In 1918, Willa Cather published My Ántonia. It is a novel loaded with Euro-American homesteading experiences from the Great Plains, and it demonstrates how a seemingly isolated place can in fact have international scope. Without saying it so directly, Cather gives the reader a sense of how the Atlantic World brought itself to the Great Plains, and how these individual immigrants faced an endless amount of new frontiers. After developing the characters in the countryside, Cather moves the cosmopolitans in the country from the landscape of the Burden Homestead to a neighborhood in the town of Black Hawk, Nebraska. In this way it is also a novel that considers the contrasts between the country and the town.
Because Cather was a sharp author, it is fairly easy for a reader to reconstruct the landscape of the Burden Homestead. The landscape was inundated with international settlements, with the Russian neighbors of Peter and Pavel to the north, the Bohemian Shimerda family to the west, and the German neighbors to the south. Six miles east of the Burden homestead was the post office, a vestige of an Anglo-American institution that continuously crept further and further out onto the Great Plains and Euro-American frontier. The Burden Homestead itself was a white frame house on a hilltop, and the terrain gradually sloped westward to where the barn, corncribs, and pond were located. (Cather, 1918: 12-13, 15, 20-21) While reading this work, I reconstructed the Burden Homestead landscape from the text, and sketched it out on paper with pen.
On page 42, Cather also makes brief reference to the material cultural remnants left by Plains Indians, or what may have been a potential Sun Dance. The Euro-Americans are all in disagreement over what it could represent, and this is how Cather explained it. “Beyond the pond,” west of the Burden home, Cather said Jim Burden noticed that,
…there was, faintly marked in the grass, a great circle where the Indians used to ride. Jake and Otto [two hired hands, the latter from Austria] were sure that when they galloped round that ring the Indians tortured prisoners, bound to a stake in the centre; but grandfather [Burden] thought they merely ran races or trained horses there. Whenever one looked at this slope against the setting sun, the circle showed like a pattern in the grass; and this morning, when the first light spray of snow lay over it, it came out with wonderful distinctness, like strokes of Chinese white on canvas. The old figure stirred me as it had never done before and seemed a good omen for the winter.
In this singular paragraph passage, Cather’s piece of fictional prose exposes the reader to several different Euro-American perceptions and theses. There is the stereotypical perception of the “brutal” or “savage” Indian, the wise grandfatherly ballast that considered the plains Indians and their horses, and the mystic and romantic foreshadowing that Jim Burden felt when he viewed the circle in the landscape. In this way Cather’s statement inadvertently touched on several questions raised by humanities scholars and social scientists (historians, anthropologists and archaeologists).
Novels are fantastic in that they help a reader explore the infinite range of human emotion in a way that scholarship often cannot, and this is why My Ántonia is a central piece of fiction in Great Plains and world literature. There is much more to say about this work, and it certainly compliments Ernest Staples Osgood’s 1929 scholarship, The Day of the Cattleman, and Gilbert C. Fite, The Farmers’ Fronter, 1865-1900 (1966).
February 11th, 2013 at 7:21 pm
[…] solutions if something did not work the first time around. Willa Cather indirectly points this out in infinite ways in My Ántonia (1918), and Ernest Staples Osgood showed how cattlemen formed stockmen’s associations to bring order to […]
February 15th, 2013 at 4:39 pm
[…] 1917, a year before Willa Cather published My Ántonia, Fite’s mother filed a homestead claim in northwestern South Dakota, in what Fite referred to as […]
February 23rd, 2013 at 2:47 pm
[…] see this in Cather’s My Ántonia (1918), and also in Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains (1931). In this latter case, Webb’s work […]
March 13th, 2013 at 11:18 am
[…] the same goes for Walter Webb, N. Scott Momaday, Ernest Staples Osgood, Paul Sharp, Gilbert Fite, Willa Cather, and Glenda Riley, all of whom worked toward creating a sense of Great Plains history and […]
April 5th, 2013 at 9:50 pm
Am I the only person ever to note that Pavel and Peter’s story makes no sense? They were the only two who survived the wolf attack, so why were they shunned by their village as the guys who threw the bride to the wolves? There were plenty of dead bodies to attest to the ferocity of the wolves. Did these two idiots drive into town and announce that they had thrown the bride to the wolves? If we’re expected to believe that, some explanation would be in order, wouldn’t there, as to their unshakable honesty and actual DESIRE to be shunned?
April 6th, 2013 at 5:13 pm
I know what you mean, but I also think that the Pavel and Peter wolf story isn’t entirely supposed to make sense. Or perhaps it is reflective of a mythos that made sense on the Russian Steppe, but didn’t necessarily have to make sense on the North American Steppe? Perhaps something got lost in translation, too…
January 3rd, 2015 at 11:19 pm
[…] pulse runs thick in the Piehl DNA (see here for detail). Some days I know we’re living out a long extension of a Willa Cather My Ántonia novel here in the 21st century. We’re sitting in the saddle of the 49th parallel saddle here on the […]