A review of My Antonia by Willa Cather

Reviewed by Paul Kane

My Antonia
by Willa Cather
Everyman’s Library, September 2006

Willa Cather’s novel, like a number of classics – Wuthering Heights and Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure are two that immediately come to mind – is one of those “I in drag” efforts. My Antonia is written in the first person, but in a different gender to that of the author herself. Cather assumes the voice of a man, Jim Burden, to tell the life-story of a woman and a country, the American Midwest.

When we first meet Antonia she is a young girl, innocent and unformed, part of a family of Bohemian (for the purposes of the novel, the word means simply “Czech”) migrants newly arrived in Nebraska. And the land, too, is innocent and unformed. Here is how Jim describes his first sighting of it, on the night of the journey to his grandfather’s farm:

If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. (11-12)

We see the girl and the land change and grow, but the novel is altogether something more than a creation myth about the making of America; although it is that too, as one of Jim’s later summations of Antonia – “She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.” (259) – makes clear. There are some telling descriptions of small-town life, with all its snobbery and small-mindedness. There are accounts of childhood friendships, adolescent loves and youthful ambition – which is pretty much Jim’s story. (Jim’s sexuality is quite deliberately ambivalent, I think: he loved Antonia, but had too a passionate friendship with his teacher Gaston Cleric.) And other smaller stories bejewel the narrative too. Stories about people who have touched Jim, tragic, noble and ridiculous people like Jake and Otto, two labourers who worked for Jim’s grandfather and then later went West to seek adventure:
As I remember them, what unprotected faces they were; their very roughness and violence made them defenceless. These boys had no practiced manner behind which they could retreat and hold people at a distance. They had only their hard fists to batter at the world with. (66)

(The phrase “unprotected faces” is here quite special and extraordinary, I think.)

My Antonia is a great novel, a classic that does not disappoint. Perhaps most of all, it is about what true wealth is. Reading it, one is reminded often of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley: there is the same look back toward childhood and the same richly allusive and resonant symbolism. Cather’s prose – pluperfect tense and all – has a direct and sometimes startling poignancy that is certain to be the source of an immense amount of pleasure for the discerning reader.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane953@yahoo.co.uk