When it comes to considering America’s greatest writers, it would be foolish to ignore Willa Cather as a contender. Indeed, it is quite possible that her 1925 novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop is the great American novel, rivaling anything that came before or since.
Yet, Cather was consistent. While not at the level of Death Comes, her 1913 O Pioneers and her 1927 The Professor’s House certainly come close. Shadows on the Rock (1931), too. Of all her novels, though, the one that most rivals Death Comes is her 1918 novel, My Ántonia. When the book first appeared, that nastiest and most difficult of critics, H.L. Mencken had nothing but praise for it and its author. She is, he wrote approvingly, “isolated in accomplishment” and “isolated from all current rages and enthusiasms.” Devoid of heroes, plots, love affairs, and any pretense to change the world, My Ántonia sees the world through the eyes of an immigrant, a poor Bohemian who becomes one with the land she works. “But what Miss Cather tries to reveal is the true romance that lies even there—the grim tragedy at the hearth of all that dull, cow-like existence—the fineness that lies deeply buried.” Cather succeeds at making real and critical what is often ignored or hidden. “Miss Cather’s method inclines more to suggestion and indirection. Here a glimpse, there a turn of phrase, and suddenly the thing stands out, suddenly it is as real as real can be—and withal moving, arresting, beautiful with strange and charming beauty,” he continued. And, then, surprisingly, Mencken offered his highest praise: “I commend this book to your attention, and the author no less. There is no other American author of her sex, now in view, whose future promises so much.”
A full century later, Mencken’s review still holds true. In almost every way, Cather writes at a level beyond every other American author. One could not be blamed, if giving any of Cather’s novels only a cursory read, in believing her writing style somewhat juvenile and superficial. Such a reading, though, would be dead wrong. In her many writings on the meaning of art, Cather criticized anything that might be blatant, political, or over the top. True art, she believed, contained the entire author’s view of life, but it did so by layering, not by berating. “Art, it seems to me, should simplify,” she explained. “That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole.” Thus, she argued, the partaker of the art fills in all of the details of what the artist has intentionally trimmed and cut, making the art belong as much to the artist as it does to the recipient. “Any first-rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it.”
In this Stoic effort, Cather understood that nothing should be produced without every aspect of it meeting the highest standards of excellence possible. This applies to that which is seen as well as that which is not. As Steve Job would explain nearly eight decades later, every created thing should be excellent, in every one of its aspects. He cited the example his father offered him. If a carpenter makes a stunning oak chest of drawers but uses press board for its back—presuming that no one will ever see it—the entire piece of furniture is junk. So it was with all of Cather’s novels. Additionally, Cather argued in the same vein as T.S. Eliot—no real art is revolutionary. Rather, it is always at its best when it’s evolutionary. The artist knows when to compromise only when she or he knows the rules and knows what needs to be broken for real artistic progress. At first, every artist “is wedded to old forms, old ideas, and his vision is blurred by the memory of the old delights he would like to recapture.” The artist, though, can only break barriers when he knows exactly what those barriers are. The writer, in particular, can never actually write about the essence of hate or love. Instead, he can only write of the human person as understood or distilled by hate or love. All emotion and ideas can only be understood in relation to character and person. If his own ideology clouds his art, the artist, in good conscience and taste, should forsake art and work “in a laboratory or a bureau.”
Like the Great Plains about which the author so gorgeously writes, little that the eye first observes is true. The grasses one sees on the plains are nearly six times longer than that which grows above ground, hiding—at least traditionally—deer, buffalo, elk, birds of all kinds, snakes, and bobcats. Equally important, far from flat—as many crossing I-70 lament—the plains roll and break, thus giving a false impression of depth and distance. On clear days, one can see for miles and miles, day or night, even when the latter is not illuminated the all-pervasive heat lightning of summer. The Great Plains unveil treasure after treasure to those who explore. The same is true of Cather’s novels.
Though named after a Bohemian immigrant, the novel My Ántonia is really about the radically diverse life—human and otherwise—on the Great Plains, as understood by an emigrant from Virginia, Jim Burden. In the opening scene, Burden and Cather meet on a train, discussing their lost friendships of youth, including their mutual friend, Ántonia Shimerda, from Black Hawk (Red Cloud) Nebraska. Burden is now a lawyer for a large railway concern in the East, but he fondly remembers growing up with his grandparents on their Nebraska homestead. From the moment he arrived there from Virginia, Ántonia, though a few years older, dominates his cultural outlook and development. From the beginning to the end of the novel, she is a sprite, an earth goddess, and a force of nature, something fully human and yet superhuman as well. Everything that Jim thinks and remembers of Ántonia is synonymous with his memories of childhood and the country in which he grew. Ever after life had taken its toll on Ántonia’s physical appearance, Jim could not help but see her inner greatness.
She 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 crabtree 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.
Married, but without any children, and financially successful, Jim recognizes that Ántonia—with her patch of land, her dedicated husband, and her innumerable children—has embraced and understood life at its most profound level. Jim can only describe Ántonia’s land and family in mythic terms. Her children are fauns and Ántonia, herself, is a “rich mind of life, like the founders of early races.”
Though married, Jim admits,
Do you know, Ántonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister— anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.’
For years, critics categorized and dismissed Willa Cather as a mere regional writer, a Nebraskan and little more. To a great extent, this was true, as Cather often wrote about the American frontier, though she was equally adept at describing it in the Canadian hinterlands, on the Great American Plains, and in the American Southwest. In all her frontier novels, she focused on three vital themes: the fundamental necessity of personal virtue and sacrifice; the communal effort; and the unforgiving but sacramental elements of nature and, especially, the land itself. My Ántonia explores all three themes. Those who came first, either broke the land or, simply, broke. Those who followed everything to the first ones, but rarely did they exhibit the same spark of life.
Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.
Those who attempted to make it on their own—what in the 1920s would be called “rugged individualism”—almost always failed and went mad. The subduing of nature took the entire community. Having migrated across the Atlantic, leaving everything once known, the immigrants often fared best. “This family solidarity was that the foreign farmers in our country were the first to become prosperous.” Critically, those immigrant farmers brought with them the skills, manners, and attitudes of the old world, usually expertise in food, music, the arts, furniture, etc., setting them a cultured step above the native American emigrants. Typically, though, the native emigrants took the immigrants’ poor use of English as a sign of unintelligence.
While every sentence, paragraph, and chapter in the novel exudes a beauty, truth, and goodness, no one does more so than the tragic figure of Mr. Shimerda, the father of Ántonia and the one who first spoke the title of the novel. A gifted artisan and musician, he left Bohemia only after the insistence of his wife—she a product of a forbidden relationship. Having been a man of much intellect and skill, his Bohemian community had always sought his advice and wisdom. In Nebraska, though, not only was he a nothing, he was incapable of understanding the land or working it. He became less than nothing, a burden to his family. Upon arriving on the Great Plains, he entered a deep depression. Right before Christmas, he killed himself with a shotgun.
In some unfathomable way, Mr. Shimerda became the spirit of the land after his death. Because he had committed suicide, no cemetery would accept his body. The family buried him at what would be a crossroads. Jim, though Protestant, wonders about the fate of his soul. “I knew it was homesickness that had killed Mr. Shimerda, and I wondered whether his released spirit would not eventually find its way back to his own country,” he considered. “I thought of how far it was to Chicago, and then to Virginia, to Baltimore— and then the great wintry ocean. No, he would not at once set out upon that long journey. Surely, his exhausted spirit, so tired of cold and crowding and the struggle with the ever-falling snow, was resting now in this quiet house.” Cather’s passage describing Shimerda’s grave is one of the finest in all American literature, well worth quoting at length.
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 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, 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.
Few if any novels have so captured the spirit of the American character, in all of its majesty and nobility. Though many critics loved Cather, and her novels sold very well, her conservative politics had soiled her reputation by the end of the 1930s, and she became, in literary circles, a non-person for many decades. Only in the 1960s and 1970s did her reputation again soar. Today, Nebraska has done mighty things to keep the memory and legacy of her greatest artist alive. If you’re crossing I-70 or I-80, do not hesitate to stop at Red Cloud, her hometown, and the setting of all of her Great Plains novels. Celebrate the mind, art, and imagination of the most American of American authors.
En route, if so blessed, you might just feel the spirit of a Bohemia, out of place and yet fully in his right place.
Bradley J. Birzer is The American Conservative’s scholar-at-large. He also holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.