Recent harvests in American history and letters have yielded an almost universal acknowledgement: the pioneer myth of the American West has been cultivated in a soil broken and furrowed by the colonizing impulse of empire. Each narrative of western settlement is rooted in a "legacy of conquest" (Limerick) informing the text, and exposing this legacy demands recovering lost texts and rereading familiar works within their ideological contexts. Nowhere is this challenge more complex—or more rewarding—than in reading Willa Cather, a writer simultaneously celebrated for her depiction of pioneers and respected for her historical authenticity. The bounty from this garden has been sampled often in the last decade and a half. Mike Fischer has unearthed the "burden of imperialism" in Cather's pioneer texts; Joseph Urgo has considered Cather's acceptance of America's imperial stance; and Deborah Karush has discussed the "nostalgic vision" with which Cather viewed the frontier. These studies demonstrate the veracity and continuing vitality of Guy Reynolds's assertion that "Cather's novels fictionalize the transfer of European empires to America and the subsequent growth of American empire" (46). My trespass into this field attempts to reveal how Cather's most enduring pioneer text—My Ántonia—reconciles the insular conception of the nineteenth-century United States with the post-Spanish-American War reality, reflecting America's transition from continental to global power. I argue in particular that with the Great War as its immediate subtext, this novel reaches back to the closing years of the American frontier and the influx of European immigrants to the Plains states, projecting an image of the nation and legitimizing its status as "European" power.
The original introduction (1918) to My Ántonia is an intricate frame for what some critics regard as a simple country novel. Like the openings to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, it operates as a narrative of transmission establishing a fictionalized origin for the text. The most obvious effect of the introduction is the distance it establishes between Cather and her story. In the opening pages, an unnamed female narrator credits Jim Burden, a childhood acquaintance, for writing the tale. By making Jim "legal counsel for one of the great Western railways" (x), Cather complicates his perspective through its association to the controversial role the railroad played in Indian-white relations, western settlement patterns, and resource exploitation.
The introduction situates the production of Jim's manuscript in the immediate present (1916-18), synchronous to the novel's actual composition. As the dates of its composition suggest, My Ántonia is a highly charged exercise of political memory. Written as the First World War ravaged Europe and cast as the reminiscence of middle-aged Jim Burden, it is a "prehistory" reconstructing the 1880s and early 1890s from the verge of America's entrance into the Great War. Cather further complicates the account by making its teller a rural Nebraskan turned successful New York attorney and infusing the memory of his prairie childhood with a wholehearted acceptance of progress (the Yankee credo) and a fair share of romantic yearning: As for Jim, no disappointments have been severe enough to chill his naturally romantic and ardent disposition. This disposition, though it often made him seem very funny when he was a boy, has been one of the strongest elements in his success. He loves with a personal passion the great country through which his railway runs and branches. His faith in it and his knowledge of it have played an important part in its development. He is always able to raise capital for new enterprises in Wyoming or Montana, and has helped young men out there to do remarkable things in mines and timber and oil. If a young man with an idea can once get Jim Burden's attention, can manage to accompany him when he goes off into the wilds hunting for lost parks or exploring new canyons, then the money which means action is usually forthcoming. Jim is still able to lose himself in those big Western dreams. (xi)
The speaker in the introduction claims that Jim "loves with a personal passion the great country through which his railway runs and branches," yet his infatuation for this territory is clearly an obsession to exploit its resources for material gain like the despicable Wick Cutter of My Ántonia and other characters appearing in Cather's oeuvre (e.g., Bayliss Wheeler in One of Ours and Ivy Peters in A Lost Lady). While described as one who loves exploring "lost parks" or "new canyons," Jim appreciates these marvels with a mercenary eye like the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (1510-54), who figures so prominently in his adolescent figuration of Nebraska. Notwithstanding the "naturally romantic" character attributed to James Quayle Burden, the "big Western dreams" in which he loses himself equal not innocent adventure but economic conquest: raising capital for ventures that "do remarkable things in mines and timber and oil." Like Coronado's famed 1540-41 expedition from New Spain to present-day Kansas in search of the legendary Seven Cities of Gold, Jim's frequent travels to the West are speculative in nature and rooted in colonialism.
Cather plants U.S. expansionism squarely in Jim's retrospective, which allegorizes America's displacement of the Plains Indians and the Spanish Empire. Although they do not figure explicitly in the novel, the history and culture of the Plains Indians form a palimpsest occasionally—and tellingly—exposed in the text, especially when considering the impact federal policies like the 1862 Homestead and Pacific Railroad acts and the 1887 Dawes Act had upon the original inhabitants of Nebraska. Equally significant are suggestive allusions in the novel to Spain's presence in North America. Such rhetoric and imagery hints to America's wresting the mantle of empire from Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American War and suggest that, in addition to absorbing Spain's colonial holdings in the Caribbean and Pacific, the United States has inherited Spanish obligations in Europe. In other words, within the pastoral and nostalgic account ascribed to Jim, Cather traces the United States' cultural heritage and its rise to global power—a genealogy suggesting that America has a duty, as de facto European state, to participate in the Great War.
Despite the sentimentality with which this novel has been received traditionally, Cather scholars—reflecting America's long history of distrusting jurists—have treated Jim's narrative as a suspect document. While narratologists have pointed to the intricate layering involved in the tale's construction and transmission, feminist readings have focused on the relationship between Jim and his subject, Ántonia. Among the vanguard in questioning Jim's reliability as a narrator is Susan J. Rosowski, who asserts in The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism (1986) that Jim's allegiance as an adult is not to Ántonia but to his own ideas; when the circumstances in Ántonia's life conflict with his beliefs or intentions, he "denies the reality" (89).
