Memory and History in Willa Cather’s My Antonia
Willa Cather’s My Anthonia, in my opinion was not only easy to read but also a thoroughly enjoyable read. It tells the vivid stories of several immigrant families who move to the rural state of Nebraska to start new lives in America. A Bohemian family, by the name of the Shimerdas, is one of the main focal points of the story. The eldest daughter of the Shimerda family is named Antonia. The book’s narrator, Jim Burden, arrives in the town of Black Hawk, Nebraska, on the same train as the Shimerdas. He is going to live with his grandparents after his parents have passed away.
Jim develops very strong feelings for Antonia, feelings which border on a filial bond with a hint of sexual attraction. The reader views Antonia’s life through that lens. The book itself is divided into five volumes. The volumes are almost paralleled to the stages of Antonia’s life, right through her marriage and motherhood. However, the third volume, known as, “Lena Lingard,” focuses more on Jim’s time at university and his affair with Lena, another childhood friend of his and Antonia’s. The five books, that make up My Antonia are, ‘‘The Shimerdas’’, which is the largest book of all.
It covers all of the time that Jim spends on his grandparent’s farm out on the prairie. ‘’The Hired Girls’’, which is the second largest. ‘’The Hired Girls’’ covers Jim’s time in town, where he spends time with Anthonia and the other country girls who work in town. In this book, language and descriptions become more sexualised, particularly concerning females in the form of Anthonia and Lena. The aforementioned ‘’Lena Lingard’’ chronicles Jim’s time at the university, and the period in which he becomes reacquainted with Lena Lingard. ‘The Pioneer Woman’s Story’’, in this Jim visits the Harlings, and hears about Anthonia’s run-in and indeed her fateful romance with Larry Donovan. Finally ‘’Cuzak’s Boys’’ where Jim goes to visit Antonia and meets her new family, her children and her husband. ‘’Cuzak’s Boys’’ is the shortest book of all. In relation to the question, both history and memory play a major role in each of these five books. When dealing with a question such as this, one must be exceedingly cautious indeed. One must highlight that history and memory are two very different things.
History is concrete, history is objective, history aims towards objectivity whereas memory is selective. Thus memory cannot be trusted, the very fact that Burden speaks in first person narrative, cannot be trusted either. Burden is selective in his memorisation. When one is being nostalgic memory is almost always portrayed in a more favorable light than the present. Cliche’s such as, ‘the good aul’ days and ‘rose tinted glasses’ both spring to mind, and in my opinion this is no different in My Anthonia.
The prefix ‘My’ in the front of Antonia is very interesting indeed, it has an impact on the Jim Burden we meet in the story, it has an impact on the entire story. If this ‘My’ was omitted from the title, we would have a very different story on our hands. My Antonia is always personal, characters throughout never look back toward departed eras or large-scale historical conditions, but they look back toward their personal circumstances, personal circumstances such as places, people, things, that they remember from their own lives. ’The well-preserved garden, full of flowers and vegetables, assures him that humans, when they die, “become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge”. Book 1, Chapter 2, page14. As a result, a character’s emotions are destined to colour his or her memories for the rest of his or her life. This fact is made clear by Jim’s decision to call his memoir, “My Antonia” rather than simply “Antonia. ” In thus laying claim to Antonia, Jim acknowledges that what he is really writing is simply a chronicle of his own thoughts and feelings. ’Jim realises that Antonia is “most comfortable only when we were tucked down on the baked earth, in the full blaze of the sun”. Book 1, Chapter 6, page 27. Cather truly does have a style of remembrance, a mode of memory that one most certainly can neither overlook nor penetrate. For years, Cather’s readers have interpreted her representations of memory in a variety of provocative but yet exceedingly insightful ways. Much of this points arrows towards memory having multiple and changing functions in not only ‘My Antonia’, but the large majority of Cather’s work.
On reading ‘My Antonia’, Willa Cather in my opinion shows the reader how memory can comfort and terrify, inspire and shock but at the same time haunt. Haunt not only a particular individual, but entire cultures, entire communities, entire nations. Memory and remembrance lays the foundations, the outline and the details of the characters in Cather’s work. My Antonia is perhaps Cather’s most intricate and vivid representation of the processes of memory and how it affects a character, how it affects a story, how it moulds a man. Jim Burden himself needs to be discussed in depth when dealing with such a question as this.
