The American Promise

My Antonia (1918) by Willa Cather (1873-1947)

Humanity has often found itself on the frontier, the region “just beyond.” Living on that edge can be challenging and frightening and at the same time it can offer new opportunities. Cather’s work, written close enough historically to the unfolding of the American belief in “Manifest Destiny” reveals how a strong belief can influence human behavior, the author’s and of course that of her characters.

Today the frontier humanity faces is universal not regional or continental nor is it the frontier of outer space. It is the frontier separating illusion from reality and as usual we can learn from the art of a talented writer. “She gave herself absolutely to her chosen material, and the result was a series of books both truthful and rich with intimations of the destiny of the American continent.”  

The heroine of My Antonia, Bohemian immigrant, Antonia Shimerda, arrives on the empty, vast frontier of the plains of Nebraska as did Cather herself. Living in a “soddy” (a sod house with dirt floors and chunks of sod for walls and roof) Antonia endures stark poverty and the punishing work of farm labor. Cather believes that hard work close to nature is wholesome for those who have the spirit to endure. “And the earth, the virgin land, is in this novel the source of physical vigor and the best resource for the soul.” 

Jim Burden, an American, who becomes a lifelong friend of Antonia’s, has also arrived on the frontier from Virginia, the “civilized world” that represents the corrupting influence of civilization. Even small Nebraska towns have a Sodom and Gomorah influence compared to the interface with the almost sacred purity of living close to the land as a farmer. “Jim Burden describes his first experience of the land as a feeling of cosmic unity.” This is clearly a description of a peak experience common to the young and the naïve who have not yet smothered the True self in their pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power.

Antonia lived with a spirit of self-reliance, a belief in the goodness of creation and a resilient connection to her True self. Jim Burden says of Antonia that “everything she said seemed to come right out of her heart.”   Throughout the novel, Antonia is able to stay in touch with the healthy values inherent in those who resist the worst influences of the world of illusion (P-B).

Cather’s bias against the temptations of the “civilized” human community that has lost its connection to the wholesome influences of living close to the “Eden-like” state of relying on the land and its bounty permeates the story. “The life of the town is pinched and ungenerous. ‘People’s speech, their voices, their very glances, become furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution.’”  Fear seems to be the motive energy even in the smallest towns of Cather’s rural America. Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951 in Babbitt and Main Street) would take up where Cather left off in tracing the evolution of the fear-driven false self in middle-class America.

Antonia fled the town that she considered corrupt and like Thoreau sought the healing environment of the world of nature. “This convention [Cather’s approach to storytelling] draws from the very wellspring of American life, the democratic belief in the wholeness and self-sufficiency of the individual, that is, in personal culpability, and in the absolute value of the personal conscience.” Antonia trusted her True self to guide her in living a life grounded in compassion as she nurtured all those around her, friends and family alike.

Romanticizing the past, however, is never a good way for humanity to move forward. The American frontier was officially declared closed in 1890 and nobody would want to return to the privations and hard work of pushing that frontier from Jamestown to Sacramento but looking at reality is always enlightening. The only frontier that has had a substantial reality for humanity has always been the paradigm shift from P-B to P-A. All fear is based in the values, beliefs and attitudes that have permeated the narrative of our own choosing. So far on the frontier or in the cities of the post-modern world, we have made poor choices. Antonia has much to tell us even a century later about how close we can come to the truth when we follow our hearts.


References and notes are available for this essay. 
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *