Modernism in My Ántonia

A novel is just a glimpse, a framed and sometimes fragmented exploration into the depths of memory, psychology, time and place.

“Graves of Travellers, Fort Kearny, Nebraska” by Worthington Whittredge (1866)

Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (pronounced “an-ton-ee-yuh” as in the name Anthony) is one of the seminal works of the great American pastoral tradition, similar in style to O Pioneers! It is told as an imagined reflection by Cather’s childhood friend, Jim Burden. Appropriately, the novel begins with an epigraph citing Virgil’s Georgics – Optima dies…prima fugit (“the best days are the first to disappear”). Like Virgil’s Georgics or Hesiod’s Works and Days, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia celebrates nostalgia for the rustic, Arcadian life.

The book was published in 1918, and was Cather’s great masterpiece. It is sometimes grouped together as the “Prairie Trilogy” which includes: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918).

The novel is uniquely modernist, as it contains no significant plot arc, aside from being a bildungsroman of sorts. What is at stake in My Ántonia? The story is framed and told through the perspective of Jim Burden, an old friend who is now a successful East Coast attorney. He mentions that he is trapped in a loveless marriage. Cather and Burden decide to embark on a competition to write a novel reflecting on their jovial childhood friend, Ántonia. At the start of the book, Willa Cather claims to simply reiterate Burden’s story of Ántonia. The novel is told in five parts through Mr. Burden’s lens:

Book I: “The Shimerdas” – Book I introduces our characters: Jim Burden is an orphan traveling to live with his grandparents in Nebraska, when meets Ántonia, later nicknamed “Tony,” while they ride the train together. She is a young child with her Bohemian immigrant family hoping to make a new life as Nebraska homesteaders. Tony’s father, however, soon finds life on the prairie listless and hopeless. As the long winter arrives, Tony’s father kills himself causing much grief to the community. As time passes, Tony grows into a beautiful and vivacious young girl. We are also given a story of Peter and Pavel, two men from Russia who are hiding from a secret crime: in confessing their dark secret, they remember a happy wedding back in Russia that in tragedy. While all the carriages were traveling home from the wedding, their carriage was attacked by wolves so they cast the bride and groom overboard to flee the scene. They saved their own lives but left the bride and groom to be mauled by wolves. Not long after this confession is introduced, Pavel dies and Peter leaves town, never to be heard from again. This is one example of the unique blend of styles and genres introduced in the novel: the dark secret of Pavel and Peter is a parody of Gothic folklore.

Book II: “The Hired Girls” -Book II tells the story of Jim and his grandparents as they rent out their farm and move into town. Jim starts attending courses at the University of Nebraska. Meanwhile, some of the young country girls come to work in “service” for wealthy elder families. Tony is one of those young girls. The girls also start going to dances in the evenings, despite the dissatisfaction from their elders. This section of the novel ends shortly after Tony starts work at a new house, the Cutters. One day, they leave Tony to watch over the house, and Jim spends the night at the house to cover for Tony. However, he is attacked when a surprise visit from Mr. Cutter causes alarm for them both.

Book III: “Lena Lingard” -throughout reading this novel we find ourselves asking: will Tony and Jim finally strike up a romance? Alas, they never do, despite significant tension between the two character. In this way, the novel is not a romance or a melodrama. However, Jim appears to have a fling with another young mischievous girl in Book III. Her name is Lena. He takes her out to shows in the evenings while Jim attends school. Jim’s beloved teacher suddenly moves to Boston so Jim decides to follow him to continue his learning, so he promptly ends the relationship with Lena, who does not wish to get married or settle down. They part ways on a somewhat somber note, but the plot continues to roll along and Lena seems to give little care.

Book IV: “The Pioneer Woman’s Story” -this section tells a sad tale of when Jim Burden returns to Nebraska to learn that Tony was set to be married bu shet was abandoned just as she discovered she was pregnant. Now she has a child. Through it all, Tony remains positive and works hard on her farm. She is living in with her mother. In this moment, Jim and Tony go walking in what could have been a romantic moment, but it is not. For a brief moment they return to their childhood together, and then they part like old friends. Jim returns to his busy world of culture and education, while Tony remains alone on her farm, standing in a wheat field as Jim leaves.

Book V: “Cuzak’s Boys” -the brief but final section of the novel recounts Jim’s regrets at not returning to Nebraska for decades. One day, he returns on business and he decides to pay a visit to Tony. She is now married with a large brood of children living on her homestead with a ‘good-enough’ husband. Tony remains chipper and active. Jim is welcomed but he has little room for connection with Tony because her husband and children are her main focus. Jim spends time talking to Tony’s husband but he largely unimpressed. Jim’s life is busy now, but when he returns to his roots nothing has changed. Nebraska remains the same. Life continues on the prairie as if there were no world outside.

As indicated by the title, the novel is possessive. That is, the narrator feels a certain ownership over the poor but lively bohemian immigrant-girl, Ántonia. However, he is not explicitly in love with her, though he wishes he was (despite having romantic dreams of Lena). He is jealous when Ántonia finds other men more courageous than he, except when he bashes the head of a rattlesnake for her. Like America, Jim is young. As in the old country of the bohemians, he is bound by the politics of circumstance, and as a scholar, he never seems to find true love. Like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the novel is circular, beginning as Jim and Ántonia ride the train to a dirt road in Nebraska, and it ends with Jim departing from that same dirt road. Jim never seems to find love in the novel, but he gets closest with his memories of Ántonia.

Here are a few notable selected passages from My Ántonia:

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the green prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there is so much motion in it; the whole country it seemed, somehow, to be running” (page 16).

“The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep” (page 18). –This passage is unique in that Cather had a portion of it imprinted on her gravestone: “…that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

“In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there” (page 208) -Jim Burden reflecting on returning to visit Tony in Nebraska after learning of her illegitimate child.

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. New York, Dover Publications, February 13, 2012.