Critical Essays The Two Introductions


Willa Cather constructed My Ántonia from memories about people and places that were very dear to her and wove them together to form a larger story. For this reason, the body of the novel came easily for her. The introduction, however, was difficult to write, and she was never satisfied with it.

In the original introduction, written for the 1918 edition, the female narrator (possibly Cather herself) and Jim Burden meet on a train west of Chicago. He's a lawyer for a major railroad company, and she is a writer. The narrator dislikes Jim's wife and tells the reader why at great length. Despite his failed marriage, however, Jim has retained his romantic disposition and his love for the West, and he remains as impressionable as she remembers he was when they were children.

The narrator and Jim reminisce about growing up together on the Nebraska prairie, and their talk keeps returning to Ántonia, who "seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood." The narrator believes that Jim can tell Ántonia's story better than she: ". . . he had had opportunities that I, as a little girl who watched her come and go, had not." They both agree to record their memories of Ántonia.

The following winter, Jim arrives at the narrator's door with a completed manuscript, but he finds that his friend has jotted down only a few notes. Jim is surprised at the mention of notes. "I didn't arrange or rearrange," he says. "I simply wrote down what of herself and myself and other people Ántonia's name recalls to me. I suppose it hasn't any form. It hasn't any title, either." He writes "Ántonia" across the face of the manuscript, considers a moment, and then affixes "My" in front of the name. The narrator says that she is presenting us with Jim's manuscript, just as he gave it to her.

When My Ántonia was reissued in 1926, Cather eagerly took the opportunity to revise her introduction, making three changes of primary importance. First, the female narrator is gone; Cather (or someone very much like her) is not writing the introduction. Second, Jim is not inspired to write because of his conversation with the narrator, but has been at work on the manuscript long before he meets the narrator on the train. And third, the page devoted to Jim's wife, Mrs. Burden, has been reduced to less than a paragraph.

All of these changes strengthen not only the introduction, but also the novel. Because Jim decides to write the manuscript on his own, we know that he's been profoundly affected by his relationship with Ántonia. The long satirical description of Mrs. Burden in the original introduction unintentionally implies that Jim's judgment about women is not sound. If he misjudged his wife's character, why should we believe that his impressions of Ántonia are any more accurate?

This second introduction is an improved version of the first, retaining and strengthening its most important point: My Ántonia was written by a nonprofessional writer who had left his roots, was frustrated in life, and fondly and nostalgically remembering his youth in Nebraska as the happiest time of his life, recalling Cather's inscription at the beginning of the book: "The best days . . . flee first."

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