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. 65-70.


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


Romanticism is fundamental to My Antonia, shaping the attitudes that control its structure, style, and narration, as well as its expectations of a reader. I immediately face a dilemma in teaching this romanticism, however, for most of my students haven't even the most rudimentary understanding of what romanticism is. They have negative associations of something emotional, irrelevant, and backward-looking; asked for details, they describe surface features that vaguely concern poets brooding about nature. Almost none understands romanticism as a way of knowing, by which individuals use their imaginations to create value in an otherwise meaningless world (Rosowski, Voyage).

Happily, Cather provided in her introduction a romantic poetics of fiction, a starting place for her readers-and our students. After explaining that the introduction exists in two forms (the original, 1918 version and the condensed but otherwise unaltered 1926 version that students have in their paperback editions), I distribute copies of the 1918 version, in which Cather makes an agreement with Jim Burden: "I would set down on paper all that I remembered of Antonia, if he would do the same." Cather emphasizes again the distinction between her story and Jim's in two sentences at the end of the original introduction. After Jim brought to Cather his manuscript, he said it hadn't any form or any title either: he wrote "Antonia," then "frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it 'My Antonia.' That seemed to satisfy him." Thus ends the 1926 version, but in 1918 Cather had included two additional sentences: " 'Read it as soon as you can,' he said rising, 'But don't let it influence your own story.' My own story was never written, but the following narrative is Jim's manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me."