Monday, December 16, 2013


In My Antonia, published in 1918, Willa Cather tells the story of Antonia, based on Annie Pavelka, a friend she grew up with in Nebraska. As a child, Antonia comes from Bohemia to Nebraska with her family, the favorite of her cultured father. Before he dies, Antonia’s father asks Jim in broken English to “teach my Antonia.” Jim watches Antonia’s hard life as she works in the fields on land which has never been broken. But her brother’s abuse, her mother’s whining and her own disgrace do not dishearten Antonia or quench her spirit.

Jim finds Antonia and her Scandinavian immigrant friends much more lively than the young people in his town who go to the “correct” social club. The immigrant girls may be rougher, work hard in the fields, but they have a directness, joy and physicality denied the tamer, more cultured girls of his town.

Jim does as he is told, studies hard and goes east to become a lawyer. He prospers, but success in the great world doesn’t make him happy. He marries someone uncongenial and finds himself traveling a lot. On one of his trips he returns to Nebraska.

Pavelka Farmstead
Though Antonia still has a difficult life as her husband knows little about farming, she is surrounded by her children. Jim feels he has come home. He has found no one in the world of culture whose spirit surpasses that of Antonia. Whatever else has gone, she has not lost the “fire of life.” Her friend Lena, who also attracts Jim, retains the lazy sensuous manner she always had, parlaying it into a successful business in San Francisco.

Reading My Antonia is to go back to a refreshing discussion of values. It is what good literature offers. The book sifts pastoral values against more urban ones. These alternating values, according to Karen Armstrong, have contended with each other for centuries. Setting nature beside artifice, Jim chooses nature. Physicality is part of it. The town girls he knows aren’t allowed to move! But Jim also sees in Antonia the finer feelings shown by her European father, who could not survive on the rough prairie: delight in music and dancing, conversation and friendship.

I love the book because Cather’s values, represented by the narrator Jim, are my own. In this country, the whiff of commerce hangs around art, but walking out under the sky, under the trees and enjoying the sun give one freedom.

The immigrant girls described by Willa Cather were more my sisters than my mentors. One of my grandfathers lived in a sod house until he was ten. My great-grandmother had been a hired girl in Norway. That women can be independent and hardworking and still be attractive was not something I needed to learn. Growing up I saw many fine partnerships between married people, including that of my parents. Thus the pastoral values Cather celebrates in My Antonia were more a confirmation than anything new and strange. Many of the women I found to educate myself in the feminine were from other countries, exotic to me. Antonia feels like home.

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