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Cather, Willa

In the introduction to My Ántonia, we are told the (fictive) genesis of the book to follow: Jim Burden and an unnamed female acquaintance (a childhood friend) discuss a shared figure from their past: Ántonia Shimerda, and make plans to write about her. The woman never does, but Jim writes rather a lot, and it is this that constitutes the novel. The name is the name Jim gives it. Jim says:

“Of course, […] I should have to do it in a direct way, and say a great deal about myself. It’s through myself that I knew and felt her, and I’ve had no practice in any other form of presentation.” (p. 713; W. Cather, Early Novels and Stories, Library of America)

He is, as he self-consciously notes, giving only his version of Ántonia, and is a bit sheepish about it: he knows that his recollections cannot capture the whole of such an independent personality, but at best only a part. And this is reflected in the title he gives his notes:

He went into the next room, sat down at my desk and wrote on the pinkish face of the portfolio the word, “Ántonia.” He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it “My Ántonia.” That seemed to satisfy him. (p. 714)

At first glance, this title seems to call for a stress on “my,” emphasizing the perspectival nature of the account to follow. But the title can’t be pronounced that way, because—as is stressed several times early on, ‘Ántonia’ takes a strong stress on its first syllable, next to which ‘my’ fades into insignificance. Even here, the force of Ántonia’s individuality shines through. And while I have not finished the novel, this has been true so far: Ántonia has not been contained by the limits of Jim’s memory. The meter of the title nicely foreshadows this.

 

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In My Ántonia, Willa Cather explicitly identifies the narrator in the novel’s introduction: it is Jim Burden, an acquaintance of Ántonia, writing his understanding of her through his understanding of himself. By contrast, in Death Comes for the Archbishop (which I previous wrote about here) and O Pioneers!, Cather never indicates directly the perspective from which the story is told. At least in the latter case, however (and I suspect in the former, but I’d need to re-read it to be sure), the novel’s curiously impersonal tone makes the most sense if one supposes that the narrator is not human at all, but is rather the land itself.

Why think this? As mentioned, the tone of the novel is one reason. The novel is noteworthy for avoiding drama and intrigue. Cather never tries to surprise, never makes a major plot event arrive unexpectedly. Events unfold with a serene, implacable necessity: we can see them coming, yet are powerless to stop them. We must adapt to them: they will be what they are regardless. Even the novel’s climactic scene in the fourth act (“The White Mulberry Tree”), terrible as it is, arrives with quiet elegance, like a dream. No matter what is occurring, the narrator speaks with the same tone, an observer tied to yet somehow apart from the drama—and this seems the attitude of the Nebraska landscape.

The judgments made on the characters are also in keeping with the supposition that the story is told from the land’s perspective. For the most part, such judgments are rare, and when present they are muted. They are, however, there. One parallel set of judgments runs through. On the one side, there is, if you’ll pardon the paradox, an indifferent love for the pioneers, for the father John Bergson, for Alexandra, and for the vivacious young Emil. I call it an indifferent love because, while the warmth is clearly there, it is not overstated, and feels like admiration “from the wings.” There is no sense of an impulse to aid them, and there is a stoic acceptance of all their misfortunes. It is love that is tempered by the fatalism described above. On the other side, the inverse of this indifferent love, there is disdain for the conformists, Lou and Oscar, who lack any pioneer spirit, who prefer to fit in and be comfortable. When Alexandra, even as she ages, continues to innovate, Lou and Oscar are concerned only about the risk it poses to their children’s inheritance (earned entirely by Alexandra’s work, over their earlier protests). The reader can sense the narrator’s disgust, but again it is distanced, and without any impulse to intervene.

There is exactly one overtly exultant moment on the part of the narrator, in the book’s final lines, and it confirms all the forgoing:

Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra’s into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape. (Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, in Cather: Later Novels, Library of America, p. 334)

At the close of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, the archbishop Jean Marie Latour has built the cathedral that he has long wanted to build, and, as he recollects how it was built, he praises its architect:

How exactly the young Molny, his French architect, had done what he wanted! Nothing sensational, simply honest building and good stone-cutting,—good Midi Romanesque at its finest. (p. 442)

This captures the book well. The land the life it chronicles are harsh, sensationally so, but Cather tells it without sensation. She presents us with the facts: this is how it is, and it would be uncouth to make too much of it. There is too much work to be done to spend one’s days lamenting these harsh conditions. One can only accept them and meet them. Such is the manner of Latour, of Father Joseph Vaillant, and of all they meet, and such is the manner of Cather’s writing.

It is a harsh world, and a shifting and changing world, not quite formed, still fluid—like a mesa plain. Cather travels through it and finds and chronicles the life that is there to find, that has sprung up and made its living there. Plant life, human life—no matter: she loves it all, equally. When there is conflict, she does not take sides, but recounts it fairly, as the land might recount it. Thus everything proceeds with an air of necessity, to which one can only adapt, which one cannot change.

By the end, American architecture, with its American style of imposition on the landscape, has begun to impinge on Latour’s world just as he is leaving it: another change, another fluidity, another unpersuadable necessity. This new architecture clashes with the cathedral Latour has built. Soon its Midi Romanesque style will be out of place, a relic. Such is the way of things. Such is how it must be.

Even the title of the book announces a necessity, that final necessity toward which the book must inexorably push, until at least death has come for the archbishop, and the book ends.

It is a beautiful book.