The Reading List: My Ántonia, Willa Cather, 1918

Rating: 2 out of 5.
Cover of the Vintage edition of My Antonia by WIlla Cather, with yellow flowers growing out of tall prairie grass.

Emotionally insightful book let down by the racism of its day

With many of us having more time for reading than ever, it seemed a good moment to share with you my thoughts on some of the books that have been holding my attention in The Reading List series. I’ve already finished more books this year than I managed to in the entirety of last year, which is odd given that moving to Australia has separated me from most of them! I’m trying to read more books by women, and especially women of colour, so I hope that The Reading List will be dominated by, if not exclusively made up of, women writers, in contrast to the ‘Western canon’ and my previous reading. In the first The Reading List post I talked about Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Now we head across the pond for what is considered an American classic: Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.

I’m not going to lie: this is a book I found difficult. The third in her ‘Prairie Trilogy’ of novels, My Ántonia tells the story of Jim Burden, and his almost lifelong friendship with Bohemian immigrant Ántonia. Set in the Nebraskan frontier, it is a wonderfully evocative novel. It doesn’t have a plot as such, but is framed as a man’s memories, so tells the events of their lives in a linear narrative. They grow up on the frontier before Jim moves into town, later followed by Ántonia. The book has some very carefully written, believable characters. The contrasting triumphs and failures of frontier life are beautifully written, and despite the ‘lack’ of a plot I found it very gripping. A classic of American literature, it really captures the spirit of the period, and plunges you into the emotional world of the people who scraped a living out in the wilds of the prairies.

I truly believe that writing is an act of empathy

Unfortunately it is not only the spirit of the time that it captures. My enjoyment of the book was abruptly and rudely interrupted by some extremely racist depictions of black people. Supposed to be a positive description of a talented blind pianist, the tone is condescending beyond belief, and reveals the author’s sense of natural superiority. In a book that had thus far been marked by its sensitivity towards the human experience, it was shocking to encounter such inhumanity. These are the only black characters in the book, and they are written about as if they were animals. Given the fact that the world is still racist towards black people, and the book was first published in 1918, I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised. But we can’t pretend that everyone in the period was racist, and when other characters have been humanely and carefully presented, it is a failure in the writer to resort to such awful descriptions of the pianist and his family. Except that it doesn’t feel like a resort, but a revelation of her true feelings. The racism is taken for granted. I truly believe that writing is an act of empathy: especially when we are creating the characters, we should be able to treat them with respect and dignity, understand their motives, and try to present their experience, regardless of their role in the novel. In this Cather has failed.

There are other hints that Cather held politically questionable views. Following a negative description of a female character she wants us to dislike, the narrator, Jim Burden, notes that he has encountered her ‘type’ before, being ‘force fed’. I may be wrong in taking this as an allusion to the Suffragettes, but it seems the most obvious conclusion. But whatever her veiled misogyny, there is nowhere else in the novel anything as shocking as the depiction of the pianist.

Willa Cather was clearly a fascinating woman. It is strongly suspected that she was a lesbian, and she rejected the gender norms of her time, choosing to wear men’s clothing. She always wrote male narrators, despite the advice of friends (although this is hardly unusual for the period), and she was largely dismissive of the work of female writers. As a hugely successful author herself, it seems odd that she would throw other women under the bus like this. James Woodress wrote in his biography of her that when writing about women authors she so completely ’embraced masculine values’ that she sounded like a ‘patronising man’. Perhaps we see something of this in the force feeding comment.

The ‘girls’ are idolised and idealised beyond recognition

This also carries through into the novel itself, and can be blamed for some of the weakness of the later sections. We see it in the almost mindless adoration of the frontier women in the latter portions of the novel. Characters we have seen as children and young adults all seem to grow out of their faults into universally pretty, hard-working, intelligent and thoroughly decent women. None more so than Ántonia herself. Always superior to their town-raised rivals, these ‘girls’ are idolised and idealised beyond recognition. A group typically looked-down on for being ‘hired’ (i.e. in domestic service), Cather redeems them not by highlighting their humanity and complexity, but by reducing them to little more than stereotypes.

For all the worth of some sections, I simply cannot recommend a book that contains such casual racism

I found My Ántonia a strangely disjointed experience. The tales of prairie life are wonderfully written, giving us glimpses into the emotional realms of the characters, and feeling truly believable. But the flow is broken up by racism and never regains its depth. If you do choose to read the book I suggest that you stick to Book 1, ‘The Shimerdas’, which contains the most interesting writing and the greatest depth. I wish the book had stopped there. For all the worth of some sections, I simply cannot recommend a book that contains such casual racism. You might argue that we should just grit our teeth and bear it, just rush through that part to get on to the rest. Given the lack of mention of this aspect in other reviews I assume that is what most people do. But frankly, why should we? When there is so much literature that doesn’t reinforce such awful ways of thinking, why waste time on something that does? I am a white reader, and if you are too you may think that you can look past the racism, but I don’t think we should be normalising such behaviour. White people have the privilege of these words not being used against them, but that does not mean we should sit back and allow them to be used of others. At the very least potential readers should be warned of this content, so that they can make a choice about whether they encounter such material.

We’re getting into the huge and always inflammatory discussion of ‘censorship’ and trigger warnings here, but, put simply, I as a reader, and you as a reader, have free will over what we choose to read. So we should use it, and if something doesn’t meet our standards and requirements, choose something else.

Cather is an intriguing writer, and I’d be interested to read some biographies of her. But I’ll know to think carefully before I pick up another of her novels.

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this one. Would you choose not to read a book containing racist passages and ideology, even if it was considered ‘normal’ at the time of publication? I’d really prefer not to, and I think it’s a bit of a demonstration of white privilege to be able to just read things anyway. But I can see that there are some arguments for ensuring that we don’t deny or gloss over the racism of the past by omitting it from the record, or in this case our bookshelves. Do we need to read things from the past to make sure we understand our present? Please do share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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