Skip to main content

Willa Cather (revised 2009)

My Antonia (1918)

  1. American Pastoral
  2. Nostalgia
  3. Cather and Gender
  4. Antonia as Earth Mother
  5. Cather and immigration
1. American Pastoral

I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the 'Georgics' where to-morrow's lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. 'Optima dies ... prima fugit.’ I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. 'Primus ego in patriam mecum ... deducam Musas'; 'for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.' Cleric had explained to us that 'patria' here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighbourhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little 'country'; to his father's fields, 'sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.'

My Ántonia, 263-4

This paragraph comes from Book III of Cather'sMy Ántonia, and refers to Book III of Virgil's Georgics. The Georgics is a famous classical long poem in the pastoral tradition, and Cather's deliberate citation indicates that she is self-consciously writing an American pastoral, with the classical model in mind.

You might be familiar with earlier versions of American pastoral, such as Crevecoeur's Letters of An American Farmer, Thoreau's Walden; and you should know that the pastoral is usually set in the "middle landscape" where nature has been humanized and cultivated, and where the troubled, urban psyche can return for therapeutic simplicity; but where the complex urban mentality, in its attempt to return to a simpler mode of activity inevitably brings with it its own more complex and conflictual preoccupations.

I think we should bear this in mind when studying Cather's My Ántonia; but we should look especially at the passage on page 264, where Cather articulates her sense of the Virgilian Georgics. Cather's "Georgics" represents a double appropriation of the classical text. Just as the Muse has only recently come from Greece to Italy, so she claims that she as American author has brought the Muse from Europe (or classical culture) to America. Moreover, as in Virgil's text, she too chooses to write of her own patria, to write of the regions she knows well, and not to write of America's cultural and political capitals. The regions she writes about are mainly those of her childhood, of the Virgina of very early childhood, and more often the Nebraska countryside she moved to in 1883, when she was 8 years old.

Cather continues the discussion of Virgil in her following paragraph:

Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the 'Aeneid' unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the 'Georgics,' where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, ' I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.'

My Ántonia, 264.

Now the parallel is not entirely exact, but it's not irrelevant to recall that Cather worked as a journalist in New York at McClure's Magazine, which was a very successful journal operating from one of the major cultural centres of the U.S., and which doubtless perceived itself to be at the centre of modern life and politics. But in My Ántonia,and in many of her works, Cather chooses not to write of the metropolitan existence, nor to necessarily write about powerful cultural and political leaders: she is not concerned to describe the making of America in the modern equivalent of the Virgilian Aeneid. Rather she concentrates on the inhabitants of the Nebraskan landscape, many of whom are marginal characters in a number of ways. They tend to be unimportant, relatively powerless (in political terms), small time or small town people; and many of them come from ethnic minority communities, who have recently immigrated to the mid-West, often from Central and Eastern Europe. So, both in terms of choosing to write about Nebraska, and often about a fictionalized Red Cloud and its environs, which is the small town she lived in after the move from Virginia until she went to Lincoln University, Nebraska; and also in terms of choosing to write about marginal "little" people, not about the "great men and heroes" of politics and history, Cather appropriates the Virgilian Georgics for American literature.

2. Nostalgia

Nostalgia is linked with the notion of the pastoral, as well as the epic. Nostos means "home", and algia means "ache", "pain". In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus voyages "home", and longs for the home he has been banned from reaching for the ten years of the Trojan War and the subsequent ten years. So in the epic the memory of the nostos and the desire to arrive at it again are part of the underlying motivation to the quest, the voyage and the action; the memory of the nostos impels Odysseus onward. Again in the Odyssey, Nostos is a gendered concept: the cunning, crafty, masculine hero who witnesses many men and their manners, and longs for but can never reach, except at the very end, the female object of desire, who stays at home weaving stories (?about him and his deeds).

