American author Willa Cather would like us to read her 1918 novel My Ántonia with classical eyes. In a revelatory passage, the narrator meditates upon a line from the Georgics, the Roman Virgil’s poem about agriculture and rural living. The line is, Primus ego in patriam mecum…deducam Musas, “I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse to my country.” And she explains the meaning,
‘Patria here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where [Virgil] was born. This is not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Musa, not to the capital, but to his own little country; to his father’s fields, ‘sloping down to the river and to old beech trees with broken tops.’
This hope, to bring the Muse to the Nebraska prairies as Virgil had to his own homeland, at once expresses both the intention of the novelist, and the inner tension of the novel.1
The titular Ántonia Shimerda is an immigrant, who spends most of her life in these prairies as they are changed from wild frontier to cultivated farmland. The narrator, who calls her “my Ántonia,” is Jim Burden, a lawyer from New York City. The narrative is Jim’s memoir of his patria.
Jim and Ántonia both arrive in Nebraska as children, on the same day, probably in the 1880’s. He is an orphan, moving with his grandparents from Virginia. She and her family are arriving from Bohemia. They are bound together by friendship from the start, though their lives take different paths. Says Ántonia to Jim, “Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.” Jim pursues learning and culture, making a great success of his high school commencement address and going on his way to study the classics at college in Lincoln and Harvard. But Ántonia, following the suicide of her father, spends her lifetime in confrontation with nature, cultivation of the land, labor, and fruitfulness.
The inscription under the novel’s title, again from the Georgics, surrounds the hope of the Muse with melancholy: Optima dies…prima fugit, “The best days are the first to flee.” Following their childhood, Jim and Ántonia come together on three occasions, each steeped in nostalgia and the memory of bygone times. They are together once before Jim leaves for college, and once again before he enters law school. This second time, Jim comes home to find Ántonia jilted, raising her child, while she continues to work the land with her family. Finally, after being away some twenty years, marrying into society, and establishing himself as a prosperous attorney for the railroad companies, he returns to Nebraska again. Ántonia is married to a man named Cuzak, and they have many children and a farm together.
Neither Georgics nor My Ántonia present as idyllic the life of those who bring life from the ground. As both Genesis and Ántonia prophesy, things are hard. The earth yields its strength, but only to sweat and sunburnt, sinewy bodies. In the novel, life and land are both fruitful and unforgiving. Winter and wolves claim their victims. But despite the cost of her way of life, on his final journey home, Jim is moved by the rich vitality still present in Ántonia:
She still had something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or a gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and harvesting at last. It was no wonder her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.
Cather’s admiring tone toward Ántonia’s agrarian life contrasts with the regretful one she takes through the reflections of Jim and about the industrialization of America that he comes to represent as a lawyer for the railroad. In contrast to his muse, at the novel’s conclusion Jim only faintly resembles his boyhood self. Ántonia’s life and fecundity reveal the sterility of his own marriage, and the railroad will bring technologically advanced but spiritually degenerate industry to the prairie gardens. Cather presents us with one of many moments of American loss of innocence, one which she herself witnessed and which her novel elegizes. The generation raised by settlers and sodbusters returns to the patria with agri-business in place of agri-culture.
Readers may want to ask whether or not the novel implicates Jim’s study of Virgil—the very study Cather expects of her readers—in his own loss of innocence. The Muse who teaches him and us to view his better days mythically, symbolically, is the selfsame spirit who alienates Jim from them. Optima dies…prima fugit is certainly not the epigraph of Ántonia’s life, but it is surely that of the narrator Jim’s. While the pursuit of culture and education grants him the abstraction to stand outside these days, to poetize their grandeur and beauty, and to lament their flight, it is this very pursuit that leads him forever away from the georgic life he so cherishes in his Ántonia.
1 Here I must name my own muse. The inspiration and much of the research for this reading I have taken from my wife, Laura Henry (née Fehr), and the Bachelor’s thesis she submitted at Bethany Lutheran College in 2008 entitled, “I Will Be the First to Bring the Muse into My Country: The Influence of Virgil on Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.”