Jim Burden's question to an Ántonia who does not recognize him after two decades—"Have I changed so much?" (322)—has had an unintended significance over the past thirty-five years, during which Jim has gone from a quiet, romantic memoir writer to the virtual villain of My Ántonia: unreliable, immature, repressed and repressive. Such characterizations hinder recognition of Cather's intertextual structuring of book 5 of My Ántonia. Through allusions to the Odyssey, Jim's return to Ántonia is placed within mythic contexts of return, suggesting heroic stature even while delineating modernity. Through allusions to "Rip Van Winkle," both in its original form by Washington Irving and its dramatic form by Joseph Jefferson, Jim's return marks a profound change of era. Jim emerges as a restless Odyssean traveler living without despair in an America that has failed its great cultural opportunity.
In Cather's modernist aesthetic, to be "absolutely true" to a subject means much more than providing an accurate account of what happened. It can mean connecting to heroic patterns as well as to a figure from popular culture who resonates as something prototypically American and lost, a genial spirit of another time. Every novel's form cannot help but be unique. Thus, My Ántonia is "the other side of the rug, the pattern that is supposed not to count in a story. In it there is no love affair, no courtship, no marriage, no broken heart, no struggle for success. I knew I'd ruin my material if I put it in the usual fictional pattern. I just used it the way I thought absolutely true" (Cather, Interview 77). Readers have sometimes resisted the way Cather made the story or a character rather than resisted the "usual fictional pattern." In My Ántonia there is a sense of loss, of something missed, some potential not grasped. While much commentary on Jim Burden in effect locates this disappointment in the lack of romance between Jim and Ántonia, an intertextual reading of the novel finds it in the lost potential of the immigrant contribution to American culture. Unlike the sense of distant loss in many romantic and modernist works, this loss is as close and palpable as the feeling at a performance of Jefferson's immensely popular Rip Van Winkle.
In "Cuzak's Boys," Jim Burden writes about himself with less distance than in the rest of the novel, that is, as a man writing about a man rather than the boy he once was, precisely at the time Cather invites readers to consider him in terms of others as remote as Odysseus and Rip Van Winkle. This modernist approach is heightened by Jim's presumed awareness of Odyssean overtones to his return, so that readers participate, in a sense, in the writing and imagining. In the first section of this article I establish Cather's allusive invitations, with particular emphasis on Jefferson's Rip Van Winkle. In the second part I read "Cuzak's Boys" in terms of the allusions by comparing and contrasting Jim, Odysseus, and Rip in detail. In the third section I argue that the epilogue to Cather's final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, uses the same source material as Jim's return in My Ántonia, suggesting a consideration of the children's point of view to separate the adult Jim from the boyish icon Ántonia's family has made him.
From the first sentence of book 5 of My Ántonia, Cather places Jim's return in the Odyssean tradition, thus making explicit the motif of return in earlier parts of the novel: "I told Ántonia I would come back, but life intervened, and it was twenty years before I kept my promise" (317). Cather's many fictional returners come back at widely varying times; given the Odyssey's ubiquity and cultural resonance and Cather's conspicuous allusiveness, especially to classical literature, Cather's choice of twenty years for this man returning home to a woman emphasizes the Homeric connection. Cather reinforces the allusion four paragraphs later, when Jim sees two boys bent over a dead dog, an unexpected event upon arrival that parallels the Odyssey's dead dog, Argus. Cather fascinatingly invites readers to experience Jim's text as a narrative aware, to some extent, of its own Odyssean resonances. Jim narrative openly discusses classical literature, noting in particular his penchant for transposing classical characters and settings to people and places he knows (254).
In book 5 Cather also invites readers to consider less overt allusions to a mythic character than those to the Odyssey. In book 3 Jim and Lena see the play Rip Van Winkle; in the final chapter of book 5, after Jim has left the Cuzak farm and returned to town, he sees "strange children" (357), the very phrase Rip uses in Irving's story for his own return to town (36), and like Rip he visits his favorite inn. "Rip Van Winkle" itself so resonates with the Odyssey that Joyce, for instance, writing at the same time Cather was writing My Ántonia, uses it several times in Ulysses. Intertextual in its very origin, Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" is based on Johan Otmar's "Peter Klaus," a German story with strong folk and mythic elements; its own pronounced echoes of the Odyssey include a return home after twenty years, a dog incident upon arrival, and reunion with a family member. "Rip Van Winkle" was translated into German (one is tempted to say "back into German") in 1819, the year of its appearance, and four more times by 1826. By the time My Ántonia was published, a full decade before "talkies," "Rip Van Winkle" had been made into no fewer than eighteen films.
As Cather well knew, "Rip Van Winkle" gained its prominence in American popular culture through performance onstage. The play Jim and Lena see starred Joseph Jefferson, probably the best-known, -admired, and -loved American actor of the second half of the nineteenth century, who played Rip almost exclusively for more than forty years, first in London and then in thousands of performances all over the United States. Small towns closed school on the days Rip was performed. Rip Van Winkle emerged as a play almost immediately after publication of Irving's story. Using a script written and successively modified by the actors Frederick Yates, James Hackett, and Charles Burke and then revamped once again by the playwright Dion Boucicault, Jefferson made it his own, tuning it to his own voice, theatrical tastes, and view of the world. It follows the main points of Irving's story but adds melodramatic complications about a villain, married to Rip's wife, Gretchen, who plots the destruction of Meenie, the loyal daughter Rip loves. Although Jefferson says in his Autobiography that he wanted to avoid making it a "temperance play" (336)—in the play's final gesture Rip breaks his pledge once again—it has a strong temperance tension all too familiar to Cather during the time of My Ántonia's composition. The misogyny of Irving's story is toned down, and the father-daughter reunion is given full-blown emphasis: when Rip sobs "Somebody knows me now! Somebody knows me now!" (313), audiences sobbed too, and critics, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, spoke of Lear (Johnson, "Jefferson's Rip" 20).
In her 1896 review for the Pittsburgh Leader, the young Willa Cather focused instead on the "weirdly poetic" expressionist scene in the mountains as well as on Jefferson himself. Jefferson shared her enthusiasm for the mountain scene because, like Rip's often-addressed dog that never appears, it kept the play away from the insidious tendency toward realistic staging in American drama. He turned down countless suggestions for realistic elaborations because "so unreal a theme could not have been interwoven with all this realism without marring the play" (Autobiography 338). Cather's quite similar views of realism, in their best-known expression, match Jefferson's in more than substance; beginning by saying "the property man" has been busy on the novel's pages, and ending by wishing for a room "as bare as the stage of a Greek theater," "The Novel Démeublé" takes its operating analogies from the stage (43, 51). As an inveterate theatergoer and professional reviewer, Cather judged the "gentle," evenly tempered, poetically romantic Jefferson "one of the noblest geniuses of our time" and his Rip "a character perhaps the greatest which the American stage has yet produced" ("An Open Letter" 684-85). Although Cather made these strong pronouncements some twenty years before composing My Ántonia, they strengthen the invitation to consider Jim in terms of Rip Van Winkle.
The way Cather structures book 5 of My Ántonia as a kind of coda, that is, part of the story yet not part of it, suggests reading its allusions as modernist nuance, there and not there, like Carroll's Cheshire cat. Jim's return forms a proportionately small part of the novel; "return" sections consume fully half of the Odyssey and Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," and two of five acts in Jefferson's play, but just one of five books—only about a tenth of the pages—of My Ántonia. The hero's return is integral to the story of the Odyssey and "Rip Van Winkle"; My Ántonia, because not dependent on plot in the ordinary sense, would make sense without book 5. Cather thus limits the iconography of Jim's return yet at the same time heightens awareness of its exceptional features.
The simplest way to follow the allusive invitations is to compare Jim, Odysseus, and Rip in terms of key elements. Disguise, for instance: Odysseus is consciously disguised; Rip does not realize he is; and Jim Burden is somewhere in between, in the modern condition of not being sure if he is disguised or not. Similarly, Jim's reasons for returning accentuate his modernity. Whereas Odysseus is driven by gods to reclaim what is his, and Rip has no reality outside his village, Jim has simply made a youthful promise he chooses to honor. The promise itself has no urgency. When Jim claims he will return someday, Ántonia responds "perhaps you will," adding, without irony, that it won't make much difference if he doesn't (314). Cather so undramatizes the promise that the reader learns about it only three paragraphs before he actually keeps it. By making Jim's return strictly a matter of choice, however grudgingly made, Cather also confers on it a kind of heroic quality. Irresolute about returning, Jim is often described as being "disillusioned," which, in one sense, he is, as he himself says: "In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones" (318). But the word "disillusioned" has negative connotations that do not fit Jim, who is not dispirited. He has straightforwardly stated the condition of the man returning, who would be of considerably less interest if he were illusion-ridden and unchanged. As Homer has Odysseus describe himself in book 15, he is "a man who's weathered many blows and wandered many miles" (332), and as Cather has Jim say, it takes some "courage" to return and risk losing cherished values (321). Jim arrives at the Cuzak farm "a little past midday" (319), a classic time for seeing clearly, without shadows or illusions, as in one of Jim's favorite boyhood books, Robinson Crusoe, when Crusoe finds the single footprint on the beach one day "about Noon." In spite of noon's clarity, Jim is unsure which farm is Ántonia's, an uncertainty paralleling Odysseus's confusion about his whereabouts when he awakes on Ithaca, and Rip's confusion about everything.
By placing a dead dog in the path of her returner, Cather participates in what has been, since Argus's happy death, a minor literary game, with players including Pope, Fielding, Byron, Joyce, and of course Irving. The suddenness of Jim's encounter with two boys "bending over a dead dog" (319) matches that of Odysseus's encounter with Argus in book 17, although in the Odyssey there has been some subtle preparation (Rose 215-30). Homer's dog is spectacularly loyal, representing a "natural" reaction superior to that of the humans who endanger the returned Odysseus. In Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," the dog, a seeming clone of Rip's Wolf, growls at him, a sign of the more Hobbesian world since the Yankee accession. In Jefferson's play, the dog, Schneider, is often addressed but, thanks to Jefferson's theatrical savvy, never actually appears onstage; when Rip returns, he brings up Schneider three times, saying, with characteristically jocular misogyny, "You call the dog Schneider. He'll know me better than my wife" (313).
Cather's dog is neither iconic nor burdened with meanings or even description, an approach emphasizing the reactions of characters and the dog's allusive function. Jim, who apparently had no dog when a child on his grandparents' farm, mentions no color, breed, size, age, condition, or name—just "dead dog." He notes the boys' concern—"this was evidently a sad afternoon for them" (319)—but does not bring up the dog when he speaks to them. He exhibits no sentimentality and indulges in no judgment, an adult approach mirroring that of Ántonia and her family. After listening to Jan's story, Ántonia tempers his sadness by suggesting a special burial space, a good example of Cather's insight into children and her scrupulous attention to detail in "Cuzak's Boys." She provides no name but takes care of the body, whereas when Homer's Argus dies he is never mentioned again.
By making the return of Jim more focused on "the woman" than is the return of Rip Van Winkle, who dreads seeing his wife, or even that of Odysseus, who seeks both wife and throne, Cather distinguishes the modernity of Jim's heroism: his return is voluntary, even gratuitous. As the maker of his return's meaning, he dreads the destructive potential of mutability: "I did not want to find her aged and broken; I really dreaded it" (318). When Odysseus first sees Penelope, Homer describes her radiance and the lustful thoughts of the suitors for seventy-six lines before mentioning that Odysseus "glowed with joy" (18:282), a joy having more to do with her cunning, and hence constancy, than her beauty. In a "faltering voice" Irving's Rip Van Winkle asks his daughter, before he has revealed who he is, about Dame Van Winkle. The narrator comments, upon Rip's hearing she is dead, "There was a drop of comfort at least in this intelligence" (39). Jefferson, in his stage directions, has Rip react "with mixed emotions" (305) when he hears she is still alive, then saying (to a sure laugh) "Poor Derrick!" about the man she has married. When he actually sees Gretchen, he reacts to her aged appearance with another laugh line: "My, my! Is that my wife?" (308).
