This is part of Diane’s American Literature Course Series
By Willa Cather
My girls have kept up an admirable pace this year. My Ántonia is the last book in their American Literature syllabus. Though I had some titles in reserve for just-in-case, I hadn’t dreamed we’d get through the list with two months of school to go. I have decided to go easy on my students for what’s left of the year, rather than rewarding them for their hard work with more hard work. More on that in the next installment.
Willa Cather published My Ántonia in 1918. The story spans approximately 30 years during the early days of the settlement of Nebraska. The narrator, Jim Burden, recalls his childhood in a Nebraska farming community and his friendship with the title character in particular. Jim comes to Nebraska from Virginia to live with his grandparents after the deaths of both his parents when he is ten years old. He arrives on the same train as Ántonia and her family, Bohemian immigrants whom Jim discovers have bought a farm near his grandparents. The two families are as neighborly as they can manage, and Jim’s friendship with Ántonia grows as he teaches her English.
This is not the kind of book my class was expecting. It is a fictional memoir rooted in real people, places, and incidents from Cather’s early life. Some of my girls found the lack of romance surprising and not altogether satisfying. The boy doesn’t get the girl? I don’t cry, “Spoiler!” because, if readers pay attention and don’t forget about the introduction, they won’t be expecting a typical romantic ending.
Then what’s it all for, we asked? Cather’s epigraph, a quote from Virgil’s Georgics, gives us a clue. “Optima dies . . . prima fugit.” “The best days are the first to flee.” As with several of the other books we’ve read that were written in the early 20th Century, Cather looks back to a time and culture that had already passed, or was quickly passing away, in her lifetime.
“More than any other person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood. To speak her name was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going on one’s brain.”
The introduction sets up a situation in which a writer and her childhood friend Jim meet after twenty years and begin to reminisce. They both recall Ántonia, but at first they don’t remember many details. Months later, Jim brings an entire manuscript back to the author, and she says that, “The following narrative is Jim’s manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me.”
Jim and Ántonia’s relationship changes as they mature. He is destined for college, she for a hard life on a prairie farm. Jim’s grandparents are fairly well-established and can afford to educate him. Ántonia’s family, with not a cent to their names, must struggle against hardship with the added burden of a language and cultural barrier. She tells him once, when he asks about her rough behavior, “If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.”
Out on the Nebraska farms, life is tough for everyone. The landscape and the weather control the people’s lives in a way that town people are not forced to notice every day. At one point in his youth, Jim says, “I was convinced that man’s strongest antagonist is the cold.” Once the neighbors have helped Ántonia’s family build a better house, he comments, “the family were now fairly equipped to begin their struggle with the soil.” Nature is an antagonist, but Jim and Ántonia both learn to love the land.
Later, Jim and his grandparents move into town where he can go to school regularly and prepare for a more white-collar life. Jim watches as several immigrant girls, Ántonia among them, move to town and hire themselves out to various town families. We get glimpses of how each of them attempts to succeed at life in America. Now the struggles are not with nature, but with relationships and finding a place in a community that wishes to seem as refined as the cities they came from back East.
After college, Jim moves to the city, and it is twenty years before he sees most of his friends again. Ántonia remains attached to the place of their childhood. After a brief reunion, Jim says of Ántonia, “She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and human true . . . she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things . . . She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.”
Does Jim leave the next day regretting having left the land? Would he go back if he could? Would Ántonia have chosen another life if she could have? Jim knows he can’t go back but, “Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”
Early in the story, a man commits suicide, and we see the family and neighbors dealing with the occurrence, as well as how they handle the burial in the middle of winter.
Though there are no details, we do learn that Ántonia becomes pregnant before she gets married, and her fiance deserts her.
Our writing assignment related to this book was for each girl to write about a day on the ranch in the early days of Wyoming settlement. They said, and you may be able to detect it in their writing, that this assignment was the most fun of them all.