Willa Cather and Modern Cultures

By Melissa J. Homestead; Guy J. Reynolds | Go to book overview

8 It’s Mr. Reynolds Who Wishes It
Profit and Prestige Shared by Cather
and Her Literary Agent

MATTHEW LAVIN

In the introduction to My Ántonia (1918), a fictionalized author, ostensibly an unnamed version of Cather herself, tells a story of soliciting and receiving a manuscript from her childhood friend Jim Burden, adding, “the following narrative is Jim’s manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me” (xiii). This frame introduction situates Burden as the narrator of the novel, sets up the story’s autobiographical mode, and establishes an unreliable narrator whose presence arguably inaugurates the experimental or modernist phase of Cather’s career.1 Notably, the introduction also depicts an established author passing an enthusiastic amateur’s manuscript to the public with an endorsement of its authenticity and importance.2 This exchange is also a useful point of entry for an analysis of what Aaron Jaffe identifies as “the complex economies of cultural prestige” and “secondary literary labor” fundamental to the U.S. literary marketplace in the early twentieth century (3). The unnamed author of My Ántonia’s introduction acts as an agent or mediator, passing Burden’s work to the public with a brief word of context and an implicit endorsement of its content.

Cather’s depiction of a private literary exchange at the outset of My Ántonia speaks to her awareness of how a range of per-

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