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From Cather Studies Volume 3

"Fire and Wit"

Storytelling and the American Artist in Cather's My Ántonia

At the end of her groundbreaking article "The Forgotten Reaping-Hook: Sex in My Ántonia," Blanche Gelfant exhorts readers of Cather's novel not to perpetuate the "violence and the destructive attitudes toward race and sex" Gelfant finds in Jim Burden's narrative (81). Gelfant writes: We must begin to look at My Ántonia, long considered a representatively American novel, not only for its beauty of art and for its affirmation of history, but also, and instructively, for its negations and evasions. Much as we would like to ignore them, for they bring painful confrontations, we must see what they would show us about ourselves-how we betray our past when we forget its most disquieting realities; how we begin to redeem it when we remember. (81-82)

Since the publication of Gelfant's article in 1971 much important work has been done to address the "disquieting realities" in My Ántonia. Following Gelfant's lead, Elizabeth Ammons has examined Cather's racist portrayal of Blind d'Arnault, and critics such as Judith Fetterley and Sharon O'Brien have discussed Cather's use of a male narrator as a disguise for her lesbianism. Yet another "negation and evasion" hides in Jim's narrative, one that, when acknowledged, actually supports the long-held view of My Ántonia as a "representatively American novel," but by redefining and expanding our vision of American culture. This "negation and evasion" begins with Jim's repression of Ántonia's role as an artist. Most recent critics agree that Jim's portrayal of Ántonia at the end of the novel is reductive-she has become a "mythic" figure, an "Earth Mother"- but they differ on whether Ántonia transcends this objectification.[1] Cather does, however, offer us a way to read against Jim's narrative to find an alternative view of both Ántonia and Jim himself. Throughout the novel, Ántonia enters Jim's narrative by telling her own stories, so that, if we listen for her voice, My Ántonia is as much the story of Ántonia's development as an artist as it is the story of Jim's vision of her. That is, the growing recognition of the oral tradition in literary studies allows us to reread the novel with a new emphasis on Ántonia as a storyteller.[2]

Although Cather often expressed her admiration of oral storytelling and other forms of folk or "low" art, her prevailing desire to position herself within the male-dominated and male-defined literary tradition prevented her from explicitly identifying Ántonia as an artist. Instead, through her references to Virgil, Cather emphasizes Jim's role as the storyteller who seeks to "bring the Muse into [his] country" (169). Still, once we view Ántonia as an artist rather than as Jim's muse, we find that she is only one of a group of nonprivileged creators in My Ántonia whose work provides an alternative to the tradition of Western high art. Traits that Cather elsewhere described as signifying the "true artist" characterize not only Ántonia but also Lena Lingard, Blind d'Arnault, and the actress in Camille. By highlighting these usually unnoticed artists in My Ántonia, we can begin to see new patterns and contrasts emerge from the jumble of impressions that Cather produces by including the stories and art of others. In sharp contrast to these unrecognized artists, who celebrate life and enliven others, we notice the suicidal men-Mr. Shimerda, a tramp, and Wick Cutter-whose efforts to control or ease the harshness and formlessness of life on the prairie result in self-destruction. Each of these men is associated in his own way with art as well as with the life-denying impulses of control or repression. Their violent efforts at control not only destroy their selves but suggest the deadness of art when it is full of sentimental platitudes or overwhelmed by despair.

This motif of destructive control that underlies the presence of death and lifeless art in My Ántonia exemplifies Jim's (and Cather's) conflicted relation to narrative itself. By allowing the entry of other voices and other artists, Cather produces what is now considered a "feminine" text. However, in the introduction she has Jim deny the artistic quality of his narrative because it lacks "form" (2), in other words, the single voice, the linear and climactic plot, and the stable objectification of "the other," which are valued in the Western literary tradition. In an interview, Cather likewise described My Ántonia as full of "structural fault[s]," but she acknowledged the necessity of her divergence from the conventional form of the novel. "I know [the structural faults] are there, and made them knowingly," she said, because "I knew I'd ruin my material if I put it in the usual fictional pattern" (Willa Cather in Person 79, 77). In fact, through the "formlessness" of My Ántonia, Cather allows for a vivid contrast between the vibrant art of the marginalized artist and the lifeless, ultimately life-draining art of the masculine dominant culture (epitomized in Jim Burden), which she ambivalently desired to join.

The conflict between Jim's and Ántonia's narrative visions emerges most clearly during his visit with her at the end of the novel. After a twenty-year separation, Jim writes, "I did not want to find [Ántonia] aged and broken; I really dreaded it. In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones" (211). During this visit, Jim replaces his early "illusions" about Ántonia with new ones, now seeing her as an asexual Earth Mother. But Ántonia manages to challenge Jim's narrative vision: she brings out old photographs that, as jean Schwind points out, allow us to see Jim for the first time (51). Tellingly, he appears as "an awkward-looking boy" and as a young man "trying to look easy and jaunty" (225). Clearly, Jim's self-consciousness and lack of ease and the effort he puts into achieving the appearance of being carefree and comfortable embody the critical vision Cather has of her male narrator. The revelation that Jim has been masquerading all along encourages us to question his reliability as a narrator of both his own and Ántonia's pasts.[3]

But Jim finds that Ántonia does not simply possess pictorial representations of him. More importantly, she has made him into a character in the stories she tells her children. As she tells him, "these children know all about you and Charley and Sally, like as if they'd grown up with you" (215-16). After years of thinking of Ántonia as his own property, an "ideal" that "really [is] a part of me" (206), and above all a text for him to write, Jim finds that she has produced her own narrative. Ántonia's stories even rival Jim's own by contradicting the view of himself that he strives to assert. Although her children know "all about" Jim (and this is stressed by her sons' repetition of "we know!" in response to his feeble effort to tell them about "his" Ántonia), they are nevertheless surprised when Jim says, "I was very much in love with your mother once." To this Anton replies, "She never told us that" (222). Ántonia has probably told quite a different story, for it is clear that she has always thought of Jim as a child, from their early "nesting" together (19) to her inclusion of the adult Jim with the Harling children when she says: "I declare, Jim, I loved you children almost as much as I love my own" (215).[4]

Indeed, Ántonia's stories seem to have included the boy who killed an aged and drowsy rattlesnake but to have omitted the portrait that evolves in Jim's account: the young man who boldly scorned bourgeois conventions by associating with hired girls,' The Cuzak children's familiarity with the story of his killing the snake revives Jim's uncomfortable awareness of the discrepancy between reality-the snake's age and his own fear-and Ántonia's exultation of his "manly" heroism. The children also realize that the story is a tall tale, for they tell Jim that Ántonia changes the snake's length from story to story (225). Although her story ostensibly emphasizes his "manliness," it actually portrays Jim's masculinity as a fiction. To Ántonia and her children, "Jim Burden" is still the "awkward-looking boy" whose picture elicits a giggle from Leo (225).

Feeling that Ántonia's narratives threaten his view of himself (as well as the authority of his narrative), Jim begins to distance himself from her in the final two chapters. Immediately after looking at the photographs and hearing the family legends about him, Jim refers to Ántonia only as the children's mother (226) and retires to bed with two of her sons. Although he has just left the presence of the real woman, he thinks of her as a work of art: "Ántonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade-that grew stronger with time. In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one's first primer" (226). After reducing her to a new, unchanging image that he can firmly stick into the photo album of his mind, Jim abandons Ántonia the woman as the center of his narrative's interest. After years of fluctuation in his opinion and approval of Ántonia and her behavior, Jim feels that she is finally controllable.[5] Once he turns his attention to her husband and sons, he sees Ántonia as a mother and housekeeper whose role as originator and accommodator of the family's life remains stable and safely behind the scenes. When he refers to her again in the novel's concluding paragraphs, "his" Ántonia is once again the little girl he knew when he was a child.

Jim's efforts to repress Ántonia's active role as an artist have been unwittingly perpetuated by critics who also overlook her artistry and see her only as the subject of Jim's art. Rather than thinking about the stories that seem to disrupt Jim's reminiscences as art produced by Ántonia and others,[6] most critics have seen them as embedded in the text merely to advance Cather's themes.[7] Although Jim enjoys Ántonia's stories, he thinks of them as "entertainment" for children (226), not as an art form. However, his description of her storytelling at the Harlings' house hints that it is something more important to Cather: "We all liked Tony's stories. Her voice had a peculiarly engaging quality; it was deep, a little husky, and one always heard the breath vibrating behind it. Everything she said seemed to come right out of her heart" (113). Instead of responding to Ántonia's stories as constructed narratives, Jim thinks only of her voice. In this way he deflects his-and the reader's-attention from her creativity and emphasizes her lack of any apparent artistic craft; her words "come right out of her heart," unshaped by the formal conventions of elite art.

However, Cather's presentation of Ántonia's storytelling allows for a more complex appreciation. Cather often links oral expression with art and artistic ability, and she values art that conveys and inspires unembellished emotion. In her earlier Song of the Lark, for example, the singer Thea Kronborg praises the voice specifically for being a "vessel" of "life itself":[8] "What was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself-life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose? The Indian women had held it in their jars.... In singing, one made a vessel of one's throat and nostrils and held it on one's breath, caught the stream in a scale of natural intervals" (304, emphasis added). According to Thea's definition, Ántonia's apparently artless stories are a lucid vessel for life and thus represent the purest form of art.

As Sharon O'Brien has argued, Cather's reviews of female opera singers present an alternative to the traditional association of "sword/penis/pen/male/artist" by suggesting a feminine version: "vessel/womb/throat/voice/woman/artist" (171). In the singer's voice, Cather finds a way for the female artist to link craftsmanship with the "natural power" of the female body (O'Brien 171); likewise, we can find in the storyteller's voice a linkage of the physical body with creative power. O'Brien argues that Cather also associates the talent of the female writer with her "voice," by which she implies not only literary style and tone but also "individuality, originality, and identity" (173-74). This is seen in Cather's preface to Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs, where she writes that "every great story . . must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure; a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique" (7). Cather uses voice to mean more than the tone and style of the writing by stressing its independence from the words on the page: this "quality of voice" is one that the reader "can remember without the volume at hand, can experience over and over again in the mind but can never absolutely define, as one can experience in memory a melody" (Preface 7). Or, we might add, as one remembers an oral tale.

In Jim's description of Ántonia's storytelling, Ántonia's voice both her physical voice and her artistic style and tone-is unique and striking, with its "peculiarly engaging quality" and its implied roots in her "life itself": her breath, her heart, her female body. But, interestingly, female identity is erased, for Jim describes Ántonia in masculine terms: her voice is "deep, a little husky," and he refers to her by her male nickname, Tony. This elision points, on the one hand, to Jim's sense of Ántonia's slippery gender identity: her rough manner, appearance, and work in the fields make her seem too much "like a man," which (perhaps because of insecurity about his own manhood) he finds disconcerting and "disagreeable" (81). Then again, Jim's movement away from Ántonia's femininity when she performs her art suggests Cather's own ambivalence about favorably portraying a nonprivileged art form performed by an uneducated woman. By emphasizing Ántonia's masculine traits, Cather could give her storytelling all the power of the traditionally masculine voice of authority, but at the expense of Ántonia's identity as a female artist.[9]

Ántonia's storytelling lies between singing as performance and writing as original composition. She belongs not to the Western literary tradition but to a tradition of oral literature, which values communal sharing rather than originality and solitary authorship. Cather displayed her high regard for storytelling and its influence on her own development as a writer when, in a Bread Loaf School lecture, she called the female storyteller of her Virginian childhood her "first teacher in narrative" (Bennett 208). Through Ántonia and others in My Ántonia, Cather tacitly celebrates the oral tradition of storytelling and allows other voices to enter and challenge her elite male narrator. But even though Ántonia's role as a storyteller emerges in bits and pieces, Cather never emphasizes it, and Jim always retreats from recognizing her as an artist; he wants Ántonia as a muse, not a rival. Ántonia's threat as a rival would be immense exactly because she creates stories under assumptions contrary to the tradition the adult Jim has been educated in (a tradition that, ironically, never seems to him to be as vital as his less sophisticated, "early friends" [168]). For Cather, emphasizing Ántonia's role as an artist would have been a bold act in 1918, for it would have aligned Cather with the folk culture of recent immigrants; also, if Cather had taken the perspective of an uneducated female storyteller, her novel would not have found a place within the elite, masculine American literary tradition being defined by contemporary male writers and professors.[10] Still, although Cather never explicitly calls Ántonia an artist within the text of My Ántonia, her descriptions of Ántonia's storytelling and vitality clearly conform to the definition of artist that she held both against and alongside the definitions of her time and culture.

Cather most explicitly identified Ántonia as an artist when she said of Anna Sadilek Pavelka, the model for Ántonia, that "she was one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and in her willingness to take pains" (Willa Cather in Person 44). Here Cather aligns the artistic personality with traits traditionally considered feminine -selflessness and sensitivity to the needs of othersand with the ability to enjoy life with enthusiasm. If in her early life Cather saw art as a masculine endeavor, she nevertheless began to attribute "feminine" qualities to the artist as early as the 1890s, in her college essays and reviews. In these essays, about writers from Shakespeare and Carlyle to "Ouida," as well as in her later comments about writers such as Jewett, Cather repeatedly describes the creativity of writers as involving a "gift of sympathy" (Kingdom 46, 422; Preface 7), which allows them to "actually [get] inside another person's skin" (Kingdom 449); an "exuberant passion" or "supreme love," which is more important to genius than "supreme intellect" or perfect form (Kingdom 434, 52); and a willingness to give themselves "absolutely to (their] material," to "[fade] away into the land and people of [their] heart, [and to die] of love only to be born again" (Preface 7). O'Brien argues that the traits Cather defines as necessary to the creative process can be seen as feminine because "even if the artist's social role was male and some aspects of creativity [were] metaphorically associated with paternity, the sympathy, identification, and receptive submission to inspiration Cather attributed to male writers in the 1890s and finally claimed for herself were considered feminine attributes by her society" (159-60).[11] Besides being traditionally feminine, these traits clearly correspond to the enthusiasm and selfless empathy that Cather praises in Anna Pavelka and develops in Ántonia.

Ántonia's development as a storyteller begins from the moment Jim teaches her English. She expresses her delight in language when she excitedly wrings English words from Jim and then offers him a silver ring, an exchange he finds "extravagant" because he does not realize the value words have for her (19). As soon as she is able to talk "about almost anything," Ántonia tells Jim her first stories about the badger-hunting dogs in Bohemia and Old Hata (27). just as many of her stories link her Bohemian past with the American prairie, Ántonia's English remains a hybrid of her mother tongue and her new language. In contrast to Lena, who gives a new spin to American "flat commonplaces," Ántonia always has "something impulsive and foreign in her speech" (180). Her lively and original English and the energy of her enthusiasm recall Edith Lewis's description of the storyteller to whom Cather listened as a child: "Her talk was full of fire and wit, rich in the native idiom" (II).

