Gift Exchange in Willa Cather's 'My Antonia'


A noun matters, it signifies implicit meanings, enabling those who understand what the noun is signifying, to utilize it for axiological, praxeological and ontological assessment, which furthermore, can have material socio-economic and cultural repercussions, as I hope to illustrate.

    Somebody asks if we like the taste of something, a mushroom, for example. The word mushroom evokes experiential sense data, which we have assessed axiologically. We have tasted mushrooms, smelled them cooking, we may know a little about foraging them, or their biological peculiarities. Without having the thing-to-hand, we can make an accurate judgement if told that a particular mushroom is delicious.

   If two people do not speak the same language, the signifying essence of the noun, essential to identification is in jeopardy. Chris Tilley explains “It is only through the use of words that we can claim, assert, investigate and understand why things matter and why a study of them is important, why it makes a difference to an understanding of persons and their social worlds.”[1] This opportunity is missed during an exchange between Mrs. Shimerda and Mrs. Burden in Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

    Mrs. Burden after hearing the Shimerda’s hardships from her husband takes a “hamper basket”[2] to alleviate the pressure. In exchange, Mrs. Shimerda gives them some “little brown chips that looked like the shavings of some root.”[3] Neither Jim, nor his grandmother trust the unidentified things; Mrs. Burden stating, “I’m afraid of ‘em.”[4] Fear of the unknown is caused by the thing not being unidentified. At the close of the chapter Jim, narrating from the future, explains, “I never forgot the strange taste; though it was many years before I knew that those little brown shavings, which the Shimerdas had brought so far and treasured so jealously, were dried mushrooms.”[5]

    Antonia and her mother’s desperately physical articulation of their value, is cause for Jim’s use of the word treasured, “She clasped her hands as if she could not express how good—‘it make very much when you cook, like what mama say. Cook with rabbit, cook with chicken, in the gravy—oh, so good!’”[6]

    Determining the axiological and ontological ramifications of the unidentified thing, why it is “treasured”, it is necessary to identify it. From the description of “a salty, earthy smell, very pungent”[7] thing, which makes stews taste better, I would identify them as Boletus edulis. Roger Philips in his comprehensive book Mushrooms describes Boletus edulis as having a “taste and smell” which is “pleasant”[8] adding, “Note this is perhaps the most important edible mushroom because of its excellent flavor, large weight and size, and the way it keeps its flavor when dried.”[9]  To further this identification, that Mrs. Shimerda has a “flour sack and half as wide”[10] filled with dried mushrooms, suggests a large quantity, which means the mushroom must be common.

From Marek’s reaction, that he “began to smack his lips”[11], this is an exchange of equal values, despite the quantity of one being more than the other. What the Burden’s gift, despite having being worked for, is easily given, but the Shimerda’s gift the only thing they have, a small amount, but nonetheless their most treasured victual. Theirs is a sacrifice.

    Despite Antonia and her mother’s efforts to imbibe the mushrooms with value, they are discarded by Mrs. Burden, which I read as metaphorical of the conservative argument in Americans’ contemplation of foreigners during the Americanisation debate, which I will go into later in the essay. First I want to look into the praxeology of gift exchange.  

    The reciprocation of gifts is important in praxeology as it provides an act through which peoples and cultures come together. Marcel Mauss’s work on the forms and functions of gift giving can, if the context of his ideas is extended beyond primitive and archaic cultures, provide us with a paradigm with which to talk about gift giving in any society. Karen Sykes makes this extension, clarifying that “Marcel Mauss began to think about gift exchange as a totally human social act.”[12]  Sykes, extending this context to the ‘human’, suggests we may expand Mauss’s theory beyond the parameters of the primitive and archaic, to human social acts in general. She goes on to say:

Mauss also poses a central question in what it means to be human by asking why a person should feel obligated to give back what he or she had received from another. The problem of ‘the gift’ comprises two kinds of questions: how people keep their social life at the centre of consciousness, and why it should seem meaningful for them to do so.[13]

    We find this obligation in Mrs. Shimerda giving the only thing of pleasure her family possesses: reciprocation is a meaningful social act, bringing potentially beneficial returns. If she were to give them nothing, it would be charity and charity is undignified. Her hysteria is owing to her being taken out of her culture, where she had equal status to the Burdens; we learn from Antonia that “My mamenka have nice bed, with pillows from our own geese in Bohemie. See, Jim?”[14] Antonia is trying to persuade, through objects brought from Bohemia that they are on an equal social footing. Objects mark status. A social group, without the accuracy of language to tell their history and their autobiography, is left to rely on things. Unfortunately, in their current context (a dark cave), the objects aren’t persuasive without autobiographical authority. That Antonia speaks only broken English, illustrates the ontological tension of language and thing to provide sufficient evidence of an equal social standing.

    All Antonia’s efforts are thwarted by Mrs. Burden failing to follow her instructions. If she had, the mushroom may have proved revelatory, as the sensory satisfaction would have indicated to her that these were cultivated people. This is the capacity of the immaterial to be discovered through material, for properties of cultural knowledge to be learned through the understanding and enjoyment of an object.

    Mauss talks about “the spirit of the thing given”[15], which, borrowing Maori a term, he calls the hau (spirit). Mauss explains:

Suppose you have some particular object, taonga, and you give it to me; you give it me without a price. We do not bargain over it. Now I give this thing to a third person who after a time decides to give me something in repayment for it (utu), and he makes me a present of something (taonga). Now this taonga I received from him is the spirit of the taonga I received from you and which I passed on to him.[16]

    In my example, the mushroom is the taonga, but it is the taste, which must be tasted, which is hau. It would not be a material thing that is passed along, as the Burdens are gifted too few mushrooms, but rather, information. Word of mouth in the prairie is paramount. An anecdote from the Burdens to another family as to the rare value of the mushrooms, would return the hau of the taste back to the Shimerdas in the form of compliments (utu), which may turn to a further exchange of mushroom for commodities (also utu); there is the potential for a cyclical return of the material, passing through the immaterial (word-of-mouth) returning again to material form. Imbibed with hau, the thing (taonga) is memorable, and the giver remembered until the spirit of the thing returns. The taonga in our example, has the capacity to develop changes that are socio-economically beneficent and diversifying for the prairie community. Jaco Kruger further clarifies the reciprocity inherent in gift giving:

To speak of the interest involved in the giving and receiving of a gift is to speak of some kind of interaction. The interpretation of the logic of the gift under consideration is therefore adamant that gift implies the invitation to gift exchange, whereby relation is precisely maintained. This is in line with Marcel Mauss’ original observations that the giving of a gift, which is at the same time the receiving of a gift, brings with it some kind of obligation to give in turn, or in return. [17]

    Sykes explains that “How people give and receive is a matter of what kind of relationships they imagine they make and keep with each other; immediately immaterial or ideal concerns become a part of the issue.”[18] Gift giving is obligatory if there is to be conservation of pride. Pride of character is not itself a material thing, it is only through a thing in exchange, and that thing having significance to the person giving, that the immaterial can be discovered through the material. Both rely on each other. Mrs. Shimerda gifts in hope that the compensation of material for material will bridge misunderstanding (the absence of language’s specificity) and create a concrete understanding of the immaterial: that her family is domestically knowledgeable. Status matters to them, because they have none.

    What takes place between the two families is, in addition to a gift, a form of transaction; a promise to help each other. Theirs is a barter economy of sorts, self-regulated according to necessity and moreover, annexed to a growing albeit, peripheral consumerist culture. The economy of those living on the prairie is an admixture of economic forms. The Shimerdas must, even by sacrificing their paucity of victuals, endeavor to engage in this economy. As Rebecca Colesworthy explains regarding Mauss, through quotations from David Graeber:

If there is a keynote of Mauss’s essay that my authors also register, albeit in varying styles and contexts and to differing ends, it is mixture: a shared sense, sometimes welcome and sometimes resisted, that seemingly antithetical impulses and social phenomena—generosity and interest, freedom and obligation, persons and things—in fact intermingle: “Everything holds together, everything is mixed up together” (G 46). The mingling of persons, things, gestures, symbols, and lives—“This is precisely what contract and exchange are” in archaic societies, according to Mauss (G 20). Yet this is also what contract and exchange are increasingly becoming in modern capitalist societies at the time of The Gift’s publication in 1925—a mixture.[19]

    As a Modernist text, My Antonia falls into this ‘mixture’, a mixture not only of economic forms, compensating for regular access to goods, and being at the clemency of the elements (as the exchange between the Shimerdas and Burdens illustrates); but furthermore we can extrapolate from this ‘mixture’ the polemic of Americanisation, a debate which flared between conservative and liberal camps, who were nonetheless united by how to integrate a rising immigrant population, with their own unique culture: the melting pot of America. The intersubjective polemic, pivoted on whether their inclusion would be a boon to America’s rendered axiology, or whether it would dissolve the identity rendered up to that point. In the historical period of the novel, America’s identity remains, arguably, nascent, but the period in which Cather is writing My Antonia, America is a player in global politics and Cather is suggesting American identity centers around not misunderstanding the role exchange played in the formation of America, even simple misunderstandings caused by stray nouns.

    Cather said in a 1924 interview that “This passion for Americanizing everything and everybody is a deadly disease with us.”[20] Guy Reynolds outlines the two sides of this polemic. In the conservative corner was Royal Dixon who “In Americanization (1916) discussed ‘hyphenates’, the term he used for recent immigrant into the United States.”[21] Dixon’s prescription was “the teaching of English”[22] from which “the immigrant would be acculturated and lose his or her foreignness.”[23]

    In the above scenario, we can see Dixon’s point, however, Cather’s view is not so simplistic as to express the failings of language, but that the reciprocal failings of the native Burdens to embrace the offering is a case in point of the Americanisation debate. The boletus edulis are a cultural oblation for a kindness, bridging the social imbalance the Shimerdas suffer due to not being in their country of origin. The liberal position in the Americanisation debate was that “the new world could only be created with due appreciation of the European heritage.”[24] It is “through similarities with the world that was left behind”[25] the immigrant and the American will benefit and come to understanding. It is through pride in culinary proficiency and work ethic that the Burdens and Shimerdas can find common ground. Cather pointedly illustrates the break down of trust, which is made easier with the familiarity of language. She creates a position liminal between the liberal and the conservative. Tacit in the actions of the Burdens is a criticism of distrust and the necessity of the native to listen, even if the clarity of the message doesn’t meet with the immediate sensory impulse toward a thing; they can try. The ingenuity of Cather’s choice deserves mention.

    Regardless whether Cather knew much about mushrooms, they are a suitable metaphor. Philips explains “woodland areas would fail”[26], if the “intimate relationship of fungi with the roots of trees and plants, the mycorrhizal relationships,”[27] didn’t make their “important contribution.”[28] This, for me, works as a metaphor for the liberal Americansation argument. In this microcosm of that debate, the boletus is utilized to try and form social “mycorrhizal relationships” through taste.Taste is visceral, my point in revealing the identity of the mushroom as boletus edulis, I hope exposes that it was a minor leap of faith for the Burdens to connect the impoverished Shimerdas to their own proficiencies. Language aside, what Cather has us consider is how close we are to each other if we countervail our intuitions, and open ourselves to the cultures of others. The potential results are, metaphorically, a good stew. The Burdens’ missed opportunity of a good stew becomes a metaphor of the utopian potential of an America that embraces itself as a melting pot. America discovers its strengths are the differences that define it.


[1] Chris Tilley, “Metaphor, Materiality and Interpretation”: The Material Culture Reader, ed by Victor Buchli (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2002), pp. 23-26 (p. 23)

[2] Willa Cather, My Antonia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) p44

[3] Cather, My Antonia, p. 48

[4] Ibid., p. 48

[5] Ibid., p. 48

[6] Ibid., p. 47

[7] Ibid., p. 47

[8] Philips, Mushrooms, p. 276

[9] Philips, Mushrooms, p. 276

[10] Ibid., p. 47

[11] Ibid., p. 47

[12] Karen Sykes, Arguing with Anthropology: An Introduction to Critical Theories of the Gift, (London: Routledge, 2004) p. 2

[13] Sykes, Arguing with Anthropology, p. 4

[14] Cather, My Antonia, p. 46

[15] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, 5th Ed (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 8

[16] Mauss, The Gift, p. 9

[17] Jaco Kruger, ‘Human Dignity and the Logic of the Gift’, South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol 36 Issue 4 (2017), 516-524 https://doi.org/10.1080/02580136.2017.1362930, p. 520 (I think it cogent to add as an aside my interest in Kruger’s focus on dignity, which does play a minor role in my argument, namely, Mrs. Shimerda’s purpose in sacrificing a cup full of mushrooms is an act to rescue her dignity).

[18] Sykes, Arguing with Anthropology, p. 59

[19] Rebecca Colesworthy, Returning the Gift: Modernism and the Thought of Exchange, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), Oxford Scholarship Online

[20] Guy Reynolds, Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996) Springer Link https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230376243, p. 73

[21] Reynolds, Willa Cather in Context, p. 74

[22] Ibid., p. 74

[23] Ibid., p.74

[24] Ibid., p. 77

[25] Ibid., p. 77

[26] Philips, Mushrooms, p. 6

[27] Ibid., p. 6

[28] Ibid., p. 6

23 Comments

  1. I especially enjoyed the part explaining a simplistic, yet very complicated, understanding of the United States. Tis a gift to be simple but war aggravates the peaceful essence of human longing.

    Enjoyed reading this, this morning. 🕯

      1. Also I realized that for some reason the whole essay wasn’t there, I have remedied this so there is a conclusion now & more on the Americanisation problem. Sorry.

  2. It is good that you brought the actual flavor of mushrooms (in this case a decidedly praxeological phenomenon) into the discussion. Taste drives purpose and/or meaning. Being gifted a CD once of a band I disliked, by a huge fan of said band, caused a significant moment of tension between us when I “refused” to be awestruck by the “genius” of what I was hearing. Was I merely not interested in the music, or “purposely” not enjoying it (praxeology) for sake of insult or vengeance? Maybe only Plato could resolve this issue…

    1. Taste is important & the fact that Jim Burden & his grandma don’t taste the mushroom as it should be tasted, miss an opportunity to engage with their neighbour’s culture, to value it. Porcine mushrooms are packed with flavour, it is very difficult to deny they are delicious, because even if you do not like the texture of mushrooms, the soup that they make is so delicious. It seems unlikely the Burdens would have found the stew they could (had they cooked one with the mushrooms) inedible.
      But I quite agree with you that ‘taste drives purpose and/or meaning. But I think the taste of food & art are different in how visceral food is from art. I don’t deny the affect of art, to horripilate the skin, but the taste of food in the mouth & its texture is quite different I think, it is very immediate & requires a lot less attention. The taste of food is going to happen to you, where a taste for art has a more subjective foundation & requires focus.
      How do you think Plato can resolve this issue?

  3. “Fear of the unknown is caused by the thing not being unidentified.”
    You’re going to have to untie that bundle of negatives for me.

    1. Not so much slippage, as simply not having the words. If the Shimerdas could just say “these are dried mushrooms” the whole exchange would have been entirely different. Then Mrs Burden & Jim could have said “O, wonderful, we like mushrooms, we’ll surely make something with these” or “Sorry, we don’t eat mushrooms.” But what they do instead is reveal a cultural and social mistrust of them, failing to realize how treasured these mushrooms, which were treasured enough to accompany the Shimerdas across the Atlantic, really are.

  4. Daniel, First of all – Happy New Year. I haven’t read My Antonia and have only just discovered such a book exists. I will definitely look it up. It is a very appropriate and rich metaphor for what one brings from where they’d come from, and how alien this might be seen in the new place. All kinds of awkward situations happened to me and my friends, 100 years after Willa Carther’s observations, when I’ve offered food seasoned with mushrooms from Slovakia. It is often the type of food people bring with them in suitcases and it is often the only link with the soil or a relative for a long period of time. In my case, my Dad or Mum would produce a bag full of dried mushroom everytime I am zipping up my suitcase. Saying all this – i probably didn’t follow all of your essay and focused mainly on the ‘culinary aspects’.

    1. So interesting you say that as that is somewhat my point, that the value of the boletus is totally misunderstood & thus the opportunity to learn about the Bohemian culture is lost to ignorance and the absence of a noun. Thanks for reading. The novel is good, but I was more interested in identifying the mushroom actually.

      1. Oh, forgot to say, there are usually some fantastic birch boletuses (is that even the right plural!?) in Sutton Park – no doubt in Cannock too.

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