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Contents > Author > Willa Cather > My Antonia (Introduction) 1873- 1947
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Willa Cather
My Antonia (Introduction)
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BOOK I. The Shimerdas
BOOK II. The Hired Girls
BOOK III. Lena Lingard
BOOK IV. The Pioneer Woman's Story
BOOK V. Cuzak's Boys

In memory of affections old and true

Optima dies ... prima fugit VIRGIL


LAST summer I happened to be crossing the plains of Iowa in a season of
intense heat, and it was my good fortune to have for a traveling companion
James Quayle Burden--Jim Burden, as we still call him in the West. He and
I are old friends--we grew up together in the same Nebraska town--and we
had much to say to each other. While the train flashed through
never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered
pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun, we sat in the observation car,
where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay deep over
everything. The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many
things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one's childhood in
little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating
extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy
beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the
color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with
little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as
sheet-iron. We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie
town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonry, we said.

Although Jim Burden and I both live in New York, and are old friends, I do
not see much of him there. He is legal counsel for one of the great
Western railways, and is sometimes away from his New York office for weeks
together. That is one reason why we do not often meet. Another is that I
do not like his wife.

When Jim was still an obscure young lawyer, struggling to make his way in
New York, his career was suddenly advanced by a brilliant marriage.
Genevieve Whitney was the only daughter of a distinguished man. Her
marriage with young Burden was the subject of sharp comment at the time.
It was said she had been brutally jilted by her cousin, Rutland Whitney,
and that she married this unknown man from the West out of bravado. She
was a restless, headstrong girl, even then, who liked to astonish her
friends. Later, when I knew her, she was always doing something
unexpected. She gave one of her town houses for a Suffrage headquarters,
produced one of her own plays at the Princess Theater, was arrested for
picketing during a garment-makers' strike, etc. I am never able to believe
that she has much feeling for the causes to which she lends her name and
her fleeting interest. She is handsome, energetic, executive, but to me
she seems unimpressionable and temperamentally incapable of enthusiasm.
Her husband's quiet tastes irritate her, I think, and she finds it worth
while to play the patroness to a group of young poets and painters of
advanced ideas and mediocre ability. She has her own fortune and lives her
own life. For some reason, she wishes to remain Mrs. James Burden.

As for Jim, no disappointments have been severe enough to chill his
naturally romantic and ardent disposition. This disposition, though it
often made him seem very funny when he was a boy, has been one of the
strongest elements in his success. He loves with a personal passion the
great country through which his railway runs and branches. His faith in it
and his knowledge of it have played an important part in its development.
He is always able to raise capital for new enterprises in Wyoming or
Montana, and has helped young men out there to do remarkable things in
mines and timber and oil. If a young man with an idea can once get Jim
Burden's attention, can manage to accompany him when he goes off into the
wilds hunting for lost parks or exploring new canyons, then the money which
means action is usually forthcoming. Jim is still able to lose himself in
those big Western dreams. Though he is over forty now, he meets new people
and new enterprises with the impulsiveness by which his boyhood friends
remember him. He never seems to me to grow older. His fresh color and
sandy hair and quick-changing blue eyes are those of a young man, and his
sympathetic, solicitous interest in women is as youthful as it is Western
and American.

During that burning day when we were crossing Iowa, our talk kept returning
to a central figure, a Bohemian girl whom we had known long ago and whom
both of us admired. More than any other person we remembered, this girl
seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of
our childhood. To speak her name was to call up pictures of people and
places, to set a quiet drama going in one's brain. I had lost sight of her
altogether, but Jim had found her again after long years, had renewed a
friendship that meant a great deal to him, and out of his busy life had set
apart time enough to enjoy that friendship. His mind was full of her that
day. He made me see her again, feel her presence, revived all my old
affection for her.

"I can't see," he said impetuously, "why you have never written anything
about Antonia."

I told him I had always felt that other people--he himself, for one knew
her much better than I. I was ready, however, to make an agreement with
him; I would set down on paper all that I remembered of Antonia if he would
do the same. We might, in this way, get a picture of her.

He rumpled his hair with a quick, excited gesture, which with him often
announces a new determination, and I could see that my suggestion took hold
of him. "Maybe I will, maybe I will!" he declared. He stared out of the
window for a few moments, and when he turned to me again his eyes had the
sudden clearness that comes from something the mind itself sees. "Of
course," he said, "I should have to do it in a direct way, and say a great
deal about myself. It's through myself that I knew and felt her, and I've
had no practice in any other form of presentation."

I told him that how he knew her and felt her was exactly what I most wanted
to know about Antonia. He had had opportunities that I, as a little girl
who watched her come and go, had not.

Months afterward Jim Burden arrived at my apartment one stormy winter
afternoon, with a bulging legal portfolio sheltered under his fur overcoat.
He brought it into the sitting-room with him and tapped it with some pride
as he stood warming his hands.

"I finished it last night--the thing about Antonia," he said. "Now, what
about yours?"

I had to confess that mine had not gone beyond a few straggling notes.

"Notes? I didn't make any." He drank his tea all at once and put down the
cup. "I didn't arrange or rearrange. I simply wrote down what of herself
and myself and other people Antonia's name recalls to me. I suppose it
hasn't any form. It hasn't any title, either." He went into the next
room, sat down at my desk and wrote on the pinkish face of the portfolio
the word, "Antonia." He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another
word, making it "My Antonia." That seemed to satisfy him.

"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.

NOTES: [1] The Bohemian name Antonia is strongly accented on the first
syllable, like the English name Anthony, and the `i' is, of course, given
the sound of long `e'. The name is pronounced An'-ton-ee-ah.

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