I've had several false starts trying to write about Willa Cather's MY ANTONIA. I'm still crazy about Cather's clean prose, this time a first-person "memoir" by Jim Burden, a Virginian transplant to the Nebraska plains. Widely seen as Cather's stand-in, Jim knows what Cather knows: that the immigrant girls are way more interesting than the "American" ones, that vast expanses of land can be both beautiful and stifling, that a woman can gain great satisfaction through independence (and often "men's" work), and that tolerance of other cultures and religions is the Right Way to Live.
But each time I sit down to write about this book, I get stuck on this paragraph:
"Good evening, gentlemen. No ladies here? Good evening, gentlemen. We going to have a little music? Some of you gentlemen going to play for me this evening?" It was the soft, amiable Negro voice, like those I remembered from early childhood, with the note of docile subservience in it. He had the Negro head, too; almost no head at all, nothing behind the ears but folds of neck under close-clipped wool. He would have been repulsive if his face had not been so kindly and happy. It was the happiest face I had seen since I left Virginia.
Oh my. It's hard to keep from flinging the book across the subway car and grabbing the bible of the lady next to me, just to rinse out my brain. Cather has broken almost every modern rule of sensitive depiction: from the love-our-darkies Southern nostalgia to the farm-animal comparison. ("Wool?") Okay. Deep breath. Read on. It's an old book, remember?
Cather's Jim goes on to describe how this black man became a pianist, and the story is compelling and fairly sensitive. As a little boy, this servant's son, blind, eavesdrops on the piano lesson of this young rich (white) girl. When he hears everyone leave the room, he sneaks in through the window and imitates what he has just heard on the keyboard. The teacher and the student both recognize the boy's talent, and nurture it through advanced classical schooling. The poor maid's son becomes a piano-playing star.
Cather was as PC liberal as it got back her day. Butch, almost-out lesbian, always striving for diversity in her fiction, depicting Latinos, Eastern Europeans, and Scandinavians, both poor and wealthy, with a level of sensitivity we expect even in today's literature. So how on earth did this one sickening paragraph make it into print?
Truth is--and this is what I fear--the most earnest among us cannot see our prejudice. We can't predict the evolution of language. (Look what's happened to "queer" and "nigga" in the last 20 years.) What is provacative in one way today will likely be provocative in another way tomorrow. What's harmless background music today will become tomorrow's hurtful cliche. Our words outlive us. Can we trust future literary historians to cut us some slack?
And what other solution is there for writers? Should we avoid writing about diverse populations for fear of accidentally offensive language? If we believe in diversity and tolerance, isn't this kind of segregation a scarier solution? If it's "write what you know," are we only allowed to "know" people who are exactly like us? (Which is pretty near impossible in my neighborhood?)
Or, do we do like Cather and dive into the work, and make peace with the fact that we will probably offend some day? Isn't clumsy writing about race better than none at all?
I've decided to cut MY ANTONIA a little slack--maybe my white skin makes it easier--after all, HUCKLEBERRY FINN has been cut slack for years. And I've decided to cut myself some slack too. Ethnically diverse characters carry specific risks for writers of any race, primarily the big narrative cliches: fascination with "other," the collecter/colonialist/Jungle Fever syndrome. Or the opposite: the story of triumphant assimilation--How I Became a Real American Too--LOOK! ALL HUMANS ARE THE SAME!
For me, the truth is somewhere in the middle, in the awkward, painful moments when characters notice their own prejudices. Like this one, from MY ANTONIA:
Mr. Shimerda rose, crossed himself, and quietly knelt down before the [Christmas] tree, his head sunk forward. His long body formed a letter "S." I saw grandmother look apprehensively at grandfather. He was rather narrow in religious matters, and sometimes spoke out and hurt people's feelings. There had been nothing strange about the tree before, but now, with some one kneeling before it--images, candles...grandfather merely put his finger-tips to his brow and bowed his venerable head, thus Protestantizing the atmosphere.
and after Shimerda leaves Jim's house:
As we turned back to the sitting-room, grandfather looked at me searchingly. "The prayers of all good people are good," he said quietly.
This is overwhelmingly the message of the novel, that the immigrants teach as much as they need teaching, and that the learning is humbling for all involved. I heartily recommend MY ANTONIA, for the history lesson, for the voice, and for the fleshy primary characters. But you might want to skip page 118.
(Depending on your edition, of course...)