Ántonia's stories are spontaneous and candid in their details of Bohemian life or the actions of people on the prairie. Jim is able to undervalue her stories because they do not fulfill the Western definition of high art. He thinks of her oral tales as interesting diversions rather than as an art form involving craft and skill, talents the young Cather herself found lacking in female writers (O'Brien 159). Unlike Jim, Ántonia is not concerned with authorial authority. She usually tells stories without manipulating their meaning, presenting people's acts in all their gruesome detail and offering her own reaction, if at all, as only one way of thinking about the story. Her object is always to represent what Cather calls "life itself." She does not try to assign motivation to the characters in her stories or objectify them as reflections of her own psyche, as Jim does. When she tells the story of the tramp who kills himself, for example, Ántonia ends with a question rather than an interpretation: "What would anyone want to kill themselves in summer for?" (115). Thus she opens up the meaning of her story to her listeners; and the story's reverberation in Jim's memory clearly suggests the effectiveness of her method. Similarly, she does not judge Peter and Pavel when she translates their story, which Jim, out of morbid fascination, retells in his own words rather than relating it as Ántonia told it.[12] Time and again, her stories gain a new life in her listeners' minds, as when Nina Harling "interprets [Ántonia's stories about Christmas in Bohemia] fancifully, and . . . cherished a belief that Christ was born in Bohemia a short time before the Shimerdas left that country" (113).

Of course, in her stories Ántonia represents life as she remembers it, and she thus offers an alternative to Jim's narrative. The only story that she noticeably changes and interprets is that of Jim and the rattlesnake. Although she casts this story as a rite of manhood, Ántonia clearly still thinks of Jim as a child; for after he kills the snake, she tries to wipe his face with a handkerchief and "comfortingly" tells him that he is a "big mans" now (32). The story really serves as a rite of passage for Ántonia, as Jim perhaps realizes when he returns to the kitchen and finds her "standing in the middle of the floor, telling the story with a great deal of colour" (34). The killing of the snake launches Ántonia as an "epic" storyteller at the center of an audience's attention. By telling this story Ántonia actually displaces Jim as its rightful narrator, since according to the tradition of folk narratives, the narrator of a "hero story" based on real experience should be the "hero" himself (Dobos 177).[13] As the storyteller, Ántonia in effect becomes its hero, even though her role within the tale is that of a helpless female. Ántonia's position as both the teller of and a character within this story parallels the two views we can take of her in My Ántonia: as a storyteller in her own right and the object defined by Jim's narrative. Contrary to Western ideas of high art, Ántonia does not insist on solitary authorship, but allows others to tell "her" stories. She encourages her, eldest son to tell the story of Wick Cutter's suicide-murder, with only "occasional promptings" (231) And, of course, she offers no resistance to Jim when he sees (and writes about) her as "anything that a woman can be to a man" (206).

The communal aspect of Ántonia's storytelling- both her responsiveness to her audience and their response to her-also reflects Cather's attribution of traditionally feminine qualities to the artist. After hearing Ántonia's story about the tramp who commits suicide, Jim thinks about the similarities between her and Mrs. Harling, both of whom have "strong, independent natures" and more nurturing characteristics: "They loved children and animals and music, and rough play and digging in the earth. They liked to prepare rich, hearty food and to see people eat it; to make up soft white beds and to see youngsters asleep in them.... Deep down in each of them there was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over-delicate, but very invigorating. I never tried to define it, but I was distinctly conscious of it" (116). Instead of reflecting on Ántonia's highly disturbing tale, Jim takes refuge in more comforting thoughts, seeming to define a type of maternal nature while denying that he ever "tried to define it." However, if we read this passage in light of Cather's remarks about Anna Pavelka, it also describes the female artist. Here the sympathy, passion, and self-abandonment of the artist reappear. Most notably, Ántonia and Mrs. Harling enjoy watching others enjoy their domestic art. Because of their selflessness, Ántonia and Mrs. Harling are not bothered by the ephemeral nature of their work; instead, they work to provide pleasure for others. With their "relish of life," the two women make art from life rather than from memory and obsession, as Jim does, and without his concern about control.[14]

That Ántonia's art includes both her storytelling and her domesticity is supported by Cather's linkage, in a 1921 interview, of farmers' wives with creativity: "The farmer's wife who raises a large family and cooks for them and makes their clothes and keeps house . . . and thoroughly enjoys doing it all, and doing it well, contributes more to art than all the culture clubs" (Willa Cather in Person 47). Certainly, Ántonia's family life and farm express her creative vision. Her children behave so perfectly that they seem to have been raised in a utopia; she even seats them at the dinner table "according to a system" that allows the older children to care for the younger ones (223). Ántonia draws upon European culture and language as well as upon the lessons she has learned from American women to create this harmonious family life. But as her husband's controlled discontent and their triple-enclosed garden remind us, she has achieved this harmony through hard work, by constantly keeping the forces of nature or individual dissatisfaction at bay. Although the seemingly paradisaical setting leads Jim to read Ántonia as an Earth Mother, her enclave on the prairie is ambiguously limited by its removal from society, as Katrina Irving points out, at the same time that it is peaceful and fertile (101). Ántonia's increased removal from the English language and from town life reflects her marginalization both as an immigrant and as an artist who works in a nonprivileged form. However, her children greatly appreciate her stories and display artistic talent themselves: Rudolph as a storyteller, Leo as a violinist, and Nina as a dancer. Ántonia provides American society not only with badly needed workers, as Irving argues, but with new artists.


Although Cather does not explicitly identify Ántonia, the other homemakers, or Lena the dressmaker as artists within the text of My Ántonia, her portrayal of women who do creative work without recognition realistically depicts the position of nonprivileged artists in Western society. In a culture that sees art as work created and signed by one person, and crafted according to rules deemed aesthetic by a cultural elite, the oral tales of a hired girl, the dresses of a small-town dressmaker, or the cheerful kitchen of a farmer's wife would not be valued as creative work. Even Cather, who claimed to view storytelling and domesticity as art, nevertheless strove to fulfill the standards of Western high art in her own writing. Yet the structure of My Ántonia, which formerly puzzled critics, is unconventional precisely because of her inclusion of the voices and tales of other storytellers; its structure could even be said to imitate the shape of Ántonia's storytelling and to realistically reproduce the effect and influence of all forms of art-high and low-on one's life.

In an interview, Cather insisted that the structure of My Ántonia was necessary to her subject: "My Ántonia . . . is just 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" (Willa Cather in Person 77). Cather's attempt to be "true" to her material recalls the value she placed an representing "life itself." Although Jim says his manuscript describes "pretty much all that [Ántonia's] name recalls to me" (2), he includes many memories in which Ántonia is only marginally important or is actually replaced by another "hired girl," Lena Lingard. The focus of My Ántonia moves away from Ántonia time and again, often to alight on another nonprivileged artist. If we look at some of these other artists-Lena, Blind d'Arnault, and the actress in Camille-we can see that they share Ántonia's lack of egoism; their attitude toward their art likewise contrasts with the Western (and highly masculine) tradition of artistic control, authority, and distinction.

Although Cather provides us with some biographical evidence that she considered Ántonia's storytelling and domestic work as undervalued forms of art, her attitude toward Lena as a figure for the female artist is less clear. Yet Lena can be seen as an artist, despite Jim's obscuring descriptions of her dressmaking as merely a business. Her interest in dressmaking obviously is not centered on financial success, which she is inept at managing, but on her enjoyment of the work itself, for the creative expression it allows. She makes the female body-both her own and her customers'-into her canvas by showing it to its best "effect" (179). From her earliest days of poverty, Lena has used whatever resources were at hand, making old clothes "over for herself very becomingly" (108). When she makes dresses for others, she abdicates some artistic control by working in a medium that becomes part of the aesthetic effect of the woman who wears it.

