|Lena knitting by Bohemian artist W.T. Benda|
I have a confession to make. In the past My Antonia was NOT one of Cather's novels that I gushed over. I attribute this to a condition from which I'm healing, a condition that inhibited me from reading and/or enjoying books that are "popular." The condition is a form of book snobbishness that can be both the cause and effect of the closing of the mind and spirit that has been known to plague people such as English majors and booksellers. Those afflicted with the condition avoid reading what is considered popular or trendy and either stick with their core "masters" or champion the underdog, be they overlooked or forgotten writers or books.
In my case, I wanted to champion other Cather novels that didn't seem to get enough attention. I was resistant to My Antonia back in the early days of reading Cather because, to me, its wide-spread readership, praise, and scholarly attention seemed to come at the cost of neglect or disparagement of other Cather novels which are less commonly read.
Thankfully I've let go of such thinking and with this reading I fell in love with My Antonia. I was able to appreciate it so much more than during past readings because I tried to give myself over to the story. It probably also helps that I'm no longer in graduate school and continually looking for paper ideas or support for a current thesis.
This time Jim Burden was no longer an annoying little golden boy and I "got" the attraction of Antonia at a much deeper level. In the past I thought her a hokey kind of Mother-Earth/baby-factory in contrast to Lena Lingard who I read as being judged for going into business for herself rather than marrying & reproducing. Now I see a much more harmonious balance between Antonia and Lena. There's a mutual respect based on a deep understanding of each woman's true nature. In fact, there is much of such balance throughout the entire story.
There's so much beauty and violence in this novel and so many, many things to say about both. I'm going restrain myself and comment on three aspects of the novel that have been most on my mind.
Questions to Ponder
A few things that I've been pondering about My Antonia.
1. Sex. What did you think of all the sexual activity in the novel? I've heard My Antonia referred to as a conservative novel. What does that mean? Do you agree? I was struck by the amount and variety of sex and desire presented in the novel: from Lena being accused of making eyes at Ole, to Tiny showing her ankles, to the dances that Jim sneaks out to attend, to grinning college boys, to Wick Cutter turning one of his hired girls into a whore ("One of them he had taken to Omaha and established in the business for which he had fitted her. He still visited her," Book II, Chapter XI). And of course there's Antonia's betrayal. I didn't recall that Antonia's mother had been a hired girl herself who had been put into a precarious position by the son of her employers. Of her father's treatment of her mother Antonia says, he "could have paid my mother money, and not married her....He lived in his mother's house, and she was a poor girl come in to do the work" (Book II, Chapter XIV). Mr. Shimerda marries the hired girl whom he apparently compromised, is ostracized by his family, and ends up on the Nebraska prairie, a place which does not suit his psyche. This leads to--
|Antonia plowing by Bohemian artist W.T. Benda|
3. Military activity. One of Ours and The Professors House are usually the novels that get attention regarding Cather's writing about World War I, but I was struck by the instances of military activity in My Antonia. Charles Harling, one of Jim Burden's neighbors in Black Hawk, is early on in the novel getting ready for Annapolis, midway through the novel he's at Annapolis, and later in the novel he's on a battleship in the Carribean (where the US Navy conducted some of their training exercises prior to World War I). There's also mention that Jim had to take drill as a male student at the University in Lincoln and of cadets camping at Plattsmouth (a town along the Missouri River south of Omaha and the Platte River). World War I started in 1914 and was raging while Cather was writing My Antonia. Her cousin G.P. Cather fought in the war and was killed in action on May 28, 1918 (My Antonia was published on September 21, 1918). Cather's inclusion of this military activity seems to foreshadow America's involvement in World War I. There also seems to be a hint of Claude Wheeler (the protagonist of One of Ours) in Jim who is becoming restless with his life, "I was moody and restless that winter, and tired of the people I saw every day. Charley Harling was already at Annapolis, while I was still sitting in Black Hawk, answering to my name at roll-call every morning, rising from my desk at the sound of a bell and marching out like the grammar-school children" (Book II, Chapter XII). Of course the irony here is that Charley's life at Annapolis is controlled even more by bells and marching.
Share Your Thoughts!
Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about My Antonia, even if it's just a sentence.
Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.