It is vital to not that, in order to understand Burden’s past, you must understand his present. We find out in the opening pages of the novel that Jim Burden is a fish out of water, displaced in his own world and out of place in his new world. Loneliness, isolation and emptiness have all followed Jim Burden since he was a child. Burden came from Virginia, the South East coast of the United States. It was one of the most fertile states in all the land, very much like rural Ireland. It too was one of the oldest settled states in the United States, with many of the early American presidents having roots sewed in Virginia.
Therefore, we find Jim coming from this to the Western states, where the likes of Iowa and indeed Nebraska, were flat, baron, and undistinguishable farmland. It is well documented that people on the wagon trails went insane from travelling long distances over this plain plateau of land. ‘’There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made’’. Book one, chapter one.
There are many examples of isolation peppered throughout the novel, Mr. Shimerda’s death hits Antonia hard. Mrs. Burden says in dismay and sadness, “He’s left her alone in a hard world”. Now that her father has killed himself, Antonia herself truly feels alone. With her complaining and surly mother and brother, Antonia has no one in the family whom she loved as much as she loved her father, no one she can really turn to. We learn that Mr. Shimerda is buried on a corner of the Shimerdas’ property, where one day two roads will cross in an intersection. Later, an adult Jim finds that there are two roads now crossing each other, Mr.
Shimerda’s grave is made into an island between the two roads. Even in death, and being laid to rest, the poor man is isolated from others. However, relating back to the empty, barren, bleak Nebraska landscape a landscape that symbolises the larger idea of a human environment, a setting in which each individual person lives and moves. Jim’s relationship with the bland Nebraska landscape is indeed important on its own terms, however it also comes to symbolise a great deal about Jim’s relationship with the people and culture of Nebraska, as well as with his inner self and thoughts.
Throughout the novel it is apparent that the landscape mirrors Jim’s feelings, it looks desolate when he is lonely and it also awakens and rouses feelings within him. The landscape becomes the novel’s most concrete symbol of the vanished past. The introduction at the beginning of the novel is hugely important. It is the only time in the Novel where we get a view from the outside in at Jim Burden. We learn from Burden’s friend that he has a romantic disposition. We are told that Burden’s friend rarely sees him in New York.
This points arrows towards burden’s escapism from New York, thee essential twentieth century modern city one could say. This shows us that Burden is shunning modernism, escaping the hustle and bustle of his new life. Therefore he likes to spend as much time away as possible. Burden did everything possible to give himself a better life, he graduated from Harvard, and is one of the most powerful and feared lawyers in New York, yet he still is a lawyer for the western railway which further emphasises links to his past.
Here we see burden clutching to the past, longing for the past and displaced in his new society and life. He truly is disconnected from the New York lifestyle. His wife is the epitome of the ultra modern, avant-garde individual. We are told she is a very attractive woman who has befriended poets and painters who have advanced ideas but mediocre ability. Pretenders and social butterfly’s on a high tier of falsehood, a tier Burden certainly does not want to stand upon.
His wife, we are told also has her own fortune, which shows us that she came from money, where as Burden earned his, not inherited it. A lot of people would think, why does a man who is a powerful lawyer, has a beautiful, impressionable wife, money and a sociable life start idealising this immigrant girl who has led a hard life? As I aforementioned, the key to analysing Burden’s past is, understanding his present. They are two different people, Burden grew up on a small farm in west Nebraska, this woman he married clearly did not.
There is an interesting question in all of this however. Does Burden really love Antonia? Or is he just remembering her in a favourable light as he is in a loveless marriage. It is interesting to note that Burden is almost happy when Antonia shuns his kiss, which perhaps points arrows towards the fact that he really doesn’t love her and doesn’t sexually yearn for her. When Burden goes back to see Antonia I truly do feel that he simply remembers her in a favourable light and does not love her, the following passage from the novel highlights this I feel. Antonia lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last.
All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions… It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races”. Book 5, Chapter 1, page 226-227. In conclusion, My Antonia is indeed a novel of fragmented memories, dislocated memories and disjointed memories. In the closing pages of the novel Burden tells us that ‘’Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past’’.
Memory as I aforementioned cannot always be trusted, whereas history is concrete. I feel Burden saw Antonia as an escape from the unhappy life he was leading, and his memories brought a feeling of relief and quelled the feeling of claustrophobia perhaps. I personally liked how the novel came full circle in a way, with the novel ending on the road to Black Hawk. Perhaps we can look at the novel in a way where if there is any chink in your armour from the past so to speak, it will come back to haunt you.