In “Optima dies… prima fugit” Orly Lipset writes about the privilege of nostalgia in Willa Cather’s My Àntonia. Our course was interested in the relationship between memory and perception and the intersection between personal and collective memory, beginning with Cather’s examination of the urbanization of the American frontier. Since Blythe Tellefsen’s (1999) reading of the novel as self-conscious examination of the intersection of self and national mythologizing, critics have tended to read the violent disruptions of protagonist Jim Burden’s otherwise pastoral elegy to the fading frontier as evidence of the return of the repressed Others to manifest destiny.

Orly was dissatisfied with the oblique attention to social class in the critical discourse and provocatively demonstrates the ways that class threatens to overwhelm every sentence of the novel. The essay extends Tellefsen’s reading to mark out the ways that Jim’s disavowal of the privileged class position that undergirds his scholarly thoughtfulness leads him to be unable to meaningfully articulate his relations with the farm girl Àntonia, and traces the incoherence of Jim’s narrative to the lacuna between the myth of manifest destiny and the crushing reality of working class life on the frontier. Lipset argues this original and well-motivated claim through a wonderfully close, perceptive reading of Cather’s best-known novel, which she balances with a balanced examination of the wider historic and economic context of the novel—a fantastically successful first essay.

EN 120: Freshmen Seminar in Literature