The American Archetype of Rural Queerness Redefined
Zee Francis Goes Deep Into the Subtext of Willa Cather's My Ántonia
Toward the beginning of Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia, Cather’s recently-orphaned narrator, Jim Burden, describes his first impression of the Nebraska prairie. En route to his grandparents’ homestead, he tells us,
There seemed to be nothing to see. . . . There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. . . . I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction.
The language here is mythic, conjuring a place where old rules are discarded and new conceptions of the world and the self can be formed. Though in a material sense this land has never actually existed “outside man’s jurisdiction” (whatever the era’s Manifest Destiny rhetoric may have claimed), the sparseness of the physical environment nevertheless suggests a realm spacious enough for the existential work of crafting an identity to take place.
Cather herself knew both the landscapes of the Great Plains and the act of identity-making well. Like Jim, she moved to Nebraska from Virginia at about age ten—though she was accompanied by her still-living parents. After a brief stint as a farmer her father moved the family to the nearby town of Red Cloud (fictionalized in the novel as Black Hawk), where, like Jim, the young Willa set to work befriending and learning about her neighbors, including a Jewish couple who allowed her the use of their extensive library. Like Jim she attended college in Lincoln, and then set off—like him—for New York.
Though separated by a state and a century, I recognize a good deal of myself in Cather and her novel, too. I grew up in rural Missouri, in a small town at the edge of the Ozarks. Like Cather I was raised Baptist, and like her I developed twin passions for both the written word and the beauty of barren and inhospitable landscapes. We both went to a state college, and then drifted to a larger city after graduation.
Maybe most significantly, we’re joined by what today would be called our “queerness”—though of course that’s a vague and disputed term at best, and not the one Cather would have used. I am a bisexual man (with some reservations about the “man” part of that designation). It is widely speculated that Cather was a lesbian, or otherwise LGBTQ-adjacent; in college Cather was photographed wearing masculine clothes and a short men’s hairstyle, and for a time she (that’s the pronoun Cather used throughout her life, so I’ll use it too) took on the nickname “William.” She never married but maintained a series of close relationships with women throughout her adult life, and she lived for 39 years with the editor Edith Lewis, with whom she is also buried. While it’s true that the author never confirmed her sexuality in any known writings, that’s a fact that is as inconclusive as it is unsurprising given the period in which she lived and her own somewhat contradictory streak of social and religious conservatism.
In American pop culture, queerness is often pitted against what could, academically, be called “rurality.” Rural gay kids are expected to be beset even more than others by homophobic churches, rigid gender norms, and unsympathetic families and peers. They may remain closeted just to survive, seeking stunted forms of self-expression in “appropriate” hobbies or tamp down their real personalities completely. Meanwhile sex—if it happens at all—takes the form of clandestine hook-ups with equally shamefaced partners. That a gay kid will inevitably “escape” to a coastal city and pursue a more liberated lifestyle as soon as possible is a narrative ubiquitous enough to be considered a cultural archetype.The narrative that rural LGBTQ lives are always half-formed and surreptitious is a harmful reduction.
And of course there’s abundant truth underlying these tropes. Everyone knows about the voting habits of rural whites, about the preponderance of evangelical churches, and the inescapable influence of Christian fundamentalism. I was raised Southern Baptist by devout parents, and homo- and transphobic rhetoric was commonplace enough growing up—whether at home, at church, or at school—to be unremarkable. I still remember the locker-room taunting a friend received for his feminine clothing and eyeliner. I still remember scoldings I got for acting more “girly” than a young boy should. I can think of at least two or three gay classmates who did run off after graduation, though their destination of choice was Disney World, not New York or LA. In a sense I ran away, too, choosing my college and then my city of residence mainly because they seemed different and distant from the place I’d always known.
But no life consists entirely of suffering, and the narrative that rural LGBTQ lives are always half-formed and surreptitious, that a meaningful existence as a queer person begins only after a relocation or else never at all, is a harmful reduction. After all, many LGBTQ people live their whole lives in America’s small towns and red states: some more openly than others, and some more willingly, but all with their reasons, methods, and networks of friendship and love. And even for those who do ultimately find rural life too much to bear, the act of identity-making still begins at home. I know I’m not the only queer boy with a complicated relationship to his hometown; for all my resistance, I’ve come to recognize the truth of the folksy expression: “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”
Aided by its parallels to Cather’s own biography, critics have long regarded My Ántonia as a sort of encoded queer text: a complex, sometimes fraught exploration of gender fluidity and gay yearning refracted through a period-acceptable lens of heteronormativity. Cather’s narrator, Jim, is an ostensibly heterosexual man with an intense, quasi-romantic admiration for his childhood friend, Ántonia. But contrary to the idealized femininity one might expect from a muse, Ántonia (based, unsurprisingly, on a real acquaintance of Cather’s) is frequently described in traditionally masculine terms: she’s proud to provide for her family and to outperform men in the fields. Her arms and throat are “burned as brown as a sailor’s” by farm work, and she teases Jim for his comparatively pampered life.
