Queen of Plainstyle
Willa Cather: My Antonia (1918, 272 pp.)
Born in 1873, some 25 years before Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Faulkner, Willa Cather didn't publish her first novel until 1912 and only came into her own in 1923, when One of Ours won a Pulitzer. You may think it’s a stretch to put her up against the early-modernist triumvirate for the simple reason that she wasn’t a modernist at all. But it’s always a distortion to gauge an artist on an imaginary progress meter, like assuming the Drive-By Truckers aren’t as deep as Radiohead because their model owes Lynyrd Skynyrd and John Prine, and I say Cather belongs in the triumvirate’s league. The subtle eloquence of her plainstyle rendered her prose less striking than any of theirs, and formally she wasn’t all that different from Zola or Edith Wharton. But admiring her novels as much as Hemingway's or Faulkner’s, Wharton’s or Zola’s, I believe that for 21st-century readers she stands as tall as any such titan.
I turned to My Antonia in 2018 while scouting around for landscape writing to compare with the poetry Kim Stanley Robinson extracted from the red wastes and first-growth lichen of his Mars trilogy. At the time I hadn’t read Cather since 2000, when I inhaled two well-remembered novels marked by vivid terrains: Shadows on the Rock, set in icy circa-1700 Montreal, and Death Comes for the Archbishop, set in arid 19th-century Santa Fe. But both are atypical. My Antonia stands as the signal work of this longtime Greenwich Villager at least in part because it’s set where she grew up—in south-central Nebraska. So are One of Ours and O! Pioneers, which went over my head as required reading in Queens when I was 13. (Trigger warning: it has sex parts I suspect were elided from my Board of Ed edition.) My Antonia itself begins with what is very nearly a modernist stroke. After a brief foreword from a fictionalized Cather who never reappears, male narrator Jim Burden recalls a late-summer journey when he was 14 that actually befell the orphaned Cather at 10: by train and wagon from northernmost Virginia to the prairie surrounding the town of Black Hawk. “There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. . . . There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material of a country.”
Like O! Pioneers and One of Ours, which follows its male hero into World War I, My Antonia has a lot of farming in it—Cather was set on documenting and honoring the intellectual as well as physical labor that fed urban America. But as Jim continues his story, the novel’s reason for being soon reveals itself as the bright, hard-working, impulsive, curious, playful Antonia Shimerda, clearly the great love of the man who tells her story, never mind his big job with the railroads and his socially active Manhattan wife. Cather is a committed respecter of ethnic difference—nationality more than race, although Death Comes for the Archbishop has much to say about Navajos and Apaches and Mexicans as well as its French protagonist navigating Spanish-born gentry and clergy. In My Antonia, where the older settlers tend WASP, the hired man is Austrian, a pair of Russian anarchists struggle to survive, Norwegians build with wood rather than sod, and Antonia is a Bohemian who speaks that language like her naive parents and greedy brother but starts learning English the moment she gets Jim alone. After the first frost the two teenagers ride his pony into the prairie in search of a prairie-dog town where Jim luckily kills a huge rattlesnake. Four years older than Jim, Antonia admires him after that. But he attends school while she works in the fields, and she knows that makes them decisively different.
My Antonia scrupulously documents the facts and foibles of farming as way of life and means of production, although not in the detail of O, Pioneers! But having grown up among farmers, Cather is quite aware of farm life’s limitations. So after three years Jim’s aging grandparents move into town, where they soon rescue Antonia from the brother who rents her out by finding her salaried work as a house servant and nanny with their next-door neighbors. Nor is Antonia the only one—four or five self-starting country lasses like Antonia dominate a long chapter brashly titled “The Hired Girls.” Soon a touring Italian tent show from Kansas City sparks the Saturday dances the Owls Club hosts after the professional entertainers move on, and these entertainments transform the town. All the hired girls are stars, and all are sexually active in varying degrees, but Antonia is every fellow’s favorite partner. Before too long, Jim himself seizes a chance to walk her home. But he’s refused the goodnight kiss he knows she’s been granting others.
It would be reasonable to assume that the musical plot twist is what got a rock critic so het up about My Antonia—there’s even an astonishing if somewhat awkward scene in which a blind black pianist plays Black Hawk’s hotel and dancing combusts spontaneously. But to me the music is just one manifestation of a political substratum that encompasses class, gender, sexual liberation, and above all feminism. There are plenty of admirable men in My Antonia and the other Cather novels I’ve read—three of the five have male protagonists. But there are also plenty of strong, unobjectified women, and in My Antonia they dominate from the charismatic Antonia on down—a whole chapter is devoted to what became of a few of those hired girls. Politically, call Cather a committed lower-case democrat, conceivably even that mythic creature a moderate Republican; sexually she was likely a lesbian, although she scrupulously concealed the details of her erotic life, if she had one. Nor is she as esoteric these days as my lead may suggest (see, for example, this terrific 2017 Alex Ross piece in The New Yorker). But as a music specialist who’s identified feminist his whole professional life, whose aesthetic celebrates small-d democracy, and who loves fiction, discovering My Antonia at 76 was a trick of fate I had to share.
The clincher was a surprise ending that bowled me over. Jim and Antonia both feature in it, as do more farming and many new characters. And that’s all I’ll write. When you read this magnificent, still too obscure novel, promise me and more importantly yourself not to sneak a peek at the final chapter. You’ll just be cheating yourself, and Willa Cather too.