OCTOBER 25, 2017
ONE OF THE MOST famous Western novels was, in fact, more dewy nostalgia than an accurate depiction of life on the frontier.
The reality of 1880s Nebraska finds the pioneers of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia far more tough and even heroic than the romantic oil painting in prose that she left us wants to admit. Perhaps because of the omissions, Cather’s seemingly simple 1918 novel about an immigrant farm girl has proved as resilient as all-weather prairie grass in the American literary imagination.
Hermione Lee, writing in The New York Review of Books, asserted that, “celebration of Cather as an American pastoralist, a kind of Midwestern Robert Frost, which greeted her books when they were published, still continues,” and claimed Cather “the standardbearer […] for vanished American values.” As first lady, Laura Bush held a White House symposium on women in the American West, in which Willa Cather featured prominently. Essayist Peter Galen Massey expected the volume to be dull and old-fashioned, and instead found it rapturous.
“Much of my delight came from Cather’s quietly exquisite prose,” he wrote. “Her descriptions of the natural world are masterful, although she does a pretty good job of making her characters and situations feel real and convincing, too.”
But just how real were they? Cather seems in love with the natural world, and invests it with majesty. Certainly the plains on a late-summer day can look inviting. But just how faithful was this “realist” novel to the hard facts of the American West?
Cather writes poignantly of something as mundane as grass:
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains. […] And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running […] the sunflowers grew; some of them were as big as little trees, with great rough leaves and many branches which bore dozens of blossoms. They made a gold ribbon across the prairie.
The entire setting is magical, as when “some of the cottonwoods had already turned, and the yellow leaves and shining white bark made them look like the gold and silver trees in fairy tales.” This is nature’s wonderland, in contrast to the United States’s urban hellholes of the early 20th century. She described how a family “gave thanks for our food and comfort, and prayed for the poor and destitute in great cities, where the struggle for life was harder than it was here with us.” Instead, in Nebraska, “Every Saturday night we popped corn or made taffy, and Otto Fuchs used to sing, ‘For I Am A Cowboy And Know I’ve Done Wrong,’ Or, ‘Bury Me not On The Lone Prairee.’”
While accurately descriptive in many ways, there is so much Cather glosses over. Rather than a genuine portrait of an historic region, My Ántonia is, in reality, a sentimental novel that bears little more resemblance to real-life conditions than a Nicholas Sparks love affair.
Let us start with a geographic and historic account of her heartland. The Great Plains is roughly the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, including Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas, Montana, and parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas and Texas. This is a vast expanse of scrubland, and in the early part of the 19th century a military expedition reported that the area was “incapable of cultivation” and that it “bears a resemblance to the Desert of Siberia.” Maps of the United States at this time showed a vast open space from Texas to Canada labeled the “Great American Desert.” One US senator declared that “after we pass west of the Missouri River, except upon a few steams, there is no territory fit for settlement or habitation. It is unproductive. It is like a barren waste.”
Some of this was hyperbole, but the reports bore a kernel of truth: Nebraska was a difficult place. Roger Welsch, in Sod Walls, claimed of Cather’s home state: “It was impossible for the immigrants to Nebraska to anticipate what lay before them. Not difficult, but actually impossible. In interviews, letters, diaries, official accounts, and reminiscences one encounters again and again the stunned bewilderment that overcame […] the Nebraska settler when he first saw what was to be his home.” One dismayed pioneer wrote, “[W]e are about as near the center of nowhere as I care to be. […] We are fifty miles directly west from Nebraska City, which is the nearest point where one can buy a shoe-string or spool of thread.”
After penning their animals, a family started digging in the ground, cutting slabs of sod held together by prairie grasses. They stacked the slabs to create dugouts, then an entire house made of dirt.
Dugouts had certain advantages. With an abundance of natural insulation they were cool in the summer and relatively warm in the winter. But they were also dirty and damp and dark. And dangerous. Travelers at night might not see the small outcropping, and a thousand pounds of man and horse might come crashing in. If not something so dramatic, smaller creatures — insects, field animals — were constantly dropping in. Dugouts were also small. One such abode in Nuckolls County, Nebraska, consisted of a single nine-feet-by-12-feet room, which sufficed for six family members, plus a bed, stove, table, and several boxes.
Even after pioneers built houses, there was misery. A big problem was that sod — particularly from western Nebraska — is very permeable; it leaks something awful. One settler, Mrs. H. C. Stuckey from Custer County, wrote how “[o]ur roof could not stand the heavy downpours that sometimes continued for days at a time, and it would leak from one end to the other. […] Sometimes the water would drip on the stove while I was cooking, and I would have to keep tight lids on the skillets to prevent the mud from falling into the food.” Grace Fairchild of western South Dakota refused to live in a sod house because she “didn’t want to fight dirt all [her] life, having it drip onto the food on the table.”
In Cather’s telling, though, women prospered. Writing of the title character, she has Ántonia happily proclaiming, “Oh, better I like to work out-of-doors than in a house. […] I not care that your grandmother say it makes me like a man. I like to be like a man.”
Cather writes little of the endless task of keeping the homestead — and the family — clean. Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, authors of Domestic Revolutions, claimed that “[n]othing prepared a pioneer family for the drudgery and toil of farm life.” Everett Dick, in The Sod-House Frontier, told how “[m]any women were reduced to tears when they first caught sight of their future dwelling.” One migrant from the East who settled in Kansas
was found crying — crying because there was nothing beautiful at which to look; everything was hopelessly ugly. The inside of the house was crude and inartistic. There was nothing graceful indoors or out, only the vast measureless prairie with nothing but unending grass, green in the spring, seared and brown in the early autumn, and burnt and black in winter.
Above all, for women there was the desperation of loneliness. Men at least got into town on business, but females lived and fretted and perished on an isolated plot of farmland. Dick tells of Mrs. James McClure, who had not seen another woman in over a year. Hearing that another family had settled several miles away, she made a pledge to herself. The determined creature set out early one morning with her two children and trod for a considerable distance. “At [last] she reached the other’s cabin’s door and — joy inexpressible! — there stood one like herself. They were utter strangers, neither knowing the other’s name, but they threw their arms about each other and wept, then laughed, and wept again.”
Cather renders the seasons lavishly, especially winter. “The first snowfall came early in December. […] that morning: the low sky was like a sheet of metal. […] big white flakes were whirling over everything and disappearing in the red grass.” Afterward, “[t]he sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. […] the whole world was changed by the snow. […] The cold stung, and at the same time delighted one. […] we were extravagantly happy.”
This is the backdrop for one of the darkest and most solemn episodes of the novel. Old Mr. Shimerda, Ántonia’s father, unable to deal with a foreign land, quietly retires for the day, takes a shotgun, and commits suicide. Jim Burden, the book’s narrator, tells how “[o]n the morning of the twenty-second I wakened with a start. Before I opened my eyes, I seemed to know that something had happened.” Quietly, families come together and handle the details of death.
Certain key elements are missing. Cather gives us a minimal depiction of grief, as the characters present few outward expressions of their emotions; there are no lamentations, no wringing of hands, few tears.
Even more troubling, explanations fail to discuss the effect of winter. We are led to believe the father killed himself because he couldn’t adjust to the new country, but it is never really clear. An old lady asks: “I’d like to think he never done it. He was always considerate and un-wishful to give trouble. How could he forget himself and bring this on us?”
A valid question. A fuller account of the dark season would have provided a motive for his act of terrible desperation, an explanation of what impels a person to take their own life violently.
Winter on the Great Plains, deep inland and cut off from the moderating effects of oceans, was an unbearable season for beast and human. Horses and oxen were often seen minus an ear, it having been frozen off. Men died or lost body parts as they tried to obtain food or fuel in order to survive. During blizzards and ice storms cattle caught outside had their heads encased in ice, till they were the size of bushel baskets, and farmers had to quickly knock the frost off with a club.
The blizzard of 1888 was known as the “schoolchildren’s blizzard.” As is typical of the Midwest’s drastic temperature changes, the thermometer dipped ferociously. By the time students prepared to leave class, in Cather’s heavenly Nebraska they were recording 36 degrees below zero. Children spent a long, cold, hungry, and incredibly frightening night in dark schoolhouses. Some parents who set out to rescue offspring got lost and froze to death.
To families cut off and isolated on their farms, starvation was often a greater danger than the cold. A Kansas housewife wrote in her diary about the winter they found themselves running out of food. A snowstorm prevented her husband from trekking the mile or two to a neighbor to seek provisions. At noon they ate the last scraps in the house. As evening came, “no preparation for the evening meal was made. The little ones could not understand it,” and soon began their pleadings. “Mamma, why don’t you get supper? Mamma, I am hungry! Mamma, can’t you give us some bread?” As Everett Dick narrated, “No explanation could satisfy them, and during that long winter evening that poor woman suffered untold agony because she was not able to gratify the hunger of her little ones.” The next morning the weather cleared sufficiently for her husband to reach a nearby farm and obtain some food. If the storm had persisted for days, however, their very existence was in jeopardy.
Nebraska winters were barbaric. Not just survival but sanity was in doubt for many, including Mr. Shimerda. Yet Cather never provides this crucial explanatory detail.
Summer must have been the reverse season, a time of eternal sunshine. Cather writes: “July came on with that breathless, brilliant heat which makes the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the best corn country in the world.”
Absolutely true, unless there was drought, an historic shortfall of rain. Then, both the land and the skin would parch and crack. During the summer of 1860, harsh and scalding winds swept through for 16 days and nights, as if, in the words of one writer, “the very breath of hell itself had been released.”
One constant feature of life on the Great Plains was the presence of insects, in particular, grasshoppers. Cather writes: “All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines.” Ántonia takes one of these gentle creatures home, safely nestled in tufts of her hair.
Tiny friends, except when they arrived en masse. In 1874, known as “the grasshopper year” they came on a strong wind, covering the earth, crops, buildings, everywhere and everything. One report claimed when they landed on roofs it sounded like hail. So many perched on tree limbs that the wood crumbled under the weight. Chickens and turkey were delighted by this extravagant feed, and eventually sickened from their gorging. One farmer claimed his poultry ate nothing but hoppers and some hay, and after slaughtering the meat tasted of grasshopper. Railroads stopped while men had to emerge with shovels to clear insects from the tracks. Sometimes rails became so oily and greasy that iron wheels spun helplessly without traction and the train could not move. Grasshoppers devoured every manner of crop, grain, fruit, and vegetable alike, even leaves off the trees — onions were a favorite. Millions of the insects left their excrement in waterways, till creeks turned the color of coffee. The scourge lasted anywhere from a couple of days to a week. Although 1874 was the worst, swarms arrived again in 1875, 1876, and 1877.
And that wasn’t all. J. Anthony Lukas, in Big Trouble, discovered not only grasshoppers, but also “[c]louds of giant mosquitoes, armies of ferocious red ants. […] [h]orned toads, kangaroo rats, and diamondback rattlers prowled the prairie. […] Bull snakes weren’t poisonous, but unless you’d grown up with them around the house, they could unnerve you a bit.”
Willa Cather was a wordsmith of enormous talent. But wistful and sentimental, she ignored so much of natural reality. At times her accounts were accurate, depicting how settlers viewed and valued their countryside. But the landscape could also be a tormenter, a destroyer. John Demos wrote of another place and time, “Nature was no long-lost love, to be courted and admired at every opportunity. […] indeed, she frequently presented herself in the guise of an antagonist, and they saw no reason to try and make place for her in their homes.”
Even worse, she betrays the settlers of her Nebraska, the pioneers of the Great Plains. She bestows upon them gifts of poetry and eloquence, but denies them an account of their courage, of the ordeals they faced and overcame, their physical and emotional traumas, of their bravery and fortitude.
The modern-day Wikipedia entry on Cather emphasizes how a “high regard for the immigrant families forging lives and enduring hardships on the Nebraska plains shaped a good deal of her fiction.” In truth, Cather gave them short shrift, dramatically underplayed the scope of their sacrifice, the harshness and rigor they endured, in pursuit of a lyrical portrait. By framing her novel as a realistic portrait, she leaves herself open to a reassessment.
A writer of great skill, Cather produced a lush, romantic work that is a superb read. As a result, however, of glossing over life in a harsh region, it does not deserve the status as a classic work but rather a secondary novel.