Jim Burden's Lost Worlds: Exile in My Antonia

By Holmes, Catherine D. | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Jim Burden's Lost Worlds: Exile in My Antonia


Holmes, Catherine D., Twentieth Century Literature


Milan Kundera, one of this century's notable exiles, suggests that the "struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting" (3). My Antonia, Willa Cather's great novel of exile and longing, recounts just such a struggle in the lives of the Virginian, Bohemian, Russian, Swedish, Louisianan, and other far-flung wayfarers moving through the new-world wilderness of her fictional Nebraska. Caught in the momentum of shifting allegiances--to the past and to the future--Cather's migrants, and especially her narrator Jim Burden, embody the conflicts of individuals trying to straddle opposing worlds. While the old world survives in story and song and finally makes a home for itself in the very novel that Jim Burden creates and that we in turn read, the new-world impulse expresses itself in mobility and forgetfulness.

Cather opens My Antonia with a frame introduction that establishes this paradigm of mobility. Spoken by an unnamed narrator who encounters her old childhood friend, Jim Burden, as they are both making the trek west from their adult homes in New York City, the opening scene not only forecasts the opening of the novel proper--the 10-year-old Jim Burden's train ride from Virginia to Nebraska--but also highlights its constructed quality. The train of the frame introduction that flashes through interminable miles of ripe wheat is replicating Jim Burden's original journey. What he and the frame narrator agree on in recollection, however, when confronted with the physical fact of the landscape, seems to contradict both the energetic movement of the speeding train and the nostalgic tone of much of narrative that follows. The red dust blanketing everything, the intense heat, the burning wind, the wilting oak groves, the stifling vegetation, and, above all, the sense of being buried in wheat and corn suggest oppressio n, paralysis, submergence, and loss of vitality, rather than the new-world alternatives of discovery, or recovery.

The incongruous relationship between the sentimental journey homeward and the unpleasant reality of home sets up the binary dynamic of the novel, a tension that operates on all levels. [1] In the image of the train traversing the static landscape, Cather manages to convey this clash of worlds: the interior and the exterior, the real and the imaginary, the moving and the still, the free and the determined, the past and the present, the lost and the found, the old and the new. The particular texture of My Antonia comes from the freight of associations, often contradictory, that Cather allows the clash of worlds to bear. First, in the classic American context, old and new worlds automatically suggest Europe and America, the dynamic that still holds for the novel's immigrant populations. Western expansion saw this archetypal pattern replayed in the frontier myth. The narrative is further complicated by the fact that Jim's adult journey, while spatially a reenactment of the pioneer's westward quest for new worlds , is, emotionally, a nostalgic attempt to recover a personal old world.

Jim Burden vacillates between contesting worlds, the old romanticized one that has been sealed away in memory and the new world in which the real life is lived. In the fluid society of the frontier, he abandons successive new worlds, relegating each in its turn to the domain of memory, where it takes on the static, perfected quality of an image in the mind. Left behind each time he crosses a spatial or social boundary is the old, cast-off, and not so portable self. As the fictional narrator loops back in space along the "little circle" (238) of experience, he attempts nothing less than the impossible: the recovery of the lost time, the lost worlds, the lost selves of his own history. Unlike Proust, who, attempting a similar project, imagines a parade of past selves, "mois successifs," to be reclaimed, Jim Burden can neither connect nor integrate his own lost identities.

The Jim Burden who steps off the transcontinental train into the "utter darkness" (6) of Nebraska is already redundant, a sequel to the original boy left behind in Virginia and perhaps still dwelling "at the sheepfold down by the creek" (8). …

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