Dissolved Into Something: Reading My Ántonia

catherI’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.

Sunset at Jericho

Willa Cather, My Mortal Enemy

My Mortal Enemy is an unlikely choice for my first experience of Willa Cather – it’s obscure enough that the Americanist colleague I hit up for a copy to borrow not only didn’t have it and hadn’t read it, but hadn’t even heard of it, and the only copy in our university library is a 1926 edition so old and fragile it is stored in a box because it is considered too flimsy even to restore. Apparently, then, My Mortal Enemy is not the go-to Cather text.

Because I haven’t read any other Cather, I’m not in a position to say whether that’s because it’s anomalous or in some way not up to her usual standards. The introduction to the Vintage edition I finally opted for as an e-book has a long introduction that holds it up as exemplary, particularly of her prose style, which has, says its author, ‘a relentless purity of style’ which is ‘never so pure and never so relentless as in My Mortal Enemy … the novel makes a raid on all amplitudes, all mere pleasantness, and all sloppiness.’

As I was reading it, I can’t say that I was noticing any particular purity of style, but I did feel the absence of pleasantness. The novella tells the story of Myra Henshawe, an heiress who abandons her father’s fortune to marry for love. Her elopement has taken on an almost mythical quality in her home town, where the narrator, Nellie, grows up hearing about her. When Nellie finally meets her, she feels ‘quite overpowered’ by her, and Nellie is indeed overpowered by Myra throughout the novella – she is a narrator of almost no interest herself, as far as I can tell, serving only as a device to present and contrast with Myra’s more showy and emotionally intense character. Myra lives life loud, but her sacrifice for love has not brought her happiness, and the love itself has not proved lasting: when Nellie goes to stay with Myra and her husband Oswald in New York, she eventually sees that despite their superficial displays of unity and affection, the reality is more complex and even sinister. The realization appalls Nellie in a way that would seem disproportionate if it weren’t for the status marvellous Myra and her magical marriage have had in Nellie’s youthful imagination:

This delightful room had seemed to me a place where lightheartedness and charming manners lived–housed there just as the purple curtains and the Kiva rugs and the gay water-colours were. And now everything was in ruins. The air was still and cold like the air in a refrigerating-room. What I felt was fear; I was afraid to look or speak or move. Everything about me seemed evil. When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.

 When Nellie next meets Oswald and Myra, they are living in a dingy apartment-hotel where she, having fallen on unspecified hard times, has also taken up residence. Myra is an invalid tortured beyond reason by the clattering and thumping and shrieking of their unsympathetic upstairs neighbours (actually, having lived in basement apartments, I understand how crazy this can make you!). There’s nothing left of even superficial glamour in their lives, only bitterness and defeat. Is it tempered at all by the Henshawes’ love for each other? Oswald waits on Myra faithfully, even devotedly, and she responds with occasional tenderness, but seeing them now and knowing what she knows, too, Nellie cannot see this as the last phase of a great passion.

Myra’s death is clearly meant to be climactic, but I had trouble discerning the precise nature of the conflict to which it is the crisis. “Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?” cries out Myra. But I didn’t understand what she meant or why (or whether) I was supposed to rebel with her or judge her. I wasn’t enthralled by Myra’s character, and I don’t think we are meant to be: there’s nothing truly grand or heroic about it, and there’s something unpleasantly melodramatic about the way she plays her own part. She’s more interesting than anyone else in the novella, though, which I suppose is, indirectly, a critical reflection on the roles people usually play. She’s not a tragic heroine–if there’s any tragedy, I think it’s in the gap between our (or at least Nellie’s) expectation that love is worth everything else and the sordid culmination of Myra’s life story, in which her grand gesture has done nobody any good.

After finishing the novella I turned to the introduction for ideas, and its author argues that Myra’s enemy is ‘friendship and love, human relationship itself.’ He reads her angry cry as a pun that refers also to her husband, who is ‘her enemy because he is the source for her of human relationship, of that which passes without fulfillment, of mortality.’ That is, I guess, her husband is standing in for all the false hopes and promises that human relationships bring meaning, and for the inevitable collapse of that beautiful dream in the face of mortality. That sounds plausible enough when he explains it, though it seems to me to take quite a bit of reading into – perhaps, quite a bit of bringing to – the novel what isn’t obvious to someone encountering Cather’s ethos for the first time. I didn’t feel like I was reading My Mortal Enemy very well: I couldn’t seem to get oriented in it, and then it was already over. What I’m left with is an interest in reading something more expansive of Cather’s, something that gives me a better chance at understanding her for myself.

My Mortal Enemy is this month’s choice for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. More comments and discussion can be found at the Slaves blog.