Curious to see what’s happened to story-telling over the course of the last century, I am taking a class on the American Novel from Drieser to the present. It’s a misnomer, in a sense — we don’t read any Drieser. But his 1900 novel “Sister Carrie” gets credit for sparking a new more realistic form of storytelling amongst American fiction writers. The professor, Philip Fisher, argues that the American novel then turned away from the moral form, where actions have consequences. Instead, Naturalism and Manners (that is, social constructs), a chance set of circumstances that overwhelm any individual desires of the characters in these novels, become the dominant forms of the novel, along with Aestheticism, the pursuit of beauty (and, Fisher argues, the only type of novel in which characters have freedom in deciding their course of action).
Our first assignment was to read Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.” I was struck by how differently she portrayed the immigrant experience from the way Upton Sinclair does 12 years earlier in “The Jungle.”Where Sinclair is sour, Cather is sweet. Her immigrants ultimately do well for themselves, largely on the strength of their backs. Sinclair’s Lithuanian hero, Jurgis, blows out his back, ending his American dream. Sinclair’s villainous capitalists crush the souls and bodies of those who make them their money; Cather’s capitalist, Cutter, is far more muted and even a comic character (his wife has that great line: “Mr. Cutter, you have broken all the Commandments — spare the finger bowls!”). Perhaps that’s because of setting: Sinclair is in the city and roughly concurrent with 1905, while Cather, though writing later, sets her novel primarily in the late 1860s and 1870s, when Nebraska was first settled by whites. Indeed, Cather seems to deliberately avoid delving in the ugly and brutal side of the lives of her characters. The murder(?) of Antonia’s father is brushed over (and later the possible murderer, Krajiek, seems to just disappear from the story). If the father was murdered, no one has an outright identity crisis in My Antonia. The closest we get is Antonia telling Mrs. Harling “a girl like me has to take her good times when she can. I guess I want to have my fling, like the other girls.” Jim’s possible affair with Lena is ignored; no casual sex in this book, at least not openly. Then again, Lena seems like the original Jessica Rabbit: she’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way.
Cather gives us but small sentences of crisis: “There was nothing in life for him but trout streams, ever since he’d lost the twins,” she notes at one point. She leaves it to us to fill in a lot of those blanks.
Morality is there, but more a duty than a force, in line with Fisher’s argument about the shift in American novels towards naturalism. Witness Jim when he arrives at the homestead: “I did not say my prayers that night; here, I felt, what would be would be.” We also see traces of the vast environment Jack London poised against his characters (and all of humanity) in the violent snows of Nebraska, i.e. Jim’s comment that “I was convinced that man’s strongest antagonist is the cold.” Providence does get invoked, but by the grandmother, suggesting to me that Cather wants us to recognize a generational shift in beliefs. The book ends with Jim referring to “those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be.” Not Calvinist predestination, but chance, rules the day.
I was struck by how Cather’s town, Black Hawk, is inhabited by much more likable people than those we’ll meet two years later in Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street “(it is striking that this course avoids Lewis and Pearl Buck and Steinbeck, especially Steinbeck. No Toni Morrison or Isaac Bashevis Singer, either). We do see this sterile small town atmosphere and its myopic people emerge towards the end, suggesting a dying off of energy and vitality in the second generation among the people who, unlike Jim, do not go to the city. In this sense she presages what Lewis will mock and eviscerate just two years later.
Cather’s book is filled with remarkable and strong women, which feels unusual to me from what i know of the fiction of the era. I found that refreshing. But it may have been a reason why Cather does not push into dangerous territory, like having Jim marry Antonia, or having any of the ‘hired girls’ marry a town boy (Fisher introduced us to a Jhumpa Lahiri story that does explore this theme in a contemporary context).
Nebraska epitomizes fly-over states today; one would not visit there without a specific reason. But Cather makes the place sound lovely and placid and full of life. She has such evocative turns of phrase: “the panting wheeze of a saw,” spring’s ‘nimble air”, the “draft-horse necks” of the peasant women.
A lovely piece of writing, all in all.