My Antonia – Willa Cather

5 April 2014
Book 1 – The Shimerdas
…who are the Bohemian family first encountered by the narrator when, aged ten, he has just disembarked from the train carrying him to the middle of nowhere. It’s just carried them as well, some decades before the end of the 19th Century, and they are even more lost than he is. His parents are recently dead, and he has made the interminable-seeming trip from hilly, wooded Virginia to join his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska. The land seems entirely empty to him, and on his first morning he thinks he might ‘walk straight on through the red grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away.’ But at least he has a proper home to go to and, aside from a nostalgia for a landscape that seems to contain something, he quickly settles into his new life.

It isn’t like that for the Shimerdas. The Old World and their place in it still seems very real to them, especially to the father. The move is apparently his wife’s idea, and he finds it so traumatic he never really gets over it. Their farm, sold to them by a nasty piece of work called Krajiek, and the hovel on it that is no more than a dugout, makes the ambitious wife bitter and makes him withdraw into himself. Between early autumn and midwinter things get so bad that one evening he goes out and shoots himself. But this is quite near the end of Book 1, and on the way we get to know both families, the farm hands and some of the neighbours. We also get to see how the deep-rooted Protestant certainties of the family our boy has joined will sort them all out, even the superstitious, back-biting, Catholic Shimerdas.

In fact, one third of the way through, it seems that this is going to be a novel about the creation of a new world order. It might have been published in 1918, but there is nothing modern about those certainties I mentioned. (It comes as no surprise that in over 100 pages ‘Indians’ get one mention, in connection with a circle marking where they used to ride. The story some people like to tell is that there were torture victims suffering in the middle of it.) The character slowly emerging as the most heroic, in a land in which all the characters are full of their own stories, is the grandfather described as taciturn. In his quietly-spoken, understated way he is the one who offers guidance to his new neighbours that tips over from the agricultural – ‘I’ll be harvesting the small grain on the first of July’ – into the moral. Whilst scrupulously making no judgments, he shows them the error of their ways by demonstrating the superiority of his own.

It isn’t quite as solemn as I’ve made it sound. One of the reasons is that these, so far, are the experiences of Jim, the ten-year-old boy. The metaphor of the creation of a world is tied to his vivid perceptions of it. On that first day in September this seems ‘not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made’ – Jim’s words, but Cather’s biggest clue to the reader about what she is doing. But once he is walking in it, the never-ending motion of the wind in the grass makes it alive for him, as though ‘underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping…’. Those three dots are Cather’s at the end of the paragraph, hinting at the endlessness of it. And this sets the tone for what becomes nearly a year of intense evocations of a landscape which, through the seasons, is presented as ever-changing. There are the first frosts that blacken the fields of sunflowers, the stone grey of winter skies, the vertiginous whiteness of the first snow… and so on, a constant background to a series of extraordinary experiences. In fact, more seems to happen in this little world in ten months than in the previous ten years. Novelists can do that.

Experiences. Early on he meets Antonia Shimerda, aged fourteen, and begins to teach her English. Being with her adds another dimension to his growing awareness and understanding of the world he’s part of: the landscape, differences between families, Europe and the New World. Europe, in Cather’s presentation of it, is found wanting. The Shimerdas would never have survived the winter without their neighbours’ help, not that the mother thanks them for it. Ambrosch, the eldest, seems to have inherited all his mother’s worst characteristics. He’s scornfully suspicious of anyone who offers help, which comes too late and is never enough – an attitude that culminates when he kicks at Jake, the Burdens’ hired hand, when he comes to take back a borrowed harness in the early summer. The resulting estrangement is ended by – guess – when he visits the Shimerdas, not to demand back the cow they haven’t properly paid for but to offer work to both Ambrosch and Antonia. Good old Grandfather.

And good old Grandfather in the way he proudly states his own Protestant faith whilst never denigrating that of his neighbours. He demonstrates an unassailable degree of tolerance as he points not to the differences but to the sincerity of their alien-seeming beliefs.

There are other neighbours, the two Russian men who left the old country following some ‘troubles’. One of them is dead before Christmas, and the other leaves – but not before he has told the story of their shame. This turns into the one about the attack by wolves on a five-sleigh wedding party – the story had appeared in American newspapers in 1911 – which ends only when one of the Russians we know throws the bride to the wolves. I don’t know if Cather is aware that she’s using the East European equivalent of an urban myth that had been doing the rounds for decades during the 19th Century… but it doesn’t really matter because the moral is clear. You can run, but… etc.

Who else? Jake the young hired hand seems fairly ordinary, but there’s also Otto, the one with the outlandish scars to go with his colourful past as a migrant worker and all-round adventurer. As with so many of the European immigrants – old man Shimerda could never get over it – he has skills he has little chance to use in the new country. Otto is a cabinet-maker, and Jim is impressed by the considered way he approaches the task of making the coffin. As Cather presents things, the new country will absorb anybody into its fabric…

…if they let it. Antonia and her mother, once they’ve been helped to set up their farm in the spring, knuckle down to a seven-day week of toil. But, somehow, this isn’t the American way. Antonia is arrogantly proud of her ability to plough as much in a day as her disdainful brother, and rejects the Burdens’ suggestions that she should think about her future and go back to school. At least, that’s how things stand until Grandfather Burden’s offer of work to her and Ambrosch. Having tried to work like a man, she tells Jim after a month of less masculine occupations – her work is with Grandmother, in the kitchen – that she has never been happier.

How conservative is this book? So far, it’s hard to think of a more frank celebration of the American way. In the framing chapter that introduces his narrative, the adult Jim Burden (along with the person he speaks to on the train, seemingly a version of Cather herself) has been able to build on the foundations of his hardworking Protestant upbringing in order to live a successful life in New York. Throughout the narrative he has reminded the reader of how the land that formed him was itself brand new, without fences and almost without roads, especially in winter. This seems to be a novel about how, in America, a way of life that is demonstrably superior to any other can be created out of nothing but the raw materials on offer and a solid Protestant work ethic. Alleluia.

9 April
Book 2
We’ve had country, so now we get town. Specifically, small town, with Jim’s grandparents having moved to the edge of Black Hawk when he is about 14 so that he can get a proper schooling there. Which he does. This section is as episodic as Book 1 and, so far, it would still be hard to find a more conservative history of America. Again as in Book 1, the main protagonist is the narrator, Jim. It’s a Bildungsroman centred on his life, and I’m wondering if it will ever examine Antonia’s life to the same extent. She’s there, working in the town, growing into adulthood as he goes through his adolescent years, but we only get the parts of her story that impinge on his life. And two thirds of the way through the novel, the community they are part of is as much of a character as they are themselves. You can see where later writers like Harper Lee got the idea of encapsulating a whole world through the experiences of a narrator only just learning to understand it. Like Scout Finch, Jim can never get away from the often contradictory guidance of adults… but the adults in Black Hawk are definitely not Atticus Finch.

Like the Maycomb presented in To Kill A Mockingbird, Black Hawk is highly imperfect. There’s a petit bourgeoisie with a well-developed sense of its own importance… but Cather’s title for Book 2 is in honour of people they regard as outsiders, ‘The Hired Girls’. They are in service, and the morals of some of them – and therefore all of them – are regarded as highly questionable. Antonia is one of them, and Jim names three or four others, all from immigrant families. He is careful to choose his words carefully, but two of them (if I remember rightly) fall pregnant – but, usually, they are far too useful to be sent away in perpetual disgrace. And the adult Jim Burden narrating all this is very keen to make the point that it is these girls who will become the business leaders of the future, often by managing the farms for which, as girls, they help to pay off the loan debts.

Meanwhile, the easily fatigued young middle class women of the town do their best to attract the effete young men – and, thanks to parental pressure, are the ones to receive offers of marriage. But it’s the hired girls that the boys really like, and Cather has a visiting dancing marquee arrive one summer to bring it all to a kind of head. The conservative older generation all disapprove, including Jim’s grandparents. Antonia, naturally, is the best dancer of all, and hurries her work at the end of the day to get on to the dance floor the sooner. But her employers issue an ultimatum: she must choose between dancing or working for them. She chooses dancing – and takes a job with the least salubrious of all possible employers. It’s Wick Cutter (I’m not making this up), the most pitiless of the local loan sharks and a notorious womaniser….

By the time the crisis arrives Jim, now old enough (just) to be thinking about going off to university, has been warned that his attendance at dances his grandparents don’t approve of is doing harm to his reputation. He stops going, and only ever has one ‘holiday’ during a hot summer spent studying, a day at the river with Antonia and a few other hired girls. The crisis is a trick that old man Cutter tries to play on Antonia. He and his cantankerous wife are away on business for a few days, and have left Antonia on her own to keep the house under lock and key. She finds this too frightening an idea at night, and Jim sleeps there in her place…. What happens next is, I suppose, Cather’s take on the true morality of towns like this. Cutter comes home in secret and, thinking it is Antonia in the bed, reaches out to Jim, lying there. The ensuing fight leaves Jim covered in bruises and with injuries to his face that he stays indoors to avoid showing. Somehow, he’s the one who is made to feel ashamed.

It won’t do. Jim, who can see the value of the girls the community sneer at, has had enough of
the small town and its small-minded morality. I’m not sure to what extent Cather is inviting us to include the limitations of his grandparents’ guidance… but it doesn’t really matter to Jim. The first three words of Book 3 – I just had a look – are ‘At the university’.

11 April
Books 3, 4 and 5
These are short, together taking up less than the final third of the novel. They are both a valediction and a celebration – but, perhaps, the same could be said for the whole novel. The valediction, of course, is for a vanished world. Already in Book 1 there were references to the open prairie that no longer exists, to the red grasslands now given over to agriculture. The celebration is for the legacy of that same world, the one that passed before the end of the 19th Century. The successes of the present day – and these final three books in this most American of novels are all about successes – owe everything to the microcosm of society Jim Burden first encountered at the age of ten.

First up, in Book 3, is Lena Lingard. Of all the ‘hired girls’, she had always been the one treated with most suspicion. Cather is always cagey about what exactly it is that her young men and women get up to. In Lena’s case, if we take what is presented to us at face value, she is slow to discourage inappropriate attentions from men. Her prettiness and dreamy eyes seem to make men forget their obligations to their wives, and… and what? She is considered to be no better than she should be. Fast forward not many years, and she’s running her own small dressmaking business in the city of Lincoln where Jim attends university. He hasn’t kept in touch with her – until she visits him in his tiny rooms. And, reader, they start to go to the theatre together. This theatre-going shenanigans is enough to make our boy forget his studies, to the point where his tutor (by the name of Cleric, of all things), suggests he’ll be good for nothing if he doesn’t come with him to complete his studies at Harvard. Lena understands, tells him (not that he asks) that her childhood spent in drudgery has put her off the idea of marriage forever. So off he goes.

When Book 4 opens Jim has finished his studies for now, and goes home to catch up on the news. The section’s title is The Pioneer Woman’s Story, but which pioneer woman? Tiny Soderball, another of the hired girls, who has made her fortune in guest-houses in the Klondike? But her story is over in a page or two… so perhaps it’s the story of Widow Steavens, who now lives in the farmhouse that used to be owned by Jim’s grandparents on the prairie? But it isn’t her own story that the widow tells him, but Antonia’s. He already knew that Antonia had made an unwise choice about who she should spend the rest of her life with, but it gets worse: the man she was supposed to marry was playing a trick and left her pregnant. There’s something valedictory about the afternoon Jim spends with her , ‘thinner than I had ever seen her.’ They talk about their separate lives, but the sun sets and he has to leave. Is there something mawkish about his being able to ‘almost imagine that a boy and girl’ are running along beside him? And as for his promise to see her again…

…Book 5 opens with his lame admission that ‘life intervened’, and that twenty years pass without his ever keeping his promise. But, finally, he takes a detour from one of his trips west. Antonia, he hears, hasn’t ‘done very well’. Those quotation marks are Tiny’s, but they are also Cather’s, reminding us that in this little world conventional opinion counts for everything. But conventional opinion doesn’t seem to be far wrong: Antonia has ended up working all the hours God sends to help support a huge family with one of the local men who married her. Cuzak is amiable enough but, according to Tiny, ‘without any force’. Lena is more upbeat: ‘Never mind what Tiny says…’

…and Lena is right. The way of life he encounters when he arrives at the farm is an idyll. Sure, Antonia’s story is one of almost unrelentingly hard work, but it’s in the face of challenges that she and her husband have set for themselves. They started off with almost nothing, but there will be plenty for the Cuzak boys – and girls – to inherit. Cather never says it, but Antonia’s is another story of female success – and its position at the culmination of a novel about the making of America endows it with an almost mythic status.

And what about Jim? He spends two wonderful days at the farm, rediscovering things about himself he’d forgotten all about… and so on. He has been off making a respectable life for himself, and America needs men like him. (We know from the opening chapter that he’s a lawyer for one of the western railroad companies.) There’s something frankly schematic about this final chapter, as though he comes to represent what 20th Century America has become – hard-working, conventional, corporate. But he feels that in order to understand himself he needs to remember his roots – which, in Cather’s presentation throughout the novel, are the precious roots of America. There’s something almost prophetic in the way in which, in only the second decade of the century, he comes to recognise the value of a past that has already gone forever. As we read this novel now, nearly a century later, it’s what Americans still revere above almost anything else. There is still a sincere belief amongst many that with a little bit of searching they, like Jim, might regain ‘the sense of coming home to myself.’

So, what exactly is going on in this novel? We can read it, of course, as a kind of love story in which the boy doesn’t realise until far too late that he has lost the only woman he ever loved. The introductory chapter tells us that there is nothing loving about Jim’s marriage in New York. There are no children, and his wife sees herself, apparently wrongly, as running a kind of salon for artists and writers. But I don’t think it ever quite works on that level, because Cather’s grander thematic ambitions get in the way. This female author never for a moment captures any sense of the boy’s growing sexual identity. The descriptions of the time he spends with Lena are very coy, presumably because of the restrictions on publishing anything vaguely explicit. This period in his life is one big ellipsis: we only understand that he is obsessed with her when, at roughly the same time, both he and his tutor realise that he somehow has no time to study.

The sleight of hand that Cather attempts in Book 5 is to suggest that on some deep level Jim hasn’t lost his Antonia at all. By now, we calculate, they are both in their 40s and any hint of what was always a highly understated sexual attraction is simply not there. But what is there is his sense of her power. In her own way she is an American version – or an American immigrant version – of those mothers of the nation beloved by Soviet and Nazi propagandists. Antonia is married to another man, but is able to be productive in a way that is of benefit to everybody, including Jim. By returning to his past – and there are all sorts of symbolic sights to confirm the idea that he has come full circle – he has gained a future. He sees the ghostly track of the road that first brought him and Antonia to this place all those decades ago, and ‘the same road was to bring us together again.’ Now he has found her and her family, he intends never to lose them again.

One last thing. I would guess that this novel is revered as much for its feminism as for its celebration of the making of America. Women, in several different ways, become the driving forces of a country still discovering its identity: Lena and Tiny in the guise of self-made archetypes of the new capitalism, various other former hired girls as the uber-capable managers of the expanding agricultural businesses they have helped to create… and Antonia, an unstoppable life-force of her own making. In the company of these amazons, the men we meet in this novel are a sorry crew. Ambrosch Shimerda? The two Russians? Wick Cutter? And as for Jim Burden – what has he made of a life without his Antonia?

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