National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
My Ántonia

My Ántonia

by Willa Cather

An artist should have no moral purpose in mind other than just his art.


Willa Cather as managing editor of McClure's, 1908 (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Archives & Special Collections)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

"There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land-slightly undulating. I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction....

The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don't think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be."

Reed: That was Garrison Keillor reading from Willa Cather's novel, My Ántonia.

James McBride: My Ántonia was and is one of the greatest works that's ever flowed out of the fingers of any American writer because when you read that, you really understand what it meant to pioneer here in America. And, more than that, I mean it's a boy meets girl story. It's a kind of story that we all wish we could have written.

Betty Kort: It's a story about beginnings, beginnings of a country, beginnings of two people's lives.  So it will be read again and again because it tells us how we can lead our lives with courage.

Kurt Andersen: It is about class differences, it is about memories of childhood. It's about immigrants in the Great Plains and hard work.

Ted Kooser: Cather is the giant out here. All the rest of us writers are in her shadow.

McBride: That book is kind of like a Mount Rushmore face. Some of the writing is the ceiling against which all great writing will forever bump.

Reed: Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. Here's your host, poet and former Chair of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Gioia: Willa Cather's My Ántonia is set in Nebraska in the late 19th century, a period in which pioneers were arriving in great numbers to settle and cultivate the land. When Cather moved from Virginia to Nebraska as a young girl, the wide expanses of the Great Plains had a profound effect on her. In My Ántonia, the land itself becomes an undeniable presence. Writer and radio host Kurt Andersen is a native Nebraskan.

Andersen: There is something about the landscape of the plains that is unlike any other I have ever been in. The sky is huge and there are these fields of corn or wheat or whatever they are... and there is something splendid about her description of that.

Former US Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser: Well, I've lived in Nebraska for over 40 years now. She's right on with the description of the prairie grasses and the colors. I would know where I was from reading that.

Garrison Keillor reads from My Ántonia....
"There were no fences in those days, and I could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting the pony to get me home again....

"I used to love to drift along the pale-yellow cornfields, looking for the damp spots one sometimes found at their edges, where the smartweed soon turned a rich copper colour and the narrow brown leaves hung curled like cocoons about the swollen joints of the stem....

"Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons. It must have been the scarcity of detail in that tawny landscape that made detail so precious."

Author and Jazz Musician, James McBride: What that book expresses more than anything for me is her love of the Midwest, that whole area of the Midwest. It has its own kind of smell and taste, vibe and soul.  She obviously was deeply, deeply in love with that area.

Gioia: Willa Cather was born in 1873 in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Not unlike My Ántonia's narrator Jim Burden, Cather moved to the plains of Nebraska when she was nine years old. Growing up on this new frontier, she understood the prairie as a native yet she never lost her outsider sense of the strange, almost inhuman presence of the landscape.

Sharon O'Brien: I am sure if she stayed in the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester she wouldn't have become the writer we know.

Cather Biographer Sharon O'Brien teaches at Dickinson College: Because that dislocation not only meant that landscape really marked her but then she became part of this whole community of immigrants. She talks later about traveling around and visiting the French community, the German community, the Bohemian community so she got a sense of a bigger world.

Andersen: I think the sense of being slightly unsure of one's place in a community is a familiar feeling.  I mean Jim Burden, the narrator, was an orphan sent out to live with his grandparents.  Ántonia is an immigrant suddenly put in the middle of nowhere in America.  Everybody has had the sense of leaving home and going off to college.  Life is often a continual experience of being the new girl or the new boy in some new place and not knowing how that is going to work.

Kooser: I think she really was acutely observant of what the immigrant experience was like at that time.

Gioia: The immigrant culture that Cather explored in her fiction is present even today in Nebraska.

Kooser: I own a little store building in Dwight, Nebraska that I bought to have as a sort of an office and studio. And Dwight is a very typical prairie town in many ways.  There are about 200 people there now. But it is a Czech Catholic Community. I can go sit in the cafe and talk to a very old man whose parents were immigrant settlers here and you can go in the tavern in the evening and there will be older people and they are still speaking Czech and so on.

Gioia: When Cather published My Ántonia in 1918, the book was a major departure from the literary trends of the day. She not only strayed from the urban settings and themes that were fashionable at the time, her characters were also new to contemporary American fiction. They were common folks and even more rare for the time, many of them were immigrants all presented with genuine dignity.  Cather is a novelist that one can recommend to a foreigner to show what American society is really like across all classes.

McBride: The kindness of the men and not these stereotypical strong men who fight the boss and these John Wayne stereotypes but really deep thinking, thoughtful carpenters who work as farm hands because that's what life demands at this moment. Women who are caught within the framework with these dead end marriages. And other women who have to work as virtual indentured servants in order to survive and how they survive and why they do well.

O'Brien: There are many characters in the novel that are really based on people she knew in her life from Red Cloud, including of course Ántonia.

Antonette Turner: I am Antonette Willa Skulpa Turner, the granddaughter of Anna Sadilek Pavelka who was My Ántonia that Willa Cather wrote about. I didn't know that Grandma could go through all this, I said, "Is this really true in this book?" "Most of it is," she says "it really is." Great Grandfather was a great musician and he played in the Czechoslovakian orchestra. He was really kind of reluctant; he didn't want to leave his orchestra and his profession there in Czechoslovakia. But he sent a hundred dollars over and they said, "Well, they would find a place for him in Nebraska." They packed up a trunk, Grandmother put mushrooms in her feather bed and she thought they might bring that. That was about all they brought, Grandmother told me. And they were on the water for 21 days and she said, "I didn't think we could ever see land again.  We didn't know why we were coming."  My tatinek, she called him in Czech, that is father in Czech.  She said he would entertain on that old, old violin, he had that violin. They told him to bring his violin and a gun because he may have to live off the prairie.  There weren't supermarkets around or anything like that you know. So this is what they did.

Betty Kort is the Executive Director of the Cather Foundation: These immigrants had come from Europe probably from middle class families and they'd come to America because they had gone as far as they could go in a class society over in Europe and they come here with education. Ántonia's father for example was a very well educated man, he played the violin. And, in his own country, the scholars came to talk to her father because he was so wise. But in America he is alone and is not respected because he doesn't speak English and he is just a common worker. That too was part of the immigrant experience, but Cather predicts that that immigrant class will become something like the aristocracy of the Plains.

Gioia: In the novel, Ántonia's father is overcome with anxiety and depression as he struggles to make a place for his family in this new country. Ultimately unable to cope with these mounting pressures, Mr. Shimerda takes his own life.

Andersen: He was sad to be here. There wasn't some sensational precipitating event that made that happen, it was loneliness in the sense of being out of place.  And I tell you, for people who have never been out in those parts of the world, those beautiful plains can really reinforce one's sense of isolation and loneliness.

Kooser: Shortly after I moved to Nebraska, I was told that the suicide rate in Saline County in Nebraska was higher than anywhere else in the country and it's a very strong Czech community. And I asked a historian about that at the University of Nebraska and I said, "Why would that be?" And he said, "Because many of the Czechs who came to this country were free thinkers. And the free thinkers settled together and the Czech Catholic settled in other places. And the free thinkers had no faith and when they got up against those terrible odds of the prairie, the suicide was what came out of it."

Garrison Keillor reads from My Ántonia...
"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 gray 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."

Gioia: With her father dead, Ántonia must take on the work of a grown man to help her family survive.

Andersen: Ántonia, who is this bright, ambitious girl learning English, educating herself; suddenly that stops all at once when she has to work the farm and all the rest. So that this sort of period of upward looking girlish bliss is suddenly and all at once ended.

Betty Kort discuses the mythic quality of My Ántonia: 500 years from now, you read My Ántonia and like Virgil's stories of Rome, you see Ántonia as an absolute legend of what it takes to produce a country.

Gioia: Most great American novelists like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, or Dreiser write most passionately about failure. By contrast, Cather is the American novelist who best captures success with all the sacrifices it demands. The immigrant experience that she describes in My Ántonia has universal resonance. General Colin Powell was raised in New York, South Bronx by parents who had emigrated from Jamaica. Here he talks about first reading one of his favorite books, My Ántonia.

Colin Powell: So there I was, a kid about 14 years-old reading this book. And suddenly I was no longer in New York City. I was out in a place that I never heard of before. I never had any understanding of—out in the Great Plains with the agriculture sweeping out in all directions, with sod houses, with immigrants just like my parents were trying to make a new life for themselves in America. And so for that instant, I was transported, almost 2,000 miles away to a new place, a new land. But the common experience was there, of immigrants trying to make a life in this new world.

Gioia: You are listening to the Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we are discussing My Ántonia by Willa Cather.

Gioia: Willa Cather's family first settled on the Southern Nebraska prairie, 17 miles from the town of Red Cloud. After trying his hand at farming for two years Cather's father decided it wasn't the life for him, so he moved the family into town.

Kort: If you drive down the streets of Red Cloud today, it's much like it would have been in Cather's day. It was a very exciting place to be. The railroads had chosen it as a place where a lot of traffic would occur. The population was rising. People were coming in everyday. Willa Cather used to enjoy going down to the depot just to watch the people coming in.

Kooser: It's another very small community—an agricultural community. It's a very pretty place; the old opera house has been restored.

O'Brien: Cather drew on Red Cloud and made it many different towns in her fiction, including Black Hawk in My Ántonia.

Garrison Keillor reads from My Ántonia...
"Black Hawk, the new world in which we had come to live, was a clean, well-planted little prairie town, with white fences and good green yards about the dwellings, wide, dusty streets, and shapely little trees growing along the wooden sidewalks. In the centre of the town there were two rows of new brick 'store' buildings, a brick school-house, the court-house, and four white churches."

Gioia: My Ántonia presents one of the great love stories in American literature, which is all the more surprising when you realize that its two central characters, Jim and Ántonia, never come together in a romantic relationship.

McBride: She was a poor girl. She was in a different class than him, and as they grew older the wall between them grew, and because of it he couldn't reach beyond where he was. And she never tried to reach beyond where she was to bring him to where she was because she obviously loved him too much. They never come together in a relationship, and that's part of the magic of it. I mean, the unexpressed love part of it is something that all of us probably have experienced. It's what you don't say and what you can't bring yourself to say for so many reasons.

Kevin Starr: But there's also a dialogue between the two Americas. Jim Burden representing the old Anglo-American, those who have been settled here before and of course, Ántonia and her father and all the Bohemian immigrants representing something else: the new America.

Historian and former California State Librarian, Kevin Starr: They can ultimately become friends, but that's it. And that's I think Willa Cather's suggestion that this new America that was building that ultimately these people would bond to each other. That what the world of Ántonia and the world of Jim Burden, as he goes off to New York and becomes a fancy attorney and becomes part of the rise of the 20th century and Ántonia on the farm from Bohemia, those worlds would ultimately be reconciled to each other as part of the fabric of one nation.

Gioia: Just before Jim Burden leaves for college, he meets Ántonia and some other immigrant girls for a picnic out on the prairie. As the sun is setting-both on the land and on this innocent chapter of their lives-they see a stunning vision in the distance.

Garrison Keillor reads from My Ántonia...
"Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share-black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.

Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie."

Kooser: I think everyone out here in Nebraska who's ever read that passage has probably hoped that would happen to them. I've been waiting for it to happen to me for 40 years and I've never seen it happen and it's basically a passage of quite beautiful description but, of course, it also emphasizes the importance of the plough and breaking the land in pioneer times and everything, and I'm sure she thought of that.

Andersen: But I think she's also, at this moment in the book, which is this moment when Jim is about to leave Ántonia and it is that moment of "Farewell." But also there is, momentarily, by a kind of optical illusion of nature, this iconic implement of the plains, and then it's evanescent. It's fleeting. It goes away, and it's just a plough again.

