Willa Cather Nailed the Immigrant Ideal We Should Cherish
In ‘My Antonia,’ published a century ago, the American novelist gave us a durable heroine with embodies all the positives about immigration without once sounding saccharine.
This year Willa Cather’s early masterpiece, My Antonia, turns 100, but these days, thanks to the most explosive immigration crisis in American life since the Reagan era’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 passed Congress, My Antonia has acquired a new timeliness.
At the center of My Antonia lies the Dreamer-like story of Antonia Shimerda Cuzak, a Bohemian immigrant who at age 14 comes with her family to the Nebraska of the 1880s and adapts to life in the West with a completeness unmatched by her American-born neighbors. Antonia’s story is told by Jim Burden, who arrives in Nebraska the same day that she does to live with his grandparents after his own parents have died.
Jim, who has been living in Virginia, must, like Antonia, adjust to the challenges of a Nebraska that is new to him, but his grandparents are kind, prosperous people. The hardships that are Antonia’s are not his. Jim does not have to worry about where his next meal is coming from or how he will get through the cold, Nebraska winters. The difference in the paths that have been laid out for Jim and Antonia, who is four years older than he, is spelled out early in the novel when Antonia says to him, “Things will be easy for you. But they will be hard for us.”
Antonia is right. The closeness she and Jim shared on first arriving in Nebraska and roaming a prairie filled with miles of copper-red grass does not keep them together. Jim goes on to the University of Nebraska, then to Harvard, and Harvard Law School. Antonia suffers through her first winter in Nebraska in a sod house, endures her father’s suicide, works as a housekeeper in the nearby town of Black Hawk (a fictional version of Red Cloud, Nebraska), and has a baby with a man who abandons her.
Jim and Antonia experience a tender parting in the year Antonia turns 24, but, despite their youth, their parting has the feel of a final goodbye. “I’m so glad we had each other when we were little,” Antonia tells Jim.
Twenty years later when Jim returns to Nebraska for a visit, his and Antonia’s lives are still vastly different, but not in a way that suggests Jim is to be envied and Antonia is to be pitied. Jim is now a prosperous railroad lawyer, living in New York and caught up in a loveless marriage to a woman who spends most of her time being a patron of the arts. Antonia is a worn, but vibrant, mother, with a large family and a devoted husband living on a farm she helped build. “She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races,” Jim observes on seeing her again.
Antonia has managed to overcome all that should have undone her and succeeded in ways impossible to imagine in the country of her birth. Her personal triumph lies at the center of Cather’s novel and links her to the threatened Dreamer immigrants of today, brought to America as young children by their parents and now facing deportation. Like so many Dreamers, Antonia arrived with no special skills and only a few words of English.
Beginning with their first year together, when he sees Antonia keep alive a dying insect by making a nest for it in her hair, Jim portrays her as a figure of instinctive kindness. But what allows Antonia to prosper is her grit. She works long hours on her family’s farm. She sacrifices her privacy to go into service as a housekeeper. She marries only when she is convinced that her future husband will treat the child she has had out of wedlock as his own.
In her struggles, Antonia is helped by those who don’t view her and her family as “others” or as intruders on the land. Jim teaches Antonia English. His grandparents bring Antonia’s family food when the family is near starvation. Nearby farmers pitch in to help the Shimerdas build a log house. A neighbor teaches Antonia how to use a sewing machine and is present when she has her first baby.
It is this combination of hard work and goodwill that in the end allows Antonia to thrive in a Nebraska that Cather makes clear is not immune from bigotry toward immigrants. In Jim’s eyes Antonia’s success reflects the upward trajectory of Nebraska’s immigrant community, which in My Antonia includes Bohemians, Swedes, Russians, and Norwegians. “I always knew I should live long enough to see my country girls come into their own, and I have,” Jim later remarks. “Their children are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve.”
Jim’s comments on immigration reflect one of the few moments in which Cather’s writing turns explicitly political. She was not interested in making a formal case for immigration. She preferred instead to offer what we have had too little of in today’s vicious immigration debates—a picture of immigrant striving and acculturation as an American norm.
Jim is not just speaking personally when at the end of the novel, he says of his reunion with Antonia, “I had the sense of coming home to myself.” He is acknowledging the inseparability of his home-grown view of America and Antonia’s perspective.