In contrast to Homer's epic tensions, Cather makes Jim's first sight of Ántonia "one of those quiet moments that clutch the heart, and take more courage than the noisy, excited passages in life" (321). Jim describes Ántonia as "battered but not diminished" (321). Instead of Irving's misogyny or Jefferson's conventional male levity about women's aging, Cather has Jim generalize beyond gender about the "shock" it always is "to meet people after long years" (321-22, my emphasis). "Battered" is a strong word Cather uses about people to capture something akin to the sublimity Romantics found in ruins, and of course Jim calls himself "battered" after Wick Cutter beats him (241). Cather shows that Ántonia has aged without being defined by that or losing her allure. Jim can present her as "battered," and show her often-prosaic ideas and conventional values, confident that her vitality will dominate. It is important to stress that he says the most romantic, mythologizing things about Ántonia in this section of the novel—she "had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade," "she still had that something which fires the imagination," and "she was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races" (342)—when he describes himself, reminiscent of Odysseus sleeping in the swineherd's hut or Rip sleeping in the woods, lying in a haymow, thinking while he falls asleep. Ántonia becomes Penelope, that is, the icon, most fully in the returning man's dreams.
The details of the actual moment of encounter are enhanced by the allusive power of Jim as Odyssean in the most positive sense, the "no name" searcher of customs and manners. At Ántonia's door Jim is acutely aware of the kind of seemingly adventitious details—white cats among the yellow pumpkins, a girl dropping her dish towel, the "calm and self-possessed" nature of the girl who asks him to sit down—that keen-eyed Odysseus always notes in a new place. The actual moment of reunion happens so quickly that Jim is awkwardly halfway between standing and sitting—Odysseus for once at a loss. Consciously or not, when he sees Ántonia's eyes he thinks in Homeric fashion, contrasting hers to all the thousands of eyes he has seen since last seeing them (320-21). Ántonia speaks to him without recognition, just as Penelope does not recognize Odysseus or as Rip's village does not recognize him: "My husband's not at home, sir" (322).
Jim's "Have I changed so much?" response has fascinating precursors in Cather's fiction and in My Ántonia that show how she reworked this dramatic kind of scene so that Ántonia's plain conventionality—a man she does not recognize must be there for her husband, not her—and the absence of eros actually intensify the impact. Cather's fiction shows a steady movement away from eros and passion for her returners as well as a steady increase in the amount of time they have been gone. In "The Treasure of Far Island" (1902), after a ten-year absence, Douglas Burnham says, "Tell me, is this Margie?" (270); Margie later claims that her wait has been "longer than the waiting of Penelope," and at story's end "the two had become as gods" (282). In "The Bohemian Girl" (1912), after twelve years Nils Ericson asks Clara Vavrika, with whom he runs away, "Aren't you at all surprised to see me?" (16), and his mother, "Don't you know me?" (7), the very question asked in O Pioneers! (1913) after sixteen years by the returning Carl Linstrum to the woman he eventually marries: "Don't you know me, Alexandra?" (99). Cather builds to the power of the reuniting scene in My Ántonia with a motif of surprise entrances in doorways, Ántonia playfully asking "You ain't forget about me, Jim?" (150) when she comes to the Harlings, Lena asking Ántonia "Don't you know me?" (155) when she comes to Black Hawk, and then making the question a statement in Lincoln, "I expect you hardly know me, Jim" (257). Cather's careful preparation for Jim's more-than-rhetorical "Have I changed so much?" emphasizes the extent to which personal identity, rather than eros or family or any other consideration, is at stake.
Like Homer, Cather shows the male returner rediscovering the unpredictable intensity of the woman. The joy of Ántonia's first response—expressed, significantly, to her daughters rather than to Jim—suddenly turns to alarm just as she catches Jim's hands: "What's happened? Is anybody dead?" This response is not in Jim's vision of the event any more than Odysseus's getting tricked by Penelope is, or Rip's not knowing the date. It is one of those small, never-cited details of My Ántonia—five words—that strikingly captures Ántonia's emotional, histrionic, even morbid imagination, just as Jim's short response reveals so much about their relationship; after patting her arm, he says, "No. I didn't come to a funeral this time" (322). This time: Jim has come back at least once before, for a funeral; while critics of Jim might point out that he did not seek to meet Ántonia then, it is perhaps more to the point that she apparently did not attend the funeral, presumably for one or both of his grandparents. The connection between Jim and Ántonia is marked by a kind of shorthand to which they have returned with ease: neutral, quick communication, above suspicions or blaming, right back to where they were the last time they were together, when Jim "felt rather than saw her smile" while she commented on his promise to return (314).
Cather uses the limited physical contact between Jim and Ántonia at the moment of reunion to epitomize their lifelong physical relationship, which she places between the extremes of Odysseus's eros and Rip's sexual loathing. Ántonia's reaching for Jim's hands rather than embracing him, feeling alarm at the moment of contact ("She had no sooner caught my hands than she looked alarmed" ), and ending contact entirely when she is most passionate all suggest exactly what Ántonia's indignant drawing of her face away from Jim when he kissed her more than two decades before suggests: that Ántonia is at least as much responsible for their nonsexual relationship as Jim. The critical focus on Jim's sexuality, as if that were all that mattered, discounts Ántonia's sexuality and identity. His nonsexualized approach to her contrasts with the Odyssean double standard and the anti-sexual angst of Rip Van Winkle, who in Irving's story is glad to hear his wife has died and in Jefferson's play is relieved she is married to someone else. For Rip, sex equals danger because women are allied with chthonic forces of fury. By contrasting Jim with Odysseus and Rip, and by going as far as describing Jim's teenage erotic dreams, Cather emphasizes that people cannot choose the objects of their sexual desire. Although Jim wants her to, Ántonia does not appeal to him sexually; Lena is the temptress of his dreams. For Cather, sexual attraction arises as randomly and uncontrollably as it does in Ovid, no matter whom one might care for or love.
A reader of critical discussions of My Ántonia could easily get the impression that it ends with a combination of Jim's hayloft mythologizing and its final paragraph. In between those, however, the chapters on Cuzak and Black Hawk, through allusions to the Odyssey and "Rip Van Winkle," intensify the novel's cultural critique of America at the time of World War I. Cather, like Homer, Irving, and Jefferson, implies a future by including depictions of the generation to follow the returner. The second chapter of "Cuzak's Boys" first contrasts and then links Jim and Cuzak. Jim, who is smoking in the orchard when Cuzak and his son arrive, notes that "Ántonia came running down from the house and hugged the two men as if they had been away for months" (345), a contrast to his own return after twenty years so obvious in its histrionic excess that he makes no comment. Unlike Cuzak, Jim has no desire to be the "the corrective" to Ántonia's "impulse" (347). Jim senses immediately that Cuzak reads him accurately—"his lively, quizzical eyes told me that he knew all about me" (345). Neither of them belongs on a farm. In My Ántonia Cather does not make settled agriculture the norm for humans any more than Homer or Irving does. Sharing chores with Ántonia's boys, Jim begins "to feel the loneliness of the farm-boy at evening, when the chores seem everlastingly the same, and the world so far away" (336). Jim and Cuzak are fellow Odyssean wanderers, restless, urban, inclined to play, and fundamentally different from the younger generation, represented by Ántonia's children.
The Odyssey's focus on Telemachus suggests that the generation following Odysseus will be strong, though not heroic on the Odyssean scale, and perhaps a little short on initiative. Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" offers a shiftless namesake of Rip but some hope for a curiously matriarchal future thanks to a responsible daughter; Rip will live with a daughter in both Irving's and Jefferson's versions. In My Ántonia childless Jim Burden is impressed with the children. Although Jim gives a delicate, perceptive picture of Ántonia's daughters, particularly the "calm and self-possessed" (321) Anna, who in effect runs this family event and appears to be indispensable, his emphasis is on Cuzak's boys. In a frank, physical way, Jim admires these boys possibly more than readers do; dutiful and positive, like Telemachus and Rip's daughter, they seem at best echoes of others, even as they have been named after others, though not, curiously, after Jim. When Ántonia lists who is named after whom, she does not seem self-conscious about the absence of a Jim; perhaps it is a kind of honor. Regardless, the future, as in Tennyson's "Ulysses," is in good but dull hands, a generational extension of what Jim earlier noted about the younger brothers and sisters of the "hired girls," who, despite such sacrifices and "advantages," "never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated" as their less privileged siblings (192). In her 1923 Nation article "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle," Cather contrasts the generation from which she drew Ántonia, "rugged figures in the background which inspire respect, compel admiration" to their children, who focus mainly on consumption and "material comfort." Cather in effect explodes the fallacy of liberalism that history is progress (236-38).
Comparing Jim with Odysseus and Rip underscores how positive Cather makes him about his own future. Odysseus will travel again, probably without the earnestness of Victorian bravado in Tennyson's "Ulysses," but definitely away from home. Rip, on the other hand, will stay at home, finding what he can that is unchanging, turning away from the modern Yankee world toward the romantic ideal of village life, living as a kind of a superannuated child, supported by responsible members of the younger generation. Jim, having "the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man's experience is" (360), shows no desire to stay in this particular place, because it is the self, not a place, he has come home to. His future includes traveling for his job as well as "playing" with Cuzak's boys. He focuses on the sons both because his society allows few ways for him to play with young women and because the sons, trapped as they are by farming, will apparently need "play" more than the daughters. Jim will function as a liberator who knows the value of playing—that is, expansive human behavior wholly unconnected to work or gain—in an increasingly materialistic culture. When he is done with the sons, he has Cuzak, who, like himself (not to mention Rip Van Winkle), acts "as if he had just wakened up" (356), and whom he knows already understands the value, even the necessity, of play and nondirected wandering, at least for himself. Critics who claim that Jim rejects the present to "retreat into a second childhood" (Tellefsen 241) denigrate childhood, a rich time of playing, as well as Jim and the novel. Jim and Cuzak, adults from the generation who witnessed the age's heroic but now vanished transforming of nature, do not long for the past. They live very much in the present, Cuzak expanding the farm and Jim passionate about new ideas and schemes. They do not reject the present so much as delimit it and not overvalue it.
Cather's allusions to "Rip Van Winkle" are most obvious in the chapter ending My Ántonia, a Black Hawk visit Jim finds "disappointing." He sees "strange children," notices trees cut down, and experiences the very emblem of Rip's village day by sitting "under a shady cottonwood tree in the yard behind his saloon" with Jelinek (357). Unlike Rip's Nicholas Vedder, Jelinek has survived and also managed to keep his tree, whereas in Rip's changed village, "instead of the great tree that used to shelter the quiet little Dutch inn of ore, there now was reared a tall naked pole" for the cultural symbol of the American flag (37). Jelinek's saloon—which even the "church people" admitted was "as respectable as a saloon can be" (210)—is not a typical American place, any more than Vedder's was, and with the mounting pressure of the WCTU at the time of Jim's narrative, it is not marked for survival. As in "Rip Van Winkle," transplanted European culture in My Ántonia is shown losing, chillingly, to a particularly narrow American culture.
The vestigial culture of Jelinek's notwithstanding, Jim has no desire to remain in Black Hawk. In the afternoon, escaping "the curious depression that hangs over little towns," he finds last traces of the native prairie and has "the good luck to stumble upon" other vestigial remains, "a bit of the first road that went from Black Hawk out to the north country" (358-59)—a narrative development that cannot help but raise the question, What has changed? In the Odyssey, Odysseus is back where he was, pursuing the heroic life on domestic terms, with humans still caught between the gods and nature. Homer seems to ask if the Trojan War accomplished anything for the Greeks besides a temporary reestablishment of the past. In "Rip Van Winkle," on the other hand, "the very character of the people had changed," from the archetypal "village" of "phlegm and drowsy tranquility" to the Yankee world, "busy, bustling, disputatious" (37). Irving in effect asks if America has lost the traditional world of villages nestled within the rhythms of nature.
My Ántonia's focus is on a very narrow part of America's epic history, not the ancient life of the Native Americans, only hinted at in town names and legends, or the "heroic" phases of exploration or of moving the indigenous peoples via warfare, but the first real settlers, opportunists who established what now might be called "infrastructure." It is fascinating that Cather always associated Joseph Jefferson, who spent his entire career playing a man who slept into another era, with the same transition period in America that My Ántonia portrays. In praising Jefferson's autobiography as "one of the most engaging and least pretentious works in the literature of the drama," for instance, she recalls his "early wanderings" on the Great Lakes, when its shores "were dotted with Indian villages," across the newly settled Illinois prairie, and then into Mexico behind the army, saying the new generation of actors, bounded by "between Broadway and Fifty-first Street," simply cannot have as rich an experience or imagination ("Open Letter" 683). In Cather's version of romanticism, different qualities flourish in different eras, just as distinct cultures invariably nurture some qualities while suppressing others. The vast creation of prairie infrastructure tantalized the imagination with possibilities for the new culture. Although the hope in My Ántonia is clearly for the new culture to be more European than Yankee, that is, one where more human qualities flourish, part of the novel's elegiac tone comes from the recognition that Yankee culture, with its Black Hawk repressions, has won.
