Willa Cather's "Nebraska of the Mind"

Aug 19, 2016

Credit Jonathan Baker

I’m Jonathan Baker, a writer in Canyon, Texas, and I’ve been asked to talk about Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

I have an addiction. I take photos constantly with my phone. Sometimes in West Texas, during a particularly epic sunset, I’ll instinctively start driving west, away from town, out where there are no buildings. Where the good views are.

Later, when I go back and look at my images, I often find I have no nostalgia for the day I snapped the photo of a particular sky. Because I was looking at my phone the whole time.

That’s why now, after I take these photos, I force myself to put down the camera and just LOOK.

But the funny thing is, I still don’t feel much when I do that. I try to muster some fuzzy feeling, but mostly I just think, Well, that’s pretty.

You can’t force a beautiful experience. And you often don’t know you’re even having one until much later. That’s nostalgia.

This summer when I was away in New York, I looked at those same pictures of West Texas sunsets, and it was then I experiences that yearning I’d hoped to feel when I was actually there, in the moment, looking at the sunset.

In My Antonia, Willa Cather uses fiction as her method of creating that distance. Cather wrote her masterpiece about the Nebraska prairie from an apartment on Bank Street in New York City. Though she certainly had the skills and fortitude to write a memoir, she instead chose to write about Nebraska through the fictionalized eyes of her protagonist, Jim Burden. And this isn’t even Jim Burden’s story. Not quite. It’s worth noting that Jim rarely uses the word “I” in the novel. This is the story of Antonia. But, it’s not quite that either. It’s the story of Jim’s Antonia. The story of a bygone Nebraska. A lost America.

We might ask, if Cather loved Nebraska so much, why didn’t she stay there? Or, why didn’t she write about it through her own eyes? The answer is that, in the same way that I only ache for the beauty of a West Texas sunset by looking at photographs in New York, Cather could only see her Nebraska through a filtered lens of distance and time and fiction. Hers was a Nebraska of the past, a Nebraska of the mind.

And, as such, her Nebraska was unobtainable. The landscape exists more in Jim’s imagination than it does in reality. Sure, Jim could get on the train and go back to Black Hawk. He could plunge his fingers into the soil or gaze at the setting sun. But the place that he knows is gone, and this is merely a simulacrum. One with more roads, more buildings, more machines in the field.

We only have to look at the novel’s most famous image to see how Cather felt. At the end of Book 2, before Jim leaves Black Hawk for college, he sees a plough silhouetted in the red circle of the setting sun. The sky grows dark, and the plough disappears from view. In this stark image, we are reminded that the empty prairie Jim has come to know will soon be overtaken by farming developments. The roads that begin to crisscross the land are another symbol of the end of the Nebraska prairie Jim loved. It’s no coincidence that the grave of Antonia’s father comes to be situated at the crossing of two roads.

In My Antonia, Cather wasn’t writing about Nebraska as it is, or even as it was. She was writing about her Nebraska. The endless prairies that occupied her dreams. And she was trying to show us that place through her novel of this immigrant girl, a woman who herself never quite stopped yearning for her lost Bohemia. Antonia may have been a foreigner, but for Jim Burden, she was Nebraska. She was the flickering prairie grass and the red sunset. She was all the things the West is: courage and optimism and grit. So, just as Cather was writing about her Nebraska, Jim was telling us about his Antonia. A woman who represented everything he had lost and could never regain. Everything about his youth that was beautiful—and elusive. A woman he had to leave to truly see.

Nostalgia isn’t always pleasant. It’s the remembrance of a place or time that can’t be recovered. And sometimes it hurts.