in My Antonia
My Antonia might best be approached through two terms from medieval criticism: symbolism and typology. The first defines the discovery of spiritual. Significance in the things of the world; the second involves an application of the first to the Bible. Typology restricts symbolism by focusing on intrinsic relationships between biblical occurrences. For example, the Paschal Lamb and the blood Moses sprinkled on the Chosen People, set in motion a historical process completed in Christ's Passion and the New Testament covenant. When applied more generally than their medieval context, these terms bear a revealing correspondence to Antonia Shimerda and Jim Burden. Antonia's perspective is symbolic, her belief dependent on her unmediated relationship to things; however, Jim's perspective is a flawed typological one, a peculiarly American typology that draws a correspondence between experience in the New World and the Jewish experience in the Old Testament. Unlike its medieval counterpart, Jim's typology results in a redemptive vision of history, which forces historical connections in order to achieve perfection through time. Antonia, whose experience turns more on the moment than on history, stands in opposition to Jim; her symbolic vision is closely associated with a providential or cyclical conception of time. As a text, My Antonia is a struggle between Antonia's symbolic, providential outlook and Jim's flawed typological, redemptive one.
Sacvan Bercovitch's The Puritan Origins of the American Self is instructive in laying the groundwork for Jim's vision. Bercovitch traces the origins of America's obsession with national destiny from Cotton Mather through the Transcendentalists. From the beginning, Bercovitch argues, Americans broke from traditional biblical meanings and interpreted scripture to support a private view of current affairs: "They were not only spiritual Israelites, with Luther, Foxe, and all Christians," writes Bercovitch, "they were also, uniquely, American Israelites, the sole reliable exegetes of a new, last book of scripture" (113). In other words, the Puritans and their descendants transferred, for their own purposes, the symbolic significance of the Israelites, well established in the Christian tradition, into a typological significance that revealed a divine plan in the American project.
By Emerson's time, Bercovitch argues, the role of the individual imagination was liberated by the Great Awakening and less restrained by religious institutions. Emerson himself was increasingly occupied with the individual: "His every appeal to self-perfection stems from and leads into his vision of the New World future" (Bercovitch 169; emphasis added). To the Romantic tenet that "there is properly no history, only biography" (Emerson 2: 10), Emerson added that "all biography is autobiography" (8: 387) and that the American idea did not belong to historical specifics, which "would make of America another Europe," but to "the simplest and purest minds" only (5: 287). Because it persisted as idea rather than as historical fact, American typology allowed Emerson to overlook the shortcomings in his national and personal history. However, Bercovitch notes "an enormous private anxiety" underlying this affirmation of national destiny, one that Emerson recorded in his diaries (Bercovitch 178-79). Jim Burden's biography of Antonia, which is really autobiography, also attempts to forsake fact for idea, but ultimately cannot. Underneath the Emersonian surface of Jim's auto (American) biography emerges the reality of his un-American subject, Antonia; and here dwells a considerable anxiety that imbues the novel with its darker tones but eventually gives way to truth in its finest moments.
The opening chapters establish the uniquely American perspective of Jim's account. Jim has come to Nebraska from Virginia to live with his grandparents, having lost both his mother and father within a year. Many details suggest an association between Jim's journey west and the original Puritan migration across the Atlantic. Jim speaks of himself and his guide Jake Marpole setting out "to try our fortunes in a new world" (3). The baptismal waters of the Atlantic are in Jim's experience the moving prairie grass that is "the colour ... of certain seaweeds" or, like Homer's sea, "of wine-stains" (15). In the midst of it Jim feels obliterated, forgets he even has a grandmother. Trying one's fortunes here seems to mean resigning oneself to fortune, for "here ... what would be would be" (8). In an Edenic scene in his grandparents' garden, Jim experiences total resignation, the feeling of being "dissolved into something complete and great" (18).
