In what ways is My Ántonia written from a realistic, rather than a romantic or idealistic, perspective?
Although Willa Cather has transmuted her own history into a romantic story of significance, it is certainly fashioned in a realistic style. It does not tell of the fulfillment of the American Dream as a romance would; instead, there is often a melancholic tone to the narrative that suggests the dream has "turned sour," such as in "The Hired Girls."
Interestingly, Cather narrates from the point of view of Jim Burden in his memoirs, perhaps in an effort to attain more objectivity. And, as Jim travels to the plains of Nebraska, his narrative is reflective of his youth and developing adulthood. For instance, Jim, who enjoys reading the tales of Jesse James, meets Otto Fuchs when he reaches Black Hawk:
I looked up with interest at the new face in the lantern light. He might have stepped out of the pages of "Jesse James." He wore a sombrero hat with the wide leather band and a bright buckle, and the ends of his mustache were twisted up stiffly, like little horns.
This style of memoir written by Jim Burden that demonstrates his maturation is certainly realistic. Of course, Cather herself is the prototype for Jim, so realism is achieved in the semi-autobiographical tone of the memoirs.
Parallel to Jim and Antonio's maturation throughout the narrative, Willa Cather chronicles the history of the virgin prairie of Nebraska that is transformed into a rich, productive agricultural region. Descriptions of the land, although lyrical, are most photographic in their realistic depiction:
The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding.....the whole world was changed by the snow....The tree tops that had been gold all the autumn were dwarfed and twisted ,as if they would never have any life in them again....The cold stung, and at the same time delighted one. My horse's breath rose like steam, and whenever we stopped he smoked all over. The cornfields got back a little of their color under the dazzling light, and stood the pales possible gold in the sun and snow.
While Cather's novel is a story of America's prairie and a girl's maturation on this fertile ground, it is also a history of land, people, and culture. The novel is replete with narratives of what is known in the community, including allusions to Virgil and the Georgics. For example, in the picnic scene, the girls exchange stories of their communities. Antonia tells of her grandmother's disapproval of her father's marriage to her mother; she later tells Jim,
...if I was put down there in the middle of the night, I could find my way all over that little town...I ain't never forgot my own country.
Although the narrative is filled with nostalgia, as the old country and the past are romanticized, Jim decides the past cannot be recovered. Instead, he looks to Antonia as representative of the beauty contained in this nostalgia, a living representative. For, My Antonia, above all, is about real life: disappointment and life in the fertile furrows of cornfields, life in the spirit of immigrants and strong spirits such as that of Antonia: "It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races."
Willa Cather is drawing a portrait of childhood, Midwestern living, and internal psychological growth, adjustment to change, and maturing. This novel has no superficial motives behind it. She is certainly not interested in “romance” or even “romanticism.” Among the several novels of the growth of the nation (“The Octopus,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Grapes of Wrath,” etc.), “My Antonia” is almost unique in its geographic descriptions. To the degree that the novel has biographical overtones, it is also a full-length portrait of Cather herself.