- Revisiting and Revising the West:Willa Cather's My Ántonia and Wright Morris' Plains Song
The best days are the first to flee.—Willa Cather
Is the past a story we are persuaded to believe, in the teeth of the life we endure in the present?—Wright Morris1
Revisionist historian Patricia Limerick opens The Legacy of Conquest with a photograph, quotation, and commentary about tin cans, hardly a heroic entrance into the history of the West. From these apparently ubiquitous artifacts of the frontier she draws this conclusion: the past, like tin cans where there are no garbage collectors, remains to affect the present; the Old West is connected with rather than cut off from the New (18). Wright Morris' Plains Song: For Female Voices also mentions cans in Ned Kibbee's dinner comment, "I like canned peas better than fresh ones, always did" (210), which suggests the banality of Morris' modern, Midwest characters.
On the other hand, turn-of-the-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner makes no references to tin cans. Neither do Willa Cather's pioneer women open any. Instead, they do their own canning. In one of Cather's most famous scenes, Ántonia's children emerge from the cave that holds [End Page 25] all the produce she has canned for her family. This self-reliance, Turner claimed, was fostered by the American frontier. Canning rather than cans represents his West, as it does Cather's.
Both see a gap between the frontier past and the present that was emerging. Behind Cather's famous quotation, "The world broke in two about 1920, and I belong to the former half," is her resentment against the standardization and conventionality that she felt characterized the lives of the pioneers' children (Bennet 146, 148). Turner, proclaiming that the frontier had closed in 1890, also saw his present in terms of loss. The postfrontier West seemed to have lost its optimism and character. Historian Elliot West explains, "The region that once seemed endlessly bountiful and forever wild has become a land of narrowing limits" (quoted in Athearn ix).
Turner and Cather were not alone in finding their present troubling enough that they shaped the western past into a world as they wished it to be. "The notion that the West was succumbing to both a material and cultural standardization during the twenties was noted with increasing frequency in eastern periodicals" (Athearn 53). As doubts developed about the new direction the nation was taking, many began to resent the changes taking place in the part of America closest to the pioneer past. Therefore, they wanted the West set aside as "that frozen-in-time land of breath-taking sunsets and living folklore" (Athearn 65).
Establishing a gap between past and present provided Cather and Turner with similar ideological gains. First, it allowed them to maintain a sense of innocence regarding what had taken place on the frontier because they could ignore the consequences of pioneering for native inhabitants and the environment. Second, both Cather's fiction and Turner's analysis could present individual character as central because a past cut off from the present could be imagined as a world existing prior to hampering social structures. Thus Turner concluded his famous 1893 essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," by stating:
to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that bouyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier.(37)
Cather celebrates many of these same traits in the vivacious, independent, and determined Ántonia, whose obstacles are either personal or natural. Social and economic problems received little attention; crop prices are mentioned only when one of Ántonia's daughters tells Jim Burden that "they were going to have a new parlor carpet if they got ninety cents for their wheat" (347). Neither Cather nor Turner adequately acknowledges [End Page 26] the...