Tuesday, January 05, 2010

My Antonia--Part 2

There is a notorious and horrible story in the first part of the book involving an incident with a Russian sledding party that was set upon by wolves that resulted in a couple of men's having to flee their village and emigrate to Nebraska. Apart from the horrors of the story itself, it struck me as an illustration of the dangers that can exist when people are dependent on animals (i.e., the horses' reaction to the wolves) rather than machines, which I had never really considered before.

Chapter IX: "Fuchs had been a cowboy, a stage-driver, a bartender, a miner, had wandered all over that great Western country and done hard work everywhere, though, as grandmother said, he had nothing to show for it...they were the sort of men who never get on, somehow, or do anything but work hard for a dollar or two a day."

Chapter XIII: "All day the storm went on...That afternoon the kitchen was a carpenter shop; the men brought in their tools and made two great wooden shovels with long handles." This is what I should do the next time one of my mass-produced cheap plastic shovels breaks. I go through a lot of them. I don't seem to have the woodworking instinct--I have no idea how one would go about doing such a thing--but oh wouldn't certain people be impressed if they found out I had made my own shovels? Well, probably not actually.

Chapter XIV: On the prospect of taking one of the horses out for a hard ride in a bad winter to take food to a starving family: "This is no time to be over-considerate of animals."

Chapter XV: "It was impossible not to admire his frank, manly faith." This passage I evidently found inspiring, and thought it was a excellent reminder of the real benefits of reading, that it helps to keep us in some contact with various heights attained by the human spirit as well as intellect, etc.

Chapter XIX: Opening paragraph about the corn fields of Kansas and Nebraska being "one of the great economic facts...which underlie all the activities of men, in peace or war" is a good one. I am sure all men and women who are not of an utterly sour disposition like to read beautiful, optimistic accounts of their own country and people.

Book 2, Chap. II: "With Charley, who was not interested in business, but was already preparing for Annapolis, Mr Harling was very indulgent." The Great Books program not having yet been instituted at SJC at this time, I presume 'Annapolis' refers to the Academy. I like how that is what is offered to a young man as an alternative to business. Really, as hard as it is, they ought to be bred up to something. I wasn't bred up to anything, and it does put one in a rather hard state in one's 30s and 40s. I have four boys myself now, and I really need to use my noggin to try to figure out what ought to be, or even if anything can be, made of them according to the somehow highly stringent requirements of the current world.

Chapter VI: "I can remember how glad I was when there happened to be a light in the chuch, and the painted glass window shone out at us as we came along the frozen street." Memories of youth in an old frozen town! Even decrepit middle age has its charms in such towns, but to be young, and I imagine especially to be young and beautiful in such a place, imagining yourself in your current state of greatness both realized and still waiting eagerly to be tapped as formed in large part by the vagaries of the climate, now that is a cause for warm and happy sentiments!

Chapter VII. A black singer passes through town. The description of him, alas, fails the racial sensitivity test: "It was the soft, amiable Negro voice...with the note of docile subservience in it. He had the Negro head too; almost no head at all; nothing behind the ears but folds of neck under close-clipped wool. He would have been repulsive if his face had not been so kindly and happy." Otherwise, the importance of music and pianos in the life of this isolated outpost is positively well-conveyed in this chapter.

Same chapter: "...he thought his wife a wonderful woman; he knew that without her he would hardly be more than a clerk in some other man's hotel." This is more or less what people say about me, if they bother to say anything at all.

Chapter IX. Now we are getting into high school and dances and desiring people and all that, which never fails to get me into a lather too. Now it is no secret, and is pretty obvious to anyone reading the book in our enlightened times, that Willa Cather is solidly of the lesbian persuasion, an issue she handled somewhat ingeniously in this novel by making her narrator a male. While in the author's imagination it is probably safe to assume that the sturdy farm girls the narrator prefers to the delicate, less physically active daughters of the local professional class tend more toward the stoutish, butchish side than most straight males have a taste for, it is not written in such a way that one cannot project a very attractive idea of one's own upon the descriptions of these girls that are given:

"All the young men felt the attraction of the fine, well-set-up country girls who had come to town to earn a living...to help the father struggle out of debt, or to make it possible for the younger children of the family to go to school."

"When one danced with them (the more pampered high school girls) their bodies never moved inside their clothes; their muscles seemed to ask but one thing--not to be disturbed." I frequently had a similar sensation on the rare occasions when I could get girls to dance with me.

"...sometimes a young fellow would look up from his ledger, or out through the grating of his father's bank, and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard, as she passed the window with her slow, undulating walk, or Tiny Soderball, tripping by in her short skirt and striped stockings." Oo la la! I can't even decide which one I would want first!

Although Willa Cather was not an immigrant, this book is largely an immigrant story; they have the energy, the drive, they are for the most part the people who are in the ascendant in the book. I admit I am a sucker for a good, positive immigrant story, as long as with the contrast between the hard working, optimistic newcomers and the spoiled, lazy, ignorant native population is kept to a modicum. Unfortunately my own immigrant relations, the ones anybody can remember anyway, largely Lithuanian, seem to have been dull as dust, and, while hard-working and well-behaved enough, there was nothing especially spectacular about them. They were not vibrant, in other words, which is one of the qualities immigrants are said to be continually contributing to American life, which would otherwise be stagnant and lifeless, though probably still functional. My grandparents and great-grandparents went straight to stagnant and functional, skipping vibrant altogether.

Chapter XI. Here is the money-lender who took in Swedish serving-girls, which sounds like the kind of thing I would not mind doing myself: "He was notoriously dissolute with women. Two Swedish girls who had lived in his house were the worse for the experience. One of them he had taken to Omaha and established in the business for which he had fitted her. He still visited her." Wow.

Chapter XII. This would have been me in Red Cloud, Nebraska, circa 1890: "...often went down to see the night train come in, and afterward sat awhile with the disconsolate telegrapher who was always hoping to be transferred to Omaha or Denver, 'where there was some life'. He was sure to bring out his pictures of actresses and dancers. He got them with cigarette coupons, and nearly smoked himself to death to possess these desired forms and faces."

1 more short post on this outstanding book.

No comments: