I’ve been reading My Antonia, Willa Cather’s 1918 novel about growing up on the Nebraska prairie. It’s a beautiful book, poignant and uplifting, full of characters who reflect the truth of life in all its joy and pain. It’s also an instructive portrait of the time in America when explicit toil was required for mere survival, never mind success.
I’ve been reading it against the background noise of Wall Street’s collapse, men and women on CNN droning gravely about the consequences of greed, and the need to ensure that the greediest of all do not, in the end, go broke. It’s a complex issue. It takes someone like Yale business student David Bledin, writing an op-ed for the Washington Post, to put a human face on the unfolding tragedy. You think you have it tough; think what it’s like for Masters of the Universe-in-training who now rue the rigors involved in chasing a seven-figure salary:
“… once I could afford to splurge on a Zagat-rated “$$$$” dinner, I didn’t have any time for it. I frequently spent 90 hours a week shackled to my computer. … What bothered me most, though, was the way I couldn’t plan anything. When I was foolish enough to try and sneak in a Sunday matinee, my BlackBerry would inevitably vibrate before the movie’s climax, forcing me to scamper back to the office to tweak a pitchbook that had to go out to the client within the hour …”
Oh. The humanity.
I know, there were venal snots running around in Cather’s time too, most of them in New York. And it’s foolish to romanticize a time so fraught with hardship. But the clarity of prose in My Antonia, and the importance of the landscape on which it’s set, invite reflection about the stark contrast between the America that is and the one that was:
“If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”
This is the country we’ve made. No starlight at all, just streaming video and freeway exits and BlackBerries buzzing during matinee showings of Righteous Kill. It’s a country where we pay guys a lot of money to tweak pitchbooks on a Sunday afternoon. Or used to. Maybe that’ll seem poignant 90 years from now, the way My Antonia seems now.