Essay on Willa Cather 's My Antonia

Essay on Willa Cather 's My Antonia

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Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia is often celebrated for its complimentary depiction of the immigrants that flocked to America at the turn of the twentieth century and hailed for its progressive approach to the ever-relevant immigrant debate. Despite the novel’s superficial benevolence towards foreigners, Janis Stout questions the authenticity of the book’s (and, by extension, Cather’s) kindnesses in her critical article “Coming to America/Escaping to Europe.” