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From Cather Studies Volume 11

Ántonia and Hiawatha: Spectacles of the Nation

In an 1882 photograph taken in Washington dc, Willa Cather, aged about nine, wears a cross on a cotton lace dress and grips a bow and arrow fully her own height (fig. 3.1). She is outfitted for a recitation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (1855). At the ripe moment in her performance, Cather reportedly “would drop on one knee and shoot her arrow into the imaginary forest,” in step with Longfellow’s verse: “Then, upon one knee uprising / Hiawatha aimed an arrow” (161). * Having committed the lines to memory, she embodied them in pose and picture.

This pictorial vignette supplies a useful allegory for the argument I will pursue here regarding Longfellow’s far-reaching impact on Cather, where the arrow is Hiawatha’s influence—or more broadly, that of the “white man’s Indian” the poem exemplifies—and the forest is Cather’s creative domain through which that arrow flew and, years later, hit its mark. It struck the heart, I will argue, of My Ántonia (1918), embedding itself in the image of the abandoned plow as “a picture writing on the sun” (237) in book 2, chapter 14, which—given Cather’s familiarity with the poem and the singular allusiveness of her fiction—almost certainly alludes to Hiawatha’s chapter 14, an account of Indian language titled “Picture-Writing.” Far more than a nostalgic reference, this allusion underscores the persisting influence of Longfellow’s poem in the early twentieth century, when a “Hiawatha revival” captivated the American imagination. In the years since Cather’s childhood recitation, the figure of Hiawatha had evolved in American culture to hypostatize a cluster of problems—immigration, citizenship, language, memory—that also inform My Ántonia. Central to Cather’s novel is a phenomenon that was dramatized in contemporaneous Hiawatha spectacles and conceived as a template for the Americanization of new citizens: the congealing of a literate American identity out of the air from which a pictographic, aboriginal identity is perpetually fading. Situated in this Hiawatha context, My Ántonia appears a more coherent novel—its imagery unexpectedly unified—and a stranger one, too.

Fig. 3.1. Willa Cather as a child, 1882. Philip L. and Helen Cather Southwick Collection. Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska–Lincoln Libraries.


Longfellow, to this day “the most popular American poet who ever lived” (Gioia 64), had a complex but steady hold on Cather’s imagination. As a young critic, she broke free of her childhood enthrallment by berating him: Longfellow “killed [Miles Standish] thoroughly,” she wrote in 1894,“along with English hexameter”; and in 1902 she listed him among those nineteenth-century Americans who perpetuated “the methods and sentiment of English poetry” rather than achieving an authentically American style.[2] Despite her cooling enthusiasm, Cather never stopped promoting Longfellow. Speaking at the centennial of the Longfellow-Hawthorne graduating class at Bowdoin College in 1925, she reported her frustration at not finding an edition of The Golden Legend at a Portland bookstore to send to her niece (she did, however, manage to send a postcard of Longfellow’s Portland home to her mother).[3] When, in 1942, Alexander Woollcott asked her to recommend American classics to include in an Armed Services Edition, Cather suggested that “lots of country boys . . . have a shy liking for some of Longfellow’s ballads” (Letters 613).

It is in her fiction, however, that Cather makes her most persuasive case for Longfellow’s enduring relevance. Several of her authentically modern American characters have absorbed Longfellow’s verse, as if a foundation in this most rhythmic of stylists has prepared them to step to a less conventional beat: visionary settler Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers! (1913) has read The Golden Legend and The Spanish Student on the Nebraska prairie (60); avantgarde artist Don Hedger in “Coming, Aphrodite!” was introduced to The Golden Legend, along with paints and crayons, by a western Pennsylvania priest (9). Repeatedly, Cather keys her Longfellow allusions to the experiences of characters schooled in his poetry. In The Song of the Lark (1915), Ray Kennedy refers to “the youth who bore” (137), in “Excelsior,” to coach Thea Kronborg about worldly striving. In One of Ours (1922), Mrs. Wheeler murmurs a stanza from Hiawatha ending “Ever deeper, deeper, deeper / Fell the snow o’er all the landscape”—her voice “quavering” as a blizzard rages beyond her window (137). Later in the same novel, an “old clergyman,” watching the Anchises embark with its payload of American soldiers, intones a stanza from “a poet who in his [the clergyman’s] time was still popular,” beginning “Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State,” from Longfellow’s “The Building of the Ship.” Like Mrs. Wheeler’s, the clergyman’s voice “quavered,” pulsating with longtreasured feeling suddenly stirred to life (363).

Such scenes document the afterlife of Longfellow’s phenomenal popularity in the nineteenth century, when his lines leaped to the tongue at both fireside and podium, the seemingly natural outpouring of popular sentiment. As Virginia Jackson has argued, this was poetry so artful that it seemed natural, so derivative that it became authentic, so loveable that it turned reading into a form of perception (474). In the modernist period, Cather’s reference to Longfellow is still spontaneous but slightly recherché, as when Godfrey St. Peter, in The Professor’s House (1925), reckons with mortality at midlife by recollecting Longfellow’s “The Grave”:

He remembered some lines of a translation from the Norse he used to read long ago in one of his mother’s few books, a little two-volume Ticknor and Fields edition of Longfellow, in blue and gold, that used to lie on the parlour table: For thee a house was built Ere thou wast born; For thee a mould was made Ere thou of woman camest. (272) [4]
Longfellow’s pliability to the quick of experience coexisted with, and depended on, his poetry’s physical repose in dusty volumes. This dialectic between the spirit and the letter of the text is especially pertinent to his most popular poem, Hiawatha, which presumes to reanimate a vanished aboriginal culture through a highly stylized form of English verse.

In Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880–1930, Alan Trachtenberg identifies Hiawatha as a central figure in the construction of turn-of-the-century American identity after actual Indian cultures had been desecrated and just as waves of European immigrants, like the Shimerdas of My Ántonia, were being incorporated into the national body. From its first appearance in 1855, Longfellow’s Hiawatha had inspired recitations and performances among fans, like Cather, transfixed by the poem’s trochaic tetrameter and charming imagery. Modeled on the mythical Ojibway culture-hero Manabozho and renamed, for euphony, Hiawatha, after the Mohawk founder of the Iroquois Confederacy, Longfellow’s ersatz Indian quickly became the white man’s familiar (Trachtenberg 52–55). Major artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Eakins, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens rendered Hiawatha in oils and marble. In the 1890s Hiawatha enthusiasm became an outright mania. Longfellow’s good Indian emerged “newly pictorialized” in the form of staged spectacles, lavishly illustrated editions (by Frederic Remington, among others), postcards, coloring books, silent films, and the Wanamaker’s “Vanishing Race” extravaganza. In the music world, Anglo-African composer Samuel ColeridgeTaylor adapted Hiawatha as a cantata trilogy (1898–1900), and Antonín Dvořák based the middle movements of his 1893 New World Symphony on episodes from the poem (Trachtenberg 86–89)—a case in point, prior to My Ántonia, of the Bohemian route to American fame running through Indian territory.

Central to this revival were the Hiawatha pageants known as “Indian Passion Plays”: outdoor performances, with song and dance, featuring actual Natives dramatizing Longfellow’s version of Ojibway tradition. Originating in the Great Lakes region, these spectacles were initially sponsored by the railroads to promote tourism in the ancestral Ojibway territories styled “Hiawatha’s Playground.” The pageants spread across the continent and even reached London and Amsterdam, staged by both traveling and local companies. They involved Natives of many tribes, frequently combining Indian languages with Longfellow’s original English text. (The young Ernest Hemingway, himself a reciter of Hiawatha, got to know the Ojibway performers in Petoskey, Michigan, incorporating his experiences in such early stories as “Indian Camp” and “Three-Day Blow.”) L. O. Armstrong, a land agent for the Canadian Pacific Railway and one of the first pageant producers, trained Indians in their own forgotten customs, reconstructed by Longfellow’s poem and clarified by ethnographic images. As Natives performed the “recovery” of their ancestral selves for the entertainment of white audiences, they possibly discovered, as Michael D. McNally has argued, “stealthy media for Indian agency between the lines of Longfellow’s script.” When Indians were unavailable, or not preferred, Boy Scouts and adult fraternal orders filled their places in what proved a flexible and evolving form of Indian minstrelsy (Trachtenberg 52, 91–97; McNally 107–8, 118). A sampling of Hiawatha activity in New York City in 1913 includes filmmaker F. E. Moore’s “Indian Passion Play,” “Acted by an Able Company of Indian Players” at the outdoor Woodland Theatre, and a student performance of Hiawatha that drew four thousand spectators to Hudson Park in Greenwich Village, a short walk from Cather’s apartment at 5 Bank Street (“Indian Passion Play”; “Pack Hudson Park”).

This Hiawatha overdrive flourished when it did, Trachtenberg argues, as a kind of ritual sacrifice of Indian cultures to American national identity. As decimated Indian populations (no longer “nations” but wards of the state) were consigned to shrinking reservations and Indian youths were “civilized” in schools, Hiawatha reemerged to fortify the American nation with the aboriginal presence it had grossly violated. Longfellow’s poem, beginning with the tribe’s laying down arms and ending with Hiawatha’s yielding to the Black Robes, purveyed a reassuring image of the Indian as both compliant to Manifest Destiny and yet available “as fiber for the nation’s morale and iconography for its self-representation” (13). Once viewed as “alien savages,” Indians came to be embraced “as the true, the natural, the ‘first Americans,’ icons of the nation and its territory” (10),“forefathers and -mothers of us all” (xxiii) at a time of disorienting expansion and immigration. New waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe—Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish rather than the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant stock of earlier arrivals—fueled a latent, if uneasy “dream of an Indian mediation of nationality” (13), even as some of these aliens appeared, as Henry James put it, “inconceivable” (qtd. in Trachtenberg 101). Longfellow’s poem raised the hope of assimilating immigrants by way of a common American ancestor packaged in a veneer of authenticity. Translations of Hiawatha appeared in “virtually all the world’s languages” (Trachtenberg 52), including Latin, Hebrew, Yiddish, Czech, and Ojibway itself. In Cather’s early story “A Son of the Celestial” (1893), the limited English reading of Chinese immigrant Yung Le Ho includes the Bible and The Song of Hiawatha, which he supposedly admires for an “artificialness” that “appealed to his natural instinct.” The artificiality of Hiawatha’s character, a “tableau vivant figure”“already prepared for appropriation as theatrical spectacle,” was essential to his cultural function, Trachtenberg argues (58). By presenting authenticity as compatible with serial performance, early-twentieth-century Hiawatha pageants showcased American identity as performed and constructed, rather than inborn or naturalized (xxii). As universal ancestor, Hiawatha had to be recalled repeatedly from the verge of destruction and rendered “a shade fated always to vanish again, always to come again and reperform the act of vanishing” (60). In fading, Hiawatha drew closer.

Fig. 3.2. Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), Hiawatha, 1871–72. Carving. Marble. Figure: 60 x 34½ x 37¼ in. (152.4 x 87.6 x 94.6 cm) Base (Granite base) 23 in. Other (Plinth with inscription) 5¾ in. (14.6 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Diane, Daniel, and Mathew Wolf, in memory of Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, 2001 (2001.641). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of Art Resource NY.

Several critics have interpreted My Ántonia, or at least its narrator, Jim Burden, as complicit in the removal of Indians, whether in its meager reference to Native peoples on the Nebraska frontier or in symbolism that appears to condone their elimination. Mike Fischer, for example, subjects the novel to an unflinching reckoning with the historical facts that fall beyond its ideological purview: Coronado’s depredations in the 1500s, U.S. military campaigns against the Indians in the 1860s, and the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. In Michael Gorman’s reading, My Ántonia pitches frontier history as a springboard for America’s triumph in the Spanish-American War and its emergence as global power during World War I. My approach places the novel in a different historical frame: the cultural construction of Native Americans as mediators of national identity in the early twentieth century. From this perspective, the novel’s progressive representation of immigrant life, lauded by Fischer, is inextricable from the historical amnesia he justly criticizes. Its relative silence about Indians, I argue, is a precondition for their reemergence, on the model of Hiawatha, in more culturally assimilative forms: as the ghostly medium for the relation between the Anglo-American narrator and his Bohemian subject, and as a pretext for the novel’s elegiac tone, communing with a past that eludes the grasp of language.


Longfellow’s chapter 14, titled “Picture-Writing,” provides Cather a literary foreground for her own engagement with the dialectic between images and written words. Trachtenberg calls the “Picture-Writing” canto “the heart of the poem” (70), the centerpiece of what Angus Fletcher describes as Longfellow’s “implicit treatise on the nature of language” (qtd. in Trachtenberg 69). Longfellow derived his concept of picture-writing, and other Ojibway lore, from the writings of the nineteenth-century amateur ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, a geologist and Indian agent who married into an Ojibway family in Michigan. “Picture-writing was the earliest form of the notation of ideas adopted by mankind,” Schoolcraft observed.“There can be little question that it was practised in the primitive ages, and that it preceded all attempts both at hieroglyphic and alphabetic writing” (qtd. in Jackson 483). In Longfellow’s poem, Chief Hiawatha, while “Pondering, musing in the forest / On the welfare of his people” (the contemplative interlude depicted by Saint-Gaudens, fig. 3.2), invents picture-writing in response to a nagging sense of impermanence, ignorance, and isolation:

“Lo! how all things fade and perish! From the memory of the old men Pass away the great traditions, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . “On the grave-posts of our fathers Are no signs, no figures painted; Who are in those graves we know not, Only know they are our fathers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . “Face to face we speak together, But we cannot speak when absent, Cannot send our voices from us To the friends that dwell afar off; Cannot send a secret message, But the bearer learns our secret[”] (227–28)
In pursuit of permanence, memory, and confidentiality, Hiawatha invents a prototype of written communication: “Wonderful and mystic figures” he paints, “And each figure had a meaning, / Each some word or thought suggested” (228). Thus, “an egg, with points projecting / To the four winds of the heavens” represents the Great Spirit; a serpent suggests the Spirit of Evil; a white circle is Life; a darkened one, Death; and so on. Next, Hiawatha instructs the people to paint their household symbols on the village’s blank grave-posts, “Figures of the Bear and Reindeer, / Of the Turtle, Crane, and Beaver” but with “Each inverted as a token / That the owner was departed / . . . / Lay beneath in dust and ashes” (230). The communal marking of the graves is the catalyzing act that establishes picture-writing as the tribe’s archival medium. The prophets, magicians, and medicine men then fall into a frenzy of activity, recording each of their songs in a “separate symbol / Figures mystical and awful, / Figures strange and brightly colored” (230). They work as if their lives depended on it: their bright paint on bark and deerskin, a stay against oblivion. Longfellow gives special attention to a series of scarlet figures, male and female, representing the “LoveSong.” The last of these figures is “a heart . . . / . . . within a magic circle; / And the image had this meaning: / ‘Naked lies your heart before me, / To your naked heart I whisper’” (231–32). This image of the heart within a circle typifies the picture-writing medium itself, which is essentially a kind of “whispering,” the confidential communication from heart to common heart without recourse to alphabetical script.

