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.”
B American Dream
The novel is populated predominantly by immigrants and the successes and failures of the American Dream are manifest. What drove people to make the long haul across oceans and then across the continent? Some came because they were ambitious. Mrs. Shimerda uprooted her family against her husband’s wishes. She said, “America big country, much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls.” Anton Cuzak seems to have drifted to Nebraska to keep away from the bad luck and trouble he seemed to have attracted in the past. Pavel and Peter were fugitives. The burgeoning country and economy provided many opportunities. The immigrant farmers hire out their daughters to the townspeople. Anton Jelinek rented his homestead and ran a saloon in town. Tiny Soderall follows the frontier to Seattle and then, during the gold rush, to Alaska. The Vannis take their musical talents and dancing tent on the road. And, as always, swindlers and loan sharks, like Wick Cutter, preyed on the weak. The immigrants pay an enormous price for these opportunities. The differences in language, occupation, and geography created hardships. “‘It must have been a trial for our mothers,’ said Lena, ‘coming out here and having to do everything different. My mother always lived in town. She says she started behind in farm-work, and never has caught up.'” There is loss of social status. Even Jim, who prefers the hired girls, is aware they are not of his own set. Marriage to Lena or Antonia is not even a consideration. And for many, there is homesickness. Antonia says “I ain’t never forgot my own country.” For some the price seems materially worth it. Lena is a successful dressmaker in San Francisco. Tiny owns a house there and is wealthy, although soured. Antonia and her husband flourish. For all the successes, the novel is riddled with disappointments and failures. Otto and Jake go west, and but for a postcard, they are never heard of again. “Rooshian” Peter, who proudly told Antonia that “in his country only rich people had cows, but here any man could have one who would take care of her,” loses his brother and bankruptcy forces him to sell his possessions. When Jim tells Antonia that Coronado, who searched the American west for the Seven Golden Cities, died in the wilderness of a broken heart, she sighs, “More than him has done that.” The American Dream had also broken her father.
It is through the eyes of Jim Burden, an orphan and thus something of an outsider himself, that Willa Cather considers differences of class, nationality, and gender. Even before young Jim arrives in Nebraska, he is met with prejudice against foreigners. Jake thinks that foreigners spread diseases. But Cather makes it clear that prejudice was not invented in America. Otto tells Mrs. Burden, “Bohemians has a natural distrust of Austrians.” And Norwegian Lena feels fated by the Lapp blood of her paternal grandmother. “I guess that’s what’s the matter with me; they say Lapp blood will out.” Throughout the novel, Jim himself is a perpetrator of pervading prejudices and conventions. As a boy, he is indignant that Antonia, a girl, should have a superior attitude toward him. After his success in killing a snake wins her admiration, he cannot help insulting her, “What did you jabber Bohunk for?” My Antonia is not simply a study in human difference but in the destiny that binds us into the human condition. Stargazing with Antonia, Jim muses, “Though we had come from such different parts of the world, in both of us there was some dusky superstition that those shining groups have their influences upon what is and what is not to be.”
D Coming of Age
My Antonia is a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, that traces Jim Burden’s development from the age of ten when he is orphaned and newly transplanted to his grandparents’ farm in Nebraska, where he first feels erased and blotted out. His escape into romanticism first takes the form of a young boy’s fascination with outlaws, such as Jesse James, and lost adventurers, such as the Swiss Family Robinson. As an adolescent, he remains estranged although conventional. Bored by the sameness of his small, pioneer town, he is intrigued by the romantic foreignness of the hired girls, girls he will never marry, and he keeps away from girls that would be suitable for him. As an adult, he remains virtually without a real home. His marriage is childless; he and his wife live almost separate lives, his being a life of travel on the railway through the land that he loves.
E Memory and Reminiscence
The novel has a rich aura of nostalgia and evokes a departed grandeur of a vast land that had once been a sea of red grass in motion. There is a sense of longing and homesickness that accompanies the characters as they move on in their lives. Antonia misses the flowers and the woodland pathways of her homeland. Life-hardened Otto carries Christmas-tree ornaments from Austria in his trunk. The age-old prejudices that have been brought from Europe are familiar relics and, being so, are hard to relinquish. Antonia’s big box of pictures seems to be a container of this past, a past she has managed to pass on to her children. “Antonia herself had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade-that grew stronger with time.” Jim has his own stores of pictures in his mind’s memory. And he consoles himself saying “Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”