Willa Cather and Our Pioneer Past

Willa Cather (1873-1947) is certainly one of our most successful American writers with 12 novels, three works of nonfiction, and seven collections to her credit. She was awarded honorary degrees from The University of Nebraska, The University of Michigan, Yale, California-Berkeley, Princeton, and Smith College.

Her novels of immigrant life celebrated the prairie as eloquently as Melville celebrated the sea. Her descriptions are lyrically exquisite. Following are examples from My Ántonia: “…the smartweed soon turned a rich copper colour and the narrow brown leaves hung circled like cocoons about the swollen joints of the stem.” “The blond cornfields were red gold – [t]he whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed.” “Everything was as it should be: the strong smell of sunflowers and ironweed in the dew, the clear blue and gold of the sky, the evening star, the purr of the milk into the pails.”

Part of Cather’s genius was the ability to use these small reflections as a mirror of larger life. The same may be said of events. Her narration of the experiences of early settlers vividly conveys the hardships they endured as they toiled to sustain themselves.

There are, however, a few problems with vocabulary. Cather uses terms either not in common use today or not known to readers with no country experience. A dictionary is needed in order to be able to interpret some passages. For example, a bob may be the float on a fishing line, a dangling weight on a plumb line, or a polishing wheel of leather. Other such terms include hartshorn (the antler of a hart), quinsy (a sore throat), or gaillardia (any composite plant of the genus Gaillardia with yellow rayed or red rayed flower heads. All definitions are taken from Webster’s College Dictionary). We had to go to QPB Dictionary of Difficult Words to learn that aigrettes means a spray of feathers or an object in that shape.

The plot in My Ántonia reads in many places like a diary, relating small episodes or using anecdotes to tell the story. The voice of the narrator is that of Jim Burden, as he grows from a young boy, through adolescence to young adulthood and finally to middle age. Early on, it is clear to the reader that Jim’s thoughts at the age of 40 are being projected back into his mind as a child. This literary device becomes less problematic as Jim goes on to college and grows up. Linguistically, in places the voice reads like a third person narrative, until an “I” or “me” reminds the reader that it is Jim’s voice we are hearing. In this Cather uses voice in much the same way Melville does in Moby Dick.

Ántonia, an immigrant from Bohemia, is Jim’s friend. A heart-rending aspect of her family’s experience is the homesickness of her father for the old country and its culture. This homesickness reoccurs later in Ántonia’s husband and his view of the desolation of the prairie. He is described by Ántonia as “a city man. He liked theatres (sic) and lighted streets and music…” As current residents of Door County, we personally related to this passage. Driving home at night, we sometimes remark on the dark and how good it is to see street lights in Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, or Sister Bay!

In addition to following Jim’s growing up the plot also traces his move from the farm to Black Hawk, a small prairie town, and then to Lincoln. His final move to Massachusetts is reported but not expanded. Cather romanticizes the prairie, but does not extend this to town. Black Hawk is presented in less glowing terms as a bleak and grey place. She describes the tendency for gossip among its residents, their disdain for the daughters of immigrant farmers who come to town for employment and the acute awareness of social status. A sense of pettiness emerges.

But there are far darker considerations in Cather’s writings. In My Ántonia there is a suicide, two grisly murders and a murder/suicide. Only the suicide is directly related to the plot. There is a brutal double murder in O Pioneers and a fatal train accident, a death following a fall from a carriage, and romantic betrayal in The Song of the Lark. These grim episodes are described in violent detail and present a jarring contrast to the beauty of the author’s descriptions elsewhere. The reader wonders at the extreme of these anecdotes. There is a hint of divine judgment here for some characters’ misdeeds but the innocent also suffer. There has been speculation about the possible influence of Cather’s early strict religious background in her bringing such evil deeds and divine retribution into otherwise uplifting narrative.

In the end, Ántonia survives heartbreak, betrayal and disappointment and emerges as a strong woman both physically and emotionally. She succeeds in building a good life on the prairie. In Jim’s view, she has followed her destiny. That destiny would express the archetypical arc from immigrant to citizen, not the least of which is the growing tension between rural and urban America – a theme that still plays through our lives.

Willa Cather was not the only major writer to record the prairie pioneer experience. It is a fascinating irony that another great American novel describing the experience of the prairie was not originally written in English. Ole Rolvaag’s Giants on the Earth is a stunning companion piece to My Ántonia. Together, these and other accounts of our pioneer past remind us of our rich immigrant commonality. If only we would remember that commonality as those who wrote about it have preserved it.