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Old 4th Nov 2009, 4:40   #1
Beth
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Default Willa Cather

Earlier tonight I walked the halls looking for a Cather thread. Not finding one (and being American?), I want to make something happen. But what a delicious little hour I've spent breezing through some of the search results which popped up under Willa's shadow...

Reviews as Yet Unwritten, Comfort Literature, William Trevor, 10-20-30, Literary Analysis, Top Ten Places, and even The Perfume and Scent thread.

Here's the skinny on My Ántonia by Willa Cather or, rather, skimpy...

Some years ago, there was a gangly young woman living in Kansas City, careening towards marriage to a sophisticated young man. Only, the young woman was really in love with words, with the vast prairie, with the lowly redwing blackbird and scrub flowers.

On a warm weekend in June, the man gathered his bachelor brethren for a large party at a local residence inn. Here they would drink, cavort with some topless women, and break each other's ribs (!) in making merry for the man to marry.

The woman, thinking she was possibly too strange to marry (and whirling in a sea of recent introduction to the writing of Willa Cather) fled to Red Cloud, Nebraska, for a bachelorette weekend of her own. She basked in dry prairie grass, dusty gravel, and the greater sense of not knowing exactly where she was going or if she would make it there. She was struggling to pioneer her own life, coming to the middle of nowhere a bit as the Europeans who subdued the Midwest came, knowing only that striking out for something unknown is bred in the bone of some.

Of course this is not the story, and yet it is. My Ántonia is a novel of remembrance and great spirit, the recollection of a man who loves a woman he can possess only in the memory of their shared childhood. It's a story of settlers and hardships, leaving and homesickness, sprinkled with glories, written in a spare, youthful tone. It is all about reaching out for the cherished unknown. This much I can tell you. But I'm unable to go further as I've absorbed this work so that it runs in my pulse, and to display it further would feel akin to opening a vein.

My Ántonia is more lovely, sweeter, and wilder than any other novel I've read. And it's the story I think about on those few occasions when I get to hop an outward bound airplane, knowing that I'm never more American than at those times of setting forth, leaving the familiar for adventures and points which can only be reckoned on some internal compass.

Self indulgent thoughts? Oh yeah, baby. And how.

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I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is.
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Old 4th Nov 2009, 19:11   #2
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Default Re: Willa Cather

Beautifully done, Beth. I read and enjoyed My Antonia several years ago and was struck by Cather's ability to capture the beauty and loneliness of the prairie. I remember a very striking passage about a grave or monument that slowly became overgrown and was reclaimed by nature. Have you read O Pioneers or anything else by Cather?
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Old 5th Nov 2009, 1:36   #3
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Default Re: Willa Cather

Thanks, Paul. I waffled between giving a more traditional review and an emotional one and probably came down on the wrong side for the forum. Yes, I've read O Pioneers and almost all of her other novels during a two year or so period several years ago when I flat out binged on her writing. But this one has stayed with me the most. That passage you mention? It's my favorite paragraph in American literature. I've stood at the very spot and was undone by its simple power. The remains have been moved into the Lutheran churchyard in Red Cloud, but the little intersection remains very much as it was written.

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Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda's grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft grey rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence-- the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.
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Old 5th Nov 2009, 7:13   #4
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Default Re: Willa Cather

Quote:
Originally Posted by Beth View Post
I waffled between giving a more traditional review and an emotional one and probably came down on the wrong side for the forum.
I disagree! The stuffed shirt crowd need an occasional heartbeat to remind them why they read in the first place. Not that we have such a crowd, exactly, er. That was all, carry on...
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Old 5th Nov 2009, 16:18   #5
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Default Re: Willa Cather

Beth, after reading your review I'm tempted to pick up either The Professor's House or The Troll Garden. Have you read them?
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Old 6th Nov 2009, 0:35   #6
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Default Re: Willa Cather

Yes on the first and no to the second, but I can't remember much about The Professor's House. I started with Alexander's Bridge, which is short, wonderful, and got me hooked. Then I read One of Ours, which I believe won a Pulitzer. I hope you can find a toe hold and enjoy some Cather.
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Old 5th Oct 2011, 5:52   #7
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My Ántonia (191, by Willa Cather
A Review

“Primus ego in patriam mecum . . . deducam Musas”
--Virgil, Georgics

Willa Cather (1873-1947) was an American writer of extraordinary emotional intelligence and unsurpassed literary excellence. Her writing is as crisp and clean as icicles, as luxurious as new-spun wool and as richly textured as farmland topsoil. She was an artist of incredible depth of feeling, for her characters, as well as and the land and the past that they grew out of. She was also the best admirer and chronicler of the kind of love, luck and endurance of hardship that it takes to be a pioneer. She brought all of these qualities and abilities to bear in My Ántonia.
It is the story of a love and a life-long reverence held by a man for a woman who was his childhood friend and companion, since the time when both were transplanted, he, an orphan at 10, from Virginia and she an immigrant child of 14, from Bohemia (the modern day Czech Republic), to the unbroken, unploughed plains of Nebraska in the 1890’s. While he joins his Grandparents on the family’s already successful farm, she and her family move into a turf-shed dwelling and begin the arduous task of learning to farm – and survive - in this strange, hard land. It is, at once, an enchanting prairie-pioneer tale of immigrant origins, hardships and endurance and a paean to the character, strength and real beauty of a woman who centers the story, Ántonia Shmirida, in the heart and soul of the narrator, Jim Burden. In a sense that can only be true in an authentic paean, Ántonia is the story!

Out of apparently conflicted feelings about life on the plains that she, herself, had grown up on (Willa Cather actually was that transplanted child from Virginia) Cather was still able to embrace the mythology of the pioneer spirit, with its deep reverence for the virgin land and the sturdy, rough character of its early (late 19th century) settlers - farmers, herders, and businessmen, alike - and turn it into a personal odyssey. She did this out of a strongly felt preference and connection, not to her youth per se, but to her past, as such. Even after moving to Pennsylvania and finally New York, her first four novels and two short-story collections came out of, and recycled, the events and people she had come to know in Red Cloud, Nebraska between 9 and 15 years of age. Even, and especially, in her later years the past, itself, became more and more the dominant theme of her work. In an ecstasy of nostalgic romanticism, and taking her cue from the Georgics of Virgil, Willa Cather set out to
“be the first to introduce the Muses to my country”

She was an unusual woman-writer of her age. A teacher, an editor, and a writer by turns, she rarely consorted with other writers socially (She also never wrote reviews of, or encouraged others to read, modern authors, instead recommending George Eliot and Shakespeare to her students and friends.), except for Sarah Orne Jewett, the great short-story writer from Maine, who advised and encouraged Cather to write her fiction from a woman’s point of view. Willa Cather demurred.
Like all of her fiction, this tale is told from the point of view of a man, in this case Jim Burden --the young companion of Ántonia Shmirida, and the chaste, life-long devotee of her adoration. Why? Well, it is probably the same reason (never explicitly given) for her not marrying: probably because same sex marriage was not legal then, as it is not, generally, legal now. You see, Willa Cather was decidedly gay.

There is little doubt in my mind, now having read My Ántonia, that the almost ecstatic adoration of Ántonia, which is lavishly and lovingly expressed in the novel, was the kind of feeling which the artist knew, in 1918, she could not express otherwise than directly, i.e. as an ardent lover speaking her mind in the first person. That option, however, being socially unacceptable left her with only the half-clever ruse of the chaste and lovelorn male narrator. Poor Jim must yearn and long for his beloved, Ántonia, with a love sanctified by renunciation and devotion, just as Willa Cather must have. For, the love is very real, no doubt about it. I can see that. But it is not the love of a man for a woman. I recognized that, too. (But can an author fall in love with a character? Who knows, maybe she had someone else in mind.) In any case, one cannot read this novel without an overwhelming sense of the author’s personal commitment. This novel is a claim-staking pronouncement as much as it is anything.

Accepting this caveat, the narration of this novel is exquisitely beautiful. The story is a Romance, in the literal and best sense of the term; episodically treating an idealized pioneer reality and spirit, and constituting a mini-saga of personal endurance. It is as keenly focused on the ordinary trials and triumphs of immigrant life on the plains, generally, as it is on the unusual and sometimes ghastly disruptions that inject themselves into the lives of the people –or on the love story. Interestingly, and pointedly I think, Ántonia does not need to endure greater hardships than many others to earn this paean from Jim/Cather. But the elegy rings as true about her singular heroism as it does about the land and, particularly, about the past. She earns this devotion.

In a way, the heroine is, herself, a stand-in for posterity, and this is a large part of the charm of this story. Cather celebrates, in My Ántonia, her own firmer grasp of that usually fleeting sense of how the people and things that once were important to us endure in memory as real presences in our lives forever after. And it is her inordinate power of evocation of such connections, moments and themes that makes this story thoroughly compelling. The poignant images and symbols that fairly abound from beginning to end are truly luscious: viz.

The lush and detailed descriptions of nature, from the wildflowers to the red grasses of the plain, the heroic accent on characters as types, the antipodal flux of narrative tone from idyllic to utopian to dystopian to the mundane, with the recurrent resonance of destiny; the juxtaposition of occasional violence (even horror) with the rustic agricultural routine, the tender velleity of nostalgia with the deep passion of enduring love; the palpably erotic fascination with the bare legs and feet of the farm-girls, with the etherial beauty of Antonia herself; the stark image of the plough abandoned on the prairie, which is darkly silhouetted by the redness of the setting sun, and the vision of so many children pouring from the cavern of the fruit-cellar, like the very gush of life, itself.
This is late-Romanticism, with a capital-R, and at its best.

Lest my gushing enthusiasm mislead the reader, I hasten to add that this literary ebullience is actually rather carefully measured. In fact, the lack of quotation in this article is due, mainly, to the fact that Cather’s style is an inextricable fabric of brilliant emotional summations. To take one or two lines out of their context will almost inevitably result in mis-leading the reader.

Her episodic construction of My Ántonia is likewise, I think, a well-considered judgment. This theme and its amazing cast of characters has the makings, surely, of an epic; of a true American saga; but that is not what Willa Cather was after -–that’s why I have insisted on characterizing it as a paean. Hers, I believe, was primarily a personal and a poetic intent. And she succeeded brilliantly and beautifully, with a concision and acuity of form and focus that Sappho, herself, would envy.

I think one should read this novel with the proper musical accompaniment and, perhaps, a hanky – maybe the Symphony from the New World, by Anton*n Dvořák – played once before and once again after the reading!
Oh, My Bohemia!
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