Although Jim's childhood experience of transcendence seems beyond time and space, he increasingly depicts the supernatural as temporal, spacial, and personal. It becomes temporal when be and Antonia attribute to the stars an influence "upon what is and what is not to be" (52); it becomes spacial and personal when in looking into the "deep-seeing" eyes of Mr. Shimerda Jim "felt as if [the old man] were looking far ahead into the future for me, down the road l would have to travel" (87); it is also spacial when Jim equates America's destiny with expanding cornfields, which "were far apart in those times, with miles of wild grazing land between. It took a clear, meditative eye like my grandfather's to foresee that they would enlarge and multiply until they would be ... the world's cornfields ... one of the great economic facts" (137). Jim's rhetoric is typological because it reads into present conditions a belief in the future, and it is uniquely American because, through biblical echoes and reference to meditation, it yokes spiritual, material, and economic progress.
The development of Jim's corporate sense of destiny is matched by his growing understanding of what this destiny means for him personally; as Emerson would have it, national and personal identity are inextricable. For Jake Marpole and Otto Fuchs, who might be hearing the call of Thoreau, for whom "Westward is heaven, or rather heavenward is the west" (qtd. in Fussell 180), destiny means heading west on a prospecting journey from which they never return. Jim hears the same call, but answers it in a way that presents more challenge to his intellect and considerably less risk to his body. He becomes a railroad lawyer whose faith in and personal passion for the West figure significantly in its development; his heaven is reduced to the physical realm, a bleak eternity extending over a personal country whose heroic age has passed.
From this disappointing perspective Jim tells us the story of his life, seeking redemption in the telling. If his typology is a rhetoric of historical redemption, then it is not surprising that his account reveals a hunger for historical connection. Nor is it surprising that many of the historical connections he suggests are, like his national typology, imposed rather than epiphanic. His narrative is littered with pseudo-historical associations based on wishful thinking rather than truth: Fuchs's story about the Mormons planting Nebraska's sunflowers on their way to Utah; Nina's belief that Christ was born quite recently in Bohemia; Anna's grandmother thinking she is home in Norway. His own association of the snake with evil Wick Cutter in reading its coil as the letter "W" and his final allusion to Shimerda's suicide when Antonia's boys fall silent in the haymow "as if they had been shot" (352) are equally gratuitous. His anxiety for significance runs haywire in the account of meeting Antonia before their twenty-year separation. Jim frames the landscape with the moon on the east and the sun on the west, as if to suggest that his destiny as a forward-looking American and hers as a backwards immigrant are irreconcilable. The irony, of course, is that Jim is the one leaving the West to mastermind its development from an office in New York and from fast-moving rail cars, while Antonia will maintain an immediate relationship with it. Jim's private typology excuses his abandonment of her because it places his destiny elsewhere while allowing him to wish that the "inevitable" might have been otherwise.
Antonia and her kind stand in opposition to the typological perspective through which Jim explains himself. Their challenge to him is evident from the first line of his account: "I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America" (3). Antonia emerges as a foreign sound in the midst of the horizontal motion integral to Jim's national and personal identity. Her name comes as an interruption, an exception, a mystery like the word Selah his grandfather reads from Psalms. She presents a challenge to progress both here and when Jim visits her farm in his adulthood, an account he prefaces with, "I broke my journey at Hastings " (329; emphasis added). Earlier Jim tells us that his affair with Lena Lingard, another immigrant, had "broken up my serious mood" (288; emphasis added), and the chapter bearing Lena's name and describing their relationship cuts the novel. in two. One might read Jim's anxiety about mutilation-evident in his dream of Lena with the reaping hook, the story of the tramp falling into the thresher, Tiny Soderball's loss of three toes, the county coroner's empty sleeve, and Antonia's missing teeth-as connected to such interference as well as an extension of the American fear of physical imperfection.
In addition to offering an alternative relationship to progress in space, the immigrants also challenge Jim's concept of time. According to Jim's typology, time is the broker of eternity, the process at the end of which is redemption. As traditional Catholics, however, the Cuzaks locate the source of redemption elsewhere; time itself does not bear the same burden and thus allows for a fuller experience of the present. For Jim, then, years are "long" (331), but for Cuzak "it don't seem like I am away from [Bohemia] twentysix year" (367). Cuzak's way of living in Vienna-"day by day and night by night, sharing in the excitement of the crowd" (366)-is similar to his experience of family life on the prairie. For Jim, however, it is the years that are "crowded" (328); day-to-day life is lonely and transient. The Bohemians view time not in terms of progress, as Jim, but in cycles. When Jim asks the age of Antonia's son Leo, for example, he learns not only that the boy is twelve but that he was "an Easter baby" (333).
