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)

Song of the Lark, Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark (1915), the second in Cather’s ‘Prairie’ trilogy is set, initially at least, in Colorado, the adjoining state to the south and west of Nebraska, the setting of the first, and further into the high country I guess, in a little railway town she names Moonstone, in desert country of wind blown sandhills, not country I’d ever heard of before in relation to Colorado.

Winter was long in coming that year. Throughout October the days were bathed in sunlight and the air was clear as crystal. The town kept its cheerful summer aspect, the desert glistened with light, the sand hills every day went through magical changes of color. The scarlet sage bloomed late in the front yards, the cottonwood leaves were bright gold long before they fell, and it was not until November that the green on the tamarisks began to cloud and fade. There was a flurry of snow about Thanksgiving, and then December came on warm and clear.

Thea the heroine, 11 years old when we meet her, is a flaxen haired ‘Swede’, one of seven children, her father, Kronberg a Methodist* pastor in a town of Swedes, Germans and American Baptists, though there is unusually for the times this far north a Mexican enclave too. There seems no connection with O Pioneers! except that Mrs Kronberg has a farm in Nebraska, from her father, on which she has tenants.


Right now I am at the half way mark of the book. I opened the file for this review as I began to read because it is so easy to copy quotes across from Project Gutenberg and not have to go back looking for them. From what some of you say I could do that with an e-reader too, but I don’t. Thea has grown through six years of country town life, closely described, taken music lessons from a drunken old German who has eventually had to leave town, left school a year early to teach piano, and now a railwayman in his thirties who has planned to marry Thea since she was 11 has died and in his will left her $600 for her education in music, not in nearby Denver, but in Chicago.

There Thea has found a home with a German widow and her widowed daughter, and a teacher in Harsanyi, a young married Hungarian. Thea is very intelligent, very uneducated, and immensely determined. Harsnayi, himself a talented performer, who has been teaching her piano for some months has only just discovered that Thea sings soprano in the church choir, and he and I have had tears in our eyes for a whole chapter as he slowly realises just how wonderful, and how untrained, is her voice.

A kind of happiness vibrated in her voice. Harsanyi noticed how much and how unhesitatingly she changed her delivery of the whole song, the first part as well as the last. He had often noticed that she could not think a thing out in passages. Until she saw it as a whole, she wandered like a blind man surrounded by torments. After she once had her “revelation,” after she got the idea that to her—not always to him—explained everything, then she went forward rapidly.

So I do not know yet how this novel is going to work out. O Pioneers! was the story of two impossible loves, with its background Alexandra’s growth as a woman and businesswoman. At this stage Song of the Lark has no story at all but is a character study of an independent young woman, set against the characters of her mother in particular, and her father, and the men in her community who are her only friends.


I never use all the quotes I mark, but I’ll share this one because I think we Australian boomers who’ve grown up with waves of migration will sympathize. In Moonstone Thea is friends with a Mexican singer, Johnny, who has just told Thea and her brother Gunner that some Mexicans keep snakes in the house to kill rats and mice:

“They call him the house snake. They keep a little mat for him by the fire, and at night he curl up there and sit with the family, just as friendly!”

Gunner sniffed with disgust. “Well, I think that’s a dirty Mexican way to keep house; so there!”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps,” he muttered. A Mexican learns to dive below insults or soar above them, after he crosses the border.

There is another resonance for Australians and that is, right at this time, Miles Franklin a country girl who had dreamed of a career as an opera singer until her voice was ruined by poor training, is living and working in Chicago and singing in church and union choirs.

https://historylink101.com/art/JulesBreton/images/498099.jpgThe Song of the Lark, 1884, Jules Breton

Thea begins to find her way round Chicago, to the museum where she falls in love with this painting, to concerts, learns to deal with tramcars, crowded streets, dirt, hostile winds off the lake. Harsanyi knows his limitations and passes her on to Bowers, less sympathetic, but the best teacher of voice. After a year Thea begins to understand her own power.

Home for the summer holidays she attends a dance in the Mexican quarter which becomes an impromptu concert. Her old German friends nearby are wakened by the singing

There was silence for a few moments. Then the guitar sounded fiercely, and several male voices began the sextette from “Lucia.” Johnny’s reedy tenor they knew well, and the bricklayer’s big, opaque barytone; the others might be anybody over there—just Mexican voices. Then at the appointed, at the acute, moment, the soprano voice, like a fountain jet, shot up into the light. “HORCH! HORCH!” the old people whispered, both at once.

Thea’s older sister and brothers are disgusted with her for mixing with ‘that kind’ and she knows that this is no longer her home.

In the second half of the novel Thea is a woman, enormously talented and determined, taking that step, or those steps, from student to the edge of stardom. You wonder who Cather was up close to, to be able to write with such detail. It doesn’t have the dramatic power of Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest, but it does have very nearly as much music. There is a man in Thea’s life, Fred, the musically-inclined son of a beer baron, and early on she goes away with him, to his ranch in Navajo country, lovingly described, then to Mexico, outside of this novel so to speak, where she learns what we already know, that Fred is married. Her time as a student and young singer in Germany is also outside the story and we rejoin her in New York, where she is just beginning to be a success, where she is still friends with Fred and where she is joined by the very first of her admirers and supporters, Doctor Archie from Moonstone.

Much as I am hypnotised by Cather’s powers of description, I wondered for a long time where this novel was going. But Thea as a country girl of unusual gifts, and Thea as a young star are in the end each so fully realised, and each is so important to the understanding of the other, that I don’t regret a single word (and I hope you don’t either of this very long review).

