From The Wall Street Journal:
‘I simply don’t care a damn what happens in Nebraska,” ranted a New York critic, “no matter who writes about it.”
Or so Willa Cather claimed. In the long leisure of the grave, the alleged scoffer may ponder how it is that a century after its September 1918 publication, Cather’s “My Ántonia,” its every page rooted in Nebraska, remains very much alive and in print—while he is neither.
Reading Virgil in college, the narrator of “My Ántonia” is struck by the lines “for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.” For the Roman poet, “my country” was rural Lombardy; for Cather, transplanted to New York, it was the prairies, cottonwoods, bleak winters, cornfields and homesteaders of 1880s Nebraska. Her first novel, set in patrician Boston and Savoy-Hotel London, she acknowledged a mistake. Turning to “the people and the country that are my own,” she made a second, truer beginning with “O Pioneers!”
“My Ántonia,” published five years later, returns to the prairies. Its voice is that of middle-aged Jim Burden, recalling his Nebraska youth, especially the fascinating Bohemian girl Ántonia. The ward of prosperous grandparents, Jim becomes a town boy, goes off to university and Harvard Law, achieves big-city success, marries an heiress. Ántonia slogs on the farm to help her impoverished family, works as a hired girl in town, and later, seduced and deserted, returns to the farm. Years later, Jim revisits Nebraska to renew their friendship.
Early reviewers, Cather joked, thought “My Ántonia” would interest only the Nebraska State Historical Society. With “no love affair, no courtship, no marriage, no broken heart, no struggle for success,” it lacks the usual staples. Nor did she care about plot. “I didn’t arrange or rearrange,” Jim describes his narrative. “I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people Ántonia’s name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn’t any form.” Cather cheerfully agreed: “If you gave me a thousand dollars for every structural fault in ‘My Ántonia’ you’d make me very rich.”
But “My Ántonia” doesn’t lack passion—“real feeling,” as Cather wrote, the “one thing you cannot fake or counterfeit.” The early chapters trace a romance—not with Ántonia, but with the prairies’ long sweep and rolling swells, vast as the sea, radiant with beauty, open and free as Eastern cities were cluttered and crowded. “The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows,” Jim describes autumn sunsets in a passage rich in biblical allusion. “The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed….It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day.”
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal