This is the third installment of a series on the work of Willa Cather and the concept of Neighborliness and what it means to live in genuine human community. The first installment is Willa Cather’s Art of Neighborliness, the second is Life rushes from within.
Neighborliness is a character virtue, not a circumstance of proximity. As we ought to consider everyone on earth a neighbor in pursuit of the common good, we realize that neighborliness is the actions and dispositions that bring that common good about. Neighbors—true, relational neighbors—can make the world seem so much closer, tighter, cozier, and at the same time open one to a diverse world beyond.
My Ántonia (1918), the third of her so-called Prairie Trilogy, is often considered Willa Cather’s masterpiece. It covers roughly thirty years as the ten year old narrator, Jim Burden, is orphaned in Virginia and moves near Black Hawk, Nebraska, to live with his grandparents. In the train car ahead of him is an immigrant family from Bohemia moving to the same destination. Their oldest daughter, only a few years older than Jim, is Ántonia. She and Jim, neighbors in the strict sense, soon become best friends.
At the time that Jim moves to Nebraska, much of the country is still unturned ground, vast open prairie: “there was nothing but land—slightly undulating…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.” In this last leg of the journey to his grandparents’ farm, where the land is open and he knows few people, Jim feels as if he has come to the very edge of the world. The vast, sort of empty land amplifies his sense of foreignness.
But soon, Jim is running errands on his pony, asking to borrow equipment and delivering messages to the neighbors. In those days, there were no fences to divide one farm from another. Robert Frost famously wrote that good fences make good neighbors, but here it is as if the open fields are a neighborly invitation: “The new country lay open before me…I could choose my own way over the grass uplands.” Where there are no fences there are no divisions, and neighbors share a country. Of course, most have come west to try to make their own fortunes, but an exclusionary sense of possessiveness has not overtaken a communal experience. Neighbors share their tools, spread good and bad news alike, and join in enterprise with one another to build a life—together. Thus, for all the expanse of the land, neighborliness brings the world in closer, makes the harshness bearable, refuses to leave people lonely and alone.
This proximity, however, brews complications of its own. The Shimerdas, Ántonia’s family, have no experience with farming and a very rough go of it in their new home. Whether for pride or meanness, they are loath to take advice though quick to ask for anything they might want or need. Jim thinks his generous grandmother “weak-minded” for giving Mrs. Shimerda an iron pot after her accusation: “You got many, Shimerdas no got.” Jim comments that Ántonia’s mother “was a conceited, boastful old thing, and even misfortune could not humble her.” But his grandmother is exceedingly patient with this bold woman. On another instance, coming home from the Shimerdas’, his grandmother comments to their hired hand how challenging it can be to care for one’s neighbors, to be one’s brother’s keeper: “I will say, Jake, some of our brothers and sisters are hard to keep. Where’s a body to begin, with these people?” She heartily believes in her Christian duty to care for her neighbors but knows that these neighbors are particularly in need and particularly difficult to help.
Nevertheless, for the Burdens, this sentiment is not a heavy obligation but an abiding conviction. When Ántonia’s father commits suicide that first cold winter, Jim’s grandmother shares sugar-cakes and hot coffee with neighbors and town folk who come to visit the mourning family. A few days later, at the makeshift funeral and burial, Mrs. Shimerda asks Mr. Burden to say a prayer for her husband. “He prayed that if any man there had been remiss toward the stranger come to a far country, God would forgive him and soften his heart.” Being a good neighbor means welcoming the other, the most foreign stranger. It means having a heart willing to do whatever the neighbor needs, even as the softening may be a difficult process.
These shared tables and open doors bring the world—in all its wonder and strain—closer. Fences are for keeping cattle in, not for keeping neighbors out. Neighbors like this draw one in like a warm fire in a frigid prairie winter. They maintain life like a carefully watered orchard. They make far fields seem not quite so far off after all.
After a few years, Jim’s grandparents retire from farming and move to Black Hawk. Ántonia and several other farm girls have been hired to work in households and businesses in town, and Jim spends much of his time out dancing with these young women. Among them is Lena Lingard, who “danced every dance like a waltz, and it was always the same waltz—the waltz of coming home to something, of inevitable, fated return.” Lena dances with a centripetal force, returning every partner to a sense of home.
After he graduates from high school, Jim moves to Lincoln to study classics at the University of Nebraska. His advisor, Gaston Cleric, introduces him “to the world of ideas” where new worlds are discovered and old worlds fade. “Yet I found curious survivals,” Jim says, “some of the figures of my old life seemed to be waiting for me in the new.” One of these survivals is Lena, who has moved to Lincoln to open her own dressmaking shop. She and Jim are reunited, and she brings back the memory of the other young women as well.
One evening in April, the two of them go to the theater together, and Jim is completely taken by the performance—the extravagant sets, beautiful costumes, and strong performances. Watching the characters in a drawing-room scene, Jim is transported: “their talk seemed to open to one the brilliant world in which they lived; every sentence made one older and wiser, every pleasantry enlarged one’s horizon.” Jim could very well have attended the play on his own. But he didn’t. He came with Lena, and he was glad he had. Lena was the friend who brought him to this horizon expanding experience. Her neighborliness in a lonely city brought Jim company and made his world all the more vast and exciting.
Neighbors draw you into a soothing embrace, feed you at their tables, visit you in your distress, make a harsh a lonely world bearable and lively. They bring the world across your threshold with gifts, languages, and traditions from former homes beyond the seas, or they share experiences and ways of being in the same place across centuries. As Jim goes on to travel the world, he finds the Shimerdas’ home village in Bohemia and sends pictures of it back to Ántonia. Without their friendship, he would have never seen that place. It was tragedy that brought Jim to Black Hawk, but it was true neighbors who blessed him and sent him on his way.
Timothy Chapman worked in youth ministry in St. Louis before moving to Nebraska where he writes and studies theology and culture.