Willa Cather’s experience of pioneer life had been intimate and varied. She was too near it however to treat it with any measure of detachment. Being both romantic by nature, the proof of it is abundant in her work, and shy of betraying too much of herself Cather wrote My Antonia, the novel regarded a “lifelike portrait of a pioneer girl”. (Swift, Urgo, 2002, 58) The story begins well, evoking in strong, direct prose the difficulties and joys of pioneer days, more particularly as exemplified in the fortunes of the Shimerdas, a family of Bohemian settlers newly arrived in Nebraska.
The elder generation never get used to the incredibly primitive conditions in the new country. Their children, on the contrary, that is, first and foremost, Antonia, take to the new land with the greater adaptability of their age, and fall to the tremendous task of making it habitable and fruitful.
With Antonia we roam the boundless prairie, lost in the tall “shaggy red grass . . . , the color of wine stains” (Cather, 1994, 4); we drift along the “dewy, heavy-odoured cornfields” (137); perched “on the slanting roof of the chicken-house” we watch, on summer nights, the lightning break “in great zigzags across the heavens,” or “hear the felty beat of the raindrops on the soft dust of the farmyard” (138-9). We visit Antonia in the Shimerdas’ hovel of a sod-house, Mr. Shimerda’s dignified presence giving us a glimpse of an older, soberer world, the mysterious, almost mythical world over the seas.
With Antonia we call at Russian Pete’r and Pavel’s, in open-mouth wonder watch Russian Peter eating melons uncountable, the juice trickling from his greedy mouth “down on to his curly beard” (35). On winter nights, while drifts accumulate outside and the world is a blur of spilling snow, snugly sitting round the old stove in the Burdens’ basement kitchen, with Antonia we listen to wonderful stories – stories of “grey wolves and bears in the Rockies, wildcats and panthers in the Virginia mountains” (68), and, best of all, the terrible, fascinating story of the bride thrown over to the wolves by Russian Peter and Pavel.
The pages have the freshness, vitality and beauty of the country and the days they recreate. Yet it is chiefly through Antonia that they live, Antonia, an eager, passionate woman, strong and stubborn, tenacious and ambitious, generous and impulsive, a tall sturdy girl. My Antonia contains a scene that according to the interpretations by Acocella is the essence of Cather’s meaning. (3) The scene describes Antonia with her friends at a picnic. While they are contemplating the setting sun, they see an amazing sight.
Against the shining sun there is a plough left standing in a field: “Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, [the plough] 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, picture writing on the sun” (Cather, 1994, 237). This plough in the sun expresses Cather’s message that any small person can nevertheless be grand – anyone can reach a triumph. (Acocella, 2000, 4)
Cather’s early novels were hailed by such prominent critics as Henry Louis Mencken and Edmund Wilson. (Lindemann, 1999, 69) She was popular among critics throughout the 1920s, but in the 1930s she was attacked by critics for “escapism. ” Though she never lost the love from her readers, and by the 1990s she was rehabilitated as a major American novelist. What achievements make Cather a canonical writer is her intimate knowledge of a country which was then Nebraska, modern Nebraska and the Nebraska of the pioneers.
It is her knowledge of all the country’s changes, aspects and moods, knowledge at once panoramic and detailed and suffused with emotion. One cannot help but notice her deep understanding of the problems and difficulties of the two generations of immigrants. Her characters are the people, handicapped by memories, old habits, disappointments and regrets; their sons and daughters, taking to the new country and to their work with a hungry appetite, turning the land’s resistance into fruitfulness and plenty.
Her work is a classical work. Classical, because its innate romanticism is checked by realism and both are made subservient to an ardent love of life and a respect for truth. Classical, because the problems she studies are problems of general and permanent interest.
Works Cited List
Acocella, Joan. Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000 Brown, E. K. Willa Cather: A Critical Biography Completed by Leon Edel. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1953