Saturday, September 11, 2021

My Antonia by Willa Cather

Source of book: Audiobook from the library, but I own and have read this book previously.


While most of our audiobooks for traveling have been more child oriented, we have always, even when the kids were young, mixed some classic literature in, beginning with Thank You Jeeves, I believe. Since then, we have listened to Jules Verne, Jack London, and Robert Lewis Stevenson (fairly popular), as well as Wilkie Collins (not so much, sadly) in addition to a few others. Having recently returned to reading Willa Cather on a regular basis, I decided this book would be a great one for my younger three kids, as they are at the right age. (My older two have mostly been unable in one case and uninterested in the other in coming along on camping trips, due to school and work. Time moves along…) 


I read My Antonia back in my 20s sometime, and really loved it. I had previously read an excerpt from O Pioneers! back in high school, and thought I should read some more. However, we didn’t own any of her books, and I didn’t get to it until I started collecting hardback classics, and thus purchased a used copy. More recently, I found the three volumes of her works in Library of America edition at a library sale, so I have decided to try to read one book a year until I finish them. (You can read my thoughts on Death Comes for the Archbishop and Uncollected Stories on this blog.)  


My Antonia centers on the story of the title character, Antonia Shimerda, an immigrant from Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), but the story is told from the viewpoint of Jim Burden. We first meet her at age 14, when Jim is 10, and the two of them have just moved to Blackhawk Nebraska. Jim has been orphaned, and has come to live with his grandparents. Antonia’s family has just immigrated and purchased (at an inflated price) a ranch next to the Burdens. 


Antonia is strong and beautiful and intelligent and hard working and bold and fascinating. She is truly one of the great female characters in fiction. Jim, naturally, has a crush on her the entire book, although she thinks of him as a kid for most of the book. In the end, they stay what they were at first, which was friends. Thus, this is a book that has a bit of unrequited love, but is far from being a romance. 


The book doesn’t limit itself to Jim and Antonia either. There is a whole small town of characters, and the small-town dramas that play out over the course of nearly three decades. Cather explores, with her characteristic empathy and psychological perception, the issues of race, class, and social status that play out in a community split between the wealthier and more “Anglo-Saxon” townfolk, and the farm families, who include immigrants from Scandinavia and Central Europe. The lives of the individuals intertwine with each other and with the rest of their society in fascinating ways. 


This book is no idyll: Antonia’s life is hard, and her good nature and free spirit often works to her disadvantage. But she is remarkably resilient, and never lets the hardships and betrayals she experiences to embitter her or grind her down. This does not mean she is perfect or unrealistic. I’ve met people like her, and she is in many ways like my own wife, although they are both true originals. 


I am not going to go through the details of the plot, but I did want to mention some scenes and ideas that really stood out to me this time through. 


First, the one false note in the book is the scene with the “negro minstrel.” By the standards of our own time, there are a few parts of the description of “Blind d’Arneau” that made me wince. I would classify them as examples of the “happy negro” stereotype that seems to persist today in white society’s expectation that our African American entertainers put on those big grins and shut up about injustice. But I need to be fair to Cather here: by the standards of her own time, she, like Mark Twain, insisted on portraying black people as fully human, fully intelligent and moral, and with a shocking-for-the-time egalitarianism. While the terms and descriptions are badly dated in that way, Cather goes out of her way to make the portrayal of Blind d’Arneau every bit as empathetic as her portrayal of immigrants in this book or Native Americans in Death Comes for the Archbishop. In fact, the line that made me wince the most was the one where d’Arneau says “let’s hear those old plantation songs!” Which is, in the 1880s setting, fully realistic. Heck, even now, I feel that some artists know they make the most money from white people by playing up the stereotypes. So, as I said, the scene bothered me a bit, but on further reflection, Cather’s sins are pretty mild, and the overall effect is to elevate d’Arneau by the standards of the time. Her greater failure could be said to lie in her choice of subject matter, mostly ignoring Jim Crow and other social issues of the time. But that wasn’t really her art; she wrote what she was great at writing. 


