Monday, June 21, 2010

Hurrah! The murder!

Current book: My Antonia
Pages read: Guest post - chapters 19 - end

Guest Post 2 - From Fish

I never mentioned Otto and Jake, the farmhands who were as older brothers to Jimmy, even though they were interesting. Jake got into a fight with Ambrosch but was the better man about it and Otto had all the marks of a former outlaw, I should think. Perhaps they are most important for the reminder that in those days, people would just go out of your lives forever, like a light going out. The Burdens received one letter from them and then nothing ever again.

I confess I read through the rest in a rush. Jimmy, bored with sleepy small-town life, gets a bad reputation from associating with the telegraphers and the railroad men and sneaking out after his grandparents went to sleep to go to dances on Saturday nights. After seeing his grandmother crying at his deception, he cleans up his act, but is still as bored as ever. He redirects much of this into his studies, Latin especially.

There's opportunity to draw interesting conclusions about the rural lives of immigrants in the period, at least insofar as pertains to Antonia's station. She and the other oldest girls of immigrants are hired help around town. Three of them are most prominent in the story, Antonia, Lena and Tiny, with Norwegian Anna sometimes rounding out the foursome, and then the four Dutch washing girls and the three Bohemian Marys. Each of them is much admired for their spirit and beauty, but all are scorned socially. Not the marrying kind.

I had a scare when a group of men demanded that they dance with them when a blind pianist was in town, and again when a town boy stole a deep kiss from Antonia three days before his wedding. We all know what kind of ugliness might have occurred. Black Hawk, NE produced a frightening frequency of despoiled hired girls, including the Bohemian Marys, and nearly Antonia herself. (A technicality: her despoilment happens elsewhere.)

After the kissing incident, Mr. Harling tells Antonia she has to stop going around to dances or stop working for him. Antonia, knowing full well she'll have few enough chances for that kind of fun in her life, holds on to them with fierce determination, and leaves Mrs. Harling and her children, who she loves very much, and goes to work for the town loan-shark and girl-despoiler, Wick Cutter. (Does that sound like a sick turn on a biblical passage to other people?)

She becomes a bit of the town tragedy, since everyone was so fond of her, but she had burned her bridges with the Harlings, and seems also heedless of her virtue. At length, the Cutters go out of town and Wick undertakes a great deal of manipulation to ensure that Antonia will be in his house, alone, when he comes back in the night unexpectedly. Antonia is spooked by his strange requests in his absence and goes to Jimmy's grandparents, who has Jimmy stay the night instead of she. Well, Cutter comes home to ravish Antonia, and there's a pretty severe scuffle between Wick and Jimmy, who goes out through a window face first.

Seeing how obvious it was that Cutter's only motive was to have Antonia's virtue, I was really aggravated that neither Jimmy nor Antonia nor the Burdens made any move against him. It goes to show how little an immigrant girl's modesty meant to the rest of the town, which is scary as hell. Well, that and we find out later that Cutter was stupid rich and it would have been a nightmare if they'd gone after him.

Jimmy goes off to school, reads Virgil and Dante, learns that he doesn't have the stuff to be a scholar, and finds the more he learns about the wide, wide world, the more it seems to be populated by the things he knew back home. Lena moves to Lincoln where he's going to school, and they start going out, sort of, and his studies get shot to hell. Eventually, Lena tells him she never wants to be married and Jim goes to Harvard to be a lawyer.

Back in Black Hawk, Antonia falls in love with a lying rapscallion train-ticket-taker person who she goes to Denver to marry, and he loses his job, leeches off her traveling funds, lies to her about everything, gets her pregnant and disappears to Old Mexico to scalp the rail company and the customers and get rich off both. In other words, a real winner. Antonia goes back to Ambrosch's clutches, has the baby with little fanfare, and is generally ruined.

Time passes. Jim travels. Antonia marries a nice Bohemian man and they have a jillion children, who Jim meets when he goes to visit her finally, 20 years later. Antonia is still full of love and life and her children are loving and good, and her husband is a decent, earnest fellow who loves Antonia more than farming but misses city life. Her kids are a sort of reprise of the people we met in the first half of the story, representing, I guess, the good Antonia brings out in people as well as the circle of life, ahem, as it were.

Lena is interesting, as a foil to the people around her, and I feel bad for her because that's all Cather does with her. Well, she does become the premiere dressmaker in Lincoln, so that's something. Tiny makes it up to Alaska during the gold rush, gets rich, loses some toes and moves to San Fransisco and eventually gets Lena to move out with her. Neither of them ever marries, and Tiny makes sure Lena's accounts stay black, and Lena makes sure Tiny never looks too shabby. I thought this was a pretty adorable touch.

Wick Cutter commits a very determinedly orchestrated murder-suicide so that his wife who he basically hates can't get any of his estate when he dies. Antonia's oldest son recounts the story to Jim and as he begins the children exclaim: 'Hurrah! The murder!' Which was awesome, but I'm not sure what it did, literarily.

That is really how I felt the whole time: what is going on here that is literarily important? It was kind of a novel version of those lazy river rides at water parks. Even Antonia's despoilment is told from afar and without much emotion.

It's got some uncomplicated presentations of class-race interactions, but without any directed analysis or commentary. It's got some literature and theatre, but neither Jim nor Lena are equipped to understand the real significance, and so really nothing comes through them to us. Jim repeats a Latin phrase to us, 'Optima dies... prima fugit.' which is translated to mean "in the lives of mortals the best days are the first to flee." I should hope that it is meant to tie into Antonia some way, but she is just as happy and alive as she was when we first met her. And I think Jim is also satisfied with his life. Sure, he misses their youth together, adventuring on the plains, but they've both had good lives, his perhaps more adventurous than hers, but she had wanted to have a farm and a big family, so I won't hear of his judging her life to have been misspent.

The wisest thing Jim ever recounts is when he explains to his schoolmates that the immigrants around town weren't ignorant and stupid just because they spoke English poorly - some of them had been musicians or magistrates or clergy, but the townspeople don't ever care. Oh, small-town America, how little you've changed.

It was an easy, fun read. It was written from two disadvantaged literary camps, American writers and women writers, and it won hearts and minds for both. It talks much more about the roles of pioneer women than anyone had seen at the time, which I suppose I take for granted now.

It's a conundrum - someone publishes something seminal and profound that changes its section of the world, but as the years go by, the effect and strength is diminished until one wonders why we keep it around anymore. How do we balance original impact with staying power? I'm a philosopher, and I grapple with this when I read primary texts. The ancient Greeks seem banal and out of touch now, but they lit a light in the world. Willa Cather's novel did the same, but what a subtle light, and what a gentle lesson.

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