Author: Willa Cather

eNotator: Barbara Bedell

eNotated My Antonia from eNotatedClassics on Vimeo.


The eNotated My Antonia

Based on the 1918 edition of My Antonia and including eight original illustrations and twelve additional images, this eNotated edition extends Cather’s writing by providing a new layer of information behind the text the reader can access before, during, and after each chapter.

For instance, in Chapter 15, when Cather uses the term "goods-box," Bedell's eNotation tells us Cather means “A box of wood used for shipping food, clothing, equipment, and the like, common before the advent of pasteboard cartons."

Additional material includes a Cather timeline, an events timeline, a Nebraska pioneer history, and essays on three themes expressed in the novel: TIME - The Incommunicable Past; NARRATOR - The Road to the Past; and ELEGIAC - The Wind's Bitter Song.

My Antonia, one of the great novels of America pioneer life, reveals, according to Bedell, "the constant worry about basic survival; the circumstances of desolation and isolation, particularly for the foreign-born; the relentless heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter; and the plight of rural and small-town women." Cather gave witness to "this particular time and place in such a way that she, too, became a pioneer--this time with her realistic, honest, and forthright portrayal of a period of the American experience that elevated her to a prominent place in our literary tradition."

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About Willa Cather

Time forever gone

Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate English major at the University of Iowa, I took a survey course in American Literature; one of the assigned texts was Willa Cather's My Antonia. I liked the novel on this initial reading, but the book soon found its way to one of the bottom shelves of my library where it languished for lack of interest. It was only when I agreed to do an eNotated version of Cather's novel for eNotated Classics that I became acquainted with the book once more, and to my surprise, I fell in love with this deeply moving story of settlers in 1880s Nebraska. Because I lived for over thirty years on the Nebraska border, I could easily imagine the power of the land and the realities of frontier existence these early pioneers endured: the constant worry about basic survival; the circumstances of desolation and isolation, particularly for the foreign-born; the relentless heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter; and the plight of rural and small-town women. Cather gave witness to this particular time and place in such a way that she, too, became a pioneer--this time with her realistic, honest, and forthright portrayal of a period of the American experience that elevated her to a prominent place in our literary tradition.

I know of no other novel, except F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, that better conveys a sense of loss of what America once was. In Fitzgerald's masterpiece, the narrator Nick Carraway comes to learn that Jay Gatsby's dream--the American dream--is already behind him. "And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night."

Similarly, the feelings that Cather's narrator Jim Burden expresses in regard to Antonia as they part for the last time carry the weight of a time forever gone: the innocence of childhood lost, the landscape forever altered and changed, the promise and hope of America now diminished by the past. "We reached the edge of the field, where our ways parted. I took her hands and held them against my breast, feeling once more how strong and warm and good they were, those brown hands, and remembering how many kind things they had done for me. I held them now a long while, over my heart. About us it was growing darker and darker, and I had to look hard to see her face, which I meant always to carry with me; the closest, realest face, under all the shadows of women's faces, at the very bottom of my memory. . . . As I went back alone over the familiar road, I could almost believe that a boy and girl ran along beside me, as our shadows used to do, laughing and whispering to each other in the grass." It is no coincidence that the last word in both Fitzgerald's and Cather's novels is the "past," the past which is now compromised by the present with little hope for the future.

Perhaps one needs time and experience to recognize the importance of certain works of literature such as Willa Cather's masterpiece--time and experience in which one is able to recognize the past with a minimum of nostalgia and sentimentality, to comprehend personal loss and physical as well as emotional displacement, and to understand fully what has happened to the prairie of Nebraska, the people who settled there, and the original promise of the greatness of America. My Antonia fulfills all this and more for the contemporary reader.

Barbara Bedell


About eNotator Barbara Bedell
Barbara G. Bedell was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and lived for over thirty years in northwest Iowa before moving to Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. She received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English from the University of Iowa and completed a Master's Degree summa cum laude in English Literature with an emphasis in Medieval Literature from the University of South Dakota. For almost twenty years, Bedell taught a variety of courses in the English Department of Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, including College Writing, Introduction to Literature, and survey courses in American Literature. Idylls of the King is Bedell's second eNotated Classic, preceded by Willa Cather's My Antonia.
 