What Rosowski perceives in Jim's treatment of Ántonia can also be witnessed in his construal of western American history; just as Cather builds tension into Jim's thoughts about Ántonia in order to deconstruct the myths about women to which he subscribes (Rosowski 89), she undermines his interpretation of history. Although My Ántonia accurately projects an image of the United States as empire, statements attributed to Jim consistently disregard the political maneuvers—most obviously the incidents involving the removal and genocide of the American Indians—contributing to his nation's hemispheric ascendancy and growing global prominence.
Jim's initial observation about the rolling grasslands reveals the superficial understanding of Plains history Cather imposes on him. On the ride from the train station in Black Hawk to his grandparents' homestead, the orphaned traveler peers from the wagon bed into the dark night and concludes, "There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land" (7, italics added). In subtle strokes, Jim Burden erases the inhabitants preexisting the arrival of European settlers from his memoir. The black night, which he suggestively labels "utter darkness" (5) and later "empty darkness" (7), functions like a geopolitical tabula rasa, an ideological blackboard with the previous record wiped clean and awaiting the next lesson to be inscribed.
Jim's language echoes a common sentiment in American literature and political ideology: that of the frontier as a virgin land waiting to be settled. On one level his reflections about the prairie's barrenness suggest the youthful ignorance of a ten year old on his inaugural visit to the Plains. Yet beneath this childish observation lurks the willful blindness that Cather writes into the adult narrating this episode. Deborah Karush notes that Cather's novels promote a "fantasy of unrestrained expansion" by using child narrators to impart nostalgic accounts of "the frontier as a vast, empty space . . . conveniently devoid of Native Americans" (30). Jim's reflections certainly fit this pattern. He specifically equates the emptiness of the prairie landscape to its lack of infrastructure and agrarian development. Progress requires improvement to the land: it demands fences, fields, and roads. At the time he is credited with writing the story of Ántonia, Jim is implicitly involved in the exigencies of progress. As a railroad attorney, his career would entail what Patricia Nelson Limerick cleverly calls "the drawing of lines and the marking of borders" (55): through legal sleight of hand, he would have turned land into property. Successful performance of his duties would necessitate an intimate familiarity with the territorial statutes, congressional legislation, and military involvement making the land grants to the railroads possible.
Competing experiences of dispossession and possession figure prominently in the early chapters of My Ántonia. In one sense, Cather's entire tale charts Jim's individual journey from banishment and divestiture to acquisition, and, accordingly, in its earliest appearance, Nebraska is Jim's Paradise Lost. Upon disembarking from the train at Black Hawk, Jim and the immigrant family he sees huddling together on the station platform are enveloped by cold and "utter darkness" despite the red glowemanating from the locomotive firebox. The night's imposing blackness and the steam engine's smoldering fire evoke Miltonic images of Hell encountered by Satan and his minions after being exiled from Heaven to a "Dungeon horrible, on all sides round / As one great Furnace flam'd, yet from those flames / No light, but rather darkness visible / [. . . .] / As far remov'd from God and light of Heav'n / As from the Center thrice to th' utmost Pole" (Paradise Lost, Book I, ll.61-74). Disoriented by his new surroundings, Jim gazes toward Heaven and contemplates his fate. As he looks up at the unfamiliar expansive sky, "the complete dome of heaven all there was of it," Jim concludes "that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and outside man's jurisdiction" (7). His remarks a few lines later extend upon this phrasing: "Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be" (8). The orphaned boy feels that he has traveled not merely beyond the authority of men but beyond the influence of Heaven—no need for prayers since they can no longer be heard, let alone answered.
Cather's wording—being "erased and blotted out"—indicates a profound sense of alienation. Though his initial thoughts reflect the idea of being exiled, Jim's views about his new surroundings soon move from the nihilistic toward the existential. His life in the West will be what he makes of it—what he takes and claims title to, including Ántonia. His determination to make his own world is reflected in the final lines of the introduction, when the speaker points out how he corrected the working title of the manuscript by adding "My" to the original inscription, "Ántonia" (xiii). Before his narrative even begins, Cather establishes not only Jim's impulse to acquire but also his awareness of the role semantics play in acquisition. Of course, this is a lesson a successful railroad attorney in an age of phenomenal railway expansion would know well: to procure anything legitimately it must be first recognized and named. Ántonia Shimerda, "this girl [who] seemed to mean . . . the country" (xi-xii), embodies the West. By having Jim prefix the title of his manuscript with the first-person singular possessive pronoun, Cather deepens the parallel between Jim's judicious claim to Ántonia and the territory absorbed by his burgeoning nation throughout the nineteenth century.
The convergence of verbal expression and possession makes its most conspicuous appearance in the novel when Jim and his grandmother visit the primitive dugout homestead of their new neighbors. Shortly after they arrive, Ántonia Shimerda takes Jim's hand and they race away from the adults to the edge of a ravine, followed by Yulka, Ántonia's younger sister. The ensuing encounter is incredibly Edenic. "'Name? What name?' she asked, touching me on the shoulder. I told her my name, and she repeated it after me and made Yulka say it. She pointed into the gold cottonwood tree behind whose top we stood and again, 'What name?'" (25). Hidden from everyone and everything but the red grass, blue sky, and yellow cottonwood, Jim names the things around him on that breezy autumn afternoon with the assurance of Adam in the Garden. While an exercise in discovery for Ántonia, this lesson displays Jim's powers of recognition and identification, deliberately recalling Genesis 1:28-2:19, where God bestows dominion over the earth to humankind and has Adam christen "every living creature." As he confidently identifies all Ántonia points to, Jim verbally demonstrates his familiarity with the prairie environment, a territory to which he initially felt alien, and proves himself less a stranger to the surrounding landscape than the oldest daughter of the Bohemian family.
Teaching English to the Shimerda girls plays a pivotal role in Jim's recovery of what he lost, namely, his identity associated with a sense of place, after being orphaned and moving from the lush wooded hills of Virginia to the open, wine-colored grassland of Nebraska. At the entreaty of Ántonia's father, Jim continues the English tutorials until she turns fifteen, when events (including her father's suicide) force her to abandon language learning and attend to chores at the farm (116-17). Jim's thoughts about teaching Ántonia read like a parody of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. During the lessons Jim attempts to exercise authority over Ántonia in a fashion similar to the way phonetics Professor Henry Higgins lords over Eliza Doolittle in Shaw's 1913 comedy. "Much as I like Ántonia," Jim writes, "I hated a superior tone that she sometimes took with me. She was four years older . . . and had seen more of the world; but . . . I resented her protecting manner. Before the autumn was over she began to treat me more like an equal and to defer to me in other things than reading lessons" (41). Like Professor Higgins, Jim wants to influence his student in more than language matters, and he soon gets his wish.
The desired change in Ántonia's opinion of him was brought about by an event of mock-epic proportions. With Ántonia to act as his damsel in distress, Jim instinctively reenacts the legend of St. George and slays "a circus monstrosity" of a rattlesnake with a borrowed spade (44). Though he and Otto Fuchs, the Burdens' Austrian farmhand, later realize the cold autumn day and the age of the snake took away its "fight," Jim is pleased with the immediate result: it "was enough for Ántonia. She liked me better," he notes happily, "she never took a supercilious air with me again. I had killed a big snakeÁI was now a big fellow" (47-48). Once recognized by Ántonia as both linguistic and prairie authority, Jim is empowered to mold her to the extent possible, not in his own image but through his own imagination. At this point, she has become both his inspiration and his invention and, like other resources in the West, will become subject to his exploitation.
In addition to enhancing Jim's esteem in Ántonia's eyes, the dead snake links Nebraska's agricultural present to its frontier past. During the post-mortem examination of the unfortunate rattler, Jim uses all "five and a half feet" of its carcass to instruct Ántonia in rudimentary herpetology and Plains history: "He had twelve rattles, but they were broken off before they began to taper, so I insisted that he must once have had twenty-four. I explained to Ántonia how this meant that he was twenty-four years old, that he must have been there when white men first came, left on from buffalo and Indian times. As I turned him over I began to feel proud of him, to have a kind of respect for his age and size. He seemed like the ancient, eldest Evil" (45-46, italics added).
This seemingly insignificant episode where Jim kills a rattle snake with a spade borrowed from the Russian immigrants Pavel and Peter functions on a figurative level. Jim's victory allegorizes America's decimation of the American Indians and Spanish colonial enterprise.
Not only does this passage reflect the legacy of what Werner Sollors in Beyond Ethnicity (1986) has deemed the "cult of the vanishing Indian," it also echoes the rhetoric of the "black legend," the defamatory discourse criticizing Spain's colonial enterprise during the Spanish-American War. Metaphorically, the rattlesnake Jim encounters symbolizes the obstacles facing American continental expansion and hemispheric hegemony. Competing claims to the land and the armed resistance formed by parties opposed to the United States realizing its manifest destiny constituted the chief impediment to the new nation's growth in size and influence. The snake denotes the challenges Plains Indians (primarily the Lakota Sioux) and Spain (including its former colony Mexico) posed to American territorial advances, while Jim's violent method of dispatching the reptile reflects federal strategies employed to achieve hemispheric supremacy.
As Jim marvels at the size and the age of the rattler, concluding that it was "left on from buffalo and Indian times," Cather somewhat uncannily (if incidentally) evokes Henry H. Cross's 1898 oil painting Victim of Fate, in which a seriously wounded buffalo has climbed to the crest of a hill to stand near the contorted body of a recently deceased Plains Indian warrior (see fig. 1 on p. 52). Depictions of dying indigenes, like the fallen hunter in Cross's canvas, were widespread in the nineteenth century. In the final decades of the 1800s, "epitaphs" for the Lakota and other Great Plains tribes were especially popular in painting, sculpture, popular literature, and Wild West shows. Despite its sentimentality and conventional theme, Cross's painting reflects a reality exploited by American expansionists: the fortunes of the bison and the Plains cultures were inextricably linked. The decimation of the great herds, expedited by hunters hired by the railroads to provide meat for the construction crews, precipitated the decline in the power of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Lakota, Pawnee, and other Plains nations.
Relegating buffalo and Indians to extinction is a logical extension of Jim's earlier conclusion regarding the "emptiness" of the landscape. Informing his utterance is the erroneous—but popularly accepted and widely promoted—assumption that the American bison and the Plains Indians are extinct, that their times have passed in the scant twenty-four years since the arrival of the "white men." The phrasing Cather attributes to Jim reflects racist underpinnings allowing Americans to dismiss Plains cultures and seriously endangered herding animals in the same breath and betrays his acceptance of the popular representation of native peoples collectively as a "vanishing" race.
