From Gordon Tapper's Introduction to My Ántonia
In one of Jewett's most important letters to Cather, she addresses the relationship between fiction and its autobiographical sources in words that would resonate deeply with the narrative design of My Ántonia
. Jewett was concerned that Cather had not yet learned to see her "backgrounds . . . from the outside,—you stand right in the middle of each of them when you write, without having the standpoint of the looker-on" (quoted in Lee, p. 22). In My Ántonia
, Cather makes just this kind of effort to see her experience "from the outside" by inventing Jim Burden, the transformed version of herself who serves as the first-person narrator. In addition to giving Jim many of her own experiences, Cather sets him on a journey into his past that echoes the imaginative reconstruction of her own childhood. In the introduction that establishes the narrative framework for My Ántonia
, we learn that Jim is a very successful middle-aged man—"legal counsel for one of the great Western railways"—living in New York. Like Cather, who also lived most of her adult life in Manhattan, he is therefore geographically and culturally remote from his small-town origins. As Jewett suggested, Cather's appreciation for her provincial "parish" would be made possible by her knowledge of the wider world, and Cather places Jim in a similar position. But if Jim represents a fictional alter ego who allows Cather to observe her own return to the past from the "standpoint of the looker-on," Cather begins the novel by very explicitly distinguishing herself from her narrator.
Cather revisits her Nebraska childhood in several of her early novels, but it is only in My Ántonia
that she creates an intriguing dialogue between herself and one of her characters, which occurs in a brief introductory section of the novel. Instead of writing from the point of view of Jim, as she does everywhere else in the novel, Cather adopts the voice of a first-person narrator who meets Jim by chance aboard a train. Although she never names this speaker, Cather suggests that it is yet another version of herself, since she very unobtrusively reveals that the narrator is both a woman and an experienced writer. (In order to distinguish Cather the author from this female narrator, who never reappears in the novel proper, many critics refer to the narrator as "Cather.") The narrator and Jim are old friends who grew up together in a small Nebraska town, and during their reminiscences they talk fondly of Ántonia, who "seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood".
Although Jim and the narrator agree that Ántonia somehow embodies the essence of their childhood, their individual relationships to her differ in several critical ways. Unlike the narrator, who has lost touch with her, Jim has reestablished a close friendship with Ántonia. When Jim expresses his surprise that the narrator has "never written anything about Ántonia," the narrator confesses that she had never known Ántonia as well as he had. The two then agree that they will both try recording their memories of this "central figure" of their past. Jim cautions, however, that he is not a practiced writer (implying that "Cather" is) and will therefore have to write about Ántonia "in a direct way, and say a great deal about myself. It's through myself that I knew and felt her". In response, the narrator draws attention to the distinction between their male and female perspectives:
I told him that how he knew her and felt her was exactly what I
most wanted to know about Ántonia. He had had opportunities that I, as
a little girl who watched her come and go, had not.
On one level, the narrator is simply trying to reassure Jim that there is nothing wrong with writing about himself in the process of remembering Ántonia, but Cather also seems to be offering an indirect justification for adopting a male persona in her novel. Behind the essentially transparent mask of "Cather" the narrator, Cather the author is asserting that the female perspective of "a little girl" will not do Ántonia justice, because it does not allow her to understand Ántonia as the object of someone's desire. Cather thought of Ántonia as her heroine, yet she gives the reader very little access to Ántonia's inner life, which is only conveyed secondhand through Jim's perspective. By allowing Jim to control the narrative, Cather distances the reader from Ántonia, but it is precisely because Cather wants to imagine a man's feelings for Ántonia that she wrote the novel from a man's point of view.