Native Son was the first novel by an American writer to deeply explore the black struggle for identity and the anger blacks have felt because of their exclusion from society. Many black American voices would echo Wright-James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou, to name a few-in telling the story of an alienated protagonist whose search for self-identity and the freedom it brings must be achieved at all costs. Violence, drugs, and even religion serve as escape mechanisms for blacks who cannot face the fact that society considers them non-beings.
Willa Cather’s My Antonia (1918) is the story of both Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to the state of Nebraska in the 1880s, and the novel’s American-born narrator, Jim Burden, who creates his own image of Antonia in a nostalgic re-creation of his childhood and youth. Their wildly differing places in the social hierarchy account for their respective fortunes. Antonia survives her father’s suicide, hires herself out as household help, is abandoned at the altar, gives birth out of wedlock, but achieves fulfillment in her marriage to a Czech farmer, her loving children, and their flourishing farm. Jim, a successful well-traveled and cultured East-coast lawyer, remains romantic, nostalgic, and unfulfilled in life. Through this portrait of Antonia, widely acknowledged as one of the most memorable characters in twentieth-century literature, Cather celebrates the vitality and fruitfulness of the pioneering era as a type of lost paradise. My Antonia is widely considered the best of the author’s “Nebraska” novels which reflect her childhood experiences growing up on the plains. Since its appearance, Cather’s carefully crafted fiction has gathered a steady following. Her reputation has continued to grow since her death in 1947. Although contemporary reviewers sometimes faulted the author’s work as overly nostalgic and obsessed with the past, today critics see Cather’s Nebraska novels, and My Antonia in particular, as well-crafted, sympathetic portrayals of the uniquely American experience of immigrant pioneers.
Born in Virginia in 1873, Willa Cather spent the first decade of her life on her family’s farm in Back Creek Valley. In 1884, her family moved to join her father’s relatives among the ethnically diverse settlers of the Great Plains, an area that would serve as the inspiration for several of her novels, including My Antonia (1918). Her father tried farming but soon settled the family in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a town of approximately 2,500 people. Cather remembered vividly both the trauma of leaving a hill farm for a flat, empty land and the subsequent excitement of growing up in the new country. She took intense pleasure in riding her pony to neighboring farms and listening to the stories of the immigrant farm women she met there. Cather accompanied a local doctor on house calls and by her thirteenth birthday had adopted the outward appearance and manner of a male. She signed her name “William Cather, Jr.” or “William Cather, M.D.” Eventually returning to more conventional modes of dress, she later dismissed the episode as juvenile posturing.
Willa Cather’s My Antonia begins in the voice of an unnamed narrator who “introduces” not only the novel but also Jim Burden, whose first-person narration begins with chapter one. When these two “old friends” meet on a train crossing the plains of Iowa, they reminisce together about growing up in a small town on the Nebraska prairie, “buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate.” Both have long since moved away from the prairie to New York, but their recollections of childhood remain sharp, especially their memories of one “central figure,” the “Bohemian girl” named Antonia. “To speak her name,” the narrator writes, “was to call up pictures of people and places, to set a quiet drama going in one’s brain.” The narrator challenges Jim to write down all that he can remember of Antonia, and the manuscript that he creates he calls “My Antonia.”
A Jim Burden
As narrator, Jim Burden is Cather’s persona-that is, he serves as a stand-in for the author. He comes to Nebraska at about the same age and time that Cather moved west with her family; he lives on a farm for a time with his grandparents just as Cather did; and Jim’s neighbors, the Shimerdas, may have been inspired by the Cathers’ Bohemian neighbors, the Sadileks. As an adult, Jim Burden returns to Nebraska just as Cather returned to Red Cloud and visited her friend Annie Sadilek, who was then surrounded by a large brood of children and happily married to a Czech farmer (Cuzak in the novel).
