement.

In l912, as Jewitt had urged, Cather then 39 resigned from the editorship of McClure's Magazine. The book we are discussing tonight was started four years later after Cather had become a full time author and was published in l918. During WWI Cather had despaired that the world was being ruined. The war triggered her need to explore her past just as it had prompted Edith Wharton to look back at old New York.

Having brought Cather's life to the point when she began writing her fourth novel My Antonia, I will now turn to three themes from her life that permeate her work: transplantation, gender and voice.

Transplantation: Cather was particularly sensitive to landscape. Try to imagine how unsettling would be the dramatic contrast between the green cultivated hills of Virginia and the flat spacious plains. But the importance of transplantation resulted not so much in the change in scenery but that the circumstances surrounding the experience awakened Cather's imagination.

In Nebraska rules of behaviour were few, structure almost non-existent and the landscape without roads, tracks or boundaries. Her parents unacquainted with the local customs and values and busy dealing with unfamiliar conditions did not interfere with Cather's quest for knowledge within her new environment. She learned from her grandmothers and from the variety of settlers who knew French, German, Latin and European music. Her imagination was excited by the diversity and the drama of newly transported immigrants struggling to overcome the handicaps of language and local prejudice and the energy they applied to conquering the tough terrain all in the effort to become a part of their new country.

The formative period for writers according to Cather occurred between the ages of 8 and 15. Writers she maintained unconsciously gather their material in childhood. These early memories of transplantation and exploration became for Cather the key to her most successful work.

Initially she failed to comprehend this material disregarding it in her consuming desire to escape the plains and its provincial outlook. Her overwhelming objective was the pursuit of the genteel male literary tradition. Convinced this was only avenue to success, it took years and distance for the memories and female influences formed in the transplantation phase of her life to release her creativity.

Gender: Just as Cather understood her unsuitability to assume the role of a Southern lady in Virginia, she likewise could never accept the dependent, submissive wife/mother role of pioneer women. Cather grew up in America's equivalent of Victorian society with its rigid and elaborate conventions of male/female behaviour. A number of women quietly suffered because fate had determined at birth that they would never be able to achieve the freedom, power and success they craved.

Cather bravely risked public notoriety and ridicule to forge a place in the male world. Cather spent 20 years fiercely working to prove she could succeed in a commercial arena dominated by men. The final challenge she set herself was to participate in what she perceived as the male art of literature. She rejected most women authors with their sentimental tales of love and marriage, the exceptions being Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and the autobiographical writing of George Sand. Although she rejected what she labelled female subject matter, she likewise felt unprepared to deal as male writers of the western plains had with Indian warfare and adventures of rugged endurance and violence.

Sarah Orme Jewitt had been fortunate to discover at an early age a female role model in Harriet Beecher Stowe, another Maine writer most noted for her book Uncle Tom's Cabin. The story which had appealed to Jewitt was entitled Pearl of Orr's Island. Finding Jewitt subsequently permitted Cather to make the shift from admiring male authors to remembering. When at last she understood the narrative power of women's voices, she could marry her true material with its appropriate tone.

Voice: Music was always important to Cather. When young, the only public women she observed were actresses and divas. However, in her mind they were interpreters rather than creators and hence did not require an independent voice. Voice is the word Cather applied to the tone or style she wanted her novels to possess. Cather said of her early period of writing, she was trying ‘to sing a song that didn't lie in my voice’. From Jewitt she observed a quality of voice that suited the writer and her subject. Jewitt encourage Cather to discard her Jamesian persona and fashion her own voice. Jewitt guided her back to the female oral storytelling of her childhood. She began to realise that these stories contained fundamental elements such as love and evoked a kind of spiritual picture of the essence of life. She accepted that these stories although simple were capable of engendering a feeling.

Cather refers to her novels as ‘demeuble’ or unfurnished, that is, not just simplified but also structured to enable the reader to expand the text. The voice appropriate for the genteel literary tradition with its drawing room settings and its elaborate narrative of consciousness was unsuited to Cather's pioneer heroines with their basic attachment to the land, their sustained physical labour, and their sense of harmony with nature. For these memories of her past simplicity was the key. Cather maintained that ‘the higher processes of art are all processes of simplification’. Cather effectively combined this simplicity and the evocation of feeling in a prose style that is according to her intention ‘as correct, as classical, as calm and as subtle as the music of Mozart’. This appropriate voice is used superbly in My Antonia.

My Antonia

Cather chooses to tell her autobiographic story as a pastoral-a traditional male format very much associated with Virgil. As a student and teacher of Virgil's Georgics, Cather found in his pastoral the hopeful vision of transforming a barren land into a garden. Like Virgil she was not a participant but someone who had escaped and now felt compelled to reflect on the rural scene she had once known.

My Antonia deals with one of the strongest and long enduring myths of America -- the pioneer or frontier myth. It beckoned determined, hardworking men to move west to an undeveloped, unfamiliar austere environment and by pure physical labour and skill to achieve a livelihood and thus conveyed on these individuals a sense of dignity. Their labour and closeness with nature were viewed as ennobling and as symbols of fundamental decency. Their virtues ultimately became enshrined in American values.

Thomas Jefferson, an early proponent of the world of the independent yeoman farmer on the edge of the frontier free from coercion and unnecessary government intervention, visualised an idyllic Arcadia that he regretted usually only lasted for a brief period.

By l880 when Cather's novel takes place change is already occurring. The best land has been claimed, the country is losing its predominate agrarian base, its people during this so called gilded age are becoming more prosperous, more commercial and more materialistic.

In reality the pioneer spirit passes so swiftly because subsequent generations prefer to find a place in the wider society. My Antonia recognises that the children of the pioneers are forsaking the land and that this is inevitable.

Cather's narrative provides pictures, small glances into life, short episodes to enable the reader to visualise the harsh conditions the pioneer faced and the intensity of their experiences. It is a technique much like that of a quilt maker who uses a collection of individual pieces of cloth to form a comprehensive whole.

The main character is based on a real person Annie Sadelek who Cather describes as a ‘true artist in keeness and the sensitiveness of her enjoyments, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains’. The portrait of Antonia Shimerda that emerges in the novel takes its shape from the various instances Cather selects to relate about her heroine.

The five sections of My Antonia provide insights into the character of Antonia through the eyes of the first person narrator, Jim Burden. Modern feminist critics have disputed the need for a male narrator in such a clearly autobiographical novel. Cather explained that her recent experience of ghost writing the autobiography of S. S McClure had equipped her to write as a first person male character and a male narrator permitted greater emotional freedom in the relationship between Jim and Antonia given the context at the time.

The employment of the possessive pronoun "My" in the title conveys the importance of Jim as the teller of this story. The novel should not be viewed as realism but the memories, prejudices and impressions of Jim who like Cather once lived in Nebraska and finds that his images of Antonia draw him back to their days together. The critical point Jim states is ‘it's through myself that I know and felt her’. The memories are not sequential or logical but sporadic seen through years of considering.

Part 1 The Shimerdas: Jim arrives in Nebraska by train at the same time as the Shimerda family. Jim age 10 is an orphan synonymous with Cather's feeling about her own position in this new place. The Shimerdas, Jim's nearest neighbours are extremely poor and are struggling to adapt. Antonia's father, a weaver from Bohemia has no farming knowledge. His love for his daughter is strong and he wants Antonia to embrace life in her new country. She like Cather has been transplanted at a young age and is open to the kind of freedom she is given upon arrival. She is desperate to learn the language and the local ways. Jim helps her with English and they share impressions of their discoveries about this new landscape, its seasons, its vastness and its extreme weather. Their experiences of blizzards and the snake fight are of such intensity as to form a lasting memory. Jim also witnesses Antonia sufferings from the cold and from the lack of food but especially her emotional suffering from the suicide of her broken hearted father whose longings for the old country are too great for him to bear. For Jim and Antonia his death means the end of their childhood. Cather takes a quote from Virgil's Georgics to convey the poignancy of the situation: ‘the best days are the first to flee’.

Part 2 The Hired Girls: Jim and his grandparents move from the surrounding farm country into the town of Black Hawk. Antonia now 17 takes a job with a family in Black Hawk next door to Jim. Jim continues to enjoy being around Antonia but their circle of friends expands. In the local hierarchy, the daughters of Black Hawk merchants are considered refined, the county girls like Antonia working to clear farm debts not. Jim prefers the "hired girls" particularly their vitality, their willingness to work hard and their talent for dancing. Antonia's employers consider her obsession with dancing a problem and give her an ultimatum. She chooses to leave and to obtain greater independence by working for Wick Cutter, a moneylender and the town's bad guy.

Part 3 Lena Lingard: Jim departs Black Hawk for college in Lincoln. There the Head of the Latin department introduces him to an appealing world of ideas. While committed to joining this academic world, his memories of his earlier life remain vivid. One day Lena Lingard, a friend from Black Hawk, visits him with news of Antonia. Jim realises that being with Lena is interfering with his studies and decides to transfer to Harvard.

Part 4 The Pioneer Woman's Story: Pity is now being expressed for Antonia who has been abandoned by her lover and is pregnant. The idea of Antonia as an object of pity pains Jim especially when he observes that less promising friends are achieving financial success in the world beyond Black Hawk. Before starting law school, Jim visits Antonia. She is 24, a natural loving mother energetically building a comfortable home for her daughter while working hard on her land. Antonia explains how much better she understands her father and how fondly she remembers him. Jim confesses that Antonia continues to stir his imagination. She has become a part of him and he always carries the memories of their shared experiences fixed in his mind. Because their feelings of friendship are so deep, they provide a sense of comfort even when the two are physically apart.

Part 5 Cuzak's Boys: 20 years later when Jim returns to the prairies, he finds his "Madonna of the Plains" or the embodiment of all he perceives as good in life and love still with the fire of life within her. She has married and is surrounded by a large number of children. The children seem to understand the way people are drawn to their mother and to her stories. Antonia has led a life not consciously planned but a life of love, striving, and care for the land and for people. She is the representative of the virtue and the value Cather equated with the true pioneer. But after 20 years Jim also notices how things have changed in Black Hawk. He is disappointed. The golden age of the American pioneer has ended as has his youth. What endures for Jim and Antonia are the shared memories of the past.

While reading My Antonia, I kept asking myself questions. Did I have a figure in my past like Antonia? What stories from my past can I remember most vividly? Does anything from my past influence me today? Would my past be more significant if I had moved to a new place at a young impressionable age?

During her childhood, Cather observed that the real Antonia radiated images that remained with her over the years. While Antonia represents the recent past Cather also introduces a more distant past in My Antonia with references to Francisco Vazquez Coronados, the 16th century Spanish adventurer reputed to have entered Nebraska in search of treasure. Antonia's story Cather believes resembles Coronados's. It represents the heroic and hence is akin to legends of the holy grail or of slain dragons.

While Cather once viewed farming as stifling and oppressive, she now appreciates Antonia as a creator whose energy and hard work have enabled her to occupy a barren land and to convert it into a garden. My Antonia shows the importance to human nature of the desire for self-transcendence.

Cather fortunately moved to the Plains early enough to witness the struggle of those born into the older European way of life employing their vision, courage and energy to become part of the American frontier. She admired their strength of character and in My Antonia has embodied the powerful images of a representative of these pioneers. Over the years she watched the transition as the ‘Madonna of the Plains’ became replaced by generations absorbed into the larger society. Although the days of the pioneer may have ended, the dignity and virtue associated with their harmony with the land has not. For Cather the pioneer myth remains as do memories of friendship and shared experiences of the past.

H. L. Menchen said ‘My Antonia is not only the best novel done by Miss Cather but also one of the best any American has ever done.’

Ultimately for Cather the vernacular triumphed over the genteel tradition, power and force were replaced as generators of artistic inspiration by love and sympathy, emotions according to Cather that are the essence of friendship and finally the Jamesian style was replaced by simplicity and episodic construction.

The best summary of My Antonia may be contained in T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding (1942) ‘And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

Betty Suchar