My Ántonia: A memoir by a woman, about a man, remembering women

I went to the library seeking a woman’s voice and pulled from the shelves Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (SLC Public Library | Find a Library | Amazon). I chose it because of the excellent printing — hardbound with a ribbon to mark my place — and because I  remembered buying a book by Cather many, many years ago by mistake. O Pioneers! I think it was. I never read that book. I was not prepared then to read something by an author I did not know. Willa Cather was not among the literary canon of my upbringing: conventionally British, white, and male. The introduction to My Ántonia described Willa Cather, as mannish in her opinions and aligned with masculine ideals. Women’s novels were, in her view, sentimental. When given a choice between a new book written by a woman or one written by a man, she selected the latter. What woman’s voice had I found?

The novel begins with a quiet transfer of authority. Our female author is traveling by train with fellow New Yorker and childhood acquaintance James Quayle Burden (Jim). They pass their journey reminiscing and idealizing their pioneer childhoods in the fictional town of Black Hawk, Nebraska. Jim chastises his companion for never having written about Ántonia, an immigrant woman they both knew, who has emerged in their conversation as iconic of that time and way of life. Our author protests—surely Jim knew Ántionia better than she—and then strikes a bargain: She will write down all that she remembers of this woman if Jim will do the same. Within a few months, Jim produces a memoir. She has written next to nothing. He entitles his work “Ántonia,” rethinks, then adds the prefix “my.” Is Jim’s story sentimental? Maybe a little.

My Ántonia is a memoir not of a woman but a middle-aged man. Ántonia is Jim’s first playmate and four years his senior. This age difference keeps Ántonia just out of reach, always on the horizon of his maturity. She is the planet Jim orbits, in steadily distancing revolutions, out of childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood. After decades he visits her as an adult and finds a worn yet happy, fecund, earth-bound mother of nearly a dozen children. Reality is a buzz-kill and nostalgia remarkably shallow:

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. 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 again.

Despite his claims of love and ennobling of the past, Jim could never have chosen Ántonia or the life she represents. He shifts his attention to Cuzak’s boys, Ántonia’s husband’s boys, and makes plans for their future. His influence will certainly seduce them from their mother and the very culture his memoir celebrates. There is no stopping time; there is no stopping progress.

Jim’s memoir is a series of first-person vignettes strung together like beads on a string. Many of these beads illuminate and dignify variations of femininity and feminine success. Jim tells us about women of authority in the community—respected and sometimes feared. He admires the physical grace and strength of immigrant women who, unlike Americanized women, are as at ease in their skins as they are in the fields. He bears witness to the liberated perspective that empowers the town’s most gossiped-about-girl to leave and attain a life of independence. He marvels at the waif who parlays skills gained working for Black Hawk’s female hotelier to make a fortune lodging miners in Alaska. He admires Ántonia who shrugs off a scandalous seduction and unabashedly celebrates the daughter it produces.

I went looking for a woman’s voice and found many within the pages of My Ántonia. The novel’s heroines are whole human beings with masculinity and femininity intact. Willa Cather is an artist who used Jim’s voice to great effect, validating and magnifying the independence, fortitude, and mettle of immigrant women who broke the soil and shaped the American West.