A Change and Transformation
Willa Cather’s straightforward story of Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to Nebraska, parallels the change in the lives of the two principal characters with the transformation of the Great Plains. Antonia is fourteen when we first see her; Jim Burden ten. Both have been wrenched from their origins, Antonia from her native Bohemia, Jim from his parents’ home in Virginia. She is an immigrant. He is an orphan. It is no surprise we encounter them first in motion on a train. They are carried through an empty land. “There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. … There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” That first ride is in sharp contrast with Jim’s train crossing as an adult, when the “train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun.” Antonia has become the mother of a large family, and Jim is a successful Eastern lawyer, childless and unhappily married. Jim takes a long walk out of Black Hawk: “I had the good luck to stumble upon a bit of the first road. … Everywhere else it had been ploughed under when the highways were surveyed; this half-mile or so within the pasture fence was all that was left of that old road which used to run like a wild thing across the open prairie. … This was the road which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither.”
A Point of View
My Antonia is at once the story of Antonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to the Great Plains in the 1880s, and the story of Jim Burden, the narrator who creates his own image of Antonia. As Jim’s memoirs, the novel is the re-creation of a middle-aged lawyer whose failed marriage leaves him unloved and alone and whose childhood in Nebraska becomes, in retrospect, the happiest time of his life, the period of potential and expectancy before the disappointments of adulthood. The rose-color cast and purple rhapsodies are products of this sentimental and romantic look backward. Ironically, despite the revisionist representation, it is clear that even as a child Jim is already alienated, different, orphaned. This use of a male narrator is typical in Cather’s writing and has attracted much critical attention. It may account for Jim’s inability to make Antonia his girlfriend or wife, even though he clearly loves her. My Antonia is also Willa Cather’s story of children discovering the beauties and terrors of a vast new country and of themselves. While Antonia emerges as an equally strong character, she is observed only from the outside. As Cather told a friend, she wanted her heroine to be “like a rare object in the middle of a table, which one may examine from all sides … because she is the story.”
Up until 1825, less than 10,000 new immigrants came to the United States each year. By the late 1840s, revolutions in Europe and the devastating potato famine in Ireland sent people to this country by the hundreds of thousands. Immigration increased steadily during the 1850s, and by 1860, one-eighth of America’s 32 million people were foreign born. While many of these immigrants settled around the mill towns of the east as well as in the larger urban centers, the promotional activities of the railroads brought many immigrants straight past them to the prairies. The railroad companies even sent scouts abroad to encourage people to come and settle the plains and prairies. It has been claimed that the transcontinental railroad could not have been built without immigrant labor. The railroad was seen both as crucial to economic success of the town and countryside and as a powerful monopoly charging what it wished to ship grain to the market. Another flood of immigrants came in the 1860s and 1870s, just after the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted, for a small fee, 160 acres of Western public land to citizens or prospective citizens who would stay and settle it for five years. These settlers were predominantly from western and northern Europe. They became the “old immigrants” when the numbers of “new immigrants” from eastern and southern Europe swelled in the 1880s and 1890s.
Explore the religious, social, and national background of the various waves of European immigration to the Great Plains and how these factors affected their assimilation into “American” society.
IX COMPARE AND CONTRAST
1880s: The “new immigrants” who came from eastern and southern Europe in the 1880s are considered a potential threat to the “American” character. For the first time, in 1882, Congress acts to restrict immigration on a selective basis, although standards are not very stringent. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 puts an end to the importation of cheap Chinese labor which had caused some ugly racial riots in the West. Post-World War I: Congress passes the Immigration Act of 1924; it institutes a quota system based on the U.S. population in 1920 and was an overt attempt to keep the country’s ethnic “composition” what it had been-that is, predominantly Northern European. Today: The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 gave legal status to millions of illegal aliens living in the U.S. since January 1982 and established penalties for anyone found hiring illegal aliens. Immigration preferences are extended due to family relationships and needed skills, not country of origin. In the 1990s, states like California attempt to pass legislation restricting government services to legal immigrants.