 

Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark, first pub. 1915. Painting by Jules Breton in The Art Institute Chicago (here). Cover painting on the Penguin edition, no I don’t know either.

see also:

O Pioneers! (here)
My Ántonia (coming)


*I don’t know how Rev. Kronberg ended up in a Methodist church. He came from the Swedish community in Minnesota and remembered enough Swedish to be able to minister to his countrymen in a little community outside Moonstone. His friend Larsen in Chicago to whom he sends Thea is a minister in the Swedish Reform Church.

O Pioneers! Willa Cather

O Pioneers! - Wikipedia

Liz Dexter of Adventures in Reading etc. is holding a read-along of Cather’s My Ántonia which she has set for 13-19 April (2020, just in case you’re reading this some other year) so I decided to make use of my unlimited self-isolation free time to read and review the whole trilogy –

O Pioneers! (1913)
The Song of the Lark (1915)
My Ántonia (1918)

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was born in Virginia but grew up in Nebraska, frontier country on the high plains, where her father unsuccessfully attempted to farm in the early days of settlement for 18 months before moving into town and becoming a real estate agent. Willa’s mother had been a teacher, and Willa after starting school late, went on through high school to university (Nebraska-Lincoln). That would have been around 1890. University for women in Britain and Australia began in 1881, it would be interesting to know when women were first accepted into university in the US. Cather initially intended to be a doctor but soon dropped science and did a BA in English. She went on to make a career in magazine journalism though she taught Algebra and English for a while in high school.

There is some discussion of her sexuality. My understanding is that very few women declared themselves to be lesbian at that time, even, perhaps especially, those who lived together as did Cather and her friend Edith Lewis. (Sylvia Martin discusses this in Passionate Friends). I raise it because Alexandra, the central character of O Pioneers!, is the closest I’ve come to an Independent Woman in (old) American Literature.

Cather’s first novel was Alexander’s Bridge (1912), a Librivox recording of which which I began listening to last year but I couldn’t stand one of the readers. O Pioneers! was her second. The versions I am reading of this and the subsequent two are from Project Gutenberg. None of them seems very long, novella length really, but I can’t tell for sure.

O Pioneers! is divided into five parts spread over a couple of decades. All the most important characters are introduced almost in the first scene.

One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain.

A little ‘Swede’ boy maybe five years old in a coat and flannel dress is sitting in the street crying. His kitten is up a telegraph pole and won’t come down. His sister, 17 or 18, “a tall, strong girl [who] walked rapidly and resolutely” calls on their neighbour’s son, three or so years younger than she, for help. And so we meet Emil, Alexandra and Carl. Carl goes off to harness Alexandra’s horses and Emil wanders into the saloon to play with a “city child .. dressed in what was then called the “Kate Greenaway” manner, and her red cashmere frock, gathered full from the yoke, came almost to the floor. This, with her poke bonnet, gave her the look of a quaint little woman”. This is Marie, a Bohemian (Czech), aged 8 or 9.

The different national backgrounds of the settlers are in themselves fascinating. There are communities of protestant Swedes – Alexandra herself remembers when her father worked in a shipyard in Sweden – and Catholic French. The Bohemians, of whom there are only a few in this area, are also Catholic. We had very little of this in Australia, pockets of Scots and Irish of course, Germans in South Australia, and Chinese left over from the goldrushes who took up market gardening. As with Australian wheat-sheep country, the standard block size appears to be one square mile, 640 acres.

Alexandra, Carl and Emil return through the snow to their respective parents’ farms. Alexandra’s father is dying and he charges her with the ongoing management of the farm, for her and her and her hard-working but less bright teenage brothers.

Carl’s father can’t manage the harsh conditions and takes his family back to civilisation (Chicago or Pittsburgh). Alexandra takes stock of how earlier settlers did down on the river and persuades her brothers to mortgage their first property, which their father had managed to pay off before he died, and to begin buying up properties and to adapt their farming to the conditions.

Years later, Emil has gone through school and on to college. His two brothers are married and the property holdings have been split in three, between them and Alexandra. They are all prosperous thanks to Alexandra’s innovations.

IT is sixteen years since John Bergson died. His wife now lies beside him, and the white shaft that marks their graves gleams across the wheat-fields. Could he rise from beneath it, he would not know the country under which he has been asleep. The shaggy coat of the prairie, which they lifted to make him a bed, has vanished forever. From the Norwegian graveyard one looks out over a vast checker-board, marked off in squares of wheat and corn; light and dark, dark and light. Telephone wires hum along the white roads, which always run at right angles.

Alexandra still unmarried, has built herself a substantial homestead, and still writes to Carl. Marie lovely and vivacious, has married a surly fellow countryman, and they have bought Carl’s father’s old property, next door to Alexandra. Marie is about Alexandra’s only close friend.

Carl comes back for an extended visit. Alexandra is fronted by her farmer brothers who are concerned that she might marry him and not leave her property to their children

“The property of a family really belongs to the men of the family, no matter about the title. If anything goes wrong, it’s the men that are held responsible… We worked in the fields to pay for the first land you bought, and whatever’s come out of it has got to be kept in the family.”

Alexandra breaks with them. Carl goes away gold prospecting in the Yukon. Emil is in love with Marie, and goes off to Mexico. He comes back and it all ends calamitously.

Cather’s writing is exquisite, you can feel the ice in winter and hear the birds sing in summer. You really feel for Alexandra, growing older and lonelier. I hope the next two books are as good.

 

Willa Cather, O Pioneers!, first pub. 1913

see also:

The Song of the Lark (coming)
My Ántonia (coming)