Artist: Willa Cather & Houghton Mifflin Company
Title: My Ántonia
Date: 1918; copyright renewed 1977
Culture: American Literature
Provenance: Given to EAH by her mother in July of 1987
I recently found myself thumbing through my old copy of My Ántonia and felt an unexpected ache. I’m sure this is partly because I associate the book with my mom, who admired Willa Cather so much that my family took a pilgrimage to her Nebraska homestead one summer when I was a kid. But there are several other layers of meaning embedded in this object that I’ve only just come to understand thirty-three-years later.
On the one hand, I simply love the story. I learned at an early age to revere books, and to this day I love to hold a new book in my hands, eagerly anticipating the magic it will reveal. There’s so much excitement in books—in wondering what you’ll experience as you read and how that experience might transform you. On top of that, there’s the feeling that you will be joining a sort of club by reading a new book. There is a sense of communion involved in reading that can be truly thrilling. Of course generations of readers have discussed this already. I still feel that reverence when I contemplate this book, even having read it multiple times.
When my family took its pilgrimage to Willa Cather’s homestead, my mom bought me this paperback copy of My Ántonia. I was only seven, so she inscribed it “For Ellen for someday.” She even plucked a wildflower from the nearby meadow and pressed it into the pages of the book, forever preserving a piece of that hot summer day on the Nebraska plains for me. I was oddly excited to have this book waiting for me. It moved around with me and lived on the bookcases in my various bedrooms, a trusty and patient friend. It slowly came to take on an almost talismanic role in my life. My mom had a knack for knowing ahead of time the gestures that would have a lasting impact.
When I finally gave the book a stab at age thirteen or so, I slogged through it, determined to finish and appreciate it. Most of it was lost on me. At seventeen-ish I had another go and picked up on a bit more. A few years ago, I read it again, finally, I like to believe, appreciating its beauty and nuance. I felt I’d joined the club of people like H. L. Mencken, whose blurb on the back of the book reads, “No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia.”
Here I am, living day eight million of the Covid-19 quarantine, and I feel the pull of this book so strongly it’s almost eerie. Why this book? Why now?
I think it’s partly because I’ve always been drawn to turn-of-the-century American history and literature. Although I know my perspective is a bit warped and romanticized, I associate a sense of optimism and progress with the America of that era, in spite of everything that was so utterly wrong: from the recent Indian wars to World War I, from systemic racism to the Spanish Flu. In spite of all of this, I see a world that sought to shake off its sins and make a better world. And so that period in history fills me with a childlike excitement, as though we’re talking about mythical forests inhabited by sprites. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel we were living in an America that wanted to make the world better for all of its people? To shake off its sins? To think of America as a place of hope and optimism?
The book’s setting also lures me: It promises to take me to its wide-open prairie with its soft, rolling meadows that meet endless skies at the horizon. The open spaces of the plains suggest such a sense of freedom in my imagination that it makes me feel almost euphoric. The absence of mountains or trees or buildings or throngs of people, which seems austere to some, feels utterly freeing to me. Living in quarantine with my husband, our two kids, and our two cats in an urban neighborhood, unable to get out and do anything, I guess it’s not surprising that I’m hearing the siren song of the prairie.
And so, on day eight million and one of Covid-19 quarantine, here I am, considering rereading this excellent book. But I realize that it’s not really Ántonia’s story that I’m interested in at all. Instead, I want to hold this soft, wrinkled paperback in my hands and remember my mother and the way she made our trip to Red Cloud Nebraska stay alive forever. I want to weave myself into the words of one of America’s greatest writers. I want to let my imagination wander among the softness of Midwestern meadows with their dust and wildflowers and blazing sun. I want to live in an America that I imagine to be fundamentally good and just.
Toward the end of the book, as the narrator looks out on a road he once traveled with Ántonia, he says, “The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is.”
In a sense this book—this paperback object with its wrinkles and masking tape patched spine—is much like that road for me. It embodies something beyond itself and alludes to the roads that I’ve traveled. My own history is entwined with the book, which suggests “the sense of coming home to myself.”