Huck Finn and My Antonia
It is through the words of Jim Burden and Huck Finn that a reader is introduced to the settings of My Antonia and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. From the writers’ perspective, the lands of the Mississippi River and the Plains of Nebraska restore memories of the actual experiences of Mark Twain and Willa Cather, while from the readers’, vivid language and accurate description place any person within the waves of grass or the ever-changing waters. Yet, for the characters in the two books, the landscape is something entirely different. It is a uniting force, an escape, a danger, and most importantly a symbol of the thoughts of Antonia and Huck, the central characters.
The two landscapes differ quite evidently in appearance. The sometimes turbulent, sometimes peaceful waters of the Mississippi, changing course with each ship that moves down along it, contrast clearly with the rolling grasslands of the forever flat plains of Nebraska and the southwest. Neither seems to have a beginning or an end, continuing on ad infinitum. Huck describes the river one evening:
When I woke up, I didn’t know where I was for a moment. I set up and looked around, a little scared. Then I remembered. The river looked miles and miles across.
And I myself, even in the twentieth century, can relate the experience of standing in Lincoln, Nebraska, looking out past the city to see miles and miles of grassland and corn fields, all lacking two things—a single tree and a change in elevation:
Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I.
The river, however, unlike these vastly stretching fields, had a vitality that had always existed. It was alive, changing its path to slowly eat away at the banks of the St. Petersburgs and Bricksvilles along its ever-changing shores. The plains, on the other hand, needed Antonia to bring life to them.
The plains of Nebraska were far from dead, however. While they lacked the drastic change present along the Mississippi, what they did have was a constant motion among the blades shooting from the ground, “as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping...” Rather than being a country already, Nebraska had the potential to become a country—“There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but rather the material out of which countries are made.” And so, change did occur, but not with the excitement of the river.
As far as the characters are concerned, the landscape had great value to both Antonia and Huck, whether they realized it or not. It some ways, the land was each main character’s sustenance. For Huck, the river provided adventure, through the people he met along the way and the constant life that was the Mississippi. For Antonia, the Nebraskan countryside meant settling down and hard work to bring something to the land—the final product being her orchards, home, and eleven children. And still, for both characters, the settings of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and My Antonia meant some type of freedom from civilization. While Huck truly wanted nothing to escape civilized behavior altogether, Antonia simply realized her place was in the country. These characters both lived on the land and lived from the land.
Yet, achieving these rewards was far from easy for Antonia and Huck. Both landscapes were full of dangers, whether natural or a result of man’s presence. Antonia had the snakes and the extreme weather conditions to fear, which could easily ruin a crop and leave a family starving. Huck, on the other hand, had the conditions of the water, sometimes turbulent, with which he had to cope, in addition to the dangerous people which could be found near the river, such as the men on the sinking steam boat and the duke and the king. Although people were not a problem for Antonia, poverty was, and in all, both characters had a difficult journey.
The landscape in both books was also dotted with evidence of man. Towns had sprung up along the Mississippi and farms along the Nebraskan plains. The river was important to transportation of all goods, and was a comparably busy, active stretch of land. At the same time, the railroad provided one of the only connections from Nebraska to the rest of the world. Yet, while the river brought Huck and Jim closer together, the railroad pulled Antonia and Larry Donavan apart and brought Jim farther away from home. While a natural formation, the Mississippi, only benefited Huck, a man made object such as the railroad only caused more misery in Antonia’s life.
In the end, both Huck and Antonia learned from their experiences. Huck gained a type of knowledge that cannot be taught—a sort of street sense—while Antonia gained an understanding of her place in life. Antonia became part of the earth in her rough, weathered exterior and the effort she had put into it, and Huck had taken the earth with him. Just as the Mississippi river seems to have no defined beginning or end, joining with the Ohio river and others and being fed by the Missouri, the story of Huck seems yet to unfold entirely. and the same is true for Antonia, whose setting is in a state of gradual, continual change.
The landscapes in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and in My Antonia are both uniting forces. They are a basis for the plot and are central to the lives of the main characters. It is really the effect the landscape has on the characters in the book that is most interesting, as it is an intricate fabric of symbolism, emotion, power, and majestic beauty. The settings are harsh, dangerous, changing, and eventually both full of life. Antonia and Huck take something very valuable with them as their journeys come to an end, and they each realize where they are. Antonia realizes she is meant to be in the country with a family of thirteen and a plot of land to work. Huck realizes he is still a boy and isn’t ready to be civilized just yet, if he’ll ever be. In all, it is the landscape that supports these two characters throughout the time frame of both books, and it id through the clever writing of Willa Cather and Mark Twain that the reader becomes involved directly with the story.