Jim's slaying of the serpent gains further significance by considering the term "Sioux," a name Cather never allows him to utter. According to its etymology, "Sioux" is an abbreviated form of "Naddouessioux," the French transliteration of the Ojibwa epithet for their principal enemies to the west. Since its earliest appearance in seventeenth-century French documents, "Sioux" has been regarded by whites as a synonym for a venomous snake. Popular and scholarly sources at the time of My Ántonia's release in 1918 also accepted this interpretation. In Native American studies the decade prior to the publication of My Ántonia, few scholars and studies were as influential as ethnologist Frederick Webb Hodge and the Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, which he edited from 1907 to 1910. The Handbook defines "Sioux" as "a French-Canadian abbreviation of the Chippewa Nadowe-is-iw, a diminutive of nadowe, 'an adder,' hence 'an enemy.' Nadoweisiw-eg is the diminutive plural. The diminutive singular and plural were applied to the Dakota, and to the Huron to distinguish them from the Iroquois proper, the true 'adders' or 'enemies'" (1:376, 2:577). Notwithstanding the significant regional and cultural distinctions differentiating the speakers of three mutually intelligible dialects, they became known collectively and derogatively as Sioux, a frozen curse derived from an Ojibwa expression denoting a venomous snake.
At the time of European contact, the Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota peoples inhabited territory ranging from the upper reaches of the Mississippi River to the eastern slopes of the Big Horn Mountains. The Pawnee may have been the most numerous people in central Nebraska when Spanish and French first arrived, but in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Lakota (Teton Sioux) of western Nebraska, South Dakota, and eastern Wyoming came to represent the greatest threat to American expansion. Not only did they comprise the largest contingent in the force that defeated Custer at the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, the three most famous Indian figures in America at that time—Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Red Cloud—were Lakota. By declining to name specific tribes in Jim's account, Cather further delineates Jim's character. Jim's usage of the misnomer "Indian" in My Ántonia suggests his disinterest in issues affecting the native peoples of western Nebraska and North America in general, betraying instead an acceptance of the wider U.S. Indian policy directed toward the containment and cultural assimilation of the Plains Indians as well as the allotment of "surplus" tribal lands.
Jim's slaughter of the rattlesnake resembles the dirty political reality in which his future employer, the railroad, was complicit. In other words, Jim's vicious beating and near beheading of the aged sidewinder corresponds to the manner in which the U.S. military and railway industry colluded to eliminate Native American claims to territory in the Central Great Plains. While the rattlesnake serves as the namesake for all members of the Great Sioux Nation (and, by extension, other Plains Indians), the spade represents the superior technology and complex strategy—involving homesteading, railroad grants, and Indian policy—used to eliminate the native presence and supplant it with European settlement, agricultural development, and exploitation of natural and mineral resources.
As Richard Slotkin recognizes in The Fatal Environment (1985), particularly close ties were established between the railroad and the U.S. military; in fact, General Philip Sheridan vociferously promoted extending the railroads west, for he theorized that the railroad would contribute to the elimination of the buffalo and the eventual decimation of the Sioux and other native inhabitants of the Plains who depended on buffalo as a source of food, shelter, and clothing (408, 427). Sheridan's theory was deadly accurate; nothing contributed more to the erosion of the Plains Indian cultures than the railroad, which not only brought meat and hide hunters west but also led to settlement and agricultural development that disrupted migration patterns of the buffalo and divided the great bison herds into lesser northern and southern herds.
The future railroad attorney's mortal wielding of the spade also mirrors the devastating effect of federal legislation designed to appropriate native lands. The deleterious legacy of the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act on America's native population is well documented. Even more devastating for the Plains cultures was congressional passage of the Homestead and Pacific Railroad acts in 1862. These remain for Native Americans two of the most insidious bills ever drafted and passed since they worked in tandem to expropriate Indian lands and to populate the West with European immigrants and Americans willing to migrate. In Native American History (1996), Judith Nies declares these acts of legislation to be the "two most influential laws in overturning Indian treaties and opening western Indian lands to settlement," making special note of the 174 million acres of "public lands" and subsequent land charters granted to transcontinental railroad companies (268). The railroads, in turn, promoted the settlement and development of the Great Plains, eventually pushing to extend into lands—notably Paha Sapa, the sacred Black Hills, which Red Cloud's Lakota Sioux along with their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies were assured by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.
Throughout the narrative, the language Cather assigns to Jim hints to the violent history of the Central Plains that preceded large-scale settlement, reminding readers of the recent campaign to contain the western tribes and appropriate the land they formerly controlled. Once, after concluding an English lesson and escorting her home as far as Squaw Creek, Jim and Ántonia stood in silence mesmerized by the beauty of the setting sun upon the stubble fields and stacks of hay—evidence of European occupation and agrarian development of the Plains: "As far as we could see, the miles of copper-red grass were drenched in sunlight that was stronger and fiercer than at any other time of the day. The blond cornfields were red gold, the haystacks turned rosy and threw long shadows. The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending, like a hero's death—heroes who died young and gloriously. It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day" (38-39). Jim has come to view the settlement of the Plains in quasi-religious terms. For him, the developed landscape offers a covenant as sacred as the one revealed to Moses. Nebraska itself is evidence of the "manifest destiny" awaiting a new generation of chosen people. Close scrutiny of this passage indicates that realizing this destiny will only come after much sacrifice and migration—for immigrants and native inhabitants alike. The name of the creek running between the Burden and Shimerda farms is an oblique reminder of western Nebraska's former inhabitants relegated to Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations just across the border in South Dakota. In this context, the glorious deaths Jim envisions are likely to be those of Custer and his Seventh Cavalry troops, who died at the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn in a recent effort to eliminate the native threat to "progress." Along with 211 soldiers, the man known as the "Boy General" lost his life in the campaign waged to open the Black Hills to mining and settlement interests. Posthumously, Custer achieved his goal: the Black Hills were opened, and the European culture and industry transfigured the former "savage" land, just as John Gast depicted in American Progress, his 1872 canvas personifying Progress on her westward course.