Reviews

From Book Chase September 05, 2012
My Antonia - The eNotated Edition

Willa Cather’s My Antonia is a classic, one of the “prairie tales” for which Cather is most famous. The 1918 novel relies heavily on the author’s personal recollection of migrating to a remote section of Nebraska farmland as a small child to tell the story of Jim Burden, a little boy who made that very trek. I decided to reread this one when I was offered a copy of Barbara Bedell’s new “eNotated” version by its publisher, Classics Unbound.

What makes this edition of My Antonia different from the usual run of the mill e-book versions already out there, are the dozens of links built into the text that define obscure words and references, many of which were probably more meaningful and familiar to Cather’s readers when her books were originally published than they are today. There are also links to a bibliography, illustrations, photos, an author timeline, a brief history of Nebraska, and several theme explanations. Much of this is meaningful and easy to digest (especially the definitions) within the context of the story, and I found some of the pictures included in the Nebraska history to be particularly fascinating. Most of the material, however, is best explored after completing the novel if one is to feel the emotional impact of My Antonia.

Ten-year-old Jim Burden arrives at the remote farm of his grandparents not at all prepared for the isolation in which he will spend the formative years of his life. Although he does not know it, a little girl, Antonia Shimerda, and her family share the last leg of the train ride with Jim and the young man accompanying him to Nebraska. The Shimerdas and the Burdens will come to know each well as Antonia becomes a key figure in Jim’s life, always there but, somehow, still always out of his reach.

Just as surprising to me as the first time I read My Antonia, this is really Jim Burden’s story, not Antonia’s. Antonia may be the title character but she disappears for much of the time, and the book is really more about how she impacts Jim’s coming-of-age experience than it is about what happens to her during her own rather harsh life.

Cather excels in making her reader feel the isolation and danger faced by those who had the courage to brave an environment like the one in the Nebraska of the second half of the nineteenth century. Those early settlers were lucky to survive, much less to thrive and improve their lot from season to season. But they had the spirit and desire necessary to create a better life for themselves and their children. Life on the Nebraska prairie was definitely hard, but it rewarded the hearty souls willing to test themselves there – if they managed to survive.

Bottom line: My Antonia deserves its classic status, and it is as inspiring a piece of fiction today as when it was first published. The eNotated edition is a worthy one that will be particularly helpful to students but interesting to more casual readers, as well. I like the concept and look forward to other volumes from this publisher.

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From Whispering Gums May 4, 2012

I am a Willa Cather fan, and have read some of her novels and short stories, so was intrigued when eNotated Classics offered me an eNotated version of Cather’s My Ántonia for review. eNotated? That sounded like something worth exploring so, although I’ve read the novel before, I decided to read it again. I wasn’t sorry. It’s still a wonderful read.

My aim here is not so much to review the book, though I won’t be able to resist saying a little, but to explore this eNotated edition that I read on my Kindle. I understand from the website that eNotated Classics produces books for the Kindle, the Nook and iBooks. The company’s aim is to take “advantage of eBook technology to extend and enrich books in a way that increases understanding, engagement and reading pleasure”. Did they achieve this aim for me? That is the question!

I’d say yes and no – and will explain by discussing what I see as the three main components of the eNotated version.

eNotation links

These are underlined text (words or phrases) that you click for added information, which can be dictionary-style definitions, brief encyclopaedic-like descriptions, or interpretations. The eNotations can also be read as a group by clicking a single link at the beginning and end of each chapter, and they appear at the end of the book. In fact, the novel finished at the 77% mark in the book, with the last 23% comprising the eNotations and other material.  I was disappointed that many of the eNotation links contained the same information that the Kindle dictionary contains. Since the latter is faster to access by simply moving the cursor to the word to be looked up, those eNotations were rather superfluous. However, perhaps this depends on the dictionary the e-reader accesses, making the experience different with different e-readers.