Nostalgia is also present in the pastoral. This time it is the urban man's longing for a simpler life, for the "natural", organic simplicities of childhood on his father's farm, which he has had to leave in order to seek a living in the city and in a more complex, advanced civilization. Again it is gendered, and again it is the male narrator who moves between civilization and the middle landscape. It seems to me that this desire for the ideal realm, the landscape where tensions and conflicts are resolved, could be described in psychoanalytic terms. It rhymes with Lacan's notion of the Imaginary. Malcolm Bowie in his introductory book on Lacan describes it thus:

The world of sense-perception, in which the one-night bloom achieves its loveliness, is for Lacan a world of illusion; it is the realm of the Imaginary, in which the human being seeks to provide himself or herself with consolation by identifying with chosen fragments of the world, by finding an imagined wholeness of the ego reflected in the seeming wholeness of the perceived thing.

It could be argued that Cather's pastoralism seeks to reconstitute a lost world, a world which is being overtaken and transformed by technology, at the very moment that she composes it; and that her aesthetic is really quite reactionary in its refusal to accept the implications of modernity.

In 1936, she published a volume of essays, entitled, Not Under Forty; and the title indicated that her point of view, her aesthetic values might well prove incomprehensible to any one under the age of forty; i.e. to any one born after the turn of the century. So in her non-fiction she emphasises her own desire for a previous era, before the Great War, possibly even before the Great Columbian Exposition; i.e. to a time when it might still just have been possible for the United States to develop along the lines and around the values of agrarianism, of respect for community and in a non-materialistic culture, rather than through the development of an advanced capitalist economy and rapid technologization not only of cities but of the rural landscape also.

The effect that this Nostalgia has on her art is present both in thematic content and in her style of writing. In terms of theme, she tends to return to the people and places of her own childhood. In 1921 she said that the:

years from eight to fifteen are the formative period in a writer's life, when he unconsciously gathers basic material. He may acquire a great many interesting and vivid impressions in his mature years but his thematic material he acquires under fifteen years of age. Other writers will tell you this.

Note that the phrase that she uses is "thematic material", so it's not to say that her texts are autobiographical or veiled autobiography; but that is the stage when basic themes are laid down unconsciously by the writer. Cather's use of the word "unconsciously" is slightly misleading. I think she means that the author gathers the material's without realizing that they will become the basic themes of the writing; not that the memories go into the unconscious mind. For she is interested in that stage of childhood development when the child is alert and absorbing vivid impressions, not in the primary repressed images of the unconscious. Hers is not an art of the return of the repressed, but rather of conscious memory and the fascinating operations of memory.

In Not Under Forty, in an essay on the older writer, Sarah Orne Jewett, who encouraged her to leave McClure's Magazine and concentrate on her own writing, Cather has this to say about memory and its operations for the writer:

In reading over a package of letters from Sarah Orne Jewett, I find this observation: "The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper - whether little or great, it belongs to Literature." Miss Jewett was very conscious of the fact that when a writer makes anything that belongs to Literature ... his material goes through a process very different from that by which he makes merely a good story. No one can define this process exactly; but certainly persistence, survival , recurrence in the writer's mind, are highly characteristic of it.

So for Cather memory is an essential ingredient, i.e. the process of the mind which indicates that some image or incident is of lasting value and significance, because of its quality of intense persistence. Which is to say meaning is almost secondary to the quality of emotion "that carves the trace in the mind", and it is the emotion rather than conscious mind which decides what to select and eventually use in the writing. Cather's tribute to Sarah Orne Jewett's art, could equally be a description of her own aesthetic:

To enjoy her the reader must have a sympathetic relation with the subject-matter and a sensitive ear; especially must he have a sense of "pitch" in writing. He must recognize when the quality of feeling comes inevitably out of the theme itself; when the language, the stresses, the very structure of the sentences are imposed upon the writer by the special mood of the piece.

What this means in terms of a novel like My Ántoniais that the text is composed through memory, and is full of mnemonics. Indeed mnemonics function in the text rather as metaphor might in a more traditional masculinist novel. Take for example the image which concludes chapter XIV of Book II "The Hired Girls" on p. 245:

Presently we saw a curious thing: there were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share - black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie.

My Ántonia, 245.