I recall being fascinated by Cather’s portrayal of Scandinavian immigrants. My family name comes from my Swedish side, and those ancestors that I can trace all came over in the 1880s and settled in the Great Plains states. Cather herself came from Virginia to Nebraska at the same age as Jim, which makes me wonder if Jim is a socially acceptable stand-in for her. (Cather is clearly crushing on Antonia as much as Jim, which makes since given her own longtime partnership with Edith Lewis.) Reading about “my people” is interesting, of course. Particularly the obvious fact that we were once “the new people off the boat” who were met by some degree of prejudice, and experienced hardship compared to the more established Americans. But also, the universal question of assimilation versus cultural preservation. The children forget how to speak the language of the Old Country, adopt American mannerisms, and so on. Throughout, Cather treats the characters gently, both the immigrants and those who are learning and stumbling through their increasingly global small world. 


There are some pretty lurid scenes in this book, which is one reason I wanted the kids to be older. The scene that Russian Peter recounts of himself and Pavel and the wedding party that is eaten by wolves is pretty harrowing. (Apparently, Cather was told this story by a Russian friend.) There are also no fewer than three suicides, plus a murder, a seduction and abandonment, and an attempted rape. 


The three suicides form an interesting contrast. We never do learn exactly what induced the drifter to throw himself into a combine. But we do see Mr. Shimerda’s growing despair about what his life has become. We do not learn until later in the book the circumstances that lead him to his hopelessness. We knew that he was a respected violinist and middle class citizen, so it is puzzling to understand why his wife would uproot and drag him to the other side of the world. It is only later that we learn that he impregnated the family’s servant girl, and chose to marry her rather than pay her to go away. His mother never accepted his wife (something I very much understand), so she was caught in a middle class society she would never be part of - and her children may well have been impoverished as a result. So, even though she is a pretty nasty woman in many ways, she is more understandable once you learn the backstory. 


The final suicide involves one of the nastiest and evil characters Cather ever wrote. In this case, Wick Cutter is the town moneylender, and he makes Shylock seem benign. In addition to inflicting crushing debt on anyone who has to borrow from him, he constantly feuds with his wife, sleeps around every chance he gets, and takes advantage of (we would say rape, although at the time a prosecution was unlikely) his servant girls. We already knew he was horrible by the time he created an elaborate deception to ditch his wife and return to rape Antonia. She, however, smells a rat, and Jim decides to sleep in her bed, with her safely with Jim’s grandparents. When Cutter starts to grope him in the middle of the night, Jim breaks his nose before escaping out the window. 


Near the end of the book, Jim has returned after a couple decades to see Antonia, who is now married with nearly a dozen children. He hears the story from the Widow Stebbens. Cutter, who is obsessed with keeping his ill-gotten money from going to his wife’s family if he should die first (they are childless), realizes that the new law providing that a surviving spouse gets a ⅓ share no matter what means he cannot prevent her inheriting, decides to take matters into his own hands. He first shoots and kills his wife, then waits for someone to pass his house. He then fatally wounds himself then shoots out the window. When the person came running, he directed him to see that his wife was dead, and that he was living, and then bled out and died. All so that he could keep her family from getting his money. (In the end, as usually happens, the fight over the estate enriched the lawyers and nobody else…) I got to use this as an example of the “Slayer Rule,” which was kind of fun. (In California, this would be community property, so half would already be hers. When he killed her, the slayer rule meant that he was treated as if he had died first. So he would have ensured that her family got the estate in that case.) Things lawyers find fun. 


I was also struck by the sexual double standard that Cather describes. Perhaps it is most apparent in the case of the young man who is about to get married, who decides to kiss Antonia on her front porch without her consent. It is Antonia who is blamed, and she loses her job because she refuses to accept blame and stop going to dances. She is right, of course. She dances and has fun, but she made no promises and did not show affection - he just took advantage of her. We would now call that sexual assault, and cheer her for slapping him. Likewise, when Antonia is abandoned after she is impregnated by the older man who seduces her, she gets the bulk of the social disapproval (as well as all of the financial burden.) That she eventually wins the town’s good opinion back is besides the point. She was the victim, not the perpetrator. Finally, there is the case of Lena Lingard, the free spirited and flirtatious immigrant girl, who is constantly blamed for men drooling over her. Including married men. Again, she is “flirtatious” in the sense of being friendly and vivacious and...dare we say it? Desirable. My own wife was accused of being “flirtatious” as a teen, and some of the married older men did things that made her quite uncomfortable. And, because in that cultic group, women were seen as temptresses, she was blamed and shunned. So Lena gets the reputation as the town flirt because a married man decided to moon over her. 


