Historical Perspective

A Immigration

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.

In Willa Cather’s Nebraska, the population quadrupled between the Civil War and 1880, and then doubled again during the 1880s. Low prices for farm products in the late 1880s and early 1890s compounded by drought in the mid-1890s made success elusive for many on the Great Plains until almost the turn of the century. By the time Cather was writing My Antonia, immigration to the Great Plains had slowed; but the urban immigration continued to cause miserable situations in the cities. As a journalist in Pittsburgh and New York City and as a newspaperwoman and editor for a radical magazine, McClure’s, Cather was exposed not only to the conditions in which numerous urban immigrants lived but also to the mounting fear that the arrival of cheap foreign labor was not only undesirable competition but a contribution to the widening and hardening gap between rich and poor. During World War I, German Americans were definitely suspect and stories of their victimization can be found in almost any midwestern state histories. Even the Czechs, who were eager to help free their homeland from the domination of Austria-Hungary, suffered during the war years. The country’s anxiety over the role immigrants were to play in our society did not ease, even though the “tide” of immigration was stemmed briefly by World War I.

B Theories of Americanization

By the time Willa Cather was writing My Antonia, reaction to the massive European immigration of the nineteenth century had fostered two opposing theories of Americanization. These models have come to be called the “melting pot” theory and the “salad bowl” theory and still define the debate on difference even today, almost a century later. In the 1890s Frederick Jackson Turner popularized the image of the American West as a crucible where European immigrants would be “Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race.” One can read My Antonia as a tribute to this view and appreciate Antonia herself as “the rich mine of life, like the founders of early races” that produces the American people from the raw material that has been gathered on its shores. At its best, this view can serve as a model of assimilation. At its worst, it argues for a nativism, or favoring of native-born citizens, which is vulnerable to a fear or hatred of foreigners; indeed, the American Nativists of the 1910s and 1920s fiercely opposed the waves of immigration. An alternative view of Americanization was articulated by philosopher Horace M. Kallen in an article in The Nation, circulated three years before My Antonia was published. Each nationality should express its “emotional and voluntary life in its own language, in its own inevitable aesthetic and intellectual form,” according to Kallen. This idea has since been termed cultural pluralism. Carl Degler coined the expression “salad bowl.”