Posted by: abbauer10 | March 24, 2012

My most scholarly writing…

To start, I’ve decided to post a few projects that I consider to be the best writing I’ve ever done. Below is my material for a 10-page paper for my college class “Literature of the American West.” This was my term paper, and I seldom used secondary sources or other authors’ criticisms to help write this. My Antonia was a novel I struggled with, and the novels I struggle with are usually the novels I analyze the best.

Happiness vs. Wealth: The American Dream in My Àntonia

     With her history growing up on the unconstrained beauty of the American frontier, Willa Cather was instilled with the hope and opportunity that can be found in the American Dream. From her experiences in her childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska, Cather knew several immigrants from Europe seeking fortune, security, and the American Dream for their families. However, My Àntonia is not told through the viewpoint of immigrants, but through an established immigrant, Jim Burden. Jim’s journey through the novel is essentially one in which he discovers and fails to obtain a capitalist’s version of the American Dream. He commits himself to entrepreneurship and comes from modest origins to gain wealth, which are basic tenets of a traditional view the American Dream, but happiness ultimately eludes him. He realizes too late that it’s the pursuit of happiness, not wealth, that characterizes the American experience. As a result, Jim’s version of the American ideal is trapped in his happiest memories, the ones of the people and landscape of the fictional Black Hawk, Nebraska. Through Jim’s eyes, Cather turns the people and landscape of the American frontier into metaphors of an American Dream idealizing rural life, simple pleasures, and family values.

From the opening pages, Cather cedes the honor of storyteller to Jim, a romantic who is fondly looking back on his years spent in Nebraska. While Àntonia is given the distinction of being on the novel’s title, Àntonia’s story is really Jim’s, and Jim’s memories of Àntonia are a reflection of how his perspective and fortunes have changed in his own pursuit of the American Dream. Although he has obtained wealth through hard work—and, not to mention, marriage—he provides virtually no details of his life after leaving Nebraska. The only evidence indicating Jim’s eventual fate are the words from the unnamed female companion at the beginning of the novel: “He is legal counsel for one of the great Western railways, and is sometimes away from his New York office for weeks together…his career was suddenly advanced by a brilliant marriage” (Cather, Àntonia 10). These are the only words detailing his worldly successes and the rest of the novel is devoted to describing Àntonia and the rest of the girls from Black Hawk. While some would say this is a device to keep the focus on Àntonia instead of Jim, there is something else at work here, hinting that Jim, while finding wealth and prosperity, failed to find happiness in his American Dream. His marriage, while providing him with financial security and success, seems to be loveless. Jim himself does not even mention having a wife, while his companion on the train calls her “unimpressionable and temperamentally incapable of enthusiasm. Her husband’s quiet tastes irritate her, I think…she has her own fortune and lives her own life” (10). The only indication that he is happy comes from his recent meeting with Àntonia, in which Jim validates Àntonia’s decisions but his own are still in question.

By having Jim ignore his wife’s existence, Cather is employing a strategy she describes in her essay “The Novel Démublé,” in which she argues more emotion can be wrenched from a novel by examining what is not being said:

Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there – that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself. (Cather, “Novel” 41-42)

If Jim’s life is to be examined fully, then it is important not only to look at the details he provides about life in Nebraska, but to look at the details of his life in New York as well. He says virtually nothing about his own considerable successes in life. Why? What would lead Jim to make such a serious omission? From what Cather writes about “the thing not named,” there are unconscious forces at work causing Jim to avoid dwelling on his present situation. Jim realizes too late that his pursuit of a rich man’s American Dream has given him nothing but unhappiness.

John Selzer writes that Jim is actively trying to cope with his past mistakes and sins, which culminate when Jim finds Àntonia has become a mother in shame, and yet he does not even consider marrying her himself. Jim’s “Burden,” Selzer argues, is one in which Jim must cope with his present circumstance: “Jim Burden in fact provides a reliable account of the errors of his long adolescence. Older, sadder, and wiser, Jim now at the age of forty tells his story to authenticate Ántonia’s choices and, for the benefit of his reader, to call his own into doubt” (Selzer). By providing these hints that Jim is frustrated with his present, it becomes easier for Cather’s character to idealize and envy his past, including the experiences of the foreigners building their successes in a strange land.

This phenomenon of immigrants from a multitude of nations creating a new nation in America causes conflicts in Cather’s work, which Cather illustrates in a series of symbols and metaphors found on the Nebraska prairie. Some of these metaphors can be explained through Cather’s own personal experiences moving from the East to the West. In Willa Cather: The Writer and her World, Janis Stout describes the early experiences and emotions Cather faced in her move from Virginia to the Great Plains:

In particular, Cather’s response to the abrupt shift of place—specifically, of topography—was characterized by a sense of exposure. She told Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant many years later that there was ‘no place to hide in Nebraska.’ It was as if, in the exacerbated sensitivity to landscape evoked by the move, she began to sense a protectiveness of personhood itself in the folds and hollows and the tree canopy she had experienced in Virginia, but in Nebraska a liability to being blotted out, becoming indistinguishable from any other human creature, just as the prairie landscape itself lacked landmarks. In the 1913 interview she described the anxiety it caused her as ‘a kind of erasure of personality.’ (10)

