Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Willa Cather brings the Muse to her country - her use of Classical myth

Several years ago I wrote something about Willa Cather’s use of mythology, about how incidents in her novel made specific but subtle references to classical stories.  What is going on in those comments?  Cather loved Classical literature and mythology and somehow figured out how to mix it into the regional fiction that she was at first reluctant to write.  She discovered she could Write What She Knew in more than one way, and include the things she knew and loved (Ovid, Virgil) and the things about which she was more ambivalent (Nebraska).

It came over me, as it had never done before, the relation between girls like those [the Danish and Bohemian servants] and the poetry of Virgil.  If there were no girls like them in the world, there would be no poetry.  I understood that clearly, for the first time. This revelation seemed to me inestimably precious.  I clung to it as if it might suddenly vanish.  (My Ántonia, III.ii)

Jim Burden is now a college student at the University of Nebraska, escaping Red Cloud – sorry, Black Hawk – for good.  Like the actual Willa Cather, he has become a diligent student of Greek and Latin literature.  As Cather does with his fiction, I suspect he packs his memoir with references to myths.

In I.vii., young Jim, in the presence of the admiring Ántonia, slays a dragon, or Nebraska’s equivalent, a huge rattlesnake.  Is this a generic dragon-slaying adventure, mythical enough, or something more specific?  Apollo slaying Python?  And if so, which version?  Or is this one of the snakes in Virgil’s Georgics, his long poem about farming.  Where Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a guiding poem of O Pioneers!, the Georgics may (or may not) diffuse through My Ántonia:

…[Virgil’s] mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the Georgics, where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, “I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.” (III.ii)

That could be Cather’s own manifesto.  At some point I had the suspicion, or fear, that Cather was working her way through Georgics, episode by episode, but now I don’t think that is true.  But I do not know Georgics that well.

A Lost Lady is governed by Ovid rather than Virgil.  “He read the Heroides over and over, and felt that they were the most glowing love stories ever told” (I.vii).  Cather specifically tells me what I ought to be reading!  I am pretty sure that I need the Phaedra letter (the young man is Hippolytus, the lost lady Phaedra, the retired railroad man Theseus), but I will bet that there is even more to it.

This, gesturing vaguely, is there, but how much and exactly where, good question.  Most readers, I think, do not care at all.  I think they are – I am – missing something.  Maybe someday I will do the requisite work.

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