Monday, June 29, 2015

How to Make First-Person More Personal

The first time you read Huckleberry Finn, you were not ready to consider anything except the inevitable way the author pushed the character deeper into adventure.  You were convinced of the authenticity and motives of the character.  Nothing else mattered.  Huck and Jim may have been traveling on a raft, the run-away slave Jim may have been progressing deeper into slave territory rather than away from it.  

None of that mattered, nor did some of the nomenclature of storytelling you'd discover soon enough:  Huck Finn was narrated in the first person point of view. Huck may have had some choice comments about Mr. Mark Twain, who wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but you knew this time it was Huck talking, not Mr. Twain.

You also knew how much closer you felt to Huck than Tom, in part because the narrative came directly from Huck, but as we get to know both boys from their actions and behavior, the choice becomes quite clear, and so do the meanings and nuances that separate them.

You knew your way around a few big-ticket terms by the time you got to Willa Cather's novel, My Antonia.  You began with negative feelings because it was set in a place of no interest to you.  By then you'd had enough experiences being, as the writer-publisher-editor Sol Stein described it, taken somewhere you had no intention of going.  

By then, you'd had experience with another first-person narrative, Great Expectations.  This novel had some ending problems as well, you'd heard, causing there to be another ending, more solicitous of the protagonist, Pip.  You admired the use of narration.  You could not see Mr. Dickens' presence here in asides and summary, as you could in some of the other Dickens titles you read.

By the time My Antonia came along, you still liked Huck more, but were beginning to consider how first person narration kept the author out of the story while presenting a closer, more intimate experience with a story.

When you began to see the delicious designs and intent behind My Antonia, you could scarcely keep your seventeen-year-old self under control.  Because of Cather's remarkable sleight-of-hand with the narrative, you realized how empowering her novel was.  You did not use that word, much less consider it, instead, you began to understand the kinds of thought and execution necessary before a novel would come to life in your hands.

Cather's device captured you.  There she was, for a while a narrator, for all practical and dramatic purposes, herself.  This made her an easy narrator to trust.  She now lived in New York, but had roots in Black Hawk, Nebraska.  So did her fictional contemporary, Jim Burden, who grew up there with his grandparents, Josiah and Emmaline.

Jim is a successful lawyer in New York, married to an influential family but not in a loving relationship with his wealthy wife.  This is a subtle but important point.  Cather is herself, a respected and talented editor, on the verge of writing her own distinctive work, much of which pays tribute to Black Hawk in particular, but the Prairie in a loving tribute of generality.

They are riding back to New York after each had come to Black Hawk for a visit. Passengers on a long train ride, they begin to reminisce about their childhood in Black Hawk, and one remarkable family of Bohemian immigrants, the Shimerdas.  Their attention is drawn back to "Tony," Antonia Shimerda, her great appetite for life and her qualities that define her as an exceptional person.

By this point, you are ready to fall in love with Antonia, but the learning process still awaits you.  Cather and Jim Burden agree to write notes of their Antonia memories, then share then at a later time in New York.  A few weeks later, Burden shows up at Cather's apartment, a thick sheaf of notes.  Cather confesses she has none.  Burden extends his sheaf of manuscript.  "Here," he says, "is my Antonia," and now we know not only why the novel is called My Antonia, we are switched to Burden as a narrator, a seamless shift from Cather to her invented character, Jim Burden.

But there is yet more to absorb here.  The subtext of Jim Burden's accounting of Antonia Shimerdas extends well beyond mere admiration, to the point where you began rooting for him to see the shallowness of his own life and the potential for a deeper happiness with Antonia.

Even at your relatively young and much more romantic visions, you could see how such a union would turn a remarkable story into a forced, comedic kind of ending, and you'd already begun to dread the endings of some of the novels you were reading.  (You'll spend a few paragraphs on this same theme when you come to Walter Scott's novel, Ivanhoe.)  Cather knew how to manage that difficult quality within a narrator of reliability and honesty.

The last time you read My Antonia, perhaps two years ago, you were running through focal points to present to the class for which you'd assigned it.  At one point, you felt the tug of sadness that Burden and Antonia did not recognize the spark of romance you saw for them.  Then you realized with a certainty that Cather had not only forborne to have these two likable characters connect, she intended for some of Antonia's readers to feel the same way.

Because of its use of Burden, a man who could well have thought to step in, and declare himself to Antonia, the novel helps us see Antonia Shimerdas as more than a single person.  Along with her exquisite prose that makes the Prairie come to life, Cather asks us to see Antonia as an incarnation of the Prairie, with the great, vigorous immigrant vitality and capacity to endure the hardships of which the Prairie can inflict.

Twain caught you with narrative voice and a sense of using first person narration to tell the best possible version of the story.  Cather does the same in Antonia, adding to Twain's love of the river her own special feel for a part of the country you'd written off as a dull blur.  Sometimes, when you want to convey a sense of place, you pick up Antonia, read at random, close your eyes for a few moments, then listen to the surroundings in your story.

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