These different concepts correspond to underlying differences in the way Jim and the immigrants believe. Whereas Jim's belief is the product of an imagined personal / national destiny, Antonia's belief is consistently wound up with what she sees. She rejects the theory that prairie dogs take water from the depths of the earth, which she cannot see, in favor of her own: that they lap dew from the surface. In fact, she causes Jim's confrontation with the snake when she suggests they excavate one of the prairie dog holes to find out "whether they had underground connections" (44); seeing Jim kill a big snake is "enough for Antonia" (50) to make her treat him maturely. "Seeing is believing" (and believing as seeing) is the sacramental aspect of Catholicism, evident in Mr. Shimerda's sign of the cross before the Christmas tree, which Grandfather answers with a Protestantizing bow, and in Anton Jalinek's belief in the power of the Eucharist and in prayer for the dead because he has "seen too much" (106).
This dependence on sight for belief, partly due to their unfamiliarity with English, can lead to a kind of naivete that makes the immigrants dependent on others and unable to penetrate the surface of things. Antonia looks to Jim for knowledge that goes beyond what she can see: knowledge of words, of ideas, of where her father went after he died. Because she loves Jim, she is oblivious to his flaws, as she is to Larry Donovan's, and even after his insincere, past-conditional "proposal" to her at the end of Book IV, she regards Jim with "bright, believing eyes" (321). Nevertheless, Antonia deepens in her perception of things, achieving a perspective that is impossible for Jim insofar as he ignores the world as it is. At first Antonia takes consolation in Jim's belief that her father's spirit has traveled back to Bohemia, but eventually she develops an ability to communicate vertically with her father-as if through the surface of the earth-while Jim remains obsessed with the progress of Shimerda's spirit away from the grave and the position of the crossroads above it. Above all, Antonia develops a sense of purpose based not on an idea, but on where she finds herself.
The immigrant challenge to the American order of things becomes institutionalized in the Italians' weekly dances Jim secretly attends with the hired girls, and it stays with him after he leaves Black Hawk for the university. Jim's crisis in Lincoln can be seen as a conflict between the two views of history represented by Antonia and himself- providential (associated with the Old World) and redemptive (associated with America). According to the first, civilization moves westward, from Greece to Rome to Western Europe and finally to the New World, but repeats itself in cycles in which civilizations rise to prominence but eventually fall into obscurity. Americans, of course, had to revise this idea in order to escape the inevitability of decline; redemptive history, which progresses invariably toward ultimate perfection, thus replaces cyclical, enabling America to play a salvific role in the last chapter of history.
At the university Jim sits squarely between these two philosophies of history. He studies under Gaston Cleric, a New England scholar who came to Nebraska direct from Italy, where, like Virgil, he lay ill. Unlike Virgil, however, who looked back on his life's work from his deathbed, Cleric recovered from his illness long enough to become the purveyor of culture to a new patria. That Jim is the vessel for the providential tradition Cleric guards is clear from their intimate friendship and from the wall-hangings in Jim's study: "a photograph of the Tragic Theatre at Pompeii" and "a large map of ancient Rome, the work of some German scholar" (259). However, Jim's study table looks out over the prairie, suggesting the strong influence of his personal participation as a child in the American triumph over providential history. Jim tells us he could "never be a scholar" like Cleric because "I could never lose myself for long among impersonal things. Mental excitement was apt to send me with a rush back to my own naked land and the figures scattered upon it" (262).
