Sunday, January 17, 2010

My Ántonia, by Willa Cather

My Ántonia is one of those interesting books that has an extremely stable narrative but is, once one starts to pull back from the basic facts of the story, immediately destabilized; it becomes quickly apparent how surreptitiously embedded the story is in gauzy layers of meaning which are (most likely) quickly forgotten once the narrative begins in earnest.

That is a long way of saying that there is an intriguing framing device that opens the novel: we have a nameless narrator (who is a writer and therefore may be Cather herself, though I think it is a mistake to assume she is, or even that the narrator is necessarily a she) who meets Jim Burden on a train somewhere in Iowa. The narrator and Jim grew up together in Nebraska (although mysteriously there seems to be no character involved later in the story about this town in Nebraska who might be this narrator) and both now live in New York. Jim and the narrator begin talking about Nebraska and their conversation turns to "a central figure, a Bohemian girl… [who] more than any other person we remembered… seemed to mean to us the whole country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood" (xii). Jim asks the narrator "why you have never written anything about Ántonia," and the two decide to each write a set of recollections about the girl. The rest of the novel is the narrator's edited version of the manuscript Jim produces.

The novel, then, is not just a fairly straightforward set of events, nor just a set of events arranged by a participant-narrator, but a set of events arranged by a participant-narrator that has been further arranged to an undiscoverable extent by an editor whose participation in the events is implied but is hidden and also undiscoverable. And if we don't assume that the editor of the story is Cather herself, then we have a further shell, another order of arrangement and editing. Similarly, the novel is not just the story of a woman, nor just a man's story of a woman, but may be either a man or a woman's arrangement of a man's story about a woman, depending on what we assume about the editor. And then of course, we could follow the same pattern with regard to region—is this a story about the West (or Midwest), or an Eastern recollection of the West/Midwest, or a Westerner/Midweserner's Eastern recollection of the West/Midwest—just how many layers of regional identity get folded over on one another it's a little difficult to tell (as will become even more clear below).

A few things here: you may have picked up over time on my interest in the Midwest and literature about it; one of my research interests in grad school is more specifically about people—particularly writers and intellectuals—who move into and (more typically) out of the Midwest, and how these patterns of movement affect their conceptions and eventual depictions of the Midwest and its inhabitants. So for obvious reasons, this framing device pretty much lit up the whole circuit board of my critical faculties. And if all the framing brouhaha lit it up, then this line blew it up: "We were talking about what it is like to spend one's childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate… We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said." And thus Andrew found his dissertation. (Well, maybe.)

I imagine if I dig a bit on JSTOR, I'll find that someone has explored this in detail (and this may be more of a critical slam-dunk than an illuminating discovery), but I found embedded in the text a suggestion that the novel be read as a revision of or answer to Virgil, and particularly to the Aeneid. Virgil is all over the novel: not only is the epigraph of the novel from the Georgics (and this quote, "Optima dies… prima fugit," plays a fairly pivotal role in the plot) but I think it's also pretty valid (contrary to the article I just linked to) to read the form of the novel as a contest between all the Virgilian genres—pastoral, georgic, and epic—a sort of three-way duel among the bucolic, the agronomic, and the heroic. But at the highest level, Cather is suggesting, quite clearly I think, that the basic purpose of the Aeneid—the recording (or imagining) of a founding myth for an empire—needs to be not only fulfilled for America, but to be re-gendered: the founding myth of America needs to be a story of women. Here's the line I'm thinking of:
It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those and the poetry of Virgil. If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry. I understood that clearly, for the first time. This revelation seemed to me inestimably precious. I clung to it as if it might suddenly vanish.
It might be simplest or most common to read this as an affirmation of a woman's role as a muse or inspiration to the male poet, but the novel doesn't really bear that out. Ántonia is far more crucial to Jim Burden's story than just being an occasion for a tale; although Jim identifies her with the land, she is not a mere metaphor from which to hang a man's idyllic raptures. Her identification with the land is a product of the importance she plays as a character, not of her appropriateness as a symbol. She is also far more active than Virgil's women or women in epic poetry generally—she's not the Dido to Jim's Aeneas (and neither, for that matter, is Lena Lindgard). The novel's title might bear a possessive pronoun, but the facts of the story definitively defy that gesture of possession.

Instead of being a muse herself, we see her as something much more resembling the Virgilian figure from the lines "Primus ego in patriam mecum… deducam Musas," which Cather translates as "for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country." Jim discusses this line with his intellectual mentor Gaston Cleric, but the interesting thing about these two characters is that they conspicuously do not fulfill this role, as one might suppose. Both leave Nebraska for Harvard, and (in the frame discussed above) Jim is narrating his story from an ostensibly permanent sojourn in New York (along with the frame's narrator). Cleric himself is identified as having his patria in New England, on the coast—his connection to Nebraska is more circumstantial than substantive. Jim, too, is at best transiently rooted in Nebraska—his birthplace is in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where he lives until he is ten. Also it should be noted that Cather goes to some length to describe Ántonia's family as the most cultured in the area, and the tragedy of her father is that his passion for culture is stunted and starved in his new home.

If anyone is the first to bring the Muse into "this country" (Nebraska), it is Ántonia. If My Ántonia is a contest between the epic, the georgic, and the pastoral, then Ántonia herself is, in a sense, at once Thyrsis, Aeneas, and Virgil. Women, in short, are not occasions for poetry, but are actively involved as agents in its production, even when men are the ones writing it down; symmetrically, their role in the potential subject of that poetry—the story of the founding of a nation or empire—is not as mere midwifes or handmaidens, but as full and self-determining agents, as (or more) active and integral in that founding as the men.


The Other Van Gundy said...

I'm very intrigued by this: "one of my research interests in grad school is more specifically about people—particularly writers and intellectuals—who move into and (more typically) out of the Midwest, and how these patterns of movement affect their conceptions and eventual depictions of the Midwest and its inhabitants."

You should write more about that.

And have you read The Echo Maker by Richard Powers? I noticed that same kind of interest in passages like this: "He blamed Nebraska, the level, dry, buzz-filled June. The flat accents, the broad, stolid, agrarian faces – so chalky and secret – disoriented him, after decades in the loud, brown turmoil of New York. The faces out here shared a furtive knowledge – of land, weather, impending crisis – that sealed them off from interlopers. Half a day in this place, and already he felt how reticent a person might get, surrounded by so much grain.

Julia said...

As I was about to leave a comment, I was astonished to see that you had linked to my two references to My Antonia! I'll bet this was some secret Blogspot magic that I have yet to discover.

Anyway, today I have finally gotten back to read your very insightful post with the attention it deserves. With your "critical faculties" at full steam (I envy you), you have pulled out understandings of My Antonia that I missed completely. I slipped past Virgil without a thought. Without saying so directly, you articulate for me an experience I had of Antonia, that she was of the earth (I know a South Dakotan in his eighties who remembers the dugout homes). She was like a seed planted in Nebraska who, in spite of obstacles, beginning with language, grew and flourished. I wonder if you have thought about the phenomenon of her being an immigrant. The whole idea of building a country, a nation; it's been done with the sweat of immigrants. But you said so much more. I'm going to have to read My Antonia again, but first the Aeneid and ...?