I thoroughly enjoyed my recent reading of Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia. There is something soothingly beautiful about it, in part due to the nostalgic quality the narrator, Jim, brings to the story. Jim is thinking back over his childhood, growing up the late 1800s on the Nebraskan plains and in the town of Black Hawk. He tells the story from his perspective, this perspective crafted by Cather, of course.
A central figure in Jim’s past is Ántonia, an immigrant from Bohemia, a girl he grows up with and always admires and loves. Well, mostly. There are those times where Jim doesn’t approve of Ántonia’s behavior and resents her for one reason or another. There are times when Ántonia crosses a line, mixing a man’s role and a woman’s, addling and angering Jim. Ultimately, Ántonia stays within the gender delineations, as does Jim. And so does Willa Cather, the writer. As with her characters Jim and Ántonia, Cather plays with gender boundaries, but in the end, stays safe.
There are many intriguing ways to slice into this novel, but the one I find most alluring is the way Jim portrays the women he recalls. Although Cather mostly adheres to Jim’s view as a white man of privilege in a patriarchal culture, she does allow him to paint rich, memorable portraits of women in his life.
Cather was forty-five when she wrote My Ántonia, and what the adult Jim relays to the reader is much along the lines of what Cather herself experienced moving from Virginia to Nebraska as a child.
These women Jim describes are pioneer women, women working to create homes in the wilderness, dealing with new and often harsh realities, and carving out lives worth living. How brave and how exceptional these women are and how little we usually see of them.
In The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather, there’s an essay by Anne E. Goldman, writer and professor of English at Sonoma State University that helps explain my enchantment with the women in this novel. In her essay, “Rereading My Ántonia,” Goldman points out Cather’s focus:
“In her [Cather’s] conscious and unrelenting insistence on representing middle-aged women, however, the people most consistently underrepresented across a wide range of arts, then and now, Cather’s work remains distinctive.
“How many celebrated paintings figure women over thirty-five? How many films, from the silent era to the present day, establish middle-aged women as their central characters? How many novels focus primarily on the emotional lives of women who have reached their fourth or fifth decade?”(161).
It’s easy to agree with Goldman that middle-aged women are woefully underrepresented in all the arts, which makes Cather’s spotlight on them even more notable.
One woman the reader meets early on is Jim’s grandmother, Mrs. Burden, who raises him from age ten after his father, her son, dies. Jim describes:
“She was a spare, tall woman, a little stooped, and she was apt to carry her head thrust forward in an attitude of attention, as if she were looking at something, or listening to something, far away. As I grew older, I came to believe that it was only because she was so often thinking of things that were far away. She was quick-footed and energetic in all her movements. Her voice was high and rather shrill, and she often spoke with an anxious inflection, for she was exceedingly desirous that everything should go with due order and decorum. Her laugh, too, was high, and perhaps a little strident, but there was a lively intelligence in it. She was then fifty-five years old, a strong woman, of unusual endurance”(13).
As the narrative unfolds, we come to know Mrs. Burden as efficient, caring and refreshingly inclusive in a region with immigrants from diverse countries who are not overly accepting of one another. After Ántonia’s beloved father commits suicide, there doesn’t seem to be a cemetery willing to accept him for burial. Jim relays his grandmother’s reaction to this:
“Grandmother was indignant. ‘If these foreigners are so clannish, Mr. Bushy, we’ll have to have an American graveyard that will be more liberal-minded. I’ll get right after Josiah to start one in the spring. If anything was to happen to me, I don’t want the Norwegians holding inquisitions over me to see whether I’m good enough to be laid amongst ‘em’”(61).
When the Burdens, Jim and his grandparents, relocate from their farm to the town of Black Hawk, the reader meets the electric Mrs. Harling. Here’s a glimpse of Jim’s new neighbor:
“Mrs. Harling was short and square and sturdy-looking, like her house. Every inch of her was charged with an energy that made itself felt the moment she entered a room. Her face was rosy and solid, with bright, twinkling eyes and a stubborn little chin. She was quick to anger, quick to laughter, and jolly from the depths of her soul…Wash-day was interesting, never dreary, at the Harlings’. Preserving-time was a prolonged festival and house-cleaning was like a revolution”(79).
House-cleaning like a revolution! Hallelujah!
When Mr. Harling was home, Mrs. Harling was required to accommodate his needs and wishes, but when he was away, which was often, she created a space where everyone wanted to be, including herself, and where her four children thrived.
While reading My Ántonia, I’m also struck by the intentional way the women look out for each other, do what they can to be supportive, work to find safer and more advantageous positions for the younger women.
Not long after the Burdens move to Black Hawk, Jim’s grandmother is on the lookout for a better situation for Ántonia, who after her father’s passing is under the watch and control of her older brother, Ambrosch, not known for his concern for others. Mrs. Burden is able to connect Mrs. Harling and Ántonia, and Ántonia is welcomed into the Harling home. Granted, Ántonia is hired help (class lines as rigid as gender), but Mrs. Harling offers her a haven in comparison to her prospects on her family’s farm.
Jim describes the ensuing relationship between Mrs. Harling and Ántonia:
“There was a basic harmony between Ántonia and her mistress. They had strong, independent natures, both of them. They knew what they liked, and were not always trying to imitate other people. They loved children, animals, and music, and rough play and digging in the earth. They liked to prepare rich, hearty food and to see people eat it; to make up soft white beds and to see youngsters asleep in them. They ridiculed conceited people and were quick to help unfortunate ones. Deep down in each of them was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over-delicate, but very invigorating. I never tried to define it, but I was distinctly conscious of it”(94).
Cather does not require all the women in My Ántonia to take the expected and often unfulfilling step into conventional marriage. Norwegian immigrants and friends of Jim and Ántonia’s, Lena Lingard and Tiny Soderball, create successful entrepreneurial lives for themselves, which enable them to help their families while pursuing these alternative paths. Lena and Tiny keep in touch and watch out for one another, both settling in San Francisco later in life.
Jim narrates their continued connection:
“I was in San Francisco two summers ago when both Lena and Tiny Soderball were in town. Tiny lives in a house of her own, and Lena’s shop is in an apartment house just around the corner. It interested me, after so many years, to see the two women together. Tiny audits Lena’s accounts occasionally, and invests her money for her; and Lena, apparently, takes care that Tiny does n’t grow too miserly. ‘If there’s anything I can’t stand,’ she said to me in Tiny’s presence, ‘it’s a shabby rich woman.’ Tiny smiled grimly and assured me that Lena would never be either shabby or rich. ‘And I don’t want to be,’ the other agreed complacently
“Lena gave me a cheerful account of Ántonia and urged me to make her a visit”(159).
And at Lena’s urging, Jim finally does visit Ántonia at her farm in Nebraska, after twenty years of not seeing each other. He relays:
“Before I could sit down in the chair she [one of Ántonia’s daughters] offered me, the miracle happened; one of those quiet moments that clutch the heart, and take more courage than the noisy, excited passages in life. Ántonia came in and stood before me; a stalwart, brown woman, flat-chested, her curly brown hair a little grizzled. It was a shock, of course. It always is, to meet people after long years, especially if they have lived as much and as hard as this woman had. We stood looking at each other. The eyes that peered anxiously at me were – simply Ántonia’s eyes. I had seen no others like them since I looked into them last, though I had looked at so many thousands of human faces. As I confronted her, the changes grew less apparent to me, her identity stronger. She was there, in the full vigor of her personality, battered but not diminished, looking at me, speaking to me in the husky, breathy voice I remembered so well”(161).
While reading this story, I fell in love with Ántonia too. What I was feeling was a love and longing for the women she represents, the subtly powerful and compassionate women we have all known, may now be or perhaps are becoming. I’m reminded of my grandmothers, their steadfastness, wise ways and words, and their deep hold on life.
Jim proclaims of Ántonia, “she was a rich mine of life”(171). A rich mine of life…yes, that’s it.
Goldman, in her essay “Rereading My Ántonia” says:
“If Ántonia speaks for the undervalued character of feminine resolve, she is also the focal point for an exploration of our interior lives at the point when they become colored more fully by our regrets than by what we anticipate. The sum of years that make up the difference between Ántonia’s girlhood and her life at middle age is what the writer is interested in exploring, and with it the curiously productive tension that this paradox embodies – how, that is, a difference can also be a sum.
“Through her, Cather finds a way…she articulates the complicated relationship between memory and desire once “the highway dust is over all.” Ántonia is the novel’s frame, the window on to the landscape that the narrator looks out upon when he wishes to conjure up that deeply felt connection with the land that is beyond language, what Cather calls “the incommunicable past” in the closing words of the novel”(167).
Jim, in reconnecting with his Ántonia, hence the title My Ántonia, shares:
“She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but 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 had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions”(171).
She is our Ántonia. She belongs to us all, one with the everchanging landscape, one with cyclical nature, universal and true.
“We can see Cather as modeling a variety of middle-aged and elderly female characters to depict all the nuances of quiet strength she so admired. Rather than see the title character of My Ántonia as an isolated portrait, let us understand her as one illustration for the feminine strength and dignity Cather consistently wishes to evoke, the woman who remains in possession of a natural curiosity and a “relish for life” despite its vicissitudes”(164).
In 1919, a year after the book’s release, H.L. Mencken, journalist, critic and scholar, wrote, “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia.”
Meaning romantic in the best sense possible, I agree with Mencken.
Willa Cather is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Maria Dintino 2021
Cather, Willa. My Ántonia: A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by Sharon O’Brien. W.W. Norton Company, Inc. 2015.
Goldman, Anne E. “Rereading My Ántonia.” The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather. Edited by Marilee Lindemann, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp. 159-174.
Mencken, H.L. “My Ántonia.” Smart Set. March 1919: 140-41.