This comes at the end of a day out and a day out of the ordinary routine for Jim Burden. He has already started to feel separated from the "hired girls", the daughters of immigrant families whom he knew in childhood. This is the summer, we are told at the start of the chapter, that he "began Virgil alone" (p. 231); and this Sunday spent with them is the only holiday he allows himself this summer. In Lacanian terms he has entered the symbolic order, and adheres to the name of the father, even if he feels a desire for their simpler, less intellectual, more sensual and —to his eyes — "whole" way of life. In this version of the American Pastoral the middle landscape is associated with the feminine and with the "hired girls", including Ántonia, and the urban culture / civilization is associated with the masculine: with trigonometry, an exact science, with the Latin author, Virgil, and with the scholar/aesthete Gaston Cleric. Jim is starting to long for what he is already separated from, the sense of wholeness and unity with others and with nature which he has left behind.

Just before the passage I read to you there is an allusion to the explorer / pioneer Coronado, a Spanish explorer, whom Jim and Charley believe might have pushed as far as Nebraska; who is said to have "died in the wilderness, of a broken heart." (p. 244). This fascination with the Spanish explorers and their restlessness and sense of isolation in relation to a contemporary American mind is explored in more detail in The Professor's House. But even here, the reader has a sense of how the "middle landscape" is at times perilously close to the wilderness experience; and also Cather hints at the restless energy in the American psyche; which of course had been enunciated in detail by Frederick Jackson Turner in his address "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" which he delivered at the World exposition before the American Historical Association in Chicago in 1893.

So this image occurs for Jim and the Hired Girls at the end of an extraordinary day, when Jim has been able to temporarily forget his difference from them. It is an excellent example of Cather's use of memory: as readers we feel it is significant, before we know why it is significant. Jim and the girls are presented with a vision of a plough set against the circle of the setting sun, which is described as a "disc", as if it were some sort of symbolic medal. It is described as "a picture writing on the sun", that is to say a hieroglyphic occurring in nature. And it is described as "heroic in size". So Cather is claiming that her Nebraskan pastoral is as heroic as the epic; and also suggesting an organic correlation between the written text and the hieroglyphics occurring in the landscape. In a simplistic reading one would assume that the simple agrarian life is elevated because more valuable than that of "corrupt" civilization. However it is more complicated than that: the landscape is not static, it is the site of quest for early pioneers; and for the restless Jim it is the landscape of idyllic memories which he must inevitably leave behind on his journey towards manhood. So this moment of heroic hieroglyphic is both perfect and transient: "even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared", and the plough returns to littleness.  Note that the plough is iron, not an old-fashioned wooden one: even this moment of ecstasy and wonder inscribes the effects of technological progress.

To put it another way, the pastoral invests memories (of childhood, of the agrarian "simple life") with a superfluous value; because that pastoral moment is transient and elusive. It is valued at the moment it is lost, at the moment when it would be impossible to regain it by going back; and yet, paradoxically, it is the perfect pastoral memory which impels the narrator forward, ever further from it, ever in quest of the sense of unified being it gave him. He values it precisely because he is not trapped in it, and can therefore project onto it all the desires for perfection that he cannot find in his actual life. As Jim says near the beginning of Book V "Cuzak's Boys":

In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.

My Ántonia, 328

And that brings me to my next section, the question of gender in Cather's work.

3. Cather and Gender

Cather has been claimed by lesbian feminist critics, since she was not prepared to accept the feminine gender role. As a teenager she cross dressed and even for a while referred to herself as William Cather M.D., or William Cather Jr. She never married and throughout her life formed strong female friendships, including those with Isabelle McClung and Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant. Undoubtedly, in some sense of the word she was a lesbian, but her understanding of that word would have been different from the contemporary, highly politicized sense. In some ways it seems preferable, as Hermione Lee argues to consider her as America's best example of an androgynous writer, using Virginia Woolf's sense of androgyny, as a means of transcending gender rather than combining genders.

