Loving and Being; or, My Antonia Is Totally Relevant to 21st-Century Adolescents

I’m in a class called American Women Writers, and last week we read Willa Cather’s My Antonia. For those of you who aren’t familiar with My Antonia, it’s a pioneer story, but it’s no Little House on the Prairie. Gender and sexuality are critically important to, and problematized in (if I’m using that word correctly) My Antonia, and you can read it as a lesbian novel, or a gay novel, and/or a novel about the confusion of gender identity, gender presentation, and performing gender. We talked in class about Cather’s relationship to gender and sexuality: her long-term relationships with women, and her propensity for dressing in masculine drag and adopting a masculine persona. When we related Cather’s life back to the novel, we talked about her protagonist, Jim Burden, who can be read either as a straight male figure for Cather, or as a gay man. The most interesting question, I think, that my professor posed is this: does Jim desire the title character, Antonia (who is described as a woman at once masculine and maternal) or does he desire to be her?

Sure, we used textual evidence to discuss this question in precept, but I just want to reverse the genders for a minute and talk about Rob Macgillivray. Rob was my imaginary friend for many years, the hero of all my stories and all my mental adventures. He figured in the stories I told myself while I tried to fall asleep at night, and the fiction I wrote for my teachers or my parents or just for me. Rob was dashing and handsome, graceful and chivalric, transgressive and iconoclastic. Even in a story set in my middle school, Rob would find an excuse to wield a fencing foil. Rob would always break the rules and get into trouble (something I was much, much too cautious and shy and scared ever to do), but he would always be witty enough to talk his way out of punishment. Rob embodied the young heroes of the adventure stories I read, like Kidnapped and Swallows and Amazons, and of Celtic romance novel after Celtic romance novel. He was in the back of my mind when I played imaginary games with my sister, or when girls asked me “So… who do you like?” and I had to scramble to make someone up. And he was in the absolute forefront of my mind in the complex worlds I spun out for myself in the dark of my bedroom at night. I’ve always had some difficulty falling asleep, and the universes of sailing ships and boarding schools and living history museums and armies and trades guilds and so much else besides got me through middle school. I especially couldn’t have done it without Rob.

I didn’t save as much as I wish I had from my childhood—for example, I don’t have the original portraits I drew of Rob and the other five Macgillivray siblings when I was 11—but I do have a lot of my preteen and early teenage fiction saved on my computer. Among a lot of really awful highly romanticized tale-telling about the second Jacobite rebellion, and fiction I turned in to my middle-school English teachers complete with footnotes about historical detail so that they would see how clever I was, and a sort of disconcertingly clever modern retelling of said second Jacobite rebellion, set in a public high school and complete with a superintendent of schools named Dr. George Hanover, there was Rob:

Rob was dressed all in black, wearing jeans and a turtleneck although it was 80 degrees outside, and a large black hat. Of course, the rims of his glasses were black, too. He intended to start the school year by bringing in some money, playing guitar at lunch, and so he was dressed in a sort of stereotypical artist outfit to gather interest from the kids and play to the crowd a little.

I knew Rob Macgillivray of old. That is to say, last summer, when we played members of the gentry in colonial Boston [at a historical reenactment summer camp], I fell madly in love with the dashing, handsome cavalier who often visited the house of my “father.” Wonderful, you may think. She gets to spend all her waking hours (and all her sleeping hours, too) with the guy she thinks is the coolest thing on earth! Well, you’d be wrong. I don’t know if you’re a teenage girl, but if you’re not, I’ll explain that having to actually talk to your crush as if everything’s normal is a feat akin to winning the National History Day competition.

“My apologies, lady,” said the boy, bowing in an overly dramatic way. “Please forgive me. I am Journeyperson Robert—though my name is Rob; call me Robert and I’ll hurt you—at your service.”

Rob laughed. He knows I get along infinitely better with boys than girls. Girls can be too normal sometimes, even people like Katie and Irene. Boys stay weird, no matter how teenager-like they get.

I suppose that if anyone had asked me at the time, I would have said I was in love with Rob—or, rather, I would have been too embarrassed to admit that, and would instead have said that my fictional alter-ego was in love with him. But I’ve been thinking about Willa Cather, and I’ve been thinking about how in ninth grade when I had a crush on a boy I dealt with that by trying to dress just like him, and then I found a story I wrote when I was thirteen that ends like this:

As soon as Natasha was out the door, Anne dived under her bed, pulling out the canvas bag she had stowed there, filled with all the boys’ effects she had managed to “borrow” over the past couple of months. She quickly changed into the long pants and collared shirt that Second Stage boys commonly wore, then, mindful of the cold, added a sweater. The clothes weren’t of the best condition, seeing as most of what Anne could find were cast-offs and outgrown garments, but they would do. She tied her hair back into a messy ponytail, and hoped that, since it wasn’t overly long, nobody would comment on the fact that hardly any Second Stage boys wore their hair long.
She then tossed out all of the female clothing in the chest except for her most favourite outfits, pushing this under the bed. The remaining contents of the trunk all went in Anne’s knapsack, except for a few toiletries and toys that she deemed appropriate for a boy. The canvas bag was emptied into the trunk, the lid closed, and then Anne shouldered her knapsack and dragged the trunk along the ground, managing to make it out the back door and into her new life as the boy Andrew.

I know, I know, it’s a bit weird—not to mention presumptuous—to psychoanalyze one’s own adolescent fiction. But I’m thinking of the clothes I wore at the beginning of my relationship with Rob Macgillivray, and those I wore at its end. I’m thinking of the real-life people who were my crushes and my heroes, and how difficult it was to sort out whether I wanted a brother or an aunt or a boyfriend or a girlfriend or just someone whom I could idolize. I remember how difficult it was to understand those things, and I remember how much more right and straightforward my relationship with Rob seemed—but as I look at my middle-school fiction, I see how I cast him as a brother and a husband and a teacher and a best friend and a far-away crush. I’m reminded that these things are never, ever straightforward.

We can puzzle about whether Jim Burden desires Antonia or desires to be her—and that was certainly one of my favorite topics that we discussed in precept on Thursday. But I have to ask whether Jim knows which it is, or whether Cather knows which it is, and whether either the writer and the narrator would even want us to know which it is. I wonder if maybe it’s also a little bit of both. We talked very much in binaries in precept: is Jim straight or gay? Is he masculine or feminine? Is Antonia masculine or feminine; passive or active? Is it good or bad to be a woman in Cather’s pioneer world?

But what if it’s both? What if it’s neither? What if, six, seven, eight years later, I still don’t know whether I’m striving to become Rob or to gain his admiration or to spend the rest of my life with him?

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