Longfellow’s project, bolder than his hero’s, is to make American Indian culture as transparent as pictures—accessible to every heart—through the artifice of English verse. As Trachtenberg observes, Longfellow and Schoolcraft both subscribed to “the ‘romantic racism’ of the Herderian Volkgeist school” (65), viewing Indians as primitives whose supposed disappearance left behind autochthonic resources for American culture, what Schoolcraft calls “the germs of a future mythology” (qtd. in Trachtenberg 65). Herein lies the irony of Hiawatha, Trachtenberg argues: it is “a pretended translation that obliterates in order to preserve.” The poem “makes Hiawatha or ‘the Indian’ disappear in the act of seeming to give him voice; its own metrical and figurative system disarticulates aboriginal culture from its own systems of thought and speech by subsuming the aboriginal into the AngloSaxon nationality of the narrative verse form” (74). The deftness of Longfellow’s “illusion of translation of picture into word” (74) becomes apparent when his text is compared to his source in Schoolcraft’s ethnography, which clearly separates the images of Indian pictographs from their interpretations. In Longfellow, however, “Symbol and interpretation” (231) interlock seamlessly in the rhythmic drive of “a poetic text that seems to show and tell itself” (Jackson 492).

In his introduction to Hiawatha, Longfellow likens the reader’s experience of the poem to deciphering the faded inscription on a rustic tombstone. He appeals to those who, rambling in the countryside, sometimes

Pause by some neglected graveyard, For a while to muse and ponder On a half-effaced inscription, Written with little skill of song-craft, Homely phrases, but each letter Full of hope and yet of heart-break, Full of all the tender pathos, Of the Here and the Hereafter;—
“Stay and read this rude inscription,” he beckons,“Read this Song of Hiawatha!” (143). Thus is an alien pictographic culture transformed into the homely trace of a written culture—familiar to readers of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”—and Native Americans become, by implication, those readers’ own ancestors, remote but comprehensible.

Cather imitates Longfellow’s ventriloquism of Indian picture speech in a more critical and experimental key. Before discussing the novel’s central “picture writing” scene, I want to look at an earlier passage referring more explicitly to a kind of Indian pictography, a literary descendant of Hiawatha’s “magic circle.” Jim describes a trace of Indian activity, a “great circle,” on his grandparents’ own property:

Beyond the pond, on the slope that climbed to the cornfield, there was, faintly marked in the grass, a great circle where the Indians used to ride. Jake and Otto were sure that when they galloped round that ring the Indians tortured prisoners, bound to a stake in the center; but grandfather thought they merely ran races or trained horses there. (60)

Fig. 3.3. Currier & Ives, Hiawatha’s Departure, ca. 1868. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-04874.

Here I think Cather intends, at Jim’s expense, a rather fumbling reading of Indian culture, a succession of undigested stereotypes. Jake and Otto’s fixation on savagery is quickly dispelled by the moderating vision, offered by Jim’s grandfather, of good Indians sporting athletic and equestrian skills. Jim follows this up with a pleasingly exotic pattern: sprayed with snow, the circle stands out “with wonderful distinctness, like strokes of Chinese white on canvas. The old figure stirred me as it had never done before and seemed a good omen for the winter.” Jim’s color-coded landscape (red and white) hints at the white settlers’ uneasy conquest of Native territory. Although at first the “[b]ig white flakes” were “disappearing in the red grass,” the snow eventually overtakes and freezes the grass, revealing a white circle constituting “a good omen for the winter” (60). This good omen, false in view of the impending winter suicide of Mr. Shimerda, ironically exposes the white conquerors’ inability to read the landscape they have cleared of its recent Native occupants.