"As I turned him [the dead snake] over," Jim recalls, "I began to feel proud of him, to have a kind of respect for his age and size" (45). The respect that Jim accords the rattler after killing it mirrors the nobility American writers and artists, since Washington Irving's essay "Philip of Pokanoket" (1814), had projected upon dead or dying Indians. Although nominally appearing to lament the passing of the American Indians, the art and literature devoted to Native American themes, in Jill Lepore's words, "mourned these losses as inevitable and right" (210). Case in point: the antebellum art and literature lamenting the elimination or removal of eastern tribes had virtually no effect on the treatment of Native Americans encountered by U.S. citizens and federal agencies in the trans-Mississippi West after the Civil War. Moreover, at the close of the century, when the First Nations of the Great Plains and the Southwest had been removed or contained and American expansionists began coveting Hawaii and Spain's colonial possessions, Indian subjects in art were still represented heroically as a doomed race, perhaps culminating in The End of the Trail (1894), James Earle Fraser's award-winning sculpture depicting a slouching Plains Indian rider upon his equally exhausted mount. Although the Indians were portrayed as vanishing, the popular motif was not, nor, as its presence in My Ántonia indicates, did it appear likely to vanish in the twentieth century.
In the nineteenth century, commemorating the "vanishing American" and celebrating European territorial supremacy merged in the practice of naming American communities. Innumerable European settlements across the United States in the nineteenth century were named for Indian tribes (like Omaha, Nebraska, and Cheyenne, Wyoming) or for famed American Indian leaders (like Red Cloud, Nebraska, and Pontiac, Michigan). Cather, reflecting this cultural phenomenon, names the nearest community to the Burden farm Black Hawk, after the Sauk (Sac) leader, Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, who unsuccessfully resisted the influx of European settlers and miners into his people's territory. As scholars have long recognized, the community Cather names Black Hawk is a fictional version of her Nebraskan hometown, actually named Red Cloud for the talented Teton Sioux strategist who forced the United States to sign the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie after effectively closing the Bozeman Trail to American advancement. Renaming her south-central Nebraskan community Black Hawk displaces the most recent struggles between the United States and American Indians (the Plains Wars) in time and locale, making it seem like the Indian wars were concluded several decades earlier (1832) east of the Mississippi (Illinois Territory). My Ántonia, therefore, literally removes the nations known generically by the whites as the Plains Indians from the territory they occupied less than a decade before Jim Burden's (and Cather's own) arrival.
Cather allows Jim only a vague acknowledgement of the people formerly living on the prairie surrounding Black Hawk: "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" (60, italics added). By limiting Jim's description of the people formerly living in Nebraska to the abstract term "Indian," Cather eliminates specific controversies affecting the Lakota and other Plains natives from his narrative. Specifically, she diminishes the controversy surrounding the 1887 Dawes Act, which, in favor of promoting further agricultural and industrial development of the Central Plains, reduced title to lands granted Plains Indians by treaty. The West, then, can be seen as settled, the indigenous inhabitants as "vanished" or subsumed as Domestic Dependent Nations under the aegis of the Republic. My Ántonia is rhetorically freed to pursue its economic interests and cultural obligations in Europe in the midst of the Great War.
Despite the romanticism with which Jim initially celebrates his annihilation of the snake, experience has provided him a more accurate lens to view the episode. In hindsight, he interprets his vanquishing of the reptile more pragmatically, as a keen legal professional who wisely understands that myriad capricious elements contribute to every victory: Subsequent experiences with rattlesnakes taught me that my first encounter was fortunate in circumstance. My big rattler was old, and had led too easy a life; there was not much fight in him. He had probably lived there for years, with a fat prairie dog for breakfast whenever he felt like it, a sheltered home, even an owl-feather bed, perhaps, and he had forgot that the world doesn't owe rattlers a living. A snake of his size, in fighting trim, would be more than any boy could handle. So in reality it was a mock adventure; the game was fixed for me by chance, as it probably was for many a dragon-slayer. I had been adequately armed by Russian Peter; the snake was old and lazy; and I had Ántonia beside me, to appreciate and admire. (47-48) As an adult, Jim recognizes that several factors irrelevant to his martial skill contributed to the lopsided defeat of the serpent. The corpulent snake had become complacent and corrupt, undeserving of the bounty from which it benefited for so long. Jim's characterization of the snake as lazy hunter echoes the reasoning of American leaders like Senator Dawes who believed the traditional hunting economies of Plains nations unsuitable to the goal of assimilation and designed legislation to force the native inhabitants to adopt an agricultural lifestyle. At the same time, Jim's unsympathetic description of the rattlesnake resembles rhetoric the American press and politicians voiced of Spain during the Spanish-American War.
Wartime understanding of the Spanish Empire was shaped by a defamatory discourse that can be traced to sixteenth-century anti-Spanish sentiment based in religious differences (Protestants versus Papists) and competition to control the seas and acquire territory in the New World. In "American Ideology: Visions of National Greatness and Racism" (1992), Michael H. Hunt describes the influence the "black legend" and "its condemnatory view of the Spanish character" exercised on the American consciousness, noting its prominence in textbooks, comics, "political rhetoric," and national policy (20). Simply put, according to the tradition, Spain was backward, negligent, and cruel: an imperial power that never grew out of feudalism. "More broadly understood," Hunt writes, "the legend stood for all those undesirable characteristics that were Spain's unfortunate legacy to much of the New World" (21).
The impact of this rhetoric relied upon the contrast drawn between the republican virtues of Anglo-Saxon powers like Great Britain and the United States and the tyranny of the Spanish Empire. Empires who fail to profit their colonial subjects have no legitimacy. Consequently, U.S. involvement in the Spanish-American War was predicated on America's duty to confer abstract benefits—namely, democracy and progress—on Spain's former colonies. Before and after the Spanish-American War, the War Hawks—including future president Teddy Roosevelt, Republican senators Henry Cabot Lodge and Albert J. Beveridge, and naval mastermind Alfred Thayer Mahan—invoked the "black legend" to rationalize America's "crusade" against Spain. The following excerpt from an 1898 justification for the war serves as a vivid example of the centuries-old Spanish rhetoric: "Spain has been tried and convicted in the forum of history. Her religion has been bigotry, whose sacraments have been solemnized by the faggot and the rack. Her statesmanship has been infamy: her diplomacy, hypocrisy: her wars have been massacres: her supremacy has been a blight and a curse, condemning continents to sterility, and their inhabitants to death" (qtd. in Hunt 21). Most commonly levied against Spain were accusations of brutality, vampirism, and neglect of her colonial possessions—charges justifying America's participation in the war. Likewise, inherent iniquity and indolence contribute to the perdition of the rattlesnake in My Ántonia. It is characterized as evil (42) and lazy (43), having preyed too long among its hapless victims, the prairie dogs and burrowing owls, through a parasitical living arrangement that mirrors the reconcentrado strategy instituted and maintained in rural Cuba by the Spanish military.
In The Reckless Decade (1995), popular historian H.W. Brands describes los reconcentrados as "Spanish established fortified camps and towns into which Cuban peasants were herded from the countryside; access to these camps was strictly controlled, with the idea that any guerrillas who came into the camps would be unable to get out and cause mischief and any person who stayed outside must be a guerrilla and therefore would be subject to capture or killing" (305). With an eye on Cuba's sugar industry, expansionists in the United States criticized Spain's handling of the rebellion, expressly attacking the policy of the concentration camps and casting the commander of Spanish forces in Cuba, General Valeriano Weyler, as the epitome of the "black legend." Weyler was depicted by William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal as a "brute" who could not contain "his carnal, animal brain from running riot with itself in inventing tortures and infamies of bloody debauchery," while Joseph Pulitzer's New York World pleaded for a "nation wise . . . brave . . . and strong enough to restore peace in this bloodsmitten land" (qtd. in Brands 307). Such one-sided accounts of the Cuban Insurrection pressured the United States to deliver Cuba from Spanish villainy, specifically the cold-blooded conduct of General Weyler. When it finally entered the fray, the United States accomplished the task in four months (April to August 1898). In the papers at least, the United States liberated Cuba and the Philippines from Spanish despotism. The war with Spain proved to be, like Jim's encounter with the sidewinder, a "mock adventure" against a once formidable adversary no longer in "fighting trim."
The imagery and language employed in the snake episode draw powerfully on the legacy of nineteenth-century American imperialism. An attentive reading of the passage reveals compelling figurative parallels to American removal/containment of the Plains tribes and U.S. participation and successful resolution of the Spanish-American War. By crushing the idle serpent with a simple sod-breaking tool used by industrious homesteaders, Jim reenacts the United States' displacement of Native Americans and Spaniards, peoples Americans have traditionally regarded as obstacles to expansion and dismissed as shiftless.
While child narrators (like Jim Burden) in Cather's fiction help authenticate the myth of manifest destiny, Cather's frequent reference to archeology and history legitimate America's position as a global power and heir to the Spanish Empire. Through allusion to archeology and invocation of epic, My Ántonia actually reinforces former Spanish claims to the American West, now inhabited by American and European settlers, only to support the transfer of imperial responsibility.
In "Selling Relics, Preserving Antiquities" (1995), Howard Horwitz recognizes that "ethnology, anthropology and archaeology—overlapping emergent disciplines—were nationalist enterprises dedicated to discovering the fundamental racial and cultural characteristics of America and Americans" (362). Jim's manuscript, likewise, serves nationalist enterprises by reflecting America's European inheritance while dismissing native influences. Although Cather introduces "the great circle where the Indians used to ride" (60) into Jim's reminiscence, he remains unable or unwilling to assign it to a specific Plains Indian people. His lack of specificity suggests an indifference to indigenous civilizations as well as an ignorance of current practices in anthropology promoted by Columbia University professor Franz Boas. By 1915 the Boasian approach, stressing intensive study of localized cultures, had begun to supplant comparative methods in anthropology that reified scientific racism so popular after Darwin. The result, as Robert F. Berkhofer Jr. notes in "White Conception of Indians," was that indigenous Americans were studied "as tribes and as cultures not as the Indian" (543). The absence of native artifacts, combined with Jim's inability to interpret traces left by Plains Indian tribes, weakens indigenous claims to the land now inhabited by definable groups of European settlers—Austrians, Bohemians, Danes, Norwegians, Russians, and Swedes—that Jim befriends in Nebraska.
In a break from study the summer before enrolling at the University of Nebraska, Jim
Burden attends a picnic with "the hired girls"—Ántonia Shimerda, Lena Lingard, Tiny
Anna Hansen—and entertains the four young immigrant women with a myth Ántonia characterizes
as "how the Spanish first came here [to Nebraska], like you and Charley Harling used to talk about" (235, italics
They sat under a little oak, Tony . . . and the other girls . . . listened to the
little I was able to tell them about Coronado and his search for the Seven Golden
Cities. At school we were taught that he had not got so far north as Nebraska, but
had given up his quest and turned back somewhere in Kansas. But Charley Harling and
I had a strong belief that he had been along this very river. A farmer in the county
north of ours, when he was breaking sod had turned up a metal stirrup of fine workmanship,
and a sword with a Spanish inscription on the blade. He lent these relics to Mr. Harling,
who brought them home with him. Charley and I scoured them, and they were on exhibition
in the Harling office all summer. Father Kelly, the priest, had found the name of
the Spanish maker on the sword, and an abbreviation that stood for the city of Cordova.
"And that I saw with my own eyes," Ántonia put in triumphantly. "So Jim and Charley
were right, and the teachers were wrong!" (235-36)
They sat under a little oak, Tony . . . and the other girls . . . listened to the little I was able to tell them about Coronado and his search for the Seven Golden Cities. At school we were taught that he had not got so far north as Nebraska, but had given up his quest and turned back somewhere in Kansas. But Charley Harling and I had a strong belief that he had been along this very river. A farmer in the county north of ours, when he was breaking sod had turned up a metal stirrup of fine workmanship, and a sword with a Spanish inscription on the blade. He lent these relics to Mr. Harling, who brought them home with him. Charley and I scoured them, and they were on exhibition in the Harling office all summer. Father Kelly, the priest, had found the name of the Spanish maker on the sword, and an abbreviation that stood for the city of Cordova.
"And that I saw with my own eyes," Ántonia put in triumphantly. "So Jim and Charley were right, and the teachers were wrong!" (235-36)As in the definitive judgment he forms upon his strained first "sight" of the prairie landscape, Jim denies the thinking that conflicts with his own "strong belief[s]" by telling his eager listeners of a Spanish stirrup and a sword unearthed by a local farmer and explaining—again, despite teachings to the contrary—that the sixteenth-century expedition of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado had come as far north as present-day Nebraska in his search for fabled riches. In a manner echoing Virgil's tracing Roman civilization to the Trojan refugee Aeneas, Cather has Jim weave a tale recognizing Coronado as the mythological father of Nebraska.
To lend credence to his interpretation of history, Jim refers to the assistance he receives restoring and interpreting the artifacts from Father Kelly and his friend Charley Harling. Mentioning these two figures lends more than an air of authenticity to his tale; it invokes the long and convoluted history of cultural imperialism. In a strategy Cather would employ later in The Professor's House, she uses a Roman Catholic priest—a living tribute to Western civilization and Christianity—to make sense of the archeological finds. Father Kelly's facility with Latin reinforces the preeminence of European culture, especially the legacy of the Roman Empire as well as the global reach of the Roman Catholic Church and, more importantly, establishes the United States as a European state culturally.
By naming Charley Harling, who entered the U.S. Naval Academy and would have been a junior officer during the Spanish-American War, Cather evokes the U.S. Navy, the deciding factor in America's 1898 defeat of Spain and its inheritance of former Spanish colonies. As Cather would have been intimately familiar with from her days as telegraph editor for the Pittsburgh Leader during the Spanish-American War, George Dewey's naval victories in the Philippines were far more instrumental in winning the war than the battles won by land forces in Cuba. Cather shapes Jim's Eurocentric sense of national and cultural identity through his association with Father Kelly and Charley Harling, champions of cultural and martial imperialism, as well as his interest in the recovered Spanish antiquities that point to a once-great European empire's former presence in Nebraska—an empire, no less, that America has now largely relieved of its colonial holdings.
My Ántonia invokes the popularity of archaeology in turn-of-the-century America and uses the recovered artifacts to suggest Spanish occupation of the West predating European contact with the native inhabitants. By doing so, Cather effectively frees Jim from concern about military and political actions during the Plains Indian Wars, including the breaking of the 1851 and 1868 Treaties of Fort Laramie and Colonel Chivington's notorious attack on unarmed Cheyennes at Sand Creek in November 1864. Jim's account can be read, therefore, as an intricate piece of sophistry ascribing intermediate possession of the American West to the Spanish. The only interpreted artifacts suggest a prima facie case for Spanish claim to Nebraska by right of discovery. America's problematic relations with the indigenous civilizations of the West can be dismissed then as historically immaterial since the December 1898 Treaty of Paris (ratified in February 1899) concluding the Spanish-American War grants to the United States possession of Spain's territories in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific.
Immediately after Jim finishes relating the legend about Coronado, he and the girls witness a curious phenomenon: a plough framed by the "molten red" of the setting sun (237). The timely vision of the silhouetted piece of farm equipment figuratively turns the swords of the conquistadors into ploughshares and triumphantly punctuates Jim's account of the wandering Spaniard, effectively reinforcing European "discovery," immigration, settlement, and agrarian development of North America with no mention of the dispossession or genocide of the indigenous population.
Alongside passages of archeological and anthropological import in My Ántonia, Cather makes several allusions to epic reinforcing the celebratory tone of this novel. Book II ("The Hired Girls") opens with a description of Jim's preparations for college, including his solitary reading of Virgil's Aeneid, Cather's hint that conventions, motifs, or formal elements of epic will be used to link late-nineteenth-century settlement to a mythic past. Cather's invocation of mythic elements is particularly effective but hardly unique among American writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Virgil, especially in his Aeneid as Sollors notes, "shaped the form of American epics" by "lending itself to a sanctioning of the further transporting west of empires" (Beyond Ethnicity 239), so it is hardly surprising that his verse appears frequently in Jim's account, strategically invoked in reverse-chronological order. The last of Virgil's poems, the Aeneid, figures most prominently in relation to Jim Burden's college preparation, while the earlier-composed Georgics are mentioned later, during Jim's first year at college. As these two texts are brought together, so are the ideas informing them: the Aeneid and its epic concern with the westward migration of empire (from Ilium to Latium) and the Georgics, with its pastoral focus on "patria," which Jim is informed by his classics professor, Gaston Cleric, should be interpreted locally, "not [as] a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born" (256).