Lena derives sensual enjoyment from her art; Jim often finds her "in the evening ... alone in her work-room, draping folds of satin on a wire figure, with a quite blissful expression" (179). This enjoyment is significant in light of Cather's own attitude toward feminine attire. As an adolescent, Cather called dresses and skirts "the greatest folly of the Nineteenth Century" (Bennett 113), but as an adult she began to appreciate dresses when they were worn by other women. While living with Isabelle McClung, O'Brien writes, Cather came to see why "the female dress she found confining and unacceptable in adolescence could be redefined and reimagined along with the female identity it symbolized" (237). Cather's mature interest in feminine dress, which she incorporates in Lena, thus combined her attraction to its effect and her effort to fashion her own image as a woman drawn to other women.

Yet, ironically, by celebrating a woman's appreciation of the female body, Lena's similarly female-focused art paradoxically attracts heterosexual males.[15] Like Ántonia, Lena does not assert artistic control by resisting men's efforts to "write" her into their own narratives. When she appears in Black Hawk, "a graceful picture in her blue cashmere dress and little blue hat" (103), she is the one making the picture, but Jim believes he is the one framing her. Lena is unthreatened by this appropriation of her sensuality; she recognizes that "it makes [men] feel important to think they're in love with somebody" (185). Jim responds to Lena's sensually self-confident and self-celebratory artistic power by idealizing her as his muse, just as he retreats from Ántonia's storytelling at the end of the novel by seeing her as a symbol of "immemorial human attitudes" (226).

Cather's linkage of the "true artist" with a "relish of life" and selflessness is not confined to her female characters. In the musicians Blind d'Arnault and Mr. and Mrs. Vanni we can see the same traits, for their music enlivens the stiffly conventional community of Black Hawk without being recognized as art. In a town where "the married people sat like images on their front porches," the Vannis' tent is an enabling space "where one could laugh aloud without being reproved by the ensuing silence" (125-26). The music of these "cheerful-looking Italians" (114) lowers the inhibitions of the middle-class as it echoes through the town, "call[ing] so archly, so seductively, that our feet hurried toward the tent of themselves" (126). Thus, while Cather's female artists inspire others with an enjoyment of the sensual pleasures of daily life, her ethnically or racially marginalized musicians temporarily enable their audiences to enjoy and celebrate their own sexuality as an enlivening force.

This enlivening power appears clearly in the African American pianist Blind d'Arnault, whom Jim describes as providing the only "break in the dreary monotony" of March (116). Although Jim dismisses d'Arnault's music as violating Western standards of high art ("as piano-playing, it was perhaps abominable"), he nevertheless feels that it is "something real, vitalized by a sense of rhythm" (121). Although Jim belittles d'Arnault's talent by describing it as instinctual, even bestial, and by calling his execution flawed, this only emphasizes that d'Arnault is not an artist who carefully gains a desired effect through life-draining intellectual effort, as do Mrs. Jim Burden's artists, who the unnamed narrator of the introduction dismisses as having "advanced ideas" but "mediocre ability" (2). Instead, d'Arnault's talent is expressed as a liveliness and a lack of rigid artistic control. Unlike Ántonia or Lena, d'Arnault has a more ambiguous attitude toward control of his art and toward his objectification by his audience. While Jim sees him as a "docile and happy" black (123, 118), d'Arnault seems to be playing with the expectations of his white audience by putting on what Houston A. Baker Jr. calls the "mask of minstrelsy" (47) in order to downplay the threat his powerful performance might inspire in that audience.

The signs of that threat-to both Jim and Cather-are evident in the defensive racism throughout the chapter devoted to d'Arnault. As Elizabeth Ammons argues, by choosing to include d'Arnault in her novel and yet resorting to racist stereotypes in her description of him, Cather ambivalently acknowledges her debt to African American art forms (Ammons, Conflicting Stories 132).[16] Cather is also compelled to include a small portrait of d'Arnault's development as an artist when, in the middle of his description of the performance, Jim abruptly slips into an omniscient narrative recounting the pianist's past. Although this story is filled with racist descriptions and seems designed to dismiss d'Arnault's talent as freakish, it at times takes on d'Arnault's perspective, relating his childhood attraction to music and his wonder at the piano's "kind" response to his touch (120). The story must have been told by d'Arnault at some point, but Jim -tellingly- does not allow the black pianist's own voice to enter the narrative. Since it is impossible to imagine that Jim would hold such an intimate conversation with d'Arnault, it is more likely that someone else, perhaps Mrs. Harlin told Jim the story, which further removes d'Arnault's voice and narrative control from his life story. Instead, the story is interpreted through the distorting lens of a racist sensibility that lessens d'Arnault's threat to Jim's (and Cather's) allegiance to an elite Western aesthetic by obscuring his possession of the same kind of creativity that Cather praises in her criticism and portrays in this novel.

D'Arnault's music makes possible an environment of playfulness and sexuality among those on the fringes of Black Hawk society, bringing the hired girls and the traveling salesmen together to dance. The pianist introduces sexuality into the text for the first time as something celebratory and enjoyable rather than as the socially disruptive force that Jim sees in Lena's sexuality. However, d'Arnault's role as the enabling agent of others' sexuality is highly problematic because it plays into racist stereotypes of African Americans. D'Arnault's own sexuality is portrayed as autoerotic; we are told that his music "worried his body incessantly" and allows him to enjoy "himself as only a Negro can. It was as if all the agreeable sensations possible for creatures of flesh and blood were heaped up on those black-and-white keys, and he were gloating over them and trickling them through his yellow fingers" (121). While the marginalized members of Black Hawk are able to act on these "agreeable sensations" by dancing together, d'Arnault's sexuality is only figured as self-enjoyment. Meanwhile, Jim disappears as a body during this passage and does not participate in the dancing, which leaves him impotently excited and restless (123). Threatened by the African American artist whose music elicits a sexual response in him, Jim reasserts his own narrative control by repeatedly describing d'Arnault in demeaning and dehumanizing terms. Indeed, by associating d'Arnault's music with sexuality, Jim denies that it is art; but the ability of this music to evoke passion and pleasure-which so agitates Jim-points to its status as art according to Cather's definition.

Jim is again aroused (but less troublesomely) by a less than polished artistic performance when he and Lena attend a production of Camille in Lincoln. His view of the actress who plays Marguerite parallels his description of d'Arnault's unschooled and unrefined yet arousing performance: she is "a woman who could not be taught . . . though she had a crude natural force which carried with people whose feelings were accessible and whose taste was not squeamish" (176). This depiction reflects Jim's ambivalence as an older man recalling his naivé and undeveloped artistic taste as a college student; yet he acknowledges that the performance, though "crude," is nevertheless powerful. While the actress is able to inspire the young Jim to "[believe] devoutly" in her performance (176), the older narrator attributes her effect to the play itself rather than to her talent: "Her conception of the character was as heavy and uncompromising as her diction.... But the lines were enough. She had only to utter them. They created the character in spite of her" (177). Like the music of the Vannis and d'Arnault, the play affects Jim emotionally, but by causing him to weep "unrestrainedly" and then to walk alone in the night "mourning for Marguerite Gauthier as if she had died only yesterday" (178). As Gelfant says, this emotional response is much stronger than Jim's reaction to his reallife "affair" with Lena (67); it is also notably stronger than his response to classical literature.

Importantly, both d'Arnault and the unnamed actress are very similar to real performers Cather reviewed: according to James Woodress, Blind d'Arnault is a composite of two African American performers known as Blind Tom and Blind Boone (291), and the actress in Camille appears to be based on Clara Morris, who played the same role in a performance Cather reviewed in 1893 Admitting that Clara Morris was "undoubtedly a loud actress" who dressed "gaudily and in bad taste" and was "coarse grained mentally and spiritually," Cather nevertheless prefers her "passion" to the "dainty" charm of other, more refined actresses (Kingdom 54). As she writes in another review: "The women of the stage know that to feel greatly is genius and to make others feel is art" (348). Although Jim excuses his response to these performances as the result of his immature aesthetic taste, Cather's emphasis on the importance of passion in art suggests that she includes the actress and the pianist in the novel as examples of the qualities that make a great artist. Cather's two fictional portraits of real-life performers in My Ántonia, when considered alongside the other unrecognized artists, point to her preoccupation with "low" art and marginalized artists who, although unrefined, are lively and sympathetic. From their sensibilities and ethnic diversity these artists create an original and undervalued American art.


Once we have pulled this one strand of the lively yet nonprivileged artist from the jumbled web of impressions produced by My Ántonia, we can see, on the one hand, a suggestive pattern of meditations on art and the artist and, on the other, a contrasting pattern of despair, the desire for death, and the controlling rigidity of repression, all of which form the dark undercurrent of the novel. Alongside her portrayal of creativity as a life force, Cather develops equally powerful images of the egoistic desire for control as a life-denying force, both in the motif of male suicides and in the appropriative hunger of Jim's narrative. Death erupts into the text in the form of mostly male suicides or murders, both premeditated acts.[17] We see this motif in the stories Jim remembers: of Peter and Pavel, who throw a bride to her death to save their own lives; the suicides of Mr. Shimerda and the tramp in Ántonia's story; and Wick Cutter's murder-suicide. This recurrence of death as a male desire illuminates Jim's narrative choices, as well as his desire to harness and control Ántonia's "meaning" in his text. Indeed, the egoism of the desire for control in art and the appeal of death are linked in My Ántonia, much as Cather links selflessness in art to the enjoyment of life and sensuality. By associating each of the suicides with an art form, Cather literalizes her claim that any control or form that is imposed on a narrative is deadening: "To me, the one important thing is never to kill the figure that you care for for the sake of atmosphere, well balanced structure, or neat presentation.... Sometimes too much symmetry kills things" (Kingdom 79).

Although Mr. Shimerda is the first person explicitly identified as an artist in My Ántonia, he stands in bleak contrast to artists such as the Vannis, Blind D'Arnault, and Ántonia, who exude liveliness and connectedness to life. In Mr. Shimerda, Cather brings together the underlying concerns of the novel: the artist, repressed sexuality, excessive nostalgia, and death. Unlike the other marginalized artists, Mr. Shimerda always seems depressed: he has "melancholy" eyes and a face that "looked like asheslike something from which all the warmth and light had died out" (18). Having lost his enthusiasm for life, after his arrival in America Mr. Shimerda never again plays his violin. The extremity of this change hints at more than homesickness. As Ántonia explains, her father's feelings for his homeland center on the people he has left behind: "He cry for leave his old friends what make music with him. He love very much the man what play the [trombone].... They go to school together and are friends from boys" (59). The loss of the man he loved seems to have led Mr. Shimerda to give up his music. In this case, his loss-or repression-of love and enthusiasm is linked with his inability to perform his art and results in his death wish.

Despite Mr. Shimerda's marginal status as an immigrant, Jim respects him and his music because of their connection to European high culture. He repeatedly thinks of Mr. Shimerda in positive terms and dissociates him from the "crowded clutter" and dirtiness of the Shimerdas' cave (57). Of a higher class than his wife, Mr. Shimerda has a "dignified manner" and reminds Jim of old portraits of Virginian gentility (18). But Mr. Shimerda's sensitive gentility and repressed sexuality work against him on the American prairie; he lacks the vitality necessary not only to create art but merely to survive the hardships of such a life. It is not his art that is dead but his ability to invest himself any longer in his music. His suicide, which is long foreshadowed, becomes a puzzle to which Jim's narrative repeatedly returns, most obviously in its echoes in the other suicides described by Ántonia and her son. Although Ántonia's stories should be viewed as her creations, they are present in Jim's narrative, of course, only because he chooses to include them. Tellingly, of all the stories Ántonia tells Jim, he includes in full only the two that concern death-the story (which Jim retells in his own words) of Pavel's grisly act of self-preservation and the story of a tramp who commits suicide.

When Jim retells the story of Peter and Pavel in his own words rather than quoting Ántonia directly, he indicates that it has be come his story. Although he claims that he and Ántonia "guarded [the story] jealously-as if . . . the wedding party [had] been sacrificed, to give us a painful and peculiar pleasure" (41), it is not clear whether Ántonia shares these emotions. Instead, Jim's reaction to the story fits in with his obsession with the issues of death and control; often, as he drifts off to sleep he imagines himself being drawn along in the sledge, but whether he sees himself as Pavel or as the sacrificed bridal couple is unclear. Pavel's gruesome decision to throw the bride to the wolves -knowing that her husband would jump out after her- is interpreted by their community as markedly selfish and (at an unconscious level, perhaps) antilieterosexual. Peter and Pavel's subsequent ostracism in Russia and Peter's broken life after Pavel's death stand at the center of My Ántonia as a moral tale (with a perverse fascination to Jim) of the social costs of exerting self-centered control.[18]

By telling the story of the tramp, Ántonia again confronts Jim with a tale of death, but she is able to contemplate the puzzle of suicide, and by extension the horror of her father's violent death, without feeling despair herself. The tramp confronts her with this puzzle by selecting her to talk to: "He comes right up and begins to talk like he knows me already" (114). Significantly, Jim recalls that Ántonia tells this story in the middle of winter, which he describes as "bleak and desolate . . . as if we were being punished for loving the loveliness of summer" (111-12). In contrast to Jim's idealization of summer, Ántonia remembers the discomfort of the heat and the blowing chaff of the threshing machine. Yet, in her story Ántonia repeatedly counters the tramp's desire for death with the concerns of life and survival. When he says the ponds are too low to drown oneself in, Ántonia responds that "nobody wanted to drownd themselves, but if we didn't have rain soon we'd have to pump water for the cattle" (114); then, after the tramp has been "cut to pieces" by the threshing machine, she comments that "the machine ain't never worked right since"(115)While her reaction to the tramp's death wish could be an attempt to repress her own despair, Ántonia manages to ward off depression by emphasizing her bond with her community in the fight for survival.[19] She is able to sublimate the egoism that might lead to despair and accepts being "written" by the community's role for her.

Besides illustrating Ántonia's steadfast commitment to life, her story about the tramp also engages her with a mainstream American art form that is deadened by its sentimental nostalgia. Among the contents of the tramp's pocket is a "worn out" copy of a popular poem clipped from a newspaper. The poem, "The Old Oaken Bucket," by Samuel Woodworth, has as its theme a nostalgic view of childhood that recalls both Mr. Shimerda's painful homesickness and Jim's own nostalgia, which is the driving force of his narrative: "How dear to this heart are the scenes of my childhood, / When fond recollection presents them to view!"(1.1-2). By linking nostalgia with suicide, Cather implies that turning life into obsessive and falsified memory can be fatal, especially for the artist; we have already seen that Mr. Shimerda's lost love and inability to engage in his present life are deadly both to his art and to himself. Carrying this poem and a wishbone in his pocket, the tramp embodies a false and harmful American sentimentality that seeks to repress change and sexuality by glorifying childhood and the past. His comment "So it's Norwegians now, is it? I thought this was Americy" (114) reveals his chauvinistic belief in a "pure" America, free of immigrants. The drunken tramp, adhering to his bigotry and sentimental poetry, reflects the lack of vitality of American art when it strives to keep out the "foreign" influences of marginalized artists such as Ántonia and Blind d'Arnault.

Wick Cutter, the third suicide in My Ántonia, claims to share this sentimental view of America's past as "the good old days," but his promotion of American ideals-such as those represented in the adages from Poor Richard's Almanack-is clearly hypocritical (134). Cutter is not an artist, except in his construction of elaborate plots to kill his wife, to rape Ántonia, and to gain money by ruining people like Russian Peter. By taking advantage of his hired girls, his wife, and immigrants, Cutter the con artist abuses the privilege of patriarchal power. He evokes a horrible fascination in Jim by acting on the sexual urges and the opportunities for mate dominance that Jim represses as negative and dangerous. Still, Cutter's narratives of control illuminate Jim's narrative strategies, for Cutter's manipulation of others' lives is a more overtly evil parallel to Jim's attempt to control Ántonia's meaning. Cutter designs his murder-suicide plot solely to assert his ,twill" even after his death. His need for control not only is destructive of others but is finally self-destructive as well.[20]

When Ántonia's son Rudolph tells the story of Cutter's suicide, he asks: "Did you ever hear of anybody else that killed himself for spite, Mr. Burden?" (233). Cuzak, joking that only the lawyers benefited from Cutter's death, indirectly identifies Jim, now a lawyer himself, as a beneficiary of Cutter's legacy. By placing the story of Wick Cutter's suicide at the end of the novel, Cather covertly points to a connection between the ending of Cutter's life and the ending of Jim's narrative quest. Cutter acts out not only the sexual urges that Jim represses but also Jim's urge toward suicide, which permeates his narrative despite his efforts to repress it. The story of Cutter's suicide-murder scheme illustrates the spitefulness of suicide, but perhaps more importantly, the Cuzak children's giggles and "hurrahs" in response to Rudolph's telling of it shows Jim that even an act as self-controlled as suicide can be interpreted mockingly. This lesson forces Jim to look elsewhere for relief from his unhappy adult life.

Jim's ambivalent desire for death has followed him through the novel like his shadow on the prairie, which the adult narrator "remembers" as the sign of mortality, present even in his childhood. When he describes his arrival on the prairie, he repeatedly emphasizes the erasure of his identity, as he "dissolves" into or is "blotted out" by the landscape (14, 8). Unlike women like Ántonia or Mrs. Harling, who "become a relationship" when they lose themselves in the pleasure of others (Obscure 115), Jim is further isolated from people when he experiences what Cather called the "erasure of personality" she felt when she was first confronted by the vast space of the prairie (Kingdom 448). Newly orphaned, Jim imagines that this new land is empty even of his dead parents' spirits (8). Picturing death as "happiness," a dissolution "into something complete and great" (14), Jim clearly sees death as the only way he can ever attain the pleasure of selflessness that he admires in Ántonia. In fact, Jim's furtive glimpse of Mr. Shimerda's corpse suggests that death can also be a return to the comfort of the womb, for Mr. Shimerda lies in the coffin in a fetal position, "on his side, with his knees drawn up" (75).[21] But after Jim has romanticized death as desirable and erased his memory of his dead parents, the grisly reality of willed death erupts into his narrative in the stories of the three suicides.

Included among his own memories, yet told by and about other people, the suicide stories become a part of Jim's past in which he seems to have no active role; they enter his novel as though against his conscious choice. However, that Jim also struggles with an urge toward suicide is suggested by his affinity with Mr. Shimerda. The only adult who does not take Jim "for granted" (20), Mr. Shimerda emphasizes his bond with the boy by offering him the gun that will later be used as a suicide weapon.[22] In this scene the adult narrator projects foreshadowing of his own death backward onto his childhood. Setting the scene for the encounter, he describes the autumn sunset as having "the exultation of victory . . . like a hero's death-heroes who died young and gloriously" (28). Although distinguishing Jim's view of death as an adult from his view as a child is impossible, the idea that death as a youth is heroic, even victorious, fits in with his nostalgic obsession with his childhood. He even seems to wish he had died as a child: when he and Ántonia meet as adults near Mr. Shimerda's grave Jim feels "the old pull of the earth," which makes him wish he "could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there" (207).

Despite Jim's glorification of youthful death, Cather does not portray the suicides in My Ántonia as "triumphant endings," but as grisly acts that are selfish and hurt others. Both Mr. Shimerda and the tramp jeopardize the well-being of others, Shimerda by leaving his family dependent on the sympathy of the community, and the tramp by damaging the threshing machine. Cutter kills not only himself but his wife just so that his money will not go to her or her family after his death. Cutter's suicide at the end of the novel counterbalances Shimerda's suicide in book 1 and ends Jim's romanticized attraction to taking one's life. Rudolph's question about the novelty of Cutter's "killing himself for spite" is answered by the cumulative contrast of the suicidal men with the nontraditional male and female artists who encourage life and sensuality. Earlier, when Mr. Shimerda offers Jim his gun, Ántonia provides an alternative to the two males' desire for death and dissolution. She carries in her hair a faintly singing insect that reminds her of Old Hata, the Bohemian beggar woman who used to sing "in a cracked voice" for "a warm place by the fire" (27). Here Ántonia views art and warmth as equal means of exchange, thus linking creative work with the work of survival, without valuing one over the other; tellingly, she dwells not on Old Hata's talent (or lack of talent) but on the children's love for her. Her emphasis on the emotional relationship of the artist to her audience shows that Ántonia feels no need to promote the greatness of her talent. She accepts as a fact of life the artist's perpetual struggle for life, fighting poverty and cold, yet (to Jim's amazement) she manages to maintain her enthusiasm and even to convey it to others. Jim interprets Ántonia's nesting of the insect not as an act of empathic identification with Old Hata but as an example of her ability to provide the nurturance the artist needs to survive the hardships of life. As an adult, Jim wants to see Ántonia as continuing to fulfill his needs, so that he can derive the will to live as well as the material with which to create. Reaffirming his image of her as a maternal nurturer of life-an always asexual lover, mother, sister, muse, "anything that a woman can be to a man" (206)-allows him to continually circle back to his childhood without acting on his unhappiness with his adult life.[23]


Jim's movement into memory to combat a tendency toward suicide is consistent with his assertion of control in creating his narrative. Since he derives his will to live from recollections of his earlier life, he attempts to force the people in his past to conform to the supportive roles he assigns them. In contrast with Ántonia and the other marginalized artists, who either imbue their audience with their "zest for life" or enable them to express their own sensuality, Jim's narrative is limited to its effect upon himself and his one chosen reader. Although he shares his finished manuscript with an old friend, its originating force is entirely personal; as Jim says in the introduction, "I've been writing down what I remember about Ántonia.... On my long trips across the country, I amuse myself like that, in my stateroom" (2). This image of the artist as isolated and amusing only himself more clearly fulfills the autoerotic and self-centered description Jim tries to apply to d'Arnault's piano playing.

The effect of such isolation on the artist is another of Cather's themes in her early reviews and essays. Alongside her insistence on the genius of sympathy and passion, Cather also emphasizes the loneliness of artists, whose dedication to their art requires that they separate themselves from the world and "suffer . . . the awful loneliness, the longing for human fellowship and for human love" (Kingdom 435). Although such isolation might be necessary for the traditionally defined Western artist, it is alien to performance artists such as Ántonia, whose art is communal by nature. As an adult married to a woman "incapable of enthusiasm" (1), Jim suppresses his longing for love by creating fictionalized characters who can fulfill his needs. When he reflects on his inability to "lose [hiniself]" in the "impersonal" classics as Gaston Cleric is able to do, Jim explains: "Mental excitement was apt to send me with a rush back to my own naked land and the figures scattered upon it" (168). Even when he shares his text with his friend, who also knew Ántonia, Jim controls the people of his "own naked land" exactly by making them his "own" and thus divorcing them from life: "They were so much alive in me that I scarcely stopped to wonder whether they were alive anywhere else" (168).

Jim's inability to respond to classical literature with the same enthusiasm that he feels in response to nonprivileged art points to his uneasy initiation into the Western literary tradition. Indeed, Jim's adult depression and his obsession with Ántonia and other people in his past imply that his education has separated him from the art forms that he loved during his boyhood. As a boy, Jim enjoys listening to Otto's cowboy songs or Ántonia's stories and participating in the kitchen culture of cooking and handicrafts and reads popular books such as The Swiss Family Robinson and A Life of Jesse James. Even the first "book" Jim creates-as a Christmas present for Yulka- is a mixture of pictures from popular family magazines or advertisements and circus scenes formed of pasted pieces of calico. This quiltlike piecing together of low-brow art forms and a traditionally female handicraft is a forerunner of Jim's narrative about Ántonia, which he also pieces together from the art of other, nonprivileged artists; but this first book is created to please another person.

just as Jim does not make any value distinctions as a child between folk art and written "literature," O'Brien writes that the adolescent Cather "did not make distinctions between high- and middle-brow culture or between culturally defined 'masterpieces' and books of lesser distinction but wider popular appeal" (80). Jim's education in narrative forms follows Cather's own experience of growing up around female storytellers and then reading popular adventure stories alongside the classical literature that her male mentors taught her to read and to value. Despite her veneration for the classics, Cather often expressed in interviews and essays her appreciation of any "low" art that conveyed the liveliness, passion, and selflessness that to her represented artistic "genius." Although she railed against vulgarity and insisted on the discipline of the artist's craft, she was equally hard on elite yet lifeless art and always favored a performance or text, whether high or low art, that could "give voice to the hearts of men" (Kingdom 409).[24]

Cather attempts to connect Jim's depiction of Ántonia-and by extension Nebraska-with Virgil's project of turning a celebration of rural life into high art.[25] However, Jim's encounters with the vitality of nonprivileged American artists eclipse Virgil and "the world of ideas" associated with him (165). When he first studies the Aeneid, Jim isolates himself for the summer in "an empty room where I should be undisturbed" (147). As he recites the Aeneid aloud, he looks out his window at "the distant river bluffs and the roll of blond pastures between" (148). This vista, with its suggestions of female sexuality, is so much more enticing than his memorization of Virgil that Jim's narrative skips to his "one holiday that summer": a trip to that same river with the hired girls (148). In college Jim is distracted from his solitary reading of Virgil's Georgics by Lena's sudden appearance and his subsequent revelation that "if there were no girls like [Lena] in the world, there would be no poetry" (173). By reducing Lena and the other hired girls to his muses, he effectively erases their ability to create art themselves; they only exist to evoke his response to them. The ease with which he substitutes Lena for Ántonia as the source of his inspiration points to his desire to efface Ántonia's individuality: she is just one of the many "girls" to inspire poetry throughout time.

Still, by realizing the difficulty involved in bringing to life the supposedly universal and atemporal work of Virgil, Jim acknowledges the greater hold that the real people, who are merely objectified and marginalized by high art, have on his imagination. And, indirectly, his attraction to women such as Lena and Ántonia points to the powerful appeal of their creative work. When Jim finishes his own narrative, he supposes that it lacks "form" (2) because of his inclusion of the stories and music of all of the artists whose work enlivened his childhood. His appropriation of the energy of the female and marginalized male artists in his narrative without recognizing them as artists clearly enlivens the tale he tells. In alluding so boldly to Virgil, Cather introduces her characters, subject matter, and "formless" narrative style into the discourse of high art. However, she presents Ántonia and the other artists ambiguously, portraying them mainly as the inspiration for the narrative of a white male writer. By using the controlling vision of a male narrator, Cather unfortunately effaces the strength and clarity of the statement she might have made about art and the American artist and, as Elizabeth Ammons argues, erases the debt she owed to these nonprivileged artists and their art forms (Ammons, Conflicting Stories 132).

When Mr. Shimerda first moves to Nebraska, Otto Fuchs dismisses his music as useless on the prairie (16). But Cather's connection of nontraditional artists with a life force emphasizes that the community needs their enthusiasm in order to endure the hardship and monotony of prairie life. The lack of liveliness and physicality in the WASP culture of the Midwest emerges in bits and pieces in My Ántonia: Jim feels "surrounded by a wall of silence" in the Burden household (72), lingers in the winter twilight outside the stained-glass church window out of "hunger for colour" (112), and is amazed that Ántonia's children are "not afraid to touch each other" (224). just as our picture of Jim emerges from the elisions of his text and from Ántonia's photographs, a picture of the starkness of Midwestern American life emerges in contrast to the ambivalently detailed descriptions Jim gives of the women and "outsiders "-whether immigrants or African Americanswhose difference from him fascinates him. In such a society, the artists who break the monotony and lower the inhibitions of conventionality must come from outside the mainstream or elitist culture, from the ranks of the marginalized or disempowered. Precisely because of their lack of conventionally defined refinement and their position outside the realm of Western high art, such artists help to redefine and broaden our concept of American art. As Cather wrote of the popular comedian Nat Goodwin in 1894, nonprivileged artists like him form "a clan that is a very real part of American life and that has a strong influence in the moulding of American society, and it has a right to a representative in the great legislature of art" (Kingdom 129).


 1. See, e.g., Fetterley 146-50; Gelfant 63, 67; Lambert 684-90; and Rosowski 88-91. (Go back.)
 2. At the end of her illuminating chapter on My Ántonia, Rosowski also attributes Ántonia's emergence "as herself" during Jim's visit to her role as "the center of 'the family legend,"' the teller of domestic tales "drawn from life" rather than literature (90). I use this moment in My Ántonia to support a rereading of Jim's narrative. (Go back.)
 3. Gelfant was the first critic to discuss Jim as an unreliable narrator (60). See also Fetterley 153-58 for an invigorating discussion of Cather's own male masquerade through the "radically incomplete" transposition of her own experience and desires onto a male character. (Go back.)
 4. Jim's response to Ántonia's mothering varies. As a boy, he feels he's superior to her because she's female and resents her "protecting manner" (30); however, once he is older, he seems happiest when she acts like a mother to him, as when he includes himself among her sons. Even during their teenage years, when Ántonia responds to his kiss as though he were breaking a taboo, Jim's pride in her reaction seems connected to his feeling that she will "always treat me like a kid" (143). (Go back.)
 5. Sce, e.g., Fetterley and Irving for in-depth discussions of Jim's uneasiness about Ántonia's unconventional bending of gender and class roles. It is interesting to note that it is a story told sympathetically by the Widow Steavens that convinces Jim to "forgive" Ántonia again after she gives birth to a child out of wedlock (195). (Go back.)
 6. In choosing to concentrate on Ántonia and the performing artists in part 2, I am neglecting other storytellers. I hope to suggest here a context in which readers might think of the many storytellers and other artists in My Ántonia, for example, Otto Fuchs, who often tells of his adventures (45-46); Grandmother Burden, whose kitchen and home are evidence of her "cheerful zest" despite having "very little to do with" (44); and the Widow Steavens, whose sympathetic story about Ántonia's out-of-wedlock pregnancy is the longest directly transcribed tale and serves to reconcile Jim to Ántonia (1198-204). Likewise, Jim's inclusion of many stories about peripheral characters (such as Tiny Soderball, "Crazy Mary," and Ole Benson), which he seems to relate from communal knowledge, can be considered as his imitation of storytellers who tell stories about the people in their community. (Go back.)
 7. See Daiches for an early response to the stories as having "little if any relation to the story of Ántonia's development" (47). This view was first challenged by Gelfant, who views the stories, as well as other apparent digressions in Jim's narrative, as part of the violent eruption of the sexuality Cather attempts to repress in her text. For a more recent interpretation of the stories and the work they do for Jim and Ántonia, see Peterman. (Go back.)
 8. Cather again refers to the representation of "life itself" as the goal of the artist in her preface to Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories (7). There she praises Jewett's stories as "living things" that "melt into the land and the life of the land until they are not stories at all, but life itself" (6). (Go back.)
 9. See O'Brien 80-81 and chs. 7-8 for an important, in-depth discussion of the effect the intersection of high art and gender had on Cather's work. (Go back.)
 10. For a helpful history and analysis of the effort by early-twentieth-century male literature professors (and later critics) to define American literature as a "masculine" field, see Elizabeth Ammons's introduction to her Conflicting Stories and O'Brien. (Go back.)
 11. Cather did not consider the selfless sympathy and passion she praised to be the traits of most women writers; in fact, she made a clear distinction between the traits she praised and the "drivelling nonsense and mawkish sentimentality and contemptible feminine weakness" that she felt most women writers indulged in (1895 review of "Ouida" in Kingdom 408). In this same review, Cather distinguishes between such writers, who "only imagined and strained after effects, [and] never lived at all; . . . never laughed with children, toiled with men or wept with women," and writers who were able to "give voice to the hearts of men" because they have "known them, loved them" (409). (Go back.)
 12. Notably, Jim thinks of Ántonia's retelling and translation of the story as a merely mirrorlike repetition of Pavel's words and does not recall how Ántonia told it. I discuss below the significance of Jim's putting the story into his own words. (Go back.)
 13. Besides ceding this role to Ántonia, Jim also contradicts the traditional development of such stories, which usually become more exaggerated with each retelling (Dobos 177), by deflating the heroism of the actual event when he tells of it as an adult in My Ántonia. (Go back.)
 14. Although Ántonia does tell stories about the past, she does not see the past as her only source, as Jim does. In contrast, Jim sees his present life as sterile and depressing and views his past as a golden time. He makes the past into a fetish, while Ántonia freely changes details in her stories about the past and draws from her present life for story material as well. (Go back.)
 15. My view of Lena's art as a specifically female celebration of the female body, without the sole aim of attracting male attention, is indebted to Fetterley's interpretation of Lena as representing "one model of lesbian sexuality" (159). (Go back.)
 16. For my reading of Blind d'Arnault-and, indeed, for my thoughts in this essay- I am more greatly indebted to the ideas and enthusiastic feedback of Elizabeth Ammons than a citation of any of her books or essays can convey. For a fuller analysis of d'Arnault's role and importance see Ammons, "My Ántonia and African American Music." (Go back.)
 17. "Crazy Mary" is the only female character associated with intentional violence. Jealous of her husband's obsession with Lena and considered insane by her community, Mary Benson chases Lena with a corn knife (108-9). I do not include Mary in my discussion here, because the dynamics of her violence, while as important as the dynamics of the men's violence, are different from theirs. Mary's desire to "trim some of that shape off " Lena (108) and her proud exhibition of the sharpness of her knife's blade suggest that Mary's violence is a rejection of femininity and an attempt to appropriate male power. (Go back.)
 18. James Woodress says that the story of Peter and Pavel is an actual folk tale that has been recorded by folklorists from immigrants living in Nebraska (292). That Cather claimed to have forgotten that she had borrowed the tale is highly suggestive of the influence the immigrant storytellers had on her imagination and writing. (Go back.)
 19. As Evelyn Funda has pointed out to me, Ántonia's qualification "What would anybody want to kill themselves in summer for?" (115) suggests that she understands (and perhaps has felt) the desire to die during the winter. Since her father killed himself in the winter, Ántonia's telling of this story during that season suggests that she might associate winter with death and the desire to die. (Go back.)
 20. It is interesting to note that the stories of Wick Cutter, Peter and Pavel, and Mr. Shimerda each link death and homosexual desire as well as art. As Fetterley notes, Cutter almost rapes Jim (157), and Peter and Pavel are a couple who have rejected heterosexuality metaphorically by killing the bridal couple (150); also, as I mentioned earlier, Mr. Shimerda gives up his music while pining for his male friend. The triangular relationship of art, homosexual desire, and death is highly suggestive. (Go back.)
 21. His body and head covered entirely, Mr. Shimerda has been desexed as well; only "one of his long, shapely hands"-the instrument of both his death and his violin playing-is revealed (75). (Go back.)
 22. Mr. Shimerda also expresses this bond when he first asks Jim to "te-e-ach my Ántonia! " (Sao); that Jim later makes her his Ántonia and tells her so while they sit on the older man's grave site (zo5-6) highlights is a enti Icarian with Shimerda. (Go back.)
 23. See Rosowski for an insightful discussion of the circular structure of My Ántonia (which she describes as "[beginning] in and [returning] to childhood" 1771) as Cather's homage to and critique of the Romantic project. Ántonia-and Jim's adult desire for a return to her nurturancemight also be seen as replacing Jim's longing for his dead parents. (Go back.)
 24. As Bernice Slow writes in her introduction to Cather's early essays, Cather made "a real effort to defend the people's choice" (Kingdom 55). This effort is seen, for example, in Cather's review of the comedian Nat Goodwin, whose "rare gift of reaching out to the people and appealing to them" could so delight the audience that "you almost forget that his art is not of the highest kind" (Kingdom 130) (Go back.)
 25. For helpful discussions of Cather's use of Virgil in My Ántonia, see Fetterley 16o-6i; Gelfant 66-68; O'Brien 81; Schwind 59-61; and Woodress 298. Fetterley also identifies the landscape of My Ántonia as feminine (161), as I do below. (Go back.)


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——.Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.
Bennett, Mildred R. The World of Willa Cather. New York: Dodd, Mead, 195 1
Cather, Willa. The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896. Ed. Bernice Slote. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966.
——.My Ántonia. 1918. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
——.Obscure Destinies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1938
——.Preface to The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, by Sarah Orne Jewett. Ed. Willa Cather. New York: Doubleday, 1956.
——.The Song of the Lark. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915.
——.Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. Ed. L. Brent Bohlke. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Daiches, David. Willa Cather: A Critical Introduction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1951.
Dobos, Ilona. "True Stories." Trans. Peter Vari. Studies in East European Folk Narrative. Ed. Linda Degh. Indiana University: American Folklore Society and the Indiana University Folklore Monographs Series, 1978. 167-2055.
Fetterley, Judith. "My Ántonia, Jim Burden, and the Dilemma of the Lesbian Writer." Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. Ed. Karla Jay, Joanne Glasgow, and Catharine Stimpson. New York: New York UP, 1990. 145-63.
Gelfant, Blanche H. "The Forgotten Reaping-Hook: Sex in My Ántonia." American Literature 43 (1971): 60-82
Irving, Katrina. "Displacing Homosexuality: The Use of Ethnicity in Willa Cather's My Ántonia." Modern Fiction Studies 36.1 (spring 1990): 90-102.
Lambert, Deborah. "The Defeat of a Hero: Autonomy and Sexuality in My Ántonia." American Literature 53.4 (January 1982): 676-90.
Lewis, Edith. Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record. New York: Knopf, 1953
O'Brien, Sharon. Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Peterman, Michael. "Kindling the Imagination: The Inset Stories of My Ántonia." Approaches to Teaching Cather's My Ántonia. Ed. Susan J. Rosowski. New York: MLA, 1989. 156-62.
Rosowski, Susan. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
Schwind, Jean. "The Benda Illustrations to My Ántonia: Cather's 'Silent' Supplement to Jim Burden's Narrative." PMLA 100.1 (January 1985): 51-67.
Sergeant, Elizabeth Shepley. Willa Cather: A Memoir. 1953. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P Bison Books, 1963
Woodress, James. Willa Cather: Her Life and Art. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.
Woodworth, Samuel. "The Old Oaken Bucket." The Best Loved Poems of the American People. Ed. Hazel Felleman. New York: Garden City, 1936. 385.