In Jim’s celebrated description of the plow as “a picture writing on the sun,” the exchange between American and aboriginal cultures becomes more fluid, dynamic, and expressionistic. Here the focus of interpretation is not a primitive inscription but a civilizing implement, the plow. Backlit by the sun, the plow swells to heroic proportions before fading out. It is a strange and mystical sight to Jim and the hired girls, who stand dumbfounded and agog before a “great black figure” that initially defies understanding: “We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light,” the plow “stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disc; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun” (237). The plow, illumined then snuffed out, is often understood to celebrate a multicultural pioneer age that was already being overrun by a materialistic, monolingual culture—“the end of a first cycle,” as Cather would lament in her 1923 Nation essay (“Nebraska”). Loaded with imagery borrowed from Virgil’s Georgics,[5] it is further associated with the work of writing, in the light of Gaston Cleric’s lecture in which the dying Virgil recalls “the perfect utterance of the Georgics, where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow” (256). However, suspended from its civilizing work and aligned with the sun, the plow reaches further back, glimpsing, in the uncanny twilight, the pictographic foundations of language. The figure of the plow forges a reverent, almost Gnostic community on the embers of its primal fire: “Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth” (237). Like Hiawatha’s “heart within a magic circle,” standing for the whisper passing from heart to heart, here the plow within the “circle of the disk” inspires whispering among a band of witnesses who, however baffled by the figure’s meaning, are bound together by their shared experience of it.

Cather’s plow scene recalls the concluding spectacle of historical transition in Longfellow’s poem, where Hiawatha, leaving his tribe in the hands of missionaries, rides a canoe into the setting sun (fig. 3.3). In Longfellow’s scene, as in Cather’s, a community confronts the future and communes with nature (here figuratively “like a prairie”) as it watches an icon of its culture recede on the horizon:

And the evening sun descending Set the clouds on fire with redness, Burned the broad sky, like a prairie, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Westward, westward Hiawatha Sailed into the fiery sunset, Sailed into the purple vapors, Sailed into the dusk of evening. And the people from the margin Watched him floating, rising, sinking, Till the birch canoe seemed lifted High into that sea of splendor, Till it sank into the vapors Like the new moon slowly, slowly Sinking in the purple distance. And they said, “Farewell forever!” Said, “Farewell, O Hiawatha!” And the forests, dark and lonely, Moved through all their depths of darkness, Sighed, “Farewell, O Hiawatha!” And the waves upon the margin Rising, rippling on the pebbles, Sobbed, “Farewell, O Hiawatha!” And the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah, From her haunts among the fen-lands, Screamed, “Farewell, O Hiawatha!” (278–79)
In this protracted slow fade—“floating, rising, sinking”—Hiawatha appears to cycle through multiple avatars as he sears himself into the consciousness of his spectators, an exemplum of the picturewriting he taught them. Paradoxically, his death as picture is his birth into the language that will preserve, in trochaic tetrameter, the final exposure of his pictorial image. As the heron bewails the disappearance of Hiawatha and the passing of tribal culture, the poem retains its Ojibway name in the Romanized form “Shuhshuh-gah,” another case of the preservation that obliterates. Echoing Longfellow’s heron, two birds in Cather’s scene strike notes of mourning just before the plow’s apotheosis: “In the ravine a ringdove mourned plaintively, and somewhere off in the bushes an owl hooted” (237). Cather sustains a similar interval of protracted, meditative, shape-shifting twilight, where the freezing of the image (“exactly contained within the circle of the disk”; “There it was . . .”) seems contingent on perpetual motion (“the ball dropped and dropped”). If Hiawatha is emblazoned in our minds at the point of yielding to Christianization and written language, Cather’s plow is pictorialized, “strengthened and simplified” (254), as it fades into a further stage of Americanization.

Cather’s picture-writing scene, like Longfellow’s, is the text’s mystic center, the key to its aesthetic and cultural project. Jim’s narrative continually visits sites where language is just emerging from but slipping back into its pictorial foundations. As Ántonia prods Jim to teach her English, “her eyes fairly blazing with things she could not say,” she learns linguistic signs by forming pictorial associations: “Blue sky,” “blue eyes” (25). Letters themselves seem fleeting. Before killing the giant rattlesnake in the prairiedog town, Jim sees it “lying in long loose waves, like the letter ‘W’” (43–44). A month before his suicide, when Mr. Shimerda kneels to pray at the Burdens’ Christmas tree, “[h]is long body formed a letter ‘S’” (84), as if, like the snake, he were offering himself up to written language in his last pictorial appearance. The aboriginal snake and weary immigrant, like Hiawatha, fade into the scrim of words. And yet Mr. Shimerda ultimately sheds the letter, revisiting Jim after his death with “[s]uch vivid pictures . . . that they might have been Mr. Shimerda’s memories, not yet faded out from the air in which they had haunted him” (98). Ántonia, too, although Jim associates her with “the old woodcuts of one’s first primer,” bypasses the primer’s alphabet and speaks to Jim in cryptography, “by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things” (342). When the letter tightens its grip on the picture, the picture returns to haunt the fringes of the letter, as when Jim’s “old dream about Lena coming across the harvest field in her short skirt. . . . floated . . . on the page” of the Georgics above “the mournful line: Optima dies . . . prima fugit” (262). Jim believes his teacher Cleric just missed becoming a great poet because “he squandered too much in the heat of personal communication”: he would “flash into the lamplight the very image that was in his brain” (252), rather than write it down. No surprise, then, that Cleric’s less scholarly protégé Jim falls back on his native visual vocabulary, “my own naked land and the figures scattered upon it” (254). Jim seizes on the word “figure”—which is Longfellow’s term for Hiawatha’s picturewriting—to describe, for example, the Indian circle in the grass, the plow against the sun, Ántonia herself, and Mr. Shimerda, “a figure moving on the edge of the upland, a gun over his shoulder” (39). The term “figure” loads these images with an explosive potential for meaning; at large in the landscape, they crave fulfillment.

It is telling that Cather’s next novel after My Ántonia, One of Ours (1922), portrays a typical Nebraskan of the rising generation, Claude Wheeler, whose prospects in life are truncated not only by the Great War but by his inability to think pictorially. As Cather explained in a 1921 interview, to portray Claude she had to “cut out all picture making because that boy does not see pictures.” She then added, “It was hard to cease to do the thing that I do best” (Bohlke 39), implicitly signaling a shift in One of Ours away from the pictorial orientation of My Ántonia.[6] In contrasting One of Ours with its predecessors, Susan J. Rosowski explains that “[f]or Cather ‘picture making’ involved an imaginative movement toward a revelatory experience in which one recognizes similarities among disparate parts and participates in the relationship between the finite and the infinite” (96). Trapped in a material world incommensurate with his romantic notions, then removed to a foreign battlefield, Claude never achieves an integrated vision, one in which the visible world lends meaning to action.[7] From this perspective, Jim’s image of the vanishing plow foreshadows not only the passing of the pioneer age, but a decline in the popular capacity to interpret such figures at all.


In Jim Burden’s memories, as in Longfellow’s Hiawatha, reality assumes its most iconic, pictorial form on the brink of disappearance or death. In his memories of people, these are the points at which their identities sink into the bosom of the nation. His narrative runs through a series of such apotheoses. The Burdens’ hired men Jake Marpole and Otto Fuchs are never more themselves than when preparing their final departure—laying carpets, building shelves, serving to the last—before boarding a train for the “wild West” and disappearing forever (139). Likewise, the characters of Russians Pavel and Peter are graphically exposed—but also domesticated and nationalized—just prior to the friends’ exit from the scene, Pavel in death, Peter in onward migration. The guilt-ridden Pavel makes a shocking deathbed confession to Mr. Shimerda of an atrocity committed in youth—tossing a bride and groom off a sledge to a pack of wolves in the Ukrainian winter—that precipitated his immigration with Peter to America. As he tells the story in his native Ukrainian, Pavel “kept pointing all around his bed, as if there were things there and he wanted Mr. Shimerda to see them” (52). These images—“black ground-shadows” of wolves consuming a wedding party in the snow (56)—pass seamlessly from Pavel’s Ukrainian to Mr. Shimerda’s Czech to Ántonia’s effortful English to Jim’s literary text, like a universal symbolism racing beneath language. As such, they become the property of Jim’s indigenous experience, “as if the wolves of the Ukraine had gathered that night long ago, and the wedding party been sacrificed, to give us a painful and peculiar pleasure. At night, before I went to sleep,” Jim reports, “I often found myself in a sledge drawn by three horses, dashing through a country that looked something like Nebraska and something like Virginia” (59). Even as actors in their remote Ukrainian tragedy, Pavel and Peter are already claimed by the nation of their asylum; they are already, as Jim exclaims, “our Pavel and Peter!” (54).

Mr. Shimerda establishes the novel’s paradigm for an immigrant’s pictorial absorption into the American landscape. The old man is never more himself than in the consideration with which he takes his own life—“fixy . . . to the last,” as Otto puts it (92). The suicide’s body, rejected by every graveyard, waits frozen in its morbid peculiarity—a scandal to the melting pot, an inconceivable alien. Nonetheless, Mr. Shimerda’s “intelligence,”“cultivation,” and “personal distinction” appeal to Jim’s youthful American consciousness (194), becoming the inspiration for his commencement address and, one senses, the lodestone of his imaginative life.

