Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The meaning of patriotism

My Ántonia is a novel that aspires to the Virgilian ambition to be “the first . . . to bring the Muse into my country.” The phrase is Cather’s translation of two lines, slightly misquoted, from the Georgics (3.10–11), Virgil’s celebration of the rural life: “Primus ego in patriam mecum . . . deducam Musas. . . .” Jim Burden’s professor at Lincoln, modeled upon Basil Gildersleeve’s pupil James T. Lees, had “explained to us that ‘patria’ here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighborhood on the Mincio where the poet was born.” The novel represents, then, not “the triumph of mind over Nebraska,” as the critic T. K. Whipple memorably quipped, but rather a full-length redefinition of patriotism. Cather traces the love of one’s country back to the local, the nearby, the small community in which a person is rooted, and as the title of My Ántonia suggests, in the people who stay on there, especially the women who bear children and raise families there, “battered but not diminished” by experience, leaving “images in the mind that did not fade—that grew stronger with time.”

To say the least, this is not the customary meaning of patriotism, then or now. As Woodrow Wilson prepared to take the nation to war in the winter of 1916–17, former president William Howard Taft—the man whom Wilson had defeated to win the White House—said that the country was “seeing an exhibition of patriotism that we have not seen since the days of the Civil War. We are going to rally behind the President.” In an editorial the next day, the New York Times welcomed “[t]his awakening of national patriotism, this solidarity of opinion,” which had routed “the ignominous pacifism preached so loudly and widely.”[1]

Cather was not a pacifist, but as she told Mary Jewett in a December 1916 letter, she did not believe that real happiness was possible until the war was over. That winter she conceived and wrote the bulk of My Ántonia. Her intention was not to write an anti-war novel, but to reclaim patriotism from those like Taft and the Times who identified it with solidarity of opinion and the cause of world-wide misery.

She announced her theme in the opening pages. Writing in her own voice to establish the novel’s pretense of being a formless memoir by another hand, she describes its author. Jim is a friend from childhood—they “grew up together in the same Nebraska town,” sharing a “kind of freemasonry”—and is now the legal counsel for a railroad company. “He loves with a personal passion the great country through which his railway runs and branches,” Cather writes. “His faith in it and his knowledge of it have played an important part in its development.”

What follows is the story of a country’s development. Jim arrives in Black Hawk, Nebraska, an orphan at the age of ten, peering out and seeing “nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” After leaving home for law school, he returns twenty years later to visit Ántonia, where she is living with her husband and ten or eleven children “on a farm, in one of the loneliest countries in the world.” And that’s where the novel ends. In between he includes the famous tale of the Russian wedding party (bride and groom are thrown to the wolves), because a country is also built up by the tales that immigrants bring to it, and the histories of those, like him, who have exiled themselves. One does not have to live in a country to belong to it, as Jim knows.

A country needs more than exiles, however. That is why his book is about Ántonia and not Lena Lingard, Tiny Soderball, Norwegian Anna, or any of the other girls with whom they grew up. As his New York editor says in explaining why Jim has written an entire book about a Czech-American farmer’s wife, “[T]his girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood.” She provides meaning to the country by staying on. A country also includes its exiles, but only because some people, predominately women, maintain it as a home to which the exiles can return. To understand that a country is primarily defined by them is to grasp what Cather means by patriotism.

[1] “The New Birth of Patriotism,” New York Times (February 6, 1917): 7. In his address to the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, Taft called for a draft, which Wilson proclaimed with bipartisan support three months later.


panjandrum said...

It is worth noting that the modern Italians can use "paese" in the same sense as Vergil did "patria": little more than "neck of the woods."