It is certainly interesting that she often chooses to use a male narrator or a male protagonist; and in the quotations from her essays that I've used above, I hope you noticed that she uses the pronoun "he" when referring to herself or Orne Jewett (both female writers), and when referring to the reader (probably more than 50% female). Male identification allows her more freedom than identifying with conventional female roles; although in this respect she is actually less daring than her literary friend and mentor, Sarah Orne Jewett. Orne Jewett wrote to her about an early short story by Cather, suggesting that it would be possible to escape the normal heterosexual code and assumptions and to make the woman's saviour another woman. On the whole this is not an option which Cather adopts. Instead, and again I am thinking primarily about The Professor's House and My Ántonia, she sympathizes, technically speaking, with the male protagonist or male narrator.

Arguably the most autobiographical story by Cather is the one included in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 3rd edition but not the 4th edition, namely "Old Mrs Harris",  where three generations of women are portrayed, and perceived from the point of view of their German Jewish neighbour, with whom the mother figure is implicitly contrasted. But in My Ántonia we have a deliberate distancing of the author from the narrator, so that we have to decide if Cather is in full sympathy with Jim Burden and his cultural position, or if she distances herself from him in order to critique his compromised position. So it is important to read the "Introduction" attentively. To begin with, Cather adopts an androgynous authorial position. She very carefully avoids indicating her own gender. If anything the language of the text hints that the author persona is masculine:

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.

My Ántonia.

Freemasonary is a men-only society. So the allusion suggests a specific, secretive  male bonding. However, the next paragraph indicates some distance from Jim, both because Jim is "often away from his office for weeks together" and because the author persona does not like his wife. Jim is also remembered as a figure of fun:

As for Jim, disappointments have not changed him. The romantic disposition which often made him seem very funny as a boy, has been one of the strongest elements in his success. He loves with a personal passion the great country through which his railway runs and branches. His faith in it and his knowledge of it have played an important part in its development.

So one way of reading this Introduction is to say that it indicates that My Ántoniais a study of the masculine psyche, or at least it allows us as readers to interpret it as such. Read thus, it is a study of what happens to 19th-century romanticism in the first part of the 20th century. Seen thus, Jim is a highly compromised figure, rather like the explorer, Coronado, or perhaps even more like Natty Bumppo (James Fenimore Cooper's pioneer frontiersman hero of  the "Leatherstocking" novels). His "personal passion" for the country is based in the childhood memories of it in a relatively under-developed state, but it is this same passion and its concomitant knowledge which leads to its being opened up by the railroad. Natty Bumppo, while reverencing the wilderness drives a wedge in it for the settlers of Templeton - see in particular The PIoneers, or to switch to the classical model, Virgil while seeking the calm simplicity of his father's farm, brings a different more sophisticated consciousness to it; and Jim Burden, despite his childhood experience acts as legal counsel for one of the Great Western Railway Trust Corporations. One begins to see that in appropriating the classical Virgilian text to a modern American theme, a further appropriation is involved, which complicates the message of the text even further. Cather, as woman author appropriates a masculine art form; and I would argue, her position is inevitably more complex as a result. In some ways Jim Burden is her fictional double, expressing her memories and her feelings, and not just the sense of wonder and awe at the great unmade countryside, but also the restlessness of the adolescent feeling the constraints of narrow provincial small-town life, and longing to escape to a more cultured, cosmopolitan life. Yet in other ways he is seen as a highly compromised character; he abandons Ántonia. Jim's inadequacy is highlighted on p. 321, when he suggests belatedly that he should have liked her to be his wife or sister:

I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister - anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me.

My Ántonia, 321

His marriage is a failure, and he is instrumental in altering irrevocably the very land he is so passionate about. He stays away from Ántonia, because he prefers the "real" memory of her to coming to terms with the transience of human life.

Ántonia, therefore is not seen objectively, but as the object of the masculine gaze, and as created in the romanticizing memory and perception of Jim Burden. Cather presents us with both Jim's story and Ántonia's, in a double strand, and allows us some insight into both minds, but actually more into Jim's. We have to think ourselves into Ántonia, since she is always perceived and narrated through Jim. Yet hers is the strong character, and she is the one who has to undergo real hardship. The end of the Introduction clarifies this relationship:

'Here is the thing about Ántonia. Do you still want to read it? I finished it last night. I didn't take time to arrange it; I simply wrote down pretty much all that her name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn't any form. It hasn't any title, either.' He went into the next room, sat down at my desk and wrote across the face of the portfolio the word 'Ántonia.' He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it 'My Ántonia.' That seemed to satisfy him.