Ántonia is the most exemplary of a set of young immigrant women who, for Jim, represent the best aspects of the prairie spirit: they are self-sufficient and worldly; “hired girls” who earn their own wages and strike out alone as soon as they’re able. They may engage in casual flirtations with men, but they are not dependent upon them; one of the girls, Lena Lingard, tells Jim men “are all right for friends” but that she doesn’t want a husband. True to her word, Lena indeed remains unmarried, and eventually moves to San Francisco to provide companionship to another of the Black Hawk women.
But even Jim himself, fixated though he is upon Ántonia, seems to me to radiate a kind of sublimated queerness. Despite his occasional macho posturing there’s a peculiar sensitivity—even an effeminacy—to Jim, at least by the standards of the society he inhabits. He loves the company of women, particularly strong and self-reliant ones, but romantic and sexual matters leave him flustered; even reading between the early 20th-century lines, it’s hard to say for sure if he has ever had a sexual relationship at all. The novel’s prologue reveals that Jim is married to a “restless, headstrong” woman named Genevieve Whitney, but also makes it apparent that they didn’t marry for love. Genevieve, we’re told, “has her own fortune and lives her own life” and is irritated by Jim’s “quiet tastes.” And after the first page she is never mentioned again.My Ántonia’s real distinction, for me, lies in that it’s one of the most layered fictional examinations of rural queerness I’ve ever read.
Jim is consistently drawn to men who showcase similar tenderness. As a child he is deeply affected by the suicide of Ántonia’s father, a soft-spoken violinist overwhelmed by the homesteader’s life. Whereas in college he falls under the spell of a bright young scholar named Gaston Cleric who inspires in him a “mental awakening,” a time he regards as “one of the happiest of [his] life.” Cleric invites Jim to accompany him to Harvard and Jim accepts, leaving behind a prospective relationship with charming Lena Lingard to do so. Though Cleric dies of pneumonia before much can come of the partnership, Jim remains in the east for good, effectively putting his old life behind him.
But I’m not drawn to My Ántonia simply because it contains queer-coded characters. Cather’s novel certainly isn’t the only—or even the most overt—of its era to deal in such themes. First-time readers expecting the sort of blatant homoeroticism of, say, Virginia Woolf or Herman Melville will likely be disappointed by Cather’s strong traditionalist tendencies: by the novel’s end, Ántonia has found personal fulfillment in her role as a wife and mother and, we the readers are invited to share in this sentimental affirmation of old-fashioned maternal virtue.
My Ántonia’s real distinction, for me, lies in that it’s one of the most layered fictional examinations of rural queerness I’ve ever read. No one in My Ántonia is “out,” of course (not even to the reader) but this also grants Cather the freedom to examine the lives and experiences of her queer-coded characters in a way that is pleasantly devoid of the usual homophobic setbacks and trauma. Contrary to the now-standard narrative of suffering and escape, Cather’s ostensibly queer characters are allowed to find joy in their work and social lives, to appreciate the beauty of nature and the support of neighbors and family, and even to love the place in which they find themselves.
That’s not to say Cather’s prairie is totally devoid of struggle. The novel can be startlingly dark, and many of the hurdles faced by LGBTQ people to this day are treated at least elliptically. Throughout the book Jim laments the closed-minded insularity of his neighbors, and learns to root out his internalized prejudices. Like many small communities, Red Cloud can be inhospitable to non-comformers and it’s noteworthy that—even without the standard litany of woes—most of the queer-coded characters do end up leaving Nebraska by the end.
But in another sense the prairie of the novel is the perfect environment for experimentation. In certain situations characters are actually encouraged to exhibit a degree of fluidity: Ántonia is rewarded for behaviors which would typically be considered unseemly for a young woman, while Jim learns to be attentive to the struggles of his neighbors and trade his patriarchal surliness for a more nurturing sympathy.
The prairie in My Ántonia is an isolated place, separate from the norms of the wider world, which also makes it the ideal zone in which to subvert those norms; the landscape itself inspires inward reflection and challenges conceptions which might, elsewhere, seem immovable, entrenched. The community which forms in this place is marked by a shared hardship and a shared joy, forged by people who know intimately of their neighbors’ character and struggles. In the best of cases this leads to sincere empathy, as when Jim’s Protestant grandfather, “rather narrow in religious matters,” nevertheless affirms the validity of Mr. Shimerda’s Catholic worship. “The prayers of all good people,” he pronounces, “are good.”
My Ántonia is a contradictory work, by turns both radical and conservative, a deliberate tract for tolerance and a clear artifact of its time. (The novel’s implicit celebration of settler colonialism is inescapable, and for all Cather’s sympathy towards European immigrants her treatment of black and disabled characters can induce shudders.) The book’s queer subtext is obvious enough to have been noted by generations of readers, but the specific messaging is harder to grasp. Perhaps for this reason My Ántonia never quite entered the pantheon of classic “queer novels”; Cather herself has fallen out of fashion.
Still, reading My Ántonia as a queer country boy, I’m struck by how well it reflects the nuances of my own experience. Like Jim and Ántonia, I was formed in large part by the rural landscapes of my upbringing, and however much I may sometimes wish otherwise, they’re still contained within me. I cherish Cather’s book because she acknowledges the fullness and complexity of lives like mine. She allows her LGBTQ readers to envision a rural space defined not by its narrowness, but by its expansive possibility.