Willa Cather
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Here are some brief notes and quotes on reading Willa Cather‘s “My Antonia“.

This is the third Willa Cather story I’ve read, all within the last month. I’m enchanted. I was inspired by  this chapter from  Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, a fresh approach to literary criticism from a free-market perspective.

I was awed by his intonation of the word ‘Selah’. I had no idea what the word meant; perhaps he had not. But, as he uttered it, it became oracular, the most sacred of words.

C.S. Lewis wrote about the magical property of words to spark the imagination, and gave this property a high value, higher even than academic knowledge.

Lena moved without exertion, rather indolently, and her hand often accented the rhythm softly on her partner’s shoulder. She smiled if one spoke to her, but seldom answered. The music seemed to put her into a soft, waking dream, and her violet-coloured eyes looked sleepily and confidingly at one from under her long lashes. When she sighed the exhaled a heavy perfume of sachet powder. To dance, ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ with Lena was like coming in with the tide.

Cather’s stories are about everyday life of pioneers in Nebraska; about the hardships, the struggles, the accidents, the births and deaths.  Drama happens but on the whole they are not melodramatic stories. Yet they shine with a lyrical passion for the land and the people who made it, and Cather comes up with some unforgettable images.

Mrs. Harling came to the Opera House to hear the Commencement exercises…: “You surprised me, Jim. I didn’t believe you could do as well as that. You didn’t get that speech out of books.’ Among my graduation presents there was a silk umbrella from Mrs. Harling, with my name on the handle.

With these simple words, Cather manages to convey what this present meant to the narrator.

‘I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony,’ I said. ‘I dedicated it to him.’ She threw her arms around me, and her dear face was all wet with tears. I stood watching their white dresses glimmer smaller and smaller down the sidewalk as they went away. I have had no other success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one.

The eponymous heroine’s father, Mr. Shimerda, dies early on in the story.

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 abut like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-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… 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.

Some of the rustic descriptions reminded me of the diamond brilliance of  some late 19th century German novelists:

A great chunk of the shore had been bitten out by some spring freshet, and the scar was masked by elder bushes, growing down to the water in flowery terraces. I did not touch them. I was overcome by content and drowsiness and by the warm silence about me. There was no sound but the high, sing-song buzz of wild bees and the sunny gurgle of the water underneath.

Cather shares some amusing insights into human nature:

Certainly Cutter liked to have his wife think him a devil. In some way he depended upon the excitement he could arouse in her hysterical nature. Perhaps he got the feeling of being a rake more from his wife’s rage and amazement than from any experiences of his own. His zest in debauchery might wane, but never Mrs. Cutter’s belief in it. The reckoning with his wife at the end of an escapade was something he counted on… The one excitement he really couldn’t do without was quarrelling with Mrs. Cutter!

My only criticism is the suppressed feelings of the narrator: it is obvious he is in love with Antonia from early on, yet not until the very end does he express his feelings. The descriptions of young Danish girls at work with the bare arms and white throats lacks the eroticism one would expect from a male narrator. Is he perhaps gay? one wonders.

When I turned back to my room the place seemed much pleasanter than before. Lena had left something warm and friendly in the lamplight.

When I read the following phrase, it struck me as perhaps being a translation from French or some other European language, although I cannot recall the original:

I stayed in my room all evening and thought things over. I even tried to persuade myself that I was standing in Lena’s way – it is so necessary to be a little noble!

I had to read the following second sentence twice before I understood it:

While I was putting my horse away, I heard a rooster squawking. I looked at my watch and sighed; it was three o’clock, and I knew that I must eat him at six.

On page 319, near the end of the book, we read,

her colour still gave her that look of deep-seated health and ardour. Still? Why, it flashed across me that though so much had happened in her life and in mine, she was barely twnety-four years old.

Well, what are you waiting for, then?  The following elegiac passage, especially the last sentence, reminded me of Dickens in his more sentimental mode, but without Dickens’ mawkishness:

In that singular light every little tree and shcok of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of sno-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, the solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there.

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