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'My Antonia', Willa Cather: Part II
      I liked Willa Cather's My Antonia. The novel is not my favorite type, style, or authorial worldview but I liked it.  The story was engaging. 
     Cather's observations were of a detached, erudite pathos appreciating the communal, rurality of an era. The novel is narrated by Jim Burden and set in the plains of rural Nebraska with lively but unhurried characters mostly untouched by the dynamics of urban, capitalist stress and ambition. The result is a narrative emptied of self-serving characters. Cather's characters went about with hardly a hint that urban, industrial life was a desired status improvement. Instead of wistfully reaching for the stars the characters were content to reach for a blade of grass.

     "She was satisfied by her success, but not elated.  She was like someone in whom the faculty of becoming interested is worn out.1

     "I followed a cattle path through the thick underbrush until  I came to a slope that fell away abruptly to the water's edge.  A great chunk of the shore had been bitten out by some spring freshet, and the scar was masked by elder bushes, growing down to the water in flowery traces.  I did not touch them.  I was overcome by content and drowsiness and by the warm silence about me.  There was no sound but the high, singsong buzz of wild bees and the sunny gurgle of the water underneath.2

      Besides the humbling effects of the narrative, there is a not quite hidden interweaving of a modern classicism, modernism, and romanticism. By modern classicism I mean a contemporary social solidity or sureness;  A way; A framework by which to realize life. By modernism I mean the relating of events while realizing such life, usually very individualistic and detached from communal.  By romanticism I mean the evocative and intensely emotional which is almost always focused on nature and the interpersonal because the contrasting 'way' of classicism has proven unsatisfactory, maybe even inept.

     "Mrs. Harling glanced at her.  'I expect you'll learn how to sew all right, if you'll only keep your head and not go gadding about to dances all the time and neglect your work, the way some country girls do.'  . . . Lena's candid eyes, that always looked a little sleepy under their long lashes, kept straying about the cheerful rooms with naive admiration . . . Frances told her to come again whenever she was lonesome or wanted advice about anything.  Lena replied that she didn't believe she would ever get lonesome in Black Hawk.3

     The coarseness in Mrs. Harling's expression, "not go gadding about to dances all the time and neglect your work, . . ." is apparent but also the wistful desire of the non-working, care-free girls.  This seems indicative of a breaking down of the framework of the classical; A breaking down of the 'way';   Mrs. Harling's advocacy of work -  this modern classicism - is confronted by the alternative, 'gadding about to dances'.  Cather has Lena complaisant among the roomful, but yet her eyes were "straying".  This is the beginnings of the style of romanticism.  "Lena replied she would never get lonesome in Black Hawk."  Well, the litote suggests otherwise;  Lena might already be lonesome.
     This interweaving of styles - modern classicism, romanticism, modernism seems consistent throughout the book.  I don't think Cather was fully aware of all this dynamic. She didn't decide to add romanticism here or there, mix in some classicism etc.  I think any writer - including Cather - is never fully aware of all the possible meanings of their work. Subjectivity, a necessary aspect of fiction and literature, admits a lack of complete understanding.  Thus the subjective uncertainties play out in ways even the author didn't expect or realize at the time.
     It is from a motif of compliance but not conformity, of making do, that the happiness and contentment among the characters is rooted and from which it blooms.  This despite - maybe fortunately so - the lack of a complete social and economic attainment.

     "Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past."4

1 My Antonia, Willa Cather,  pg. 182, Barnes and Noble Classics, ©2003
2Ibid, pg. 141
3Ibid, pg. 100
4Ibid, pg. 222

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