Willa Cather, the Immigrant, and the Land

This winter Door County is once again participating in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read program. This year’s selection is a classic and uniquely American tale of place and people, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.

My Ántonia is at its core a documentary novel that portrays the pioneer immigrant experience on the farms and in the towns of the plains of Nebraska. As such, the work reflects the author’s own experience of the land and the peoples of Nebraska, as they were when she grew up there in the late 19th century. Though a work of fiction, the book is a faithful rendering of rural American life and American homestead pioneering. It captures a particular moment of our history when the land seemed young and ripe with opportunity, and when there were many would-be farmers anxious to put their backs into the chance to till land of their own.

Willa Cather arrived to the Plains from Virginia as a nine-year-old girl, just as her narrator Jim Burden does as the novel begins. Interestingly, her experiences in the landscape, as she presents them through Jim Burden, are very much like other first encounters with vastness of the Great Plains. These featureless landscapes can psychologically swallow people up. As Jim Burden arrives and leaves the train upon his arrival he marvels at his sense of desolation and smallness, “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out.”

So commonly the first reaction to the Plains is to shrink in the expanse and to lose an accurate sense of perspective and scale. Jonathan Raban writing of the dry-land farmers of Montana in his non-fiction work, Bad Land relates the same sort of almost vertiginous confusion as he writes of his own first encounter as well as those of the early settlers. So too, the young Jim Burden finds his eye searching for a reprieve from the monotony of the land. Reverently commenting on a tree that managed to find a way to cling to life, Jim remarks, “It must have been the scarcity of detail in the tawny landscape that made detail so precious.”

Likewise, My Ántonia is an unvarnished depiction of the hardships of the human experience of pioneers in this difficult land. While Jim’s remembrances of his boyhood are often shaded with sentimentality, these memories are juxtaposed with real deprivation, desperation, violence, and much death. The lives of the immigrants could be brutish in the extreme. Such was the case for Ántonia’s newly arrived family, the Shimerdas. They faced starvation and grinding poverty, suffering through their first winter in a house – perhaps more accurately, a cave – carved into the bank of a draw. Ántonia’s own father, overwhelmed by the loneliness, hardships, and desolation on the prairie, one winter could bear it no longer, and he took his own life. The next July Ántonia is forced to take on the responsibility of men’s work, partly driven by her brother Ambrosch. Startled by her transformation, Jim questions her new coarseness. Her response is reproach, “If I live here, like you, that is different. Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.” And so it was for many of the immigrant families.

My Ántonia is a quintessentially American novel, and in my mind’s eye, one of the aspects that makes it so is the tension, sometimes subtle and other times overt, between the various immigrant groups and also between the immigrants and the more established families (who interestingly never seem to think of themselves as immigrants). Each immigrant group is its own community of people and has its own suspicions and preconceptions of the others. The established families, even enlightened families such as Jim Burden’s, regard the recent immigrants with a sense of otherness. After Jim’s family moves to Black Hawk, he notes the townspeople’s general assessment of the Bohemian girls who come into town to work:

If I told my schoolmates that Lena Lingard’s grandfather was a clergyman, and much respected in Norway, they looked at me blankly. What did it matter? All foreigners were ignorant people who couldn’t speak English. There was not a man in Black Hawk who had the intelligence or cultivation, much less the personal distinction, of Ántonia’s father. Yet people saw no difference between her and the three Marys; they were all Bohemians, all “hired girls.”

One need not search long or hard to find examples of these cultural divides and prejudices in today’s America, or even in our own family histories. Throughout small-town Wisconsin, or in the neighborhoods of Milwaukee or Chicago, these old (and sometimes new) ethnic clusters and partitions plainly exist. Communities of German heritage can be easily discerned from communities of Norwegians, Italians, or Irish, and so forth. Today’s newest and most recent immigrants face their own challenges in finding a place in the larger society, but in the end, this too is an American experience.

Through the novel, Cather succeeds in demonstrating how our history on the land informs so much of our identity. The book is also a reminder that the struggles of immigration and the mixing of culture and heritage has been part of what makes us all American for a very long time. So, while My Ántonia is a sort of record of a particular moment in our history and from whence we came, it also a reflection of who we are, even still today.