Later in the story, Lena runs into Jim in Lincoln. She has started her own dressmaking business, and is doing really well. Jim is at college, so they decide to hang out regularly. The two of them enjoy plays and other events together, and Jim does develop feelings for her. Like Antonia, she doesn’t reciprocate, and they decide to remain friends. But even then, people talk about her as a shameless flirt and Jim as her victim, which is far from the truth. 


There is an interesting sequel to this in the book. Jim goes to Harvard, and they lose touch. Lena reconnects with Tiny Soderball, another of the group of immigrant girls that hung out together and with Jim. Tiny has turned out to have quite a life, making a small fortune in the Yukon, and set up shopkeeping in San Francisco. Lena joins her, expanding her business to the big city. The two of them have a relationship that is never entirely spelled out. It is not difficult to see in retrospect that this is probably a “Boston Marriage.” Lena had explained to Jim back in the day that she had zero interest in marrying. She liked boys as friends, but didn’t want to have a marriage with one. Hmm. Just saying, perhaps. 


There are so many other things to love. The rattlesnake scene, the dances, the gentle description of the generation gap, the portrayal of the hardworking immigrant girls who eventually made good, the everyday kindness and decency of Jim’s grandparents, the mild comeuppance to Antonia’s chauvinistic older brother Ambrosch, the give and take of life on the prairie, Jim’s deep love for nature and knowledge, and so much more. Cather’s writing is superb throughout. 


One final observation: Cather is brilliant in the way she ends the story of Antonia, in my opinion. On the one hand, she is now a woman in her 40s, showing the wear and tear of a lifetime of hardship (and 11 births), and there is something a bit bittersweet about such an intelligent woman never having the chance to leave the town she was dragged to as a teen. But there is also something fitting about her fate. Despite the early misstep and seduction, she found and married a thoroughly good and decent man who adores her and the children. She also hasn’t lost the spark, and is happy in her life. It is a life better than that she had as a child, in many ways - she isn’t poor, although she isn’t rich, her marriage is better than her parents’ and her children seem to care for each other. It is in that sense an ending that is entirely satisfying. It feels so much like life. While some of us reach middle age having accomplished what they hoped and caught the world by the tail or whatever, for most of us, what we have is an ordinary life. And finding one’s self married to a loving and devoted spouse for the last 20 years, with good children, a comfortable standard of living, and a job that doesn’t suck; well, that isn’t too bad, is it? 


On that point, Cather is clear that it is Antonia that makes all this happen. Cuzak is a plodder. He works, but he loves being with the children, and has no real ambition to be a big wheel. Antonia brings the fire and energy and dynamism that makes their family go, while he brings the nurturing and light-heartedness. I see some of that in my own marriage. Amanda is the dynamo, and I do not know how we would work without her. I am a plodder, but rather like being with the kids, and cooking and whatnot. We work well together, just like Antonia and Cuzak, in our ordinary little life. 


Cather has been accused of being “nostalgic,” but I think that is unfair. Her style just didn’t match the new writing of the Depression and her gentle outlook didn’t fit with the mood of the times. Not everyone can be a social crusader, and I believe that Cather’s empathy and loving treatment of those at the margins of rural society also did good. As with any great writer, we see ourselves and our emotional landscape in her characters, despite the very different settings of her books. If you haven’t discovered Cather, I think she is an underrated American author, well worth reading. 




We listened to the audiobook read by Jeff Cummings, who was quite excellent. He got the various regional and foreign accents right, and created a set of voices for the characters that were all distinct and interesting. 




 Apparently, Antonia the character is based on Anna Pavelka, a real person whose father also committed suicide, giving her an unwanted notoriety. She too eventually married and had a house full of kids. Cather used the house as a model for the book. You can visit the now-restored house in Nebraska

It is easy to picture the children exploding out of the cellar in a noisy blast. My kids would totally do that.

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