English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Approaches to Teaching Cather’s My Ántonia, edited by Susan J. Rosowski (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1989), pp. 58-64.


Copyright © 1989 by The Modern Language Association of America. Used by permission.


When I assign My Antonia, I teach it to the sons and daughters or more distant relatives, in blood or spirit, of the people it treats. I have had relatives of Mrs. Pavelka in my classes, citizens of Red Cloud and Wilber, Czechs who still retain their Czech culture, and classicists at the University of Nebraska who study what Cather studied here. It is thus impossible entirely to make the work of art defamiliarize the experience, as Shklovsky would have it do, nor would I want it to remove the students from their pasts and knowledge of family or milieu (Shklovsky). Indeed, I try first to place them firmly in their own history and ask them to act on that history. But I also seek to introduce them to literary meanings that Cather asks us to see from afar; I use My Antonia's references to the classics, to Vergil's Aeneid and Georgics, to distance them from the parochialism of Nebraska and help them see their history as part of a pattern experienced by travelers and immigrants before, one often repeated on the long corridor of time and discovered there by Homer and Vergil. ... Jim Burden's experience of Antonia is a heroic reliving of the Aeneid or Odyssey. Yet the novel has a different ending from the old epics. What My Antonia finally values is not heroic military enterprise, as found in World War I, in 1870, or in the founding of Rome-not the work of Thanatos, but that of Eros. The novel's heroic work requires planting grains and gardens and raising livestock--the stuff of the Georgics. ... Cather, in the context of the imperialism of World War I, creates a hero in Antonia who is like the founder of early races but looks forward to no empire and loves no fight save the fight for survival.