Saturday, August 23, 2014

My Antonia by Willa Cather

This is the last time I’m going to read My Antonia—at least for a while. Last time I read it, I thought I would read it over and over again, like I was doing with Moby-Dick, but I’ve decided to let this one drift into past memory for a while, the same way I have with Melville’s whale.

There’s a story that Antonia tells in the middle of the book. It’s about a tramp that comes out of nowhere while she is working on Ole Iverson’s farm.

“After a while I see a man coming across the stubble, and when he got close I see it was a tramp. His toes stuck out of his shoes, and he hadn’t shaved for a long while, and his eyes was awful red and wild, like he had some sickness. He comes right up and begins to talk like he knows me already. He says: ‘The ponds in this country is done got so low a man couldn’t drownd himself in one of ‘em.’”

He wants to kill himself, but Antonia doesn’t take him seriously—thinks he is just crazy—but when Iverson puts him to work something terrible happens.

“He cut bands all right for a few minutes, and then, Mrs. Harling, he waved his hand to me and jumped head-first right into the thrashing machine after the wheat.

“I began to scream, and the men run to stop the horses, but the belt had sucked him down, and by the time they got her stopped he was all beat and cut to pieces. He was wedged in so tight it was a hard job to get him out, and the machine ain’t never worked right since.”

No one knew who he was. After getting his body out of the machine they searched it.

“They couldn’t find no letters nor nothing on him; nothing but an old penknife in his pocket and the wishbone of a chicken wrapped up in a piece of paper, and some poetry.”

“Some poetry?” we exclaimed.

“I remember,” said Frances. “It was ‘The Old Oaken Bucket,’ cut out of a newspaper and nearly worn out. Ole Iverson brought it into the office and showed it to me.”

“Now, wasn’t that strange, Miss Frances?” Tony asked thoughtfully. “What would anybody want to kill themselves in summer for? I thrashing time, too! It’s nice everywhere then.”

The Old Oaken Bucket is a poem by Samuel Woodworth about the fond recollections we have for scenes of our childhood—a theme Cather adopts for My Antonia. And how poignantly strange is it that Antonia herself can’t understand why anyone would kill themselves in summer—oblivious at that age of the regrets adults often have for their youths, even when her own father took his own life—years before in the dead of winter—for many of the same reasons.

I've read My Antonia three times--the first time as an audiobook, and the other two times in the silence of my own thoughts. It made a deep impression on me each time. Here's what I wrote in my journal after that first experience.

My Antonia by Willa Cather. I didn’t read this one. It’s an audiobook I took out from the library and listened to while I was driving back and forth from work. I liked it a lot. I’m tempted to buy it so I can put it on my shelf. I started out not sure if I was going to like the story, but I did. It grew on me in a way I would not have predicted. And the prose, the prose is like an unknown Van Gogh tucked away in someone’s attic. An absolute treasure. Guess what I like best about the story. How sad it was. Not overtly sad, not get out the Kleenexes and have a good cry sad. But subtly sad, sad just below the surface like some deep hidden current in a black river. The recollections of world-weary Jim Burden who, as a boy, had gone to live with his grandparents on the Nebraska prairie, and had met an immigrant girl named Antonia who comes to embody everything that is honest and real through his interactions with her over the span of several decades. He loves her, says so himself, but never romantically, and you can sense the unspoken regret in his first person narrative. This is a book very much about the lives people lead, the choices they make, and how their relationships with those who happen to be around them help to shape their understanding of who they are and what life means. It makes your heart ache. I want to read it again.

It took more than two years, but when I finally got around to reading it for the second time, I couldn't stop underlining that remarkable prose.

+ + +

I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. There was some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit. I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few. All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. The gophers scurried up and down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltered draw-bottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasses wave. 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 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.

This comes early in the book, shortly after Jim arrives in Nebraska, and I think it sets the tone for a lot of his experiences on the prairie. He grows up, goes to exciting places and does important things as a young man, but he doesn’t seem happy later, at least not happy like he is laying here in his grandmother’s garden.

+ + +

That afternoon Fuchs told me story after story: about the Black Tiger Mine, and about violent deaths and casual buryings, and the queer fancies of dying men. You never really knew a man, he said, until you saw him die. Most men were game, and went without a grudge.

+ + +

The Black Hawk boys looked forward to marrying Black Hawk girls, and living in a brand-new little house with best chairs that must not be sat upon, and hand-painted china that must not be used. But sometimes a young fellow would look up from his ledge, or out through the grating of his father’s bank, and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard, as she passed the window with her slow, undulating walk, or Tiny Soderball, tripping by in her short skirt and striped stockings.

Cather’s prose is filled with little tidbits like this, combining story with homily in a way that is unobtrusive and clean. She’s really good and telling truth with her fiction.

+ + +

One could hang about the drugstore, and listen to the old men who sat there every evening, talking politics and telling raw stories. One could go to the cigar factory and chat with the old German who raised canaries for sale, and look at his stuffed birds. But whatever you began with him, the talk went back to taxidermy. There was the depot, of course; I often went down to see the night train come in, and afterward sat awhile with the disconsolate telegrapher who was always hoping to be transferred to Omaha or Denver, ‘where there was some life.’ He was sure to bring out his pictures of actresses and dancers. He got them with cigarette coupons, and nearly smoked himself to death to possess these desired forms and faces. For a change, one could talk to the station agent; but he was another malcontent; spent all his spare time writing letters to officials requesting a transfer. He wanted to get back to Wyoming where he could go trout-fishing on Sundays. He used to say ‘there was nothing in life for him but trout streams,’ ever since he’d lost his twins.

Willa Cather was someone who understood loneliness.

+ + +

These were the distractions I had to choose from. There were no other lights burning downtown after nine o’clock. On starlight nights I used to pace up and down those long, cold streets, scowling at the little, sleeping houses on either side, with their storm-windows and covered back porches. They were flimsy shelters, most of them poorly built of light wood, with spindle porch-posts horribly mutilated by the turning-lathe. Yet for all their frailness, how much jealousy and envy and unhappiness some of them managed to contain! The life that went on in them seemed to me made up of evasions and negations; shifts to save cooking, to save washing and cleaning, devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip. This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny. People’s speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution. The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their own kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark. The growing piles of ashes and cinders in the back yards were the only evidence that the wasteful, consuming process of life went on at all. On Tuesday nights the Owl Club danced; then there was a little stir in the streets, and here and there one could see a lighted window until midnight. But the next night all was dark again.

This has got to be one of the best paragraphs I have ever read. How many times have I done the same thing? Looking at the little houses on the side of the road and wondering what kind of life went on inside them? Repulsed by the meanness of it, but at the same time anxious for the fellowship that comes with understanding the world of another living being. I’ll lose it. I always do. I spend nights typing lines like this out, but they pass into the forgotten realm of the past as easily as if I hadn’t. Is this why I used to read Moby-Dick over and over again? And is it why I decided to start reading My Antonia over and over again?

+ + +

I walked home from the Opera House alone. As I passed the Methodist Church, I saw three white figures ahead of me, pacing up and down under the arching maple trees, where the moonlight filtered through the lush June foliage. They hurried toward me; they were waiting for me—Lena and Tony and Anna Hansen.

‘Oh, Jim, it was splendid!’ Tony was breathing hard, as she always did when her feelings outran her language. ‘There ain’t a lawyer in Black Hawk could make a speech like that. I just stopped your grandpa and said so to him. He won’t tell you, but he told us he was awful surprised himself, didn’t he, girls?’

Lena sidled up to me and said teasingly, ‘What made you so solemn? I thought you were scared. I was sure you’d forget.’

Anna spoke wistfully.

‘It must make you very happy, Jim, to have fine thoughts like that in your mind all the time, and to have words to put them in. I always wanted to go to school, you know.’

‘Oh, I just sat there and wished my papa could hear you! Jim’ — Antonia took hold of my coat lapels — ‘there was something in your speech that made me think so about my papa!’

‘I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony.’ I said. ‘I dedicated it to him.’

She threw her arms around me, and her dear face was all wet with tears.

I stood watching their white dresses glimmer smaller and smaller down the sidewalk as they went away. I have had no other success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one.

Jim is graduating from law school and he gave a commencement address. He is already seeing Antonia infrequently, and he soon will be leaving and not returning for a long time, if ever. Yet they share this connection, this connection through language and shared memory and tragedy. Anna speculates that it must be wonderful, having fine thoughts like that in your mind all the time, and having the words to put them in. It is. And that’s why people like Cather write novels, isn’t it?

+ + +

I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the ‘Georgics’ where to-morrow’s lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. ‘Optima dies…prima figut.’ I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. ‘Primus ego in patriam mecum…deducam Musas;’ ‘for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.’ Cleric had explained to us that ‘patria’ here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighbourhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatial Romana, but to his own little ‘country;’ to his father’s fields, ‘sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.’

Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the ‘Aeneid’ unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, that his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the ‘Georgics,’ where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, ‘I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.’

I can’t be the only one who sees some autobiography here from Cather. Virgil’s Italy is Cather’s Nebraska.

+ + +

‘Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.’

She turned her bright, believing eyes to me, and the tears came up in them slowly, ‘How can it be like that, when you know so many people, and when I’ve disappointed you so? Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? I’m so glad we had each other when we were little. I can’t wait till my little girl’s old enough to tell her about all the things we used to do. You’ll always remember me when you think about old times, won’t you? And I guess everybody thinks about old times, even the happiest people.’

Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? It seems to me that this is a good summation of the book’s theme. People can mean a great deal to each other, and it is wonderful when they do. Wonderful and sad all at the same time.

+ + +

This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

This is the last paragraph of the novel, and pretty good one as last paragraphs go. It again stresses the formative bond Jim and Antonia shared, and makes it clear those early experiences shaped them both in ways neither of them could ever master. How much of this is true? Are we forever shaped by what we experience and the people we meet when we are young? I think of my own youth, and how so many connections to it have been severed. If Cather is correct, what does that mean for me? Jim had Anotnia, the idea of Antonia, as part of his mind, influencing his likes and dislikes even when he didn’t realize it. Who is part of my mind, and will I ever see them again? Do I even want to? Is that another idea for a novel? A childhood unconnected to an Antonia or the idea she represents, and the adult that grows from it, searching and forever not finding that missing part of himself?

+ + +

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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