We recommend it too: In Saturday morning's New York Times, Bret Stephens recommended a trip to Nebraska—more specifically, to the Nebraska of the 1880s, the initial setting for Willa Cather's autobiographical novel, My Antonia.
We'll recommend it too. We aren't sufficiently well-read to have a serious claim to a favorite novel. But if we did have a favorite novel, it would be the book Stephens calls "the perfect antidote to our [current] president."
For ourselves, we'd also call it the perfect antidote to our current cable news. That said, here's a taste of Stephens' viewpoint:
STEPHENS (7/20/19): Cather’s novel is a story of a country that can overcome prejudice. The narrator’s grandfather offers succor to the destitute Shimerdas, forgives them their debts, puts petty quarrels aside, and consoles them in their grief. After Ántonia’s father commits suicide, he prays “that if any man there had been remiss toward the stranger come to a far country, God would forgive him and soften his heart.”We'd substitute "human" for "American," then agree with every word.
It’s in such moments that “My Ántonia” becomes an education in what it means to be American: to have come from elsewhere, with very little; to be mindful, amid every trapping of prosperity, of how little we once had, and were; to protect and nurture those newly arrived, wherever from, as if they were our own immigrant ancestors—equally scared, equally humble, and equally determined.
An any rate, trust us! You wouldn't want to have lived in the unforgiving Nebraska of the 1880s as a Czech ("Bohemian") immigrant. The suicide to which Stephens refers is only one of the proofs.
First above all, we love My Antonia for the ardor of its advocacy on behalf of those immigrants, but especially for the "immigrant girls" Cather respects and admires—for "the Danish girls," for Antonia herself, for "the three Bohemian Marys."
In fact, My Antonia is so profoundly autobiographical that its fidelity to actual events takes it beyond the realm of memoir into the land of journalism. The Antonia Shimerda of the book was, in reality, Antonie Sadilkova, later Antonie Sadilkova Pavelkova, with whom Cather shared part of a childhood "in a far country," in a vast empty land.
There are several things we love about the book in question. Chief among them, as already noted, is the ardor of Cather's advocacy for the immigrant families among whom she grew up, but most especially for the "immigrant girls," whose vibrant physical beauty she describes without embarrassment, leering or shame.
Also, their personal and moral greatness and goodness. Cather once wrote, of Antonie Sadilkova: "She was one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains."
Cather went on to be classified as a literal (world renowned) "artist." Antonie Sadilkova remained on the Nebraska farm, where she raised ten children. Cather's book is an antidote in the way it can instruct us about the possibility of the deepest respect for The Other—for the stranger in a far land, for the person who isn't exactly like one's own self.
My Antonia is a deeply ardent testimony concerning those who weren't exactly like Cather. David Murphy discussed Cather's "empathy" in a fascinating 1994 essay for The Great Plains Quarterly:
MURPHY (Spring 1994): Just as their farm was the setting, Jan Pavelka and Antonie Sadilkova Pavelkova were prototypes for the Czech immigrants in [My Antonia]...Cather's empathy with Czech culture was broad and deep; her allusion to it was informed, not merely exotic. As a result, many Czechs and Czech Americans ultimately saw Antonia as jejich Antonie, or "their Antonia.""Empathy with the foreign immigrants"—with the strangers who had to struggle so hard, to the point of self-inflicted death, in a new, unforgiving land.
Cather's accuracy seems to have come not from familial or cultural predilection but instead from keen observation. Born in 1873 in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Cather came west with her family at the age of nine in 1883. They lived initially on the "Divide," the high plain between the Big Blue and Republican Rivers in northern Webster County, near her uncle and grandparents...
The prairie and its startling contrast to the Valley of Virginia exerted tremendous influence on Cather. By her own account the country "was mostly wild pasture and as naked as the back of your hand .... So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn, that shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion I have never been able to shake." The experiences gained her the two most important themes in her writing, identity with the land and empathy with the foreign immigrants.
We most love the contempt Cather's narrator expresses at one point for Nebraska's native-born boys of that time, who all saw the beauty of the immigrant girls but couldn't bring themselves to defy convention and marry them. This brings us to the "murder mystery" element of the book:
Jim Burden, Cather's narrator, is plainly Cather herself, but he is a boy and then a man, while Cather was a girl and then a woman. It seems that Cather was a girl and then a woman who loved girls and women, not boys and men. This apparently produced a gender switch in her narrator which introduces an element of complication and confusion to the book.
At any rate, Cather apparently loved the stranger more than the more familiar. Murphy discusses this further:
MURPHY: For Cather, the literary theme moved beyond empathy. Ultimately she favored foreign over Anglo-American ways, and developed a strong distaste for Anglo-centrism. In a 1921 interview she attacked the prevailing xenophobic mood:Cather saw art in that woman's steaming goose. In the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains, she saw in Antonie Sadilkova Pavelkova—a farm woman and a mother of ten—"one of the truest artists [she] ever knew."
"They have come here to live in the sense that they lived in the Old World, and if they were let alone their lives might turn into the beautiful ways of their homeland. But they are not let alone ....
"It wasn't so years ago. When I was a child, all our neighbors were foreigners .... We let them alone. . . . They finished their houses as they had in the countries from which they came. Beauty was there and charm ... nobody interfered with them."
She lamented the loss of creativity, observing that the "Americanization worker who persuades an old Bohemian housewife that it is better for her to feed her family out of tin cans instead of cooking them a steaming goose for dinner is committing a crime against art."
Cather saw the beauty of the stranger who had journeyed to a far land. Will we liberals ever learn to respect the stranger too?
Stephens is thinking of current immigrants, as of course he should. That said, there are others to empathize with in our land. On cable, does anyone try?
The beauty of the stranger: It's Book II, Chapter IX that we love the most. That short chapter starts like this:
There was a curious social situation in Black Hawk. All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a living, and, in nearly every case, to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school.Cather continues her account of these vibrant young women, who "physically were almost a race apart" and were thereby "considered a threat to the social order."
Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.
I can remember a score of these country girls who were in service in Black Hawk during the few years I lived there, and I can remember something unusual and engaging about each of them. Physically they were almost a race apart, and out-of-door work had given them a vigor which, when they got over their first shyness on coming to town, developed into a positive carriage and freedom of movement, and made them conspicuous among Black Hawk women.
The native-born boys all saw their vibrancy and their beauty, but they were afraid to act. Has anyone ever advocated for anyone with so much zeal?