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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"My Antonia" is a great break from new media banalities

The South Dakota Humanities Council's reading series this spring features My Antonia by Willa Cather. The book is a great antidote for the verbal and mental clutter that besieges us through the various media.

As a youth growing up on the Illinois prairies where both sides of my family established themselves by working the soil, I could relate closely to the book, but as I grew out of those identifications I could make with the people and the land, Willa Cather's art is what endured. I hesitate to count how many times I taught the book over the years, but I always found great pleasure in seeing students respond to it.

My greatest regret in teaching Cather was that I did not get to teach a seminar devoted to her. When it became my turn to teach a seminar during my last years as a professor, I proposed one on Cather, but the dean said we had to do Mark Twain, as he had not been covered thoroughly for some time. I love Mark Twain, too, but today's students take offense at biting wit and satire and find Twain's perceptions on racial matters something they prefer to avoid dealing with. But what really disturbed me about the teaching assignment was a remark of the dean's questioning whether Cather was a writer of the stature who deserved a seminar. Aside from displaying a patronizing attitude toward work of mine, the dean's comments reminded me of what seems to be the main purpose of educational bureaucracies: to insure that brain cells, ideas, and works of art never escape their institutional walls undamaged.

My Antonia is a lovely book, but it is firmly in that American literary trend often labeled "the revolt from the village." This trend in literature, which provides a huge body of criticism of culture of rural and small town life is still producing in our contemporary times, but its most notable flourishing was during the time of Hamlin Garland, Sinclair Lewis, and Willa Cather, to name just a few of the important writers who incorporated the theme into their work.

These works all explore the reasons why young people were so anxious and driven to leave the farms and towns built by their parents. My Antonia is unique in that the novel's protagonist, Antonia Shimerda, stays in the town and on the farm while most of her contemporaries leave for brighter and bigger prospects. Antonia is portrayed as a remnant of a culture on which American democracy laid its foundation. It is also one of the works of American literature to establish a definition of sexual equality and recognition that forms the more discerning aspect of feminism.

When people recall the novel, their minds are filled with images of the farm girls floating like breezes across the landscape, but the novel has its share of gloom and menace. Antonia's father commits suicide because of the cultural povery he finds himself in on the Nebraska frontier. When Antonia goes to work in the town, she finds herself discriminated against, along with other farm girls, in comparison to the town girls. She is molested by one of the town leaders, and she sees what Thoreau called the "quiet desperation" of the lives in that town.

While the book is lovely in its portrayals of early prairie life, it is thorough in its depiction of that life. I think it should be read by everyone at least every ten years.

You want to do something truly mind-bending. Stay off your computer for a few days and read My Antonia. If you haven't read the book before, you will never be the same.

1 comment:

Eva Kopie said...

i will read it, thank you.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States