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KAREN A. HOFFMANN Identity Crossings and the Autobiographical Act in Willa Cather's My Antonia riLLA cather's My Antonia has prompted considerable debate over its representation of identity, its relationship to feminism, and its uses of the first-person narrator.1 Especially given its framing, M) Antonia offers a conception of identity that is far more complex than some critics have claimed. This complex treatment of identity calls for a reconsideration of Cather's place in a feminist literary tradition as well as recognition of her importance to theorists of autobiographical practice. Through M) Antonia, Cather implicitly comments on social identity , addressing particularly the extent to which identity categories can be crossed. Cather explores crossings of identity both by writing as a female author who speaks in the voice of a male narrator and by depicting characters, especially the narrator Jim Burden, crossing back and forth between feminine and masculine and immigrant and Americanborn positions. Indeed, M) Antonia offers a particularly complex case of crossings; because Jim has been created by a female author, his "authorial " position is already cross-gendered even before he tries to occupy Antonia's position.2 Some critics, such as Deborah Lambert, have interpreted Cather's use of a male voice as Cather's alliance with masculinity , as her desire to be a man. Lambert claims that "as a professional writer, Cather began, after a certain point in her career, to see the world and other women, including her own female characters, from a male point of view. ... In her society it was difficult to be a woman Arizona Quarterly Volume 58, Number 4, Winter 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 61 o 26 Karen A. Hoffmann and achieve professionally. . . . She responded by denying . . . her womanhood " (676-77). I would argue, however, that Cather's use of a male narrator in M) Antonia may be read not so much as a desire to be a man as a resistance to restrictive categories of gender that would lock her into a feminine position. By signing the name "Willa" to her novel, thus marking her feminine position, yet writing in a masculine voice, Cather neither renounces her feminine position nor treats masculine positions as inaccessible to het. Instead, she tries to have it both ways. Cather suggests that masculine positions, and thus, masculine privilege and power, are not necessarily beyond her reach even though her culture assigns her and she also claims a female subject position.3 Cather's cross-gendered narration (signing her name Willa yet writing most of the novel in the voice of a male narrator) as well as her depictions of Jim's and Antonia's identity crossings carry significant ramifications for feminism. These crossings unsettle the traditional distributions of power along gender lines. In other words, Cather represents subjects culturally defined as female (such as Antonia) having access to masculine positions and subjects culturally defined as male (such as Jim) having access to feminine positions; by doing so, Cather explores the possibility of circulating power and privileges between male and female subjects. As I will argue, however, Cather also suggests the barriers in her culture to these crossings and the difficulties of redistributing power. Certainly, in a numbet of ways, Cather cannot be teimed a feminist. Asserting that "Cather's misogyny was not merely a transitory attitude confined to her college years," Jeane Harris points out that Cather's acceptance and praise of women writers were rare and that more than one piece ofher short fiction from the late 1890s can be read as demonstrating a disdain for female characteristics (83, 85, 8o).4 Moreover, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue, Cather "[found] it necessary to separate herselffrom the didacticism of the feminist movement and from what she viewed as a fatally feminized literary matrilineage " (174). While Cather demonstrates in these ways an antagonistic relationship to feminism, her exploration of identity crossings offers a less obvious contribution to feminist goals by implying that masculine privilege need not be limited only to subjects culturally defined as male.5 Cather's resistance to subjects being locked into one gender position can also be found in her depiction...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 25-50
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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