Jim's question "Have I changed so much?" has another dimension not fully clear until Cather's last novel, whose epilogue, read intertextually as describing source material for "Cuzak's Boys," suggests viewing Jim's return from the children's perspective. Sapphira, like My Mortal Enemy, features a woman returning after twenty-five years for a reunion witnessed by girls disappointed with the returners' resemblance to the much-told stories of their exciting exits. While it is commonly asserted that with her last novel Cather returned for the first time since her literary apprenticeship to the Virginia material of her childhood, Sapphira's epilogue, in which Cather herself appears as a child, strikingly parallels the reunion scene in My Ántonia: a changed world, a "classy" forty-something returner, kitchen settings, reunited pairs talking extensively while being overheard by children, and the returner not matching the stories the children knew so well. The children in both novels thus see a "character" with a process of comparison/contrast not unlike the intertextual experience of readers matching Jim, Odysseus, and Rip Van Winkle.
It takes several pages in Sapphira for child Cather to stop being a critic of the returner who did not match "the picture I had carried in my mind." In My Ántonia Jim realizes that Ántonia's children believe people from her childhood to be "remarkable" (339); thus it is hard for the children and Ántonia herself to imagine them outside that mythic time. Ántonia includes Jim in the term "you children," followed immediately by "these children"; while in the context understandable, it is still an astonishing thing to say to an adult. In the family mythology, Jim is ever a boy, which gives a subtle ironic impact to Ántonia's telling him "I can't believe it's you" (324). When, by asking how many children he has, she does try to consider him as an adult, she ends up getting "embarrassed" (325). With such expectations, no wonder neither Ántonia nor the children—with the fascinating possible exception of Leo—immediately recognize Jim. As a family icon, he has changed "so much."
Leo is the child most keenly aware of how much Jim has changed from the family myths. In this regard and others, Leo strongly resembles child Cather as characterized in Sapphira. They are ur-artists and critics, iconoclastic, irrepressible and emotionally autonomous. To the extent that we can also link Leo and Blind d'Arnault, whom he physically resembles, we can, a little, deracialize the portrayal of the black pianist: he and Leo, and implicitly child Cather, heroically exude urges and qualities the prevailing culture cannot succeed in suppressing, a lesson child Cather learns in reverse by studying Nancy, who has clearly flourished by leaving Virginia. So too, the demythologized Jim Burden suggests possibilities available only beyond Nebraska.
Despite giving children special insight in both My Ántonia and Sapphira, Cather does not privilege the child's point of view. The Wick Cutter story, for instance, delights Ántonia's children—"Hurrah! The murder!" (349)—in the same way the Pavel and Peter wolf story thrilled Ántonia and Jim, but Wick's plan to rape Ántonia is not among the children's stories. One of the most daring treatments of rape in American literature, not least because of Jim's reaction of disgust toward Ántonia and sex, it can be misunderstood because of the fallacy of the false present so frequent in commentary on Jim Burden. The fallacy of the false present involves ignoring the true "present" of the narrative at any given point, in which Jim writes and reflects on long past incidents, in favor of the actual time of the incidents. Many of the most negative responses to Jim build a case on his quite normal childhood behavior, such as his complaining that Ántonia sometimes takes a superior tone with him or his asking Ántonia "What did you jabber Bohunk for?" (44) after the close call with the snake. Ignoring the true narrative present can keep readers from viewing Jim the way Cather made him, as a man writing a document, not merely as a boy or an icon of family myth.
Has Jim Burden changed so much? He has aged, of course, and the world has changed, for the heroic cultural potential he and Ántonia experienced as children has been lost. Yet he has learned that the things lost are part of his very identity; they are present to him the way the connections with the Odyssey and "Rip Van Winkle" are present to readers of "Cuzak's Boys." Thanks to his reunion with Ántonia he has come "home" to himself, that is, to the old unrest he shares with Odysseus, to the need for play he shares with Rip, and to the child in himself. In that sense he is very much like the little girl in Sapphira and the Slave Girl who watched Nancy's return and then reimagined the experience in My Ántonia from the simultaneous perspective of adult returner and child witness. Cather's intertextual dexterity transforms being two things at once from modern indeterminacy to art.