There were a few of the more interpretive style and I appreciated those. One concerned the relevance of the play Camille which the narrator Jim sees with Lena. This sort of notation can be useful to students who may not, for example, know the play.

A useful feature is their identification system, which comprises a bracketed number at the end of each paragraph and each eNotation, making them easy to cite and to find. The number is obvious as you read, but you soon get used to it.

Theme indications

Now this one bothered me somewhat. See what you think: here are the first lines of the novel as they are presented in this eNotated version:

Last summer I happened to be crossing the plains of Iowa (TIME) in a season of intense heat, and it was my good fortune to have for a traveling companion James Quayle Burden – Jim Burden as we still call him in the West.

Throughout the novel sentences or phrases are treated like this – formatted in italics followed by (TIME), (NARRATOR) or (ELEGIAC). The “How to read this book” section at the beginning of the book explains that these italicised passages are cited in the relevant theme essay – Time, Narrator or elegiac – at the end. These are not really “themes” in the literary analysis sense: “Time” is a theme but “Narrator” relates to voice, and “Elegiac” relates to tone. I did find these a little intrusive and wonder whether they would have been better handled as links to the essay they occur in without the bracketed upper case word to show the way.

Additional information

At the end of the book are several items designed to add value. Most of these are not unique to e-Books. They are the eNotations (which you can click on to go back to the text), the three theme essays, a History of Nebraska, a Willa Cather Timeline, a Key Event Timeline, a Bibliography and Images. These are all useful value-adds. I liked the fact that the 12 images can be enlarged, something I can’t do with maps and images in the travel guide I bought last year. It was fascinating to see an image of a Dugout house in Nebraska, though photo credits next to the captions would have been good.

I’m not a Cather expert, but I found the Theme essays interesting – and expect they’d help both students and general readers. The bibliography is short and looks useful, though the most recent citation is dated 1987 which seems a little old. The novel might be a classic, but scholarship continues …

And now to the book itself

How do I love this book? Let me count the ways! I love its meditation on the past, on how the past intrudes into the present. Jim Burden is, really, “burdened” by his past. He meets Antonia when he is a 10-year-old orphan arriving in Nebraska to live with his grandparents, and she a 14-year-old Bohemian immigrant arriving with her family to settle there. They end up on neighbouring farms and become friends when her father asks Jim to teach Antonia how to speak English. The novel then follows the next 30 or so years of their lives – the first four “books” cover 10 years from the novel’s opening, while the last “book” jumps to 20 years later. Jim, the narrator, keeps an eye on what happens to “my” Antonia over the years, but the book is as much about him and his inability to move on from the past. He says near the end:

In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.

I love its language and tone. It’s delicious to read. I’d probably describe it as “melancholic” or “meditative” but I wouldn’t argue with Bedell’s “elegiac”. Here is an early description as Jim arrives in Nebraska from the greener, more lush Virginia:

Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

Lovely, simple, spare writing.

And I love Cather’s description of pioneer life, and pioneer characters. Much of what she writes could easily apply to 19th century Australia. The landscape is different – but is similarly bare and harsh – and the ethic mix is different – but the experiences and hardship are universal. It’s a life and environment in which character is writ large – and Cather draws her characters beautifully. Even the minor ones – such as farm hands Jake and Otto who disappear early in the novel – are vivid. Here is Jim on Ántonia, late in the novel:

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things.

This is one of those novels that stays with you and I’d recommend it to anyone. Would I recommend this eNotated edition? Yes. It’s a good attempt to take advantage of the eBook format and, while there are features that didn’t work perfectly for me, at USD 5.99, it’s hard to beat.

Willa Cather
The eNotated My Ántonia
eNotated by Barbara Bedell
eNotated Classics, V1.00 12/1/2011 (based on 1918 edition)
Kindle editionISBN: 9780982744864
(Review copy supplied by eNotatedClassics.com)