Wednesday, October 29, 2014

One Man's Fancy

For most of your junior high school and high school careers, you were busy trying on attitudes as though they were suits in a two-for-the price-of-one sale.  Many of these attitudes went out of style before your eyes, while others fit you with the same whimsicality as the suits in two-for-one sales.  Still others of these attitudes became clear examples of wrong fit.

True enough, you came out of high school a different person than when you entered, but that didn't in any way mean you'd found a proper fit.  From this position of retrospect, you see the possibility--to continue the analogy--of having to consult a tailor however you emerged from high school.  

However you attitudes were at that time, those aspects of you have evolved to your present state, where you note similar difficulties finding a proper fit with contemporary attitudes.You may have changed, but the change was in type.  You may be more complex now than you were, but there is no running away from the you who was, any more than you will be able to run from the present state of you at a time in the future.

One certainty prevails:  you are a happier person now than you were then, in considerable measure because you have, by some design, some chance, and outward guidance, worked repairs and innovations in appropriate attitudes.

The repair of this particular observation was your association and subsequent friendship with a book first presented to you in high school, a book you were at considerable pains to avoid.  After these years away from high school, you have different approaches to avoiding things.  Your excuses and what passed for logic required a more complicated bill of accusation than your avoidance mechanisms of today.

The book in question is My Antonia by Willa Cather; it will be placed in the list of one hundred novels you believe you had to have read in order to have any hope of success at the career of your choice.  Your major excuse for not having read it is an embarrassment made all the more profound by your rereading of it, recognizing techniques and qualities you missed during your first batch of enthusiastic reading, then discovering narrative tools you are still at pains to master.

At the time My Antonia first came your way, you were dismissive because it was a girl's book.  When you went into publishing, you learned how important this aspect was.  Girls' books sold more than those written for boys.  And there was this matter:  often boys' books were bought by mothers, sisters, aunts, and grannies for their male relatives.  

Best find ways to get used to it, one way of which is to read and edit girls' books.  There were two or three times in your career as a writer where you had to be a girl writer, or so you thought, for the same reason you were led to believe a writer of fiction with the name of Lowenkopf would not be taken with seriousness because, in fact, many novels of the Western category are so lacking in humor.

Published a bit short of a hundred years ago, My Antonia has a narrative voice that amazed you with its sense of freshness from other books written in that era, meaning in the most positive and distinct terms how the authorial presence was maneuvered in such a way that it struck you as nonexistent.  Cather is playing the part of herself, a Nebraska-raised youngster whose abilities and education took her east to New York

The Cather of My Antonia was a product of the Prairie, loving it and proud of her roots there, but aware how integral New York was to her career and life style.  With a bold move, she created another Prairie-based individual to be her spokesperson, someone who also had made a life for himself in the East, who had in fact married for position and wealth.  This last stroke speaks to some of Cather's storytelling genius.  Jimmy, her narrator, in one stroke will be seen as the one longing for the eponymous Antonia instead of his wife.

The "my" of the title carries the double entendre of romantic connection, although its actual intent was that each of the two former Nebraskans, Cather and her made up Jimmy, were to write a document about Antonia.  Cather confesses she'd scarcely addressed the note-taking stages of the project.  Jimmy, on the other hand, has rushed to complete his reminiscence, of Antonia.  When he delivers his version to Cather, he says, "Here is my Antonia."

First time through, you were aware of something Jimmy was perhaps not aware of--his respect, admiration, and perhaps unspoken love for Antonia, an ethnic transplant to the small farm community from which she, Jimmy, and Cather emerged.  Antonia is in effect the embodiment of The Prairie and, if you wish, of the resilient, working class American woman.

Second time through, even though you knew the ending was set in stone, you were rooting for your own ending, even while recognizing its phony sentimentality.  You wanted Jimmy to be with Antonia because you wished to be.

Small wonder then that you want this novel on your list, happy to have overcome the things within you that caused you to keep the work at arm's length for another twenty years.  You listen to yourself while presenting the book in class, pointing out passages,asking the students what they think a particular event or response means.

Antonia is a remarkable character, all the more so because she hasn't the faintest ideas she's being eavesdropped on.  You would never have supposed yourself to become so involved with her to the point where, Jimmy's Antonia she may be, but she is yours as well.

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