Unable to be a scholar in the tradition of providential history, Jim is equally incapable of rejecting the knowledge of the Old World in favor of New World tradition. His description of being sent "with a rush" back to prairie life recalls the opening of Emerson's essay "The American Scholar": "The millions that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests." Emerson continues, "Who can doubt, that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in the constellation Harp, which now flames in our zenith ... shall one day be a pole-star for a thousand years? In this hope I accept the topic ... [of] the AMERICAN SCHOLAR" (1: 81-82). Declining to follow Cleric's footsteps as a classical scholar, Jim might be expected to conform to Emerson's American alternative, but he does not. Although he shares Emerson's millennialism, Jim is hardly a cultural purist. Classical influences pervade the novel, and the play that moves Jim to tears with Lena in Lincoln is French, not American. Even before his education Jim was open to the culture of the Old World. The most striking example of this is his belief that Mr. Shimerda's spirit moved, horizontally yes, but eastward, back to the old country, a clear challenge to Thoreau's association of heaven with the westward.
Jim's predicament is that while, his identity and experience are American, the cultural tradition that satisfies his aesthetic yearnings is classical and European. His passion for American literature does not seem to go beyond a "Life of Jesse James," which, he says, "I remember as one of the most satisfactory books l have ever read" (4). As for America, its "[places and people] were all I had for an answer to the new appeal" (262) of the classics. Thus, Jim finds himself with culture on one side and experience on the other. He cannot give himself to culture because it is too removed from his experience; yet his experience, though rich in the past, is spiritually limited in the present, dominated by a national and personal identity that confines him to material fulfillment. Declining, perhaps rejecting, Emerson's appeal for a pure American culture, Jim turns from scholarship to the railroad as an answer to his national obsession.
The conflict between providential and
redemptive, history is resolved, aesthetically at least, in the most memorable
scene in My
Antonia: Jim's prairie picnic with the hired girls before
he leaves for college. The girls are discussing the hardships of life in
the New World when Antonia asks Jim to tell the story of how the Spanish
first came to Nebraska. Jim tells them what he can about Coronado's search
for the Seven Golden Cities:
but had given up his quest and turned back somewhere in Kansas. But
Charley Harling and I had a strong befief that he had been along this very
river. A farmer in the county north of ours, when he was breaking sod,
had turned up a metal stirrup of fine workmanship, and a sword with a
Spanish inscription on the blade.... Fatber Kelly, the priest, had found
the name of the Spanish maker on the sword and an abbreviation that stood
for the city of Cordova. (243-44)
The scene is unique because it avoids both the pseudohistoricity of Jim's American typology and the naivete of Antonia's Old World symbolism. Jim makes an objectively verifiable connection between the historical figure Coronado and the American experience, on the Nebraska prairie, particularly that of Mr. Shimerda. The proof lies in the relics; that establish a Spanish presence in that very place. Thus Jim's "strong belief" arises-like that of Antonia, who declares triumphantly of the sword, "And that I saw with my own eyes" (244)-from the ground of experience, not from a private scheme. Yet at the same time his belief does not, like Antonia's, turn on momentary observation; his knowledge and belief embrace centuries. The epiphany that results from this typological association is the plow magnified by the setting sun, an image whose natural occurrence creates another legitimate typological connection, for the idea of a plow developing from a weapon of warCoronado's sword-is firmly rooted in Isaiah: "They shall beat their swords into mattocks and their spears. into pruning knives; nation shall not lift sword against nation nor ever again be trained for war" (2:4 NEB). The transition from sword to plow and the plow's return to obscurity on the prairie reveal the truth of the American experience-that, like any human experience, it runs in cycles and is not a self-sustaining eternity.
The power of the Coronado scene subsists
in its resolution of the novel's central tensions: the plow, successor
of the sword and symbol of American progress, is framed in the providential
circle of the setting sun. This is the same circle that frames Jim at the
end of the novel when, after stumbling upon a piece of the original road
north from Black Hawk, be realizes "what a little circle man's experience
is" (372). The unearthed relics of Coronado and the old road Jim discovers
function with the emergence of Antonia's children from the fruit cellar
in Book V to counteract the submergence of Shimerda's body in the grave.
These internal connections of physical things seen, the novel's own legitimate
typology, contribute to the actual resurrection of Jim Burden's life.
Yale UP, 1975.
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. Boston: Houghton, Sentry ed., 1961.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works. Ed. E. W. Emerson. 12 vols. Boston: