My Antonia (1918)
Willa Cather (1873-1947)
If, as is often said, every novelist is born to write one thing, then the one thing that Willa Cather was born to write was first realized in My Antonia (1918). In that novel the people are the Bohemian and Swedish immigrants she had known in her childhood on the Nebraska plains; the prose is the prose of her maturity—flexible, evocative, already tending to a fastidious bareness but not yet gone pale and cool; the novelistic skill is of the highest, the structure at once free and intricately articulated; the characters stretch into symbolic suggestiveness as naturally as trees cast shadows in the long light of a prairie evening; the theme is the fully exposed, complexly understood theme of the American orphan or exile, struggling to find a place between an old world left behind and a new world not yet created.
But to say that Willa Cather found her subject and her manner and her theme in My Antonia is not to say that she found them easily. When My Antonia appeared, Miss Cather was forty-five years old. She had already had one career as a teacher and another as an editor, and she had published a good many short stories and three other novels. The first of these, Alexander’s Bridge (1911) was a nearly total mistake—a novel laid in London and dealing with the attenuated characters and fragile ethical problems of the genteel tradition. In writing it, Miss Cather later remarked, she was trying to sing a song that did not lie in her voice. Urged by her friend Sarah Orne Jewett to try something closer to her own experience, she revived her Western memories with a trip to Arizona and New Mexico and, after her return to Pittsburgh, “began to write a story entirely for myself; a story about some Scandinavians and Bohemians who had been neighbors of ours when I lived on a ranch in Nebraska, when I was eight or nine years old.”
As she herself instantly recognized, [her] second book, O Pioneers! (1913) came close to being the tune that “lay in her voice.” She wrote it spontaneously because she was tapping both memory and affection. She thought of the subject matter as a considerable innovation, because no American writer had yet used Swedish immigrants for any but comic purposes, and nobody had ever written about Nebraska, considered in literary circles the absolute home of the clodhopper. Actually there was nothing so revolutionary about the subject matter—it was merely one further extension of the local-color curiosity about little-known places and picturesque local types. Hamlin Garland had done German and Norwegian immigrants very like these, on Wisconsin and Iowa farms very like Miss Cather’s Nebraska ones, in Main-Travelled Roads (1891). O Pioneers! was new in its particulars, but not new in type, and it was not Willa Cather’s fully trained voice that was heard in it. In its method, the book is orthodox; the heroine, Alexandra Bergson, is a type of earth goddess; the theme is the theme of the conquest of a hard country that had dominated novels of the American settlement ever since James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers in 1823. Miss Cather’s novel, in fact, is considerably slighter and simpler than Cooper’s of similar title.
In her third book, The Song of the Lark (1915), we can see Miss Cather systematically and consciously working for the enlargement and complication of her theme. The locale, at least in the beginning, is again Nebraska, though she calls it Colorado; the chief character is again a local girl of immigrant parentage, great promise, and few advantages. But the antagonist here is not the earth, and triumph is nothing so simple as the hewing of a farm out of a hard country. To the problem of survival has been added the problem of culture. The struggle is involved with the training of Thea Kronborg’s fine voice; the effort of the novel is to explore how a talent may find expression even when it appears in a crude little railroad town on the plains, and how a frontier American may lift himself from his traditionless, artless environment to full stature as an artist and an individual.
Here we see developing the dynamism between old world and new that occurs strongly again not only in My Antonia but in One of Ours (1922), The Professor’s House (1925), Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Shadows on the Rock (1931), and several of the short stories such as “Neighbor Rosicky.” It is as if Miss Cather conceived the settlement of her country as a marriage between a simple, fresh, hopeful young girl and a charming, worldly, but older man. Thea Kronborg’s German music teacher, Herr Wunsch, is the first of those cultivated and unhappy Europeans who people Miss Cather’s fictions—exiles who, though doomed themselves by the hardships of pioneering, pass on sources of life and art to the eager young of a new land. Thea, like Alexandra Bergson before her and Antoinia Shimerda later, is that best sort of second generation American who learns or retains some of the intellectual and artistic tradition of Europe without losing the American freshness and without falling into the common trap of a commercial and limited ‘practicality.’ These are all success stories of sorts, and all reflect a very American groping toward a secure identity.
But even The Song of the Lark was not the precise song that lay in Willa Cather’s voice. Or rather, it was the right tune, but she sang it imperfectly. The story of Thea Kronborg’s struggle to become an opera singer is told with realism so detailed that it is exhausting; and it ended by offending its author nearly as much as the pretentiousness of Alexander’s Bridge. “Too much detail,” she concluded later, “is apt, like any form of extravagance, to become slightly vulgar.” She never tried a second time the “full-blooded method”: When the next book came along, quite of itself, and with no direction from me, it took the road of O Pioneers!—not the road of The Song of the Lark.
The next one was, of course, My Antonia. But the road it took was not quite exactly that of O Pioneers! For though the place is still Nebraska and the protagonist is still and immigrant girl contending with the handicaps of a physical and emotional transplanting. My Antonia is a major novel where the earlier ones were trial efforts. O Pioneers! was truly simple; My Antonia only looks simple. The Song of the Lark was cluttered in its attempt to deal with complexity; My Antonia gives complexity the clean lines and suggestive subtlety of fine architecture.
One technical device which is fundamental to the greater concentration and suggestiveness of My Antonia is the point of view from which it is told. Both of the earlier “Nebraska novels” had been reported over the protagonist’s shoulder, with omniscient intrusions by the author. Here the whole story is told by a narrator, Jim Burden, a boyhood friend of Antonia, later a lawyer representing the railroad. The use of the narrative mask permits Miss Cather to exercise her sensibility without obvious self-indulgence: Burden becomes an instrument of the selectivity that she worked for. He also permits the easy condensation and syncopation of time—an indispensable technical tool in a novel that covers more than thirty years and deals in a complex way with a theme of development. Finally, Jim Burden is used constantly as a suggestive parallel to Antonia: he is himself an orphan and has been himself transplanted (from the East, from Virginia), and is himself groping for an identity and an affiliation. In the process of understanding and commemorating Antonia, he locates himself; we see the essential theme from two points, and the space between those points serves as a baseline for triangulation.
Austin High School teacher