Blood in the Wheat: Willa Cather's My Antonia

By Tellefsen, Blythe | Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

Blood in the Wheat: Willa Cather's My Antonia


Tellefsen, Blythe, Studies in American Fiction


It is good for everyone to know how to forget. --Ernest Renan

The preface to Willa Cather's My Antonia is so replete with American mythology as to render it almost a parody of the national dream. We are quickly introduced by a nameless narrator to Jim Burden who has the typical American hero's "naturally romantic and ardent disposition ... [which] has been one of the strongest elements in his success."(1) Burden, who "loves with a personal passion the great country through which his railway runs" and is "still able to lose himself in those big Western dreams" (5), not only works to enable the construction of the great railroads that bind America together as a nation and an economic power, but also finances other, similar projects and expeditions all over America. He is a veritable fount of progress, but his success is clearly economic (his marriage is unhappy, his personal life evidently something of a failure) and is based on the expansion of America's size and economic and national power. Jim Burden's "burden" is, on one level, the "burden" of national expansion.(2)

My Antonia is thus a classic American story of a romantic dreamer who invests himself in, implicitly sacrifices himself for, and loves beyond all else the nation in which he strives. The editors of Nationalisms and Sexualities argue that "Whenever the power of the nation is invoked ... we are more likely than not to find it couched as a love of country," a kind of "eroticized nationalism" that resonates throughout national discourse(s).(3) Such eroticized nationalism is clearly reflected in Burden's ardent passion for America, which is embodied in the figure of a woman, the Bohemian immigrant Antonia Shimerda. In this national romance, love of Antonia Shimerda is love of America; although Burden apparently sacrifices one (love of woman) for another (love of country), he actually redeems himself through service to the America that Antonia represents.(4)

Antonia is not the real subject of the text but serves as the catalyst of other's imaginative powers, which produce the construction and commemoration of America's past, present, and future. For both the narrator and Jim Burden, "To speak [Antonia's] name was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going in one's brain" (6). As a figuration of America, Antonia becomes both less than and more than herself; for both the narrator and Burden, she "seemed to mean to [them] the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of [their] childhood" (5). That adventure of innocent childhood, anchored in the adult memory by the re/membered figure of an immigrant girl, is fixed forever by a text that is (ostensibly) male-authored: the text preserves a particular past by transforming personal memory into written, national history. In other words, Antonia's story is a palimpsest for that of America; her fortunes both represent and are subsumed by those of the nation. My Antonia can thus be read as a quite typical example of a text that participates in the construction of an American mythic past: the nation's history is embodied by and traced through a young immigrant girl's pioneer life, whose fortunes rise with the country's as she reaches fulfilment as both a mother of children and of the nation in which her children will prosper. As Antonia Shimerda develops from a rough, poor foreigner into a farm-owning American citizen, so does Nebraska develop from a prairie wilderness into a civilized state.

And yet the preface is not an unselfconscious depiction of the American Dream; it also calls attention to itself as myth, as an artificial construct, a fiction within a fiction in the most self-conscious of ways. Readers are clearly warned that the past will be seen entirely through Jim Burden's perspective; as Burden says of his prospective narrative of Antonia's life: "I should have to do it in a direct way, and say a great deal about myself. It's through myself that I knew and felt her, and I've had no practice in any other form of presentation" (6). …

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