Gilmore Hilton called “My Antonia” the great American novel. A retired Yale professor who frequented Hilton’s store was amused by the claim.
With haughty grandeur the professor proclaimed, “Few people have heard of Willa Cather and fewer have read her magnum opus. “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” still compete for that title. We who perambulate the groves of academia would laugh at your assertion.”
Gilmore reached for his copy and challenged the scholar to find a better example of symbolism that glorified agrarian life: “The sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. In a moment we realized what it was; a plough had been left standing in the field, and the sun was sinking behind it. Magnified, it stood out against the sun and was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share – black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.”
The somewhat miffed scholar continued to stress Cather’s lack of prominence in literary circles, but Gilmore said that was irrelevant.
“Cather’s prowess has nothing to do with her popularity, and she is not alone. Many writers for varied reasons are not well known, but their works are teeming with wisdom.”
The store’s proprietor reached for a collection of quotations by Caecilius, a Roman who wrote comedies around 175 B.C. He then translated the ancient’s most interesting remarks:
“I began to like her tremendously after she died.”
“Your worst enemies are those whose faces are cheerful while their hearts are bitter.”
“Outrageous things are going on in our city; there is a prostitute who refused money from her client.”
Gilmore read several more and then informed the professor that Caecilius was never that well-known; however, Horace praised his works for their dignity and that “Mighty Rome should learn him by heart.”
When the professor borrowed Gilmore’s copy of “My Antonia,” it was obvious that the popular Simplex Pond native had won the debate.
Morton Soule teaches Latin at Cape Elizabeth High School. He can be reached at email@example.com.