Note: I posted a draft of this entry Friday morning in the midst of a flurry of house-renovation activity. I now realize that I made some big mistakes in my analysis and overstated a few points (surprisingly enough…). Apologies – and here’s a somewhat more reasonable discussion.
Perhaps because I’d just spent several weeks with Dickens and Trollope, the first thing I noticed when I started reading My Ántonia was the modernity of her style: her simpler diction; her use of shorter, more declarative sentences; her careful deployment of adjectives and adverbs (they often don’t appear in passages where you might expect to find them) … in general, a leanness in her voice on the page. Yes, she can evoke vivid pictures of the landscape using colorful language and large, expansive imagery – but, to my ear, these passages, too, exhibit a compactness, or a compression, that suggests as much reserve as rapture.
(Consider the moments in which Cather conjures up in the surrounding landscape a sense of impenetrable grandeur and frightening vacuity, of human insignificance and individual powerlessness; in sum, intimations of that failed pastoralism that’s been so much a part of 20th and 21st century America. These moments are vivid and strong – but they seem to pass quickly from the page … though, of course, they may well linger much longer in the reader’s mind.)
And, indeed, it isn’t only Cather’s technique of composition that so strongly struck me in my first encounters with her: it was my response as a reader that made me realize how different was her 20th century sensibility to that of the 19th. So many times a passage in My Ántonia produces within me a sharp, unsettled feeling that I’m missing something … that something’s not been said … that the writer’s meaning is either implied or (worse) left vacant so that I, a reader, must fill in the blanks myself.
(For example, consider in My Ántonia the number of times a scene of vivid action or violence ends with a couple of short declarative sentences, containing spare, understated images which do not appear to resolve anything and whose connection with the previous drama is obscure – at least, at first reading.)
And it was in my responses to these “ellipses” in Cather’s story, along with my awareness of her pared-down prose, that I began to hear echoes of another, far-too-familiar, American voice … who chops away even more adjectives and adverbs, who speaks not only with apparent simplicity but also, sometimes, with a laconic dispassion or even a mordant arrogance. Ideologically, morally, sexually there couldn’t be more distance between Hemingway and Cather … yet during the years of Cather’s greatest fame, the younger Hemingway began writing in ways that echo aspects of Cather’s prose – and that generate a similar response in a reader’s imagination.
The more I read Cather the more I wondered to what extent her prose had been connected to or compared with Hemingway’s by critics. I was quite shocked when I found not a single reference to Cather’s and Hemingway’s prose innovations in all the essays in the Norton Critical Edition. Searching online, I found only one article that made any reference to this question – and Steven Trout’s piece commented specifically on the lack of such a discussion, except for a single essay, written by Glen A. Love in 1990.
What’s especially curious about this absence is that the theories about writing that Cather expressed directly (see “The Novel Démeublé” below) and that Hemingway mentioned more elliptically, are remarkable similar. Cather speaks about the need to get rid of all the furniture that cluttered English prose in the 19th century and that central to the finest writing was the thing not named. For his part, Hemingway once famously described his prose as being like an iceberg – with most of its meaning hidden beneath the surface
Hemingway hated Cather’s work and Cather commented very little about Hemingway. In the culture of the mid-20th century, the macho man and the gay woman obviously would not have much sympathy for one another. But Trout observes that this antipathy should not cause readers to overlook possible points of connection between the writers – imaginatively, stylistically, and historically.
For anyone who might be interested in all this, I have posted three versions of Steven Trout’s essay to make for easier access. Below are links to a 2-page summary and a 6-page condensation of Trout’s 13-page essay – which I also make available.