HOW MANY OF US have been assigned a book to read for a high school English class by a well-intentioned teacher and come away from the experience thinking, with all the conviction of heady youth, "Thank God I'll never have to read that again"?
With a mental flick of the wrist, we dismiss as drudges, romantics and windbags writers we may later come to realize are crucial to us. How easy it is to litter our youthful path with a slew of misunderstood masters!
Willa Cather, one of the truly great American writers of the 20th century, suffers, as I see it, from a somewhat different kind of expulsion from the lives of many adults, even those who go on to become serious readers. In particular, her best-known work, My Ántonia, a novel we often first encounter as young adult literature, is a book many of us actually enjoyed in our youth. We feel comfortable leaving it safely, fondly stored in our memory banks, rickety as they may be, where it remains a humane story about a courageous Bohemian immigrant girl forced by fate and family exigencies to grow up on the beautiful, harsh flatlands of Nebraska.
We remember Jim Burden, who recounts Ántonia's adventures as well as those of his own rural childhood with affection. We recall characters like the Russian friends, Pavel and Peter, with haunted clarity. We feel enduring fondness for Lena, the dressmaker. We still despise the evil money-lender Wick Cutter. And scenes such as the one where Jim heroically — at least to Ántonia — bashes the head of a rattlesnake with his spade remain with us, so startling were they when we first read them.
What's interesting about My Ántonia is how it manages to function as a perfectly inviting story for young readers, and how an adult willing to revisit it with a more developed critical eye can appreciate it for the subtly sophisticated narrative it truly is. In this regard, it's not unlike a wildly different book, Alice in Wonderland. Great fun for kids, psychologically captivating for grownups.
Cather is our quietest Modernist. That is to say, she was innovative in her approach to her work, but novels such as My Ántonia were written in such a deceptively plain prose style that their robust, formal originality, their delicious complexities can easily be missed. The story is told in the male-gendered voice of Jim Burden (a decision, by the way, that Cather found herself having to defend). Through Burden, Cather uses landscape not merely as backdrop, but as a kind of character, dynamically interactive with Ántonia's family as well as everyone else in Black Hawk, the prairie town based on Red Cloud, Neb., where Cather grew up. Pavel's deathbed scene, for instance, is remarkable for its Greek chorus of ghostly winds that "impatiently" shake the doors and windows of the house, howling coyotes echoing Pavel's own moans as they "tell us that winter was coming" (winter being death itself), and stars overhead that "have their influence on what is and what is not to be."
Recently, I visited Red Cloud to see the place where Cather grew up and about which she wrote — but also where my own mother was born and my grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents lived and are laid to rest in the same cemetery as some of Cather's family, along with the real Jim Burden, from whom Cather took her narrator's name. And I found that even today, the fields, draws, skies, farms and small-town streets remain somehow captured in Cather's fiction, clear as a just-rediscovered family album in which our own faces and forebears are imaged.
There are certain books I try to reread every five years or so — Hardy's Tess, Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Nabokov's Lolita — not because the novels have changed but because I have. If, as Stendhal wrote, a novel is a mirror carried along the road, then a novel might also be a reader's most crystal-clear mirror when sitting with a book in hand. My Ántonia reflects not just a particular period of time in America's adolescence, but if you happened to relish it when you were young, experiencing it again, from a more seasoned perspective, might also shed light on your own journey and bring into focus the Ántonias and Jim Burdens who have influenced you along the way. And if you haven't read this classic, I envy you your first journey through the novel Cather herself considered her finest achievement.
Broadcast on National Public Radio
All Things Considered
May 2, 2011