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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

'My Antonia', Willa Cather: Part I
     Novels are fictive.  Novels of the romantic genre, it seems to me, are necessarily bucolic or halcyon.  Reality portrayed isn't the sobering tragic but rather the endearing pastoral.  When the tragic occurs within romanticism, I sometimes see the particular romanticism as 'wrong-headed romanticism'.  Some how, mistakenly, the tragic got mixed in with the romantic.  The same attitude of mine exists regarding other qualities i.e. absurdity, deceptions, etc.  It seems as though when I read romanticism, any kind of non-romantic quality belies the romanticism.  As if only idealized, pastoral, utopian can rightfully exist within a romantic prose. 
It seems plain to me that this view of romanticism is biased and mistaken.  Just as there exists various kinds of temperaments of characters within a novel, so too do qualities of romantic, tragic, absurd , etc exist side by side within a novel.  Of course romanticism  has a quality specific to itself;   An aura of utopia;   Security as opposed to vulnerability;  Perspectives which are not jaded because the causes of jadedness have not yet occurred for the characters.  My prejudice is that in the face of the real qualities of tragic, etc. , I  dismiss romanticism as being 'bumpkin-headed'; A pollyanna work, fanciful.   The pastoral seems 'bumpkin-headed'.  It gives romanticism it's fraudulent, mistaken quality.   However romanticism is just as valid as other qualities of fictive depictions.    
     "The garden, curiously enough, was a quarter of a mile from the house, and the way to it led up a shallow draw past the cattle corral.  Grandmother called my attention to a stout hickory cane, tipped with copper, which hung by a leather thong from her belt.  This, she said, was her rattlesnake cane.  I must never go to the garden without a heavy stick or a corn-knife; she had killed a good many rattlers on her way back and forth.  A little girl who lived on the Black Hawk road was bitten on the ankle and had been sick all summer.1

      The reader may ask about the above passage;  'How, in such rural, less knowledgeable medical of the time, is it that being bitten by a rattlesnake causes only sickness and not death?  If the passage seems fanciful, then maybe we should ask; 'Where is the threat of nuclear annihilation?' or 'What would Freud conclude?' since those concerns have, in today's world, validity.  It would be ridiculous - not to mention egocentric - of our time and era to ask those questions of a different era.     
This benefit to reading romanticism is in realizing this limit of our knowledge
.  What seems mundane or mistaken of 100 years ago only implies that what we are concerned with in these times will seem mundane or mistaken 100 years hence. Maybe the issue of nuclear annihilation will be irrelevant to the world of 100 years from now.  Or Freudian topics will be antiquated by then.  In effect, those current concerns aren't, necessarily, any more 'real' than the concerns of romanticism. It's a temperate thought.  
     Getting beyond the 'antiquities' of the past to an assaying of this 'antiquatedness' is not very difficult.  For example, in realizing that the less fashion conscious characters self-identify based on values other than fashion, or that a shared morality albeit more narrow-minded exists, or that a local economy is less demanding of resources, etc. 
Characters whose mindset is of the day to day functionalities of feeding and sheltering themselves is no less a reality than the contemporary characters of 'realism' ruminating on what life is about.  We all make choices.  Some people - as exampled by the characters and settings of romanticism - choose a less conspicuous lifestyle.  
      I suppose the best benefit of romanticism is it's alternativeness.  Post modernism for example is often seen as a development in literature.  Post-modernism can be more circuitous and perplexing than romanticism.  So romanticism provides an alternative way of viewing literature.  As if post-modernism were, metaphorically, a perplexing boyfriend/girlfriend of which one decided a return to a previous boyfriend/girlfriend of pastoral, romantic topics was a heck of a lot more contentful and sensible. 
So, there are benefits to reading romanticism for someone like myself who doesn't have an actual affinity for romanticism.  Of course it's a bit of a token or obligatory reading - one which replaces my preferred choices - so I don't read much of it.

1 My Antonia, Willa Cather,  pg. 16, Barnes and Noble Classics, ©2003
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