Gioia: Just as Jim Burden would move from Black Hawk to the big city, so did Willa Cather leave Red Cloud at age 16. After graduating from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Cather moved east to Pittsburgh-a new industrial capital of the country—to begin a career in magazine editing. Eventually settling in New York, Cather became the managing editor for McClure's, one of America's most prominent magazines of the time. Despite her success as a journalist and editor, it would be years before Cather finally turned her full attention toward fiction.

Kooser: She really wanted to be a kind of Henry James, in a way. She went east, turning her back on this area out here and got there, and wrote some things and was fairly successful in that more elite place in a way of writing and so on. Then the prairie books come along, and she has discovered this source of material from her experience.

Gioia: Cather wrote that "one's strongest emotions and... most vivid mental pictures are acquired" before the age of fifteen.

Kooser: So that in a way is what's happening here. She's going back and looking at all that experience she had as girl, and it's become valuable to her in a way.

Kort: When she started out she thought she had to write novels like people on the east coast were writing novels. And they were writing about sophisticated people in sophisticated settings. She had to come home to her roots, to what she knew best, and then she had to have the courage to write about common, ordinary people working the soil.

Kooser: When I read Cather the first time as a graduate student, I wasn't sure that I even had a sense of the importance of a kind of transparency in prose where you are never attracted back to the surface of the type to say, "What do you suppose she's doing here?" You go right through the words into the story. Picking it up again after all those years, I mean, within a paragraph I was completely absorbed—forgot that I was reading a book. And that is a marvelous achievement to be able to write with that kind of transparency.

Starr: I always felt an affinity between Mary Cassatt and Willa Cather. How they see things. How they say see women, how they see simple gestures. And we catch Ántonia raising her hand up to an apricot, a blossoming apricot tree. We see her silhouetted on a hillside at a picnic. We see the sweat, the little beads of perspiration come down on her upper lip as she's working, et cetera. A wonderful sense of her as this almost—not a goddess necessarily—but this embodiment of the land and the soil and a sense of history and time now coming to Nebraska.

Gioia: Willa Cather eventually became one of America's best-loved writers. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours, and later received the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1947, at the age of 73, she died at her home in New York City.

O'Brien: She then was buried in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, which was the location where she had written My Ántonia and parts of some of her other books. The tombstone has this wonderful quote from My Ántonia that's really one of my favorites: "That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great," and then the rest of the quote, which isn't on her tombstone is, "to become part of something entire."

Gioia: My Ántonia has a famous Latin epigraph that summarizes the central theme of the novel.

Kort: Willa Cather quotes Virgil, "Optima dies...prima fugit." "The best days are the first to flee." Everything has to grow up. Maybe there's a bit of sadness in that, but there's an inevitability about it, as well.

Starr: That's the big American theme: "You can't go home again." He cannot have that relationship with her, because she's something else. The past that they have together is past. They're on different tracks in America, and at the same time, he needs that track. Because Ántonia's the emblem through which Jim Burden can interpret experience. The simple farm girl: the more sophisticated he becomes, the more he needs her. The more the one America that he represents needs the other America as well.

Kurt Andersen remarks on the enduring wisdom of My Ántonia: We all had childhoods and if we're lucky, grow older and can look back on our childhoods and try to make sense of how that all that fits together. And, in the end, that's what Cather is showing here. And also showing that for all the zigs and zags and unfortunate choices that we can make, there is something of a happy ending here-not without tragedy along the way, but life can turn out okay. And not necessarily conforming to one's most golden view of it when one was young, but it can turn out okay.

Garrison Keillor reads from My Ántonia...
"This was the road over which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not wither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and having found out what a little circle man's experience is. For Ántonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together-the precious, the incommunicable past."

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Readings from My Ántonia were by Garrison Keillor. Original music by Lee Blaske. Music from Antonin Dvorák's Dumky Trio, performed by the Joachim Trio, and music from Dvorák's American Quartet, played by the Vlach Quartet, both used courtesy of Naxos. Special thanks to Philip Brunelle, Ted Libbey, Molly Thomas-Hicks, Erika Koss, Kate Kaiser, and Adam Kampe. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

Reed: For more information about The Big Read, go to www.NEABigRead.org. That's www.NEABigRead.org.

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