Summary and Analysis
The narrator meets a childhood friend, Jim Burden, now a successful lawyer for a railroad company, while on a train trip crossing Iowa, and they reminisce about growing up in the same small Nebraska town. When Jim says he wonders why the narrator has never written about Ántonia, the narrator makes a pact with Jim that she will write about Ántonia if he will. (In some editions of the novel, Jim is already writing about Ántonia when he meets the narrator.)
Several months later, Jim delivers his untitled portfolio to the narrator's New York apartment; the narrator has written nothing but a few notes here and there on the subject. After deliberating a moment, Jim writes across the cover of his manuscript, "Ántonia." Then, pausing a moment, he impulsively scribbles another word. The manuscript becomes "My Ántonia."
This introduction gives many clues as to what we should look for as we read this novel. The rich descriptions of the prairie suggest that the land will play a major role in the story. Jim's unexciting marriage, how he has been disappointed in life, and his fixation on Ántonia suggest that he was happier as a child than he is now. In this context, note the inscription by Virgil that Cather uses as a preface: "Optima dies . . . prima fugit," meaning, "The best days . . . flee first." The emphasis from the beginning is on loss, especially the brevity of beauty and childhood.
Jim's romantic disposition suggests that, instead of being a strictly objective narrative, this novel will be colored by the narrator's emotions, by his sometimes fanciful interpretations of events. This quality is reinforced when Jim rashly affixes the word My before Ántonia on his manuscript, making it a personal story, his story, about Ántonia.