My Ántonia, Willa Cather

***My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918) | Bean's Book Blog ...

Well, I’ve read the three now and I’m clear The Song of the Lark is my favourite. Clear too that while they each cover the life of one strong woman, over the same period, 1880-1910, in more or less the same small part of America’s western prairies, they barely constitute a ‘trilogy’.

My Ántonia (1918) is ostensibly the story of Ántonia Shimerda, the daughter of a Bohemian family come to take up newly opened farmland near (fictional) Black Hawk, Nebraska, in the same uncultivated red grass prairie country as O Pioneers!, where Cather grew up. But this one is hardly a novel at all, nor even the story of Ántonia, but rather Cather’s autobiography very lightly fictionalised as the memoir of one of her schoolmates, Jim Burden.

As one blogger I came across wrote: “For a book about Ántonia, there was very little of Ántonia – not enough for me to build a picture of her personality.” She also wrote: Verdict: Ahem. Sorry. Boring. which is harsh, but not that far off the mark.

The story is framed in a brief Introduction where the author recounts running into Burden and the two agree to write what they remember of

a Bohemian girl whom we had known long ago and whom both of us admired. More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.

Though in the end it is only Burden’s account we hear.

Encyclopaedia Britannica says: At age 9 [1883] Cather moved with her family from Virginia to frontier Nebraska, where from age 10 she lived in the village of Red Cloud. There she grew up among the immigrants from Europe—Swedes, Bohemians, Russians, and Germans—who were breaking the land on the Great Plains.

Cather in the guise of Jim Burden writes: I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in [Black Hawk] Nebraska.

Jim travels in the care of farm worker Jake, and on the train with them is a family of Bohemians who get off at the same stop, and who as it happens are taking up the property next door to Jim’s grandfather’s.

ON SUNDAY MORNING Otto Fuchs [the other farm worker] was to drive us over to make the acquaintance of our new Bohemian neighbours. We were taking them some provisions, as they had come to live on a wild place where there was no garden or chicken-house, and very little broken land.

And so Jim meets Ántonia, a few years his elder, and they become firm friends running free across the prairie whenever there is no work. The Shimerdas live in what is little more than a hole in the ground. The father a furrier and musician back home, has no aptitude for farm work, which is increasingly left to Ántonia’s older brother, Ambrosch.

Antonia had opinions about everything, and she was soon able to make them known. Almost every day she came running across the prairie to have her reading lesson with me… [and] to help grandmother in the kitchen and to learn about cooking and housekeeping.

Jim himself does very little farm work, just the chooks and the milking, consistent with him just being Cather in pants.

Cather’s descriptions of the plains and its people are what has made these books live for so long, but the first two and especially The Song of The Lark have a dramatic intensity that My Ántonia lacks altogether. It simply drifts along, first I did this, then I did that.

Though, for the first year and especially that brutal first winter, it’s nearly all we did this, we did that as the Burdens help the Shimerdas survive. Jim starts school, then as Cather’s family did, the Burdens move into town. Mr Shimerda has died, and there is more physical and emotional distance between the friends, especially as Ántonia, Tony now, takes on more outside work both for her brother and for their neighbours.

Since winter I had seen very little of Antonia. She was out in the fields from sunup until sundown. If I rode over to see her where she was ploughing, she stopped at the end of a row to chat for a moment, then gripped her plough-handles, clucked to her team, and waded on down the furrow, making me feel that she was now grown up and had no time for me.

There is very little discussion of the fact that Ántonia at 15 or 16 must have had very different interests to 11, 12 year old Jim. He – who remains a bachelor throughout, as Cather herself stayed unmarried – is clearly romantically interested in her but not so much she in him. In fact the relationship is only believable if you turn Jim back to what he really was, an infatuated schoolgirl.

In town the Burdens’ next door neighbours, the Harlings, a big prosperous family, come into the story and eventually Ántonia comes to work for them as housekeeper, leading the story in a new direction, the doings of Ántonia and her friends, collectively ‘the Hired Girls’, young migrant women not too proud to work in service to support the farms of their families. Those girls, Tony, Lena, Tiny, the Marys are free to go out in the evenings, to listen to music and dance, and Jim is often out his bedroom window to join them.

Life goes on, all the interest is in the detail and the descriptions. Jim goes to College in Lincoln, as did Cather. Lena comes to town as a dressmaker and the two often go to the theatre together. One performance is of a Dumas play related to La Traviata. This is of course La Dame aux Camélias (Camille in American)

The actress who played Marguerite was even then old-fashioned, though historic. She had been a member of Daly’s famous New York company, and afterward a ‘star’

Research points to this having been not Sarah Bernhardt, my first guess, but her predecessor Clara Morris.

We hear Ántonia has gone off to marry her sweetheart, a railway man, but she is soon back, pregnant, hidden away on the farm. We finally catch up with her 20 years later, happy, married to a fellow countryman, a farmer’s wife with a dozen children.

Read it, the descriptions are wonderful. If I describe it as America’s A Fortunate Life, then Australians at least will know what I mean.

 

Willa Cather, My Ántonia, first pub. 1918.

see also:

Liz, Adventures in reading, running and working from home,
My Ántonia Readalong (here)
O Pioneers! (here)
The Song of the Lark (here)

20 thoughts on “My Ántonia, Willa Cather

  1. Haha, Bill, I won’t because I never have read A fortunate life. My bad, I know.

    I understand your criticisms of the book, but they aren’t criticisms for me. One of the book’s enduring memories for me is the tone and the way it conveys what the lives, the times, were like. Tone, more than anything, will get me in. It’s certainly more important for me than things happening. Still, I clearly need to read the other two, particularly Lark, one day.

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    • Definitely your bad. Were you in America? My memory is that everyone was talking about it when it came out.

      If you can make the time, read them in order. O Pioneers! is very short. But Thea in The Song of the Lark is by far the strongest character.

      Cather certainly is brilliant at conveying the feel of the Plains and its people, but I think she failed to make Antonia into a living character, I don’t think we ever saw through Jim’s hero worship. Let’s see what Liz says later today.

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      • No, in fact I wasn’t Bill, it came out in 1981 and we went to America the first time in early 1983. I certainly remember its being talked about but I often didn’t jump to read books that were so universally touted. Sometimes that turned out to be the wrong decision. I believe I have a copy here and hope one day to read it.

        Perhaps though Ántonia is not supposed to be the main character – the fact that it’s called “my” and not just her name could suggest that? This book is about Jim I think.

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      • I hear what you say about “universally touted”. I miss a lot of good books that way. It hadn’t occurred to me (or the blogger I quoted) that the book wasn’t meant to be about Antonia. It’s definitely mostly about Jim. My criticism remains that it is just a list of events and descriptions, not a story in any real sense. But worth reading if only for the quality of the writing.

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  2. It’s interesting (given what the blogger who thought it was boring said) that this is the one that I’d heard of. I don’t know how or why I’ve known of this book for years, and not the others in the trilogy.
    Anyway, I’m glad I’ve read the best one:)

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    • I hadn’t heard of Cather at all until recently, and yet she seems to have a place In America’s heart. I didn’t try and compare her with Miles Franklin though they’re near enough the same age, because they approach their rural/pioneer upbringings in different ways. Though now I’ve said that, I know I’ve remarked previously that the best part of the Brent of Bin Bin books are the description of country.

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    • I also always heard of My Antonia and did not realize Cather’s books were considered a trilogy until recent years. I’ve tried reading journals written by women who had similar experiences to Cather and her characters, but they also read as “first I did this, then I did that.”

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      • Like a primary school composition…
        Let’s face it, most of the lives of pioneer women would have been hard back-breaking work, day after day doing routine mundane work. It takes a writer of genius to run something like that into a work of fiction worth reading.

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      • There are some moments of drama as Jim’s life proceeds, but there is no overarching narrative that holds the novel together. Except maybe Antonia grows up, gets married, has kids. And most of that happens while we’re not looking.

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      • I think Cather is a writer of genius Lisa, but to create a strong story in The Song of the Lark she had to take Thea out of the country, which supports what you say.
        Still… Miles Franklin managed to make a drama out of ordinary pioneering lives.

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  3. I didn’t realise when I read this book that it was part of a trilogy. I do have Oh Pioneers to read at some point. I accept what you say that My Antonia doesn’t have a plot as such. I enjoyed it as an evocation of a way of life that was undeniably harsh and how the inhabitants dealt with that. I also loved the descriptions of the natural environment.

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    • Yes, I agree with Karen. I don’t really need a strong plot per se – if the characters, the setting or background, are interesting and the writing really evocative. There is a narrative arc but it is more about Jim.

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    • I don’t think it’s a trilogy in any meaningful way and I’d be interested to know if Cather intended the books to be read together. But yes, the descriptions are wonderful, and the winters are terrible, though they seem manageable once the pioneers have houses instead of holes in the ground.

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    • I’m glad you agree with me about Song of the Lark, but I enjoyed reading all three, will get back to Alexander’s Bridge ‘soon’, then will look out for some more. Thank you Project Gutenberg!

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  4. Like you, I consider Lark my favourite, but I can’t tell now (a couple of decades later) whether that’s partly because it was my first of her books, which can seem to intensify the reading with that sense of “discovery”, or if it was because there was so much more about the pursuit of her music (which was very specifically described, but also felt like it could have been another creative pursuit too) or if, as you’ve suggested, that there’s just more character for us to latch onto as readers. This one, I’ve read too (it’s Pioneers I’ve missed, apparently) but I don’t remember anything about it, maybe because, as you’ve said, it’s more about feel and place. Most recently, of her books, I’ve read The Death of the Archbishop, which is slightly more plotty but still very landscapey, and the next that I have in mind to read is Shadows on the Rock (because it takes place in Quebec, I believe). If I’m not mistaken, there’s a Hermione Lee biography, but I’m sure you have no end of women writers whose biographies await!

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    • I have very good biographies that have sat unread on my shelves for years, especially Brian Dibble’s ‘Doing Life’ on Elizabeth Jolley, and yet I read other stuff first. How does that happen?

      It’s interesting that Cather went ‘back’ to My Antonia after Song of the Lark. I wouldn’t be surprised if much of My Antonia was written first, it’s a very typical, autobiographical first novel. And yet quite obviously many of her fans are quite happy to have all that description and relatively little character development/interaction. I would also like to see how she saw the ‘trilogy’, and especially whether she had a vision for the stories of three independent women. I’m sure the New Woman movement was widely discussed in her set at university, and I think I read that Cather was influenced by Henry James who was apparently one of the popularizers of the term.

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  5. It might happen simply because we are interested in so many different books and authors that it’s not possible to read them all, so some must be left to sit while others are read.

    But for myself, I also avoid biographies because the good ones often do discuss the works in some detail and sometimes you learn a major plot point which would spoil a novel/story along the way. So as the years went on, I simply told myself that I would wait until I’d had time to “read a few more” of the author’s books. And, of course, multiply that by all the authors of interest and it’s been nearly impossible to get back to those biographies. But maybe that’s just me.

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  6. […] It is my opinion, though without going to the trouble of collecting actual evidence, that US writers shy away from allowing their women too much independence and almost invariably have them, in the end, deferring to men. Prime example: Marge Simpson. Possible exception: Willa Cather. […]

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