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My Ántonia

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Willa Cather, My Ántonia [Boston; 1918]

One thing I've learned about myself in taking on this reading project (reading my way through the acclaimed fiction of the 1910s) is that although I'm always very reluctant to read rural fiction from other nations (nothing sounds dingier or more depressing than a novel of Spanish, French, German, or Russian farm life), stories about pioneers struggling with the soil in the U.S. are always fascinating to me. Maybe it's sheer national chauvinism, or the lingering effect of ingesting Laura Ingalls Wilder at a formative age -- or maybe U.S. writers of this era, who grew up on farms and were educated in cities, were better equipped to make lasting, fully human portraits of their country's rural life than bourgeois European writers looking down their noses at the peasantry.

Anyway, Willa Cather is canonized enough that I've no need to explain why My Ántonia is great. Since I've been reading a lot of European fiction, I can recognize the (guileless?) optimism that characterizes the U.S. attitude towards life in the period, as just about everyone important ends happy and relatively prosperous. But the moment-to-moment sensation of reading the novel, the tracery of phrase and image, is so indelible, so deeply satisfying in itself that the story could be much worse than it is: Cather's prose is sturdy and strong enough to cover a multitude of sins. Only the prose of Virginia Woolf (so far in this project; translations can't count) equals her, and The Voyage Out isn't quite as good as My Ántonia; it peers deeper into minds, but does not organize them in relation to the world as successfully.

It's taken me long enough to get around to reading Willa Cather, which I should have done in high school. But I'm glad to have done it now.

October 22, 2017