Early on, Jim appears almost to embrace this “erasure of personality” in America, even in himself. On his first excursion from his grandparents’ house, Jim visits the garden with his grandmother and asks to stay there so he can enjoy the solitude. He becomes acutely aware of the different insects and plants in his meditations, and Jim begins to sound like a Transcendentalist: “I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire…at any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great” (Cather Àntonia 21). This portrait of the garden, a tiny, thriving ecosystem, reflects a vision of America as a vast collection of people from all over the world working together to build a better society. Jim’s thoughts imply he values the lower members of that society, the groups of immigrants making their way in America, and that he can be “happy” being a part of that world.

This notion, that happiness can be found by appreciating nature and all its components, is a central component of Romantic literature. Jim’s meditation in the garden is remarkably similar to these words found in William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis:”

Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim

Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,

And, lost each human trace, surrendering up

Thine individual being, shalt thou go

To mix forever with the elements;

To be a brother to the insensible rock. (22-27)

Jim, like Bryant, seems to disregard his own pursuits, which later will come to nothing. Instead, he reflects on the value of being a part of something bigger than himself. His epiphany serves as a symbol of the immigrant experience and the supposed “melting pot” of America, where different cultures become a part of something else entirely. While later reflections reveal Jim does not embrace a homogenous, dominant culture, he struggles with the conflict of loving a nation so diverse it is beyond definition. Jim’s thoughts in the garden reflect the promise he believes can be found in America, but that promise proves to be beyond reach for him.

It is while Jim is exploring a prairie dog town that Cather provides another symbol of the American Dream. Jim, confronted with a large rattlesnake, takes a spade borrowed from Russian Peter and kills it. The event becomes an important rite of passage in Jim’s mind because Àntonia gains a new respect for him. He “was now a big fellow.” Other details provided by Jim reveal he thinks about the situation on a deeper level. Jim describes the snake as “old, and had led too easy a life; there was not much fight in him. He had probably lived there for years, with a fat prairie dog for breakfast whenever he felt like it…and he had forgot that the world doesn’t owe rattlers a living” (Cather, Àntonia 44). Jim’s experience is a metaphor celebrating the influx of immigrants competing for jobs and providing America with an edge. The rattlesnake is a settler who has been in the country for ages. Even Jim calls it the “ancient, eldest Evil.” Jim, meanwhile, is the newcomer, the “immigrant” to Nebraska, whose alertness provides him with the edge he needs to survive. Jim’s celebration seems almost an endorsement of Social Darwinism, but Jim becomes conflicted when he looks back on the experience. He reflects that the only reason he won was because “the game was fixed for me by chance, as it probably had been for many a dragon-slayer” (44), much like how the game is often fixed in a capitalist society. In this way, Jim’s own accomplishment becomes diminished, just as his adult accomplishments also become diminished. By using nature, Cather provides Jim with an illustration to understand and learn from his own American experience.

While Jim does not seem to wish for homogenization from America’s immigrants, he believes the American experience is one of dogged self-reliance. This view could be found in Jim’s romanticized depiction of something as simple as the plough. Before leaving for college, Jim has a picnic with the girls from the prairie. As the day ends, Jim describes a climactic moment. The setting sun puts a plough on a hill into relief and Jim describes it as “a great black figure,” “heroic in size,” “black against the molten red” (Cather, Àntonia 163). Cather chooses to end a chapter with this description of a plough casting its shadow over the immigrants. The image is a stark reminder that the plough controls their destiny just as much as humans control the plough. Jim’s romanticized description of a “heroic” plough might be affected by Jim’s own relative ignorance in farm matters (Jim never seems to do any difficult work), but it is an image he clings to after he leaves rural life for New York City. More than that, the plough itself is a symbol of the relationship between man and the land. People use the plough to dig up and change the land just as the land also changes the people. Àntonia learns the value of labor by surviving in an unforgiving environment. She copes with the loss of her suicidal father, who became depressed living in an unfamiliar land. The earth, in essence, becomes its own character. To the settlers, it is something that must be conquered, overcome, and manipulated.

The distinction between the landscape and the people become blurred in Jim’s mind. On that same picnic outing, Jim arrives early and goes for a swim in the river and becomes nostalgic: “For the first time it occurred to me that I should be homesick for that river after I left it. The sandbars, with their clean white beaches and their little groves of willows and cottonwood seedlings, were a sort of No Man’s land, little newly created worlds that belonged to the Black Hawk boys” (Cather, Àntonia 158). However, Jim gives no account of reminiscing about the river when he is in college. Instead of the land, Jim’s dreams are filled with the country girls of whom he has grown fond, a more ironic and literal “No Man’s land” since there are only women. The sight of Lena Lingard in Lincoln makes Jim think “of how she used to run barefoot over the prairie until after the snow began to fly, and how Crazy Mary chased her round and round the cornfields” (175). Even before he has left for school, his dreams of Lena involve a specific setting in “a harvest field full of shocks, and I was lying against one of them,” where Lena would come and kiss him (152). Jim cannot think of Lena as anything that is unattached to the earth. Lena represents the rural life and land Jim has left behind. He cannot think of the land without thinking of the girls, and he cannot think of the girls without thinking of the land. Lena comes to represent the American Dream for Jim, a dream devoted to happiness, like the simple pleasure of being with an attractive woman. When his courtship of Lena fails in Lincoln, it sets in motion the rest of Jim’s failures, ultimately including his own unhappy marriage. His failure to win Lena is his failure to obtain an American Dream devoted to happiness instead of financial wealth.

Blythe Tellefsen argues that Jim’s reflections and linkages between the girls and the American Dream create an “eroticized nationalism,” that Jim is projecting all his hopes and dreams for his country onto a young Bohemian woman: “In other words, Àntonia’s story is a palimpsest for that of America; her fortunes both represent and are subsumed by those of the nation. My Àntonia can thus be read as a quite typical example of a text that participates in the construction of an American mythic past” (Tellefsen). This mythic past is a life of simple, rural pleasures that Jim sees as an ideal alternative to the capitalistic lifestyle he is committed to.

It is this idealization of Àntonia that turns her into a metaphor that is unobtainable for Jim. Àntonia is unapproachable and cannot be anything other than the mythic image Jim has created for her. His subsequent failures to have Àntonia as “anything a woman can be for a man” (Cather, Àntonia 202) are symbolic of later failures in fully obtaining his own American Dream. His own failures represent the failures faced by many immigrants seeking an easy life in America, but instead finding that, like the Shimerdas, they find themselves living like all the other scared animals on the prairie. The American Dream, so strongly linked to the rhetoric and overly romanticized visions it is tied to, becomes something completely unobtainable for both immigrants and established Americans.

During Jim’s final visit with Àntonia, we see the two versions of the American Dream, both of which critic James Miller claims are failures. Jim has already been established as being discontent with his sterile life of being a lawyer, but he gains a different view of success when he visits Àntonia’s family. Àntonia has many happy and healthy children, but has not gained the financial security typical of a capitalist’s version of the American Dream. The immigrants are seeking security while Jim is seeking happiness, causing both of them to fail: “[My Ántonia] does not portray, in any meaningful sense, the fulfillment of the American Dream. By and large, the dreams of the pioneers lie shattered, their lives broken by the hardness of wilderness life. Even those who achieve, after long struggle, some kind of secure life are diminished in the genuine stuff of life” (Miller). Old age takes away Àntonia’s physical beauty and Jim himself describes her as “a stalwart, brown woman, flat-chested, her curly brown hair a little grizzled” (Cather, Àntonia 207). Despite this, Jim sees in Àntonia everything he failed to obtain in his own life. For him, Àntonia still represents the American ideals, the pursuit of happiness, he missed. Before going to sleep, Jim reflects that Àntonia 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” (217). This is important because it is through common things that Jim perceives the American Dream. For Jim, “common” things indicate the sort of simple, quiet life he envies.

Even something as insignificant as a farm child grabs Jim’s imagination. He thinks about Àntonia’s children, even remarking that, “it was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races” (Cather, Àntonia 217). Here, Àntonia is strengthened as a symbol, a metaphorical possessor and “mother” of an American Dream that values simple pleasures, family values, and rural life. For Jim, that dream is one that he cannot reclaim. His American Dream is one that dwells in his past and with Àntonia.

Jim’s romanticized vision of the past colors all the events of his early life, indicating that, because he does not describe his later life and adulthood, his current life is lifeless and hopeless. By his own admission he is a romantic, an unreliable narrator, whose American Dream, embodied in the Nebraskan citizens and landscape, serves as a constant reminder of his own failures in life. This failure illustrates how Jim’s idolization of his country has created an impossible standard, a mythic vision that exists only in the human mind.

Works Cited

Bryant, William Cullen. Thanatopsis and Other Poems. New York:

Effingham Maynard and Co., 1907. Print.

Cather, Willa. My Àntonia. Eds. Paul Moliken, Lisa Miller and

Joan Cangham. Clayton, Delaware: Prestwick House, 2008. Print.

—. “The Novel Démublé,” Willa Cather on Writing: Critical

Studies on Writing as an  

Art. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988. 41-42. Print.

Miller, James E., Jr. “My Ántonia and the American Dream.”

Prairie Schooner 48.2 (Summer 1974): 112-123. Rpt. in

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfonski.

Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1978. Literature Resource

Center. Web. 19 Nov. 2010.

Selzer, John L. “Jim Burden and the Structure of My Ántonia.”

Western American Literature 24.1 (May 1989): 45-61. Rpt. in

Literature Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature

Resource Center. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.

Stout, Janis. Willa Cather: The Writer and her World.

Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Print.

Tellefsen, Blythe. “Blood in the Wheat: Willa Cather’s My

Àntonia.” Studies in American Fiction 27.2 (1999): 229.

Literature Resource Center. Web. 19 Nov. 2010.


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