Jim’s personal devotion to Mr. Shimerda centers on the picturesque resting place of his remains at the southwest corner of the Shimerda property, a future intersection of roads which becomes for Jim “the spot most dear” in the whole country. Buried frozen in the dead of winter, Mr. Shimerda’s body undergoes a long thaw that confounds anyone’s accounting of his death, any “sentence” that would violate his dignity:

Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. . . . The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft gray rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence—the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper. (114–15)
Invoking, like Longfellow, the siste viator (stop, traveler) convention of the Graveyard Poets, Jim positions Mr. Shimerda as a universal American ancestor hallowing a crossroads. However, unlike Longfellow’s “half-effaced inscription” in the introduction to Hiawatha, and unlike the grave-posts on which Chief Hiawatha tells his people to paint their household symbols, Mr. Shimerda’s grave is blank, “unpainted.” Of such men, Hiawatha says, we “only know they are our fathers.” The cryptic blankness of Shimerda’s grave passes beneath the letter and the sentence, even beneath the picture; eliding the sleeper’s immigrant identity, it taps into the rhythms of the land itself. This landscape is perfectly poised between atavistic and progressive forces. The tall red grass and the “flowing” roads recall Jim’s early sense of “motion” in Nebraska—“as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping” (15)—and by extension, the era prior to the removal of Indians, an association clarified elsewhere by his reference to “buffalo and Indian times” (45). The roads running past the Shimerda grave, then, vibrate with this primordial disturbance even as they fulfill the surveyor’s plan and point toward the future.

The mystic chords of union are even more responsive in Jim Burden’s America than in Longfellow’s. What Shimerda’s grave asks of the passerby is not reading and interpretation, as in Longfellow’s “neglected graveyard,” but simply salutation,“wishing well to the sleeper.” The Shimerda grave thus contrasts pointedly with the ones Cather, in her 1923 Nation essay, reports seeing “[w]hen I stop at one of the graveyards in my own county,” graves with headstones reading: “‘Eric Erickson, born Bergen, Norway . . . died Nebraska,’ ‘Anton Pucelik, born Prague, Bohemia . . . died Nebraska.’” In its anonymous appeal, the Shimerda cross seems more likely to realize the hope Cather attaches to these inscribed graves: “that something went into the ground with those pioneers that will one day come out again[,] in elasticity of mind, in an honest attitude toward the realities of life, in certain qualities of feeling and imagination” (“Nebraska” 335–36). Disremembered by his Christian neighbors, Mr. Shimerda is embraced by a landscape astir with a prehistory reanimated as common language, as reservoir of popular feeling. It is for this reason that when Jim later witnesses Shimerda’s grandchildren bursting from Ántonia’s fruit cellar—“a veritable explosion of life out of the dark cave into the sunlight”—he beholds them as a kind of high democratic spectacle, “a sight any man might have come far to see” (328, 342).


By girding his account of American immigrant experience with Indian references, Jim is, as historians say, “playing” or “dreaming” Indian, that is, adopting reconstituted Native traditions to tap a precious and quickly evaporating source of the American spirit. Cather’s classic depictions of “Indian play” are set in the Southwest. In The Song of the Lark, Thea Kronborg imaginatively occupies the perceptions and physical experiences of the Ancient People while vacationing among their cliff ruins in Panther Canyon.[8] In The Professor’s House, Tom Outland, after breaking with his friend Roddy Blake, takes solace among the Anasazi ruins of Blue Mesa, where, he reports, “the feel of the narrow moccasin-worn trail in the flat rock made my feet glad, like a good taste in the mouth” (251). In My Ántonia, the Indian play is less physical; it is, rather, a habit of mind, a feature of the narrator’s intellectual machinery. In Jim’s text the word “Indian” appears almost as often to describe white characters as it does to refer to Indians themselves: Otto Fuchs (“skin . . . brown as an Indian’s” [6]), Mrs. Gardener (“something Indian-like in the rigid immobility of her face” [176–77]), the Widow Stevens (“brown as an Indian woman” [299]). Individual and group identities built around borrowed Indian iconography are, of course, a time-honored American tradition, from the original Indiancostumed Boston Tea Partiers to male fraternal orders like St. Tammany’s Society, the Improved Order of Red Men, and the Freemasons, all of which adopted ancient, oftentimes specifically Native American, rituals, costumes, and codes. As Philip Deloria notes, the practices of such fraternal groups served “to construct unique insider identities that proved valuable amid the dislocations of a society rapidly embracing modern capitalism” (47–48), the very disruptions Cather documents in My Ántonia, among other works. Given the affinity between Masonic and Indian rituals, Freemasonry attracted a noticeable membership among Native Americans themselves from the eighteenth century forward (Porter).

Cather’s introduction to My Ántonia expands these fraternal bonds when the female framing narrator and Jim identify the singularity of their prairie childhood as “a kind of freemasonry” (x) and fixate on the Bohemian girl Ántonia as the “central figure” binding them together (xi). In the narrative itself, Jim first hears about Ántonia from a friendly railroad conductor who “wore the rings and pins and badges of different fraternal orders to which he belonged”; “[e]ven his cuff-buttons were engraved with hieroglyphics, and he was more inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk.” Offering “advice in exchange for . . . confidence,” this decorated functionary implicitly invites Jim into his pictographic society by urging him to witness Ántonia’s “pretty brown eyes” (4). Although Jim sheepishly declines, he later remembers the conductor’s invitation when he meets Ántonia; and as an adult he effectively joins the man’s fraternity by joining the railroad as a lawyer. Cather’s references to fraternal orders suggest an expansion of communal bonds, where the hieroglyphic imagery associated with Indian play and already mediating bonds among American men reaches to incorporate Cather’s female framing narrator and the immigrant woman unifying Jim’s story. In turn, Ántonia “plays Indian” for Jim. A female, immigrant type of the spectacular Hiawatha, Ántonia becomes an aboriginal ancestor, “battered but not diminished” (321–22), “a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.” However, in contrast to the perpetually vanishing-and-returning Hiawatha, Ántonia leaves “images in the mind that did not fade—that grew stronger with time” (342). If Hiawatha is, as Trachtenberg argues, “a shade fated always to vanish again,” Ántonia is for Jim a body always in a state of appearing, forever coming into the light—“[a]ll the strong things of her heart [coming] out in her body” (342). As national spectacle, Hiawatha is the rising immigrant Ántonia’s doppelgänger, the vexing shade prefiguring, then yielding to, then haunting her successful American performance. Ántonia, Hiawatha: both names step to a trochaic beat, such that her name aspires to overwrite his in Longfellow’s text: “Thus it was that [Ántonia] / In [her] wisdom, taught the people / All the mysteries of painting, / All the art of Picture-Writing” (232).

Jim’s goal, however, is not to create an Indian-immigrant but to make a fellow American bound to him by the salutary power of the aboriginal. Readers have long understood Jim’s narrative as a form of midlife compensation for a man who is fundamentally lonely—childless, frustrated in marriage, wedded to his railroad job. His literary possession of Ántonia as My Ántonia reorients his New York life on an axis with a burgeoning immigrant family out west. But Jim’s adoption of Ántonia’s family partakes of his larger “personal passion” for “the great country through which his railway runs and branches” (xi), still astir with the genius of the Indians the railroads helped displace. Jim’s sensibility has always been attuned to spirit-presences: the ghosts of his parents, “something complete and great” in his grandmother’s garden (18), Mr. Shimerda’s spirit-memories, and the phantoms of his childhood—“a boy and girl [running] along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass” (314).

After elevating Ántonia to spectacular status, akin to Hiawatha, Jim sets her and himself against the background of a more primeval presence. This presence is palpable in the novel’s closing paragraphs, where Jim walks north of Black Hawk to “land . . . so rough that it had never been ploughed up, and the long red grass of early times still grew shaggy over the draws and hillocks” (358). Here, in the “slanting sunlight,” he finds a section of the original road he and Ántonia first took as children from the train depot to the high prairie. Jim replays the motif established in the picture-writing scene, where the traces of his own civilization assume an uncanny, aboriginal cast even as they fade from view. Although the tracks on level land are “almost disappeared,” in the hollows they look “like gashes torn by a grizzly’s claws,” as if registering forces typical of primal founding myths, for instance, Plains Indian legends about the origins of Bear Tepee (Devils Tower).[9] Against this backdrop, the Bohemian girl and the Virginia boy are united in memory as they had never been in life, their separate wagons and linguistic spaces somehow fusing into one: “This was the road over which Ántonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness.” This strangeness—a strangeness that obliterates, that literally unmakes language—is the abyss in which Jim’s relationship to Ántonia takes root, in which the “little circle” of their experience is secured (359–60). It is the aboriginal field through which Jim and Ántonia’s shared memories—their “incommunicable past” (360)—are televised between them, like pictures. It is where Jim Burden instinctively fulfills, through writing, the haunting prophecy attributed to Chief Sea’thl: that in a country wrested from its Native peoples, “The White Man will never be alone” (qtd. in Trachtenberg 30).


Research on this essay was funded by a grant from the National Science Council, Taiwan (nsc 99-2410-h-030-014-my3).

 1. See Bennett, photographic insert following page 222. (Go back.)
 2. Kingdom 384n59; World and Parish 2: 880. (Go back.)
 3. Bohlke 155; postcard to Mary Virginia (Jennie) Boak, 12 May 1925. (Go back.)
 4. Cather’s recollection of these lines (actually translated from AngloSaxon, not Norse) varies slightly from Longfellow’s text (Woodress and Ronning 383). (Go back.)
 5. John J. Murphy offers a detailed reading of the Georgics borrowings in the plow scene (81–82). (Go back.)
 6. W. T. Benda’s spare and suggestive black-and-white illustrations, which Cather carefully supervised (Stout 114–27), bear out My Ántonia’s fundamentally pictorial conception. (Go back.)
 7. See Rosowski’s chapter “One of Ours: An American Arthurian Legend” (95–113). (Go back.)
 8. See Clere’s illuminating historical study of “Indian play” in The Song of the Lark. (Go back.)
 9. See, for example, the account of the Cheyenne narrator Wooden Leg in A Warrior Who Fought Custer (52–54). (Go back.)


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