That "My" could be a way of saying, this is only how I see her, others may see her differently. I prefer to interpret it as an overt act of appropriation; with the addition of "My", Ántonia becomes the Other of the masculine mind, who functions in relation to masculine desire rather than in her own right. And Cather, the author intrudes only in the Introduction in order to indicate the complexity of the economy of desire, as Jim converts Ántonia into one more natural hieroglyphic in the landscape of memory.

4. Ántonia as Earth Mother

So, the question is whether one can talk about Ántonia as a character at all, since she is always seen through the sieve of Jim's mind and emotions. Yet, I think the authorial voice behind Jim, would like us to see round him, and empathize with Ántonia. She lives the agrarian reality, Jim just dreams the pastoral idyll. Like Hardy's Tess, she has an illegitimate child, then has to return to the fields and work to provide for it. But unlike Tess, she does not become a victim in terms of the novel's plot. The story of Ántonia's first "marriage" or seduction is not romanticised, but it is distanced from Jim, who has to learn it from Frances Harling and from the Widow Steavens, who is described by Mrs Harling as "a good talker, and she has a remarkable memory." (My Ántonia, 305). Widow Steavens describes Ántonia thus:

'The next time I saw Ántonia, she was out in the fields ploughing corn. All that spring and summer she did the work of a man on the farm; it seemed to be an understood thing...

My Ántonia, 314

This is before she has the baby. The Widow Steavens describes the actual birth thus:

'After the winter begun she wore a man's long overcoat and boots, and a man's felt hat with a wide brim. I used to watch her coming and going, and I could see that her steps were getting heavier. One day in December, the snow began to fall. Late in the afternoon I saw Ántonia driving her cattle homeward across the hill. the snow was flying round her and she bent to face it, looking more lonesome-like to me than usual. "Deary me," I says to myself, "the girl's stayed out too late. It'll be dark before she gets them cattle put into the corral." I seemed to sense she'd been feeling too miserable to get up and drive them.
‘'That very night, it happened. She got her cattle home, turned them into the corral, and went into the house, into her room behind the kitchen, and shut the door. There, without calling to anybody, without a groan, she lay down on the bed and bore her child.’

My Ántonia, 316

In the Widow Steavens narration no romanticism, not even sentimentality is permitted. Yet the trope is a familiar pastoral trope:

The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard", 1751

The likeness is accentuated by Ántonia's wearing men's clothes, not because of an adolescent identity crisis or act of rebellion, but in order to merge into the landscape and be less visible. The circumstances of the birth also suggest her desire to be invisible, unperceived and unheard: "without calling to anybody, without a groan, she lay down on the bed and bore her child." So the moment of entry into motherhood is also a moment of self-imposed silence. Jim couldn't have told it like this, the Widow Steavens, with her "remarkable memory" can.

When Jim describes Ántonia as mother he converts her into an "earth mother". It is a compelling picture, of an agrarian economy and of an organic unity with the land. Ántonia becomes the centre of the middle landscape:

Ántonia kept stopping to tell me about one tree and another. 'I love them as if they were people,' she said, rubbing her hand over the bark. 'There wasn't a tree here when we first came. We planted every one, and used to carry water for them, too - after we'd been working in the fields all day. Anton, he was a city man, and he used to get discouraged. But I couldn't feel so tired that I wouldn't fret about these trees when there was a dry time. They were on my mind like children. Many a night after he was asleep I've got up and come out and carried water to the poor things. And now, you see, we have the good of them... There ain't one of our neighbours has an orchard that bears like ours.'

My Ántonia, 340

The trees are like children to this "earth-mother", and she is also associated with fecundity, through the image of the numerous offspring tumbling out of the cave in the ground:

We turned to leave the cave; Ántonia and I went up the stairs first, and the children waited. We were standing outside talking, when they all came running up the steps together, big and little, tow heads and gold heads and brown, and flashing little naked legs; a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight. It made me dizzy for a moment.

My Ántonia, 338-9

The children's heads exploding out of the dark cave, where all the fruits of the earth are preserved, up into the sunlight is perhaps the nearest Cather gets to symbolism, for it seems obvious to me that Jim is permitted a vision of the births of the children in a romanticised form, which is the only way he can see it.

Cather the author makes the point however, that this transformation into an earth-mother is at a cost. Ántonia becomes marginalized and silenced in the process:

And then, I've forgot my English so. I don't often talk it any more. I tell the children I used to speak real well.' She said they always spoke Bohemian at home. The little ones could not speak English at all - didn't learn it until they went to school.

My Ántonia, 335

A poem by  the contemporary radical feminist, lesbian, Jewish poet Adrienne Rich comments on precisely this merging of perception of rural or agrarian landscape with woman as symbol of maternal fecundity. I cite a small part of it here, but you might want to read more of her work and think how it could inform a defence of Cather's subtlely understated critique of Jim Burden :

I am an American woman:
I turn that over

like a leaf pressed in a book
I stop and look up from

into the coals of the stove
or the black square of the window
I am washed up on this continent
shipped here to be fruitful

my body a hollow ship
bearing sons to the wilderness

sons who ride away
on horseback, daughters

whose juices drain like mine
into the arroyo of stillbirths, massacres

Hanged as witches, sold as breeding-wenches
my sisters leave me

I am not the wheatfield
nor the virgin forest

I never chose this place
yet I am of it now

"From an Old House in America" (1974) [my emphasis]

Cather's consciousness is not as clear a lesbian consciousness as the one enunciated here; yet the ending of Jim's narration seems to me sufficiently problematic for us to understand why Cather herself rejected both heterosexuality and maternity. Her text is not a simplistic pastoral but a complex reworking of the genre, in recognition of the impact of both the wilderness experience and modernity on the lives of immigrant women.

Cather and immigration

I recommend Guy Reynolds monograph on Willa Cather in Context as the most consistent study considering these issues.  His sense of areas explored by My Antoniacan be briefly characterised as follows: 

  • Immigration                    Mr Shimerda: 76-79, 94-119 (esp 101-102 which describe the condition of accidie)
  • Settlement                      (See also Susan J Rosowski. Birthing A Nation: Gender, Creativity, and the West in American Literature, (University of Nebraska Press, February 2000)*
  • Memory                          The Cave 339, Jim’s memories of Antonia 353
  • Language acquisition     blue sky, blue eyes 25-6 & the ending
  • Ethnicity or racism          Blind D’Arnault 183-192

 * Rosowski offers a full and subtle reading of My Ántonia, which reiterates a by now familiar cultural feminist position. She emphasises how radical the notion of Ántonia as earth mother was at the time, and she draws attention to the reappropriation of the narrative by Ántonia, by her offspring, and by the Widow Steavens. Bridget Bennett made the same point in 1996, but it is hardly surprising that two attentive readers of Cather arrive at a similar insight. Rosowski is best known as a major Cather critic, but in this volume she attempts a more intellectually ambitious project, which is to re-map the literary landscape of the American West. The single chapter which I found most fascinating and genuinely new in its contribution to knowledge was that which surveys the Cather family letters, and through them tells the story of their migration westward from Virginia to Nebraska in the couple of generations preceding Cather’s birth.

Helen M Dennis


Primary Text Cited

Willa Cather. My Ántonia. London: Virago, 1980.

 points for consideration

  • In what ways is this a regional novel and in what ways does it engage with national issues?
  • Can you gauge the author's attitude towards the narrator, Jim?  Is he merely her mouthpiece, or is she in some way critical of him?
  • Find and analyse aspects of  the writing which work within the tradition of American pastoral? What is the textual attitude towards pastoral?
  • IN what ways does this novel engage with aspects of modernity? 
  • Think about the ways in which gender and race are depicted in the novel.