by Willa Cather
Analysis: Writing Style
Flowery, Heavy-Handed at times, Authentic
A lot of the text in My Ántonia is devoted to lengthy, indulgent descriptions of the natural landscape. We'll take a look at a short example:
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running. (1.2.16)
Cather is all about using flowery metaphors to evoke emotion in the reader in response to the physical landscape.
One of the reasons My Ántonia is lauded is that Cather attempts to authentically portray the dialogue of the immigrants and the other locals in the American West. When Ántonia learns English, for example, we can see her pronunciation improve over the course of the novel because Cather writes her words phonetically. For example, she first pronounces the word country as "kawntree" but later loses this accent and correctly says "country." Compare these two lines, both spoken by Ántonia:
"My papa find friends up north, with Russian mans. Last night he take me for see, and I can understand very much talk. Nice mans, Mrs. Burden. One is fat and all the time laugh. Everybody laugh. The first time I see my papa laugh in this kawntree. Oh, very nice!" (1.5.2)
"A girl like me has got to take her good times when she can. Maybe there won`t be any tent next year. I guess I want to have my fling, like the other girls." (2.10.12)
In addition to the phonetic spellings, Cather uses the authentic slang words that the locals would use to describe things. Otto calls Italians "Eyetalians" (1.15.18) the country girls in town are known as "hired girls," and they call the snakes "rattlers" (1.7.13).
Cather is also careful about the way she describes the prairie itself. She often uses specific words to tell the reader about the grass or flowers or trees. For example, she describes the plain as being full of "rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as [Jim]" (1.2.13). When Jim first arrives he sees "sorghum," "fire-breaks," "box-elder trees," and a "plum-patch," all specific details that bring the story and setting to life (1.2.14).
We also get to see the culture of the time and place because Cather includes details about songs and games, as in the following passages:
Every Saturday night we popped corn or made taffy, and Otto Fuchs used to sing, "For I Am a Cowboy and Know I've Done Wrong," or, "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairee." He had a good baritone voice and always led the singing when we went to church services at the sod schoolhouse. (1.9.10)
Such disappointments only gave greater zest to the nights when we acted charades, or had a costume ball in the back parlour, with Sally always dressed like a boy. Frances taught us to dance that winter, and she said, from the first lesson, that Ántonia would make the best dancer among us. On Saturday nights, Mrs. Harling used to play the old operas for us—"Martha," "Norma," "Rigoletto"--telling us the story while she played. Every Saturday night was like a party. (2.6.5)
One of the reasons that Cather is able to be so authentic is that she based much of My Ántonia on her own childhood experiences in the town of Red Cloud, Nebraska. Many of the characters are based on real people, so we speculate that Cather most likely heard these slang words and dialects when she was growing up. She also was familiar with the different types of flowers and grass and animals around the area, which is why her descriptions are so rich.
Of course, there are a few places where Cather's "authenticity" falls short. For one, Ántonia's name is not culturally accurate. In true Czech, the name would be pronounced with the accent on the middle syllable, rather than the first, and would be spelled "Antonie." Cather also claims in Book 1, Chapter 5 that Russian and Bohemian are similar, and that Mr. Shimerda can understand Peter and Pavel. Scholar Janet Sharistanian points out that these languages "are not structurally or grammatically the same," and that "a speaker of one would be hard-pressed to translate from the other" (source: My Ántonia explanatory notes, Oxford World Classics Edition, 2006).