In his lessons on Virgil's Georgics, Cleric emphasizes the significance of the local communities and landscapes subsumed by the Roman Empire; Virgil was less concerned with empire than a localized setting and culture contained within the larger state. As Jim puts it, by writing the Georgics, Virgil brought the muse to his country along the Mincio River (256). Though it seems natural that My Ántonia is Jim's attempt to do the same, he does not. Rather than bringing the muse to his country, he very literally extracts her (Ántonia and the land she personifies) like the resources and profits he draws from his interests in mines, timber, and oil. Jim's concern in My Ántonia is with nation in a global age. Cather cleverly has Jim invert Cleric's lesson by merging his patria—the farmland surrounding Black Hawk—into the "world's cornfields" that his grandfather foresaw: "It took a clear, meditative eye like my grandfather's to foresee that they would enlarge and multiply until they would be, not the Shimerda's cornfields, or Mr. Bushy's, but the world's cornfields; that their yield would be one of the great economic facts, like the wheat crop of Russia, which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war" (132). Jim celebrates the political power reflected in the economic fact of the American West. Like the ledgers kept for his various enterprises, My Ántonia charts the nation's realization of its economic and political potential.
In the passage about the "world's cornfields" Jim comments on his grandfather's ability to collapse history and see the farmland generations later. Although regarded as an uncommon ability, this destinarian vision was not peculiar to Grandfather Burden. At a fundamental level, it is the most American of capacities. As essential a contribution to success as investment capital, this prescience provides the psychological impetus and comfort necessary to undertake any new venture in peace and war, especially homesteading. Only because Jim inherited this disposition from his grandfather can he tell the story of My Ántonia.
In fashioning Jim Burden Cather renders a sophisticated performance of rurality meant
to embody the contradictions of the age in which he lives. As such, the narrator of
My Ántonia resembles no American more than Theodore Roosevelt, a figure deeply associated with
America's territorial expansion at home and abroad. Roosevelt took office in the greatest
age of American imperialism, shortly after the United States assumed possession of
Spanish territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific—an event he ardently participated
in, first as undersecretary of the navy in Washington DC, and finally as lieutenant
colonel in the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry serving in Cuba. As he was inaugurated
twenty-sixth president of the United States, American troops engaged guerrillas in
the Philippines, who were happily rid of Spain but resented America's presence. Roosevelt
would make no apologies for these activities, as is evident in the foreword he wrote
for the presidential edition of The Winning of the West:
Many decades went by after Spain had lost her foothold on the American continent,
and she still held her West Indian empire. She misgoverned the continent; and in the
islands, as once upon the continent, her own children became her deadliest foes. .
. . At last, at the close of one of the bloodiest and most brutal wars that even Spain
ever waged with her own colonists, the United States intervened, and in a brief summer
campaign destroyed the last vestiges of the mediaeval Spanish domain in the tropic
seas alike of the West and the remote East.
"We of this generation were but carrying to completion the work of our fathers' fathers."
Many decades went by after Spain had lost her foothold on the American continent, and she still held her West Indian empire. She misgoverned the continent; and in the islands, as once upon the continent, her own children became her deadliest foes. . . . At last, at the close of one of the bloodiest and most brutal wars that even Spain ever waged with her own colonists, the United States intervened, and in a brief summer campaign destroyed the last vestiges of the mediaeval Spanish domain in the tropic seas alike of the West and the remote East.
"We of this generation were but carrying to completion the work of our fathers' fathers." (ix)In this statement, Roosevelt presents U.S. participation in the Spanish-American War as the logical conclusion to generations of westward migration and cultural conflict initiated by the first Dutch and English settlers in North America. By preceding a history of American migration and settlement with an argument defending U.S. involvement in the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt merges domestic and international concerns, continental expansion and overseas colonialism. So too does My Ántonia. Cather uses Jim to frame an account of America's rise to world power, which he describes literally in realizing the vision of his "father's father," Josiah Burden.
It takes a person with a "clear, meditative eye" and "big Western dreams" to make sense of the contradictions implicit in American imperialism. Cather created Jim Burden to reconcile the nation's global mandate and its pastoral pose. The imagery and language employed throughout My Ántonia draw powerfully on the legacy of nineteenth-century American imperialism and forecast its twentieth-century consequences. Attentive readings reveal compelling figurative parallels to American treatment of Plains tribes and U.S. participation in the Spanish-American War. The snake episode, for example, parodies Theodore Roosevelt's "Big Stick Policy," his warning to powers threatening American interests in the Western Hemisphere. Jim's elimination of the aged serpent with a spade reenacts the United States' displacement of American Indians and Spaniards in the New World. Similarly, Josiah Burden's prediction of the United States becoming the "world's cornfields" reflects America's global economic and political status on the eve of the Great War—a reality the United States will eventually enter World War I to defend when unlimited German submarine warfare makes feeding the world impossible.
In Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1991), Benedict Anderson asserts, "All profound changes in [a nation's] consciousness bring with them characteristic amnesias. Out of such oblivions, in specific historical circumstances, spring narratives" (204). The period from the end of the Plains Indian Wars to the beginning of World War I marks one such oblivion in American history. The United States changed drastically between Wounded Knee (December 1890) and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand (June 1914). Clearly, new cultural and mythological "maps" would have to be drafted to address the changes brought about by America's acquisition of overseas territories. Cather's My Ántonia is one such map or mythology. From references to the political reasons for the Bohemians "natural distrust" of Austrians (My Ántonia 20) to the violence reflecting the war consciousness at the time of the novel's composition (Stout 165), the Great War asserts its presence in this narrative. But more than that, My Ántonia charts the course of American empire, from its occupation of the Central Plains in the nineteenth century to its twentieth-century obligations as a world power.