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).