Friday 23 January 2009

American Psyche: Willa Cather and the Great Plains

by Will Greaves
Willa Cather declared in 1922 that the world had split in two; My Ántonia, Cather’s elegy to the Nebraskan prairies of her childhood, evokes the memories of just what had been lost to history.

[T]he red of the grass made all of the great prairie the color of wine-stains.

Narrator Jim Burden’s unadorned metaphor establishes the deeply personal connection that Willa Cather’s characters share with the American landscape. My Ántonia offers a fictionalized account of Cather’s own childhood experiences in late nineteenth-century frontier America, and the novel is shot through with a powerful feeling of nostalgia – what James E. Miller refers to as “that quality of evoked feeling which penetrates the pages of the book” (“A Frontier Drama of Time,” 52). The very title prepares us for this: My Ántonia does not attempt an objective account of Ántonia Shimerda, but rather Jim’s own intimate reminiscences about the girl he grew up with, and their shared childhood experiences.

Written in 1918, the novel offers a later perspective of an earlier time. Cather had become deeply disillusioned in the horrific aftermath of the Great War, as well as with an increasingly mechanised and urbanised Republic. As a response, she mythologises America’s pre-industrialised past: the final chapter shows Jim and Ántonia looking at photographs from their youth, a tangible reference to this bygone era. Eschewing any real sense of plot, the anecdotal structure of My Ántonia produces a cumulative effect: the frequent allusions to formative events in Jim’s life, and the accompanying feelings of nostalgia produced by this, combine to set the novel’s wistful tone. One particular scene depicts Jim protecting himself and Ántonia from a snake by beating it away, a symbol of the inevitable loss of innocence experienced by growing up, as well, it is often suggested, as reflecting Cather’s personal rejection of heterosexual relations.

Depicting scenes from Jim’s childhood spent in the American prairies, My Ántonia also chronicles the immigrant experiences of many of the largely eastern European families who settled the Plains States during the nineteenth-century in the hope of sharing in the American Dream. Cather depicts both the overwhelming enormity, and the opportunity for cultivation, that this new landscape presented:

There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.
Cather’s is a largely sympathetic portrait of these often challenging experiences, focusing on the Shimerdas, a Bohemian family who attempt to carve a new life from this raw ‘material’. Homesickness, communication problems and the vagaries of social hierarchy are all obstacles which block the path of the settlers during the novel. Yet as Miller continues, the fate of all characters, irrespective of personal circumstance, is ultimately subject to the inevitable cycle of nature: as the first section follows the often harsh impact of the shifting seasons upon the frontier, so the novel also presents a microcosm of the cultural development of society, beginning with the prairie experience in the west, and concluding with Jim’s enrollment at Harvard in the east. Yet when he revisits Ántonia at the end of the novel (and so completing the cycle), Cather privileges the enduring qualities of the frontier as the only appropriate image with which to conclude her story.

In this ambiguous conclusion, however, Ántonia has abandoned English in favour of the Bohemian language of her ancestors as she speaks with her family; hers is a future tempered by the past, and My Ántonia is a novel saturated with memories of the “precious, the incommunicable past,” a past embodied in the compelling figure of Ántonia.

No comments: