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The One Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own: My Antonia

by Shelly Lowenkopf

A distinguished writing teacher and author, as well as the journal's poetry editor, Shelly will be presenting the novels that intrigued and mesmerized him into wishing to join the ranks of published writers.

My Antonia. Willa Cather, 1918

I knew my way around a few big-ticket story terms by the time I arrived at Willa Cather's novel, My Antonia. By then, I'd had experience with yet another first-person narrative, Great Expectations, which demonstrated how first-person narration keeps the author out of the story while presenting a closer, more intimate experience.

When I began to see the delicious designs and intent behind My Antonia, I could scarcely keep my seventeen-year-old self under control. Because of Cather's remarkable sleight-of-hand with the narrative, I began to understand the kinds of thought and execution necessary before a novel came to life.

Cather's device captured me; there she was, telling a story as though it were a memoir. Her straightforwardness, lacking any defensiveness or hint of a hidden agenda, made her easy to trust. “She,” the narrator, now lived in New York, but had roots in Black Hawk, Nebraska. So did her fictional contemporary, Jim Burden, who also grew up in Black Hawk with his grandparents, Josiah and Emmaline.

Jim became a successful lawyer in New York, married to an influential family, but not in a loving relationship with his wealthy wife. This is a subtle but important point. Cather is herself, a respected and talented editor, on the verge of writing her own distinctive work, much of which pays tribute to Black Hawk in particular, but the entire Prairie in a loving tribute of generality.

“They,” Cather’s narrative self, and Burden, are riding back to New York after each had come to Black Hawk for a visit. Soon, they begin to reminisce about their childhood in Black Hawk, and one remarkable family of Bohemian immigrants, the Shimerdas. Their attention is drawn back to "Tony," Antonia Shimerda, her great appetite for life, and other qualities that define her as an exceptional person.

By this point, the seventeen-year-old me was ready to see Jim Burden realize true love awaited him back in Black Hawk, with Antonia, but a truer learning process still waited for discovery.

The Cather narrator and Jim Burden agree to write notes of their Antonia memories, to be shared at a later time in New York. A few weeks later, Burden shows up at Cather's apartment bearing a thick sheaf of notes. Cather confesses she has none. Burden extends his sheaf of manuscript. "Here," he says, "is my Antonia," and now we know not only why the novel is called My Antonia, we are switched to Burden as a narrator, a seamless shift from Cather to her invented character. The text that follows is Jim Burden’s Antonia Shimerdas.

There is yet more to absorb here. The subtext of Jim Burden's accounting of Antonia extends well beyond mere admiration, to the point where I began rooting for him to see the shallowness of his own life and the potential for a deeper happiness with Antonia. At the same time I was rooting for him, I was seeing Antonia for her quite remarkable self.

Even with the baggage of my relative youth and romantic visions, I could see how such a union would turn a remarkable story into a forced, comedic kind of ending. I'd already begun to dread the endings of some of the novels I was reading. (I'll spend a few paragraphs on this same theme when I come to Walter Scott's novel, Ivanhoe.) Cather knew how to manage that difficult quality within a narrator of reliability and honesty.

The last time I read My Antonia, I was running through focal points to present to the class for which I'd assigned it. At one point, I felt the tug of sadness that Burden and Antonia did not recognize the potential for a life together. Then, I realized with a certainty: Cather not only forbore these two likable characters in romantic connection, she intended some of Antonia's readers to feel the same wrench of missed possibility.

Because of the use of Burden, a man who could well have thought to step in, and declare himself to Antonia, the novel helps us see Antonia Shimerdas as more than an individual. She is a family member, a sibling, a parent, a resonant spirit of her ethnicity. She transcends individuality in her behavior, reminding me to seek her level in what I read and the work I create.

Along with her exquisite prose that makes the Prairie come to life, Cather asks us to see Antonia as an incarnation of the Prairie, with the great, vigorous immigrant vitality and capacity to endure the hardships of which the Prairie can inflict.

Mark Twain caught me forever with narrative voice and a sense of using first person narration to tell the best possible version of the story. Cather does the same in Antonia, adding to Twain's love of the river her own special feel for a part of the country I'd written off as a dull blur.

“I took a long walk, north of the town,” Jim Burden tells us, “out into the pastures where the land was so rough, it had never been ploughed up, and the long red grass of early times still grew shaggy over the draws and hillocks. Out there, I felt at home again. Overhead the sky was that indescribable blue of autumn; bright and shadowless, hard as enamel. To the south I could see the dun-shaded river bluffs that used to look so big to me, and all about stretched drying cornfields of the pale gold color I remembered so well.”

Sometimes, when I wish to convey a sense of place, I pick up Antonia, read at random for such places as Jim’s vision, close my eyes for a few moments, then listen for the surroundings in my story.

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