I’m reading Willa Cather’s My Ántonia for the first time. I like Ántonia just fine so far, though I haven’t yet reached Jim Burden’s level of fascination with her. What I like best at this point is Cather’s writing, which is graceful and evocative without being at all fussy, and is full of marvelously specific and sensual details about the land and the landscape of the novel. My two favorite bits so far:
I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. There were some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit. I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few. All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. The gophers scurried up and down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltered draw-bottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps it feels like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
I’m the opposite of a country girl by experience and inclination, but that passage made me want to find a vast field of tall grass, lie under the sun, and dissolve into its warmth and life.
This next excerpt is more melancholy–it takes the proximity of peaceful sleep to death more literally–but it is just as delicately splendid:
Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed action lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft grey rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence–the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.
I don’t personally believe, as a matter of fact or faith, that it matters at all to the “sleepers” where they lie, but I do believe it can matter a lot to those who hold their memories close. The happy dissolution imagined in the first passage is a comforting way to think about a final resting place, isn’t it? In these passages Cather prepares us for that inevitable return to the earth. It doesn’t seem so sad or scary if we think of it as becoming part of a place that we have loved.
This is a lovely post, and a nice contrast to beginning-of-the-semester busyness.
Thank you. I find my liking for the novel overall fading a bit as it seems to dig deeper into “Woman as muse” territory but I’ll see how that plays out!
I don’t know why your article came up in my news feed… is it coincidence? is it the hand of a higher spirit, nudging me along my path? I don’t know — but a long, bumpy circuitous path led me here. As a writer in various media and a former English, Communications and Film teacher, I believed that if I haven’t read everything, certainly I’ve seen the film. Hah! While leading my Covid-suspended Monday night film group down here in Florida– just 4 couples who zoom and talk and laugh and miss each other– I read an interview with Lee Isaac Chung, the writer/ director of the much nominated film, Minari. Chung describes his difficulties selling his screenplays about superheros and other “genre” topics until one day he read a Willa Cather interview in which she said her writings didn’t sell when she was trying to fit in with the urbane citified tomes that were the rage at the time. She began selling when she wrote about her life as a pioneer. CHUNG took that statement as advice, wrote about his Korean family’s immigration to pursue the American dream and pow, hit film – great actors – success. Write what you know.
Anyway, when I mentioned Cather to my film group none of us had ever read her… and we’re artists, writers, doctors—educated— with gaping holes in our education. So our book group took a survey, none of us had ever read Cather either. This month we’re reading My Antonia for our May gathering . We love pulling out evocative paragraphs, striking images, poetic prose as well as the usual book group topics. Your article will be discussed. Thank you. Thank the gods of coincidence. I don’t know why your website popped up on my phone, all I can reasonably think is, that’s what The Universe wanted to happen. So thank you. And thank you, Universe.
It’s the magic of algorithms, I’m sure. I hope you have a great discussion of this novel!
I think the first passage depicts a transcendental experience, a feeling of being one with the universe. My book club group of mostly octogenarians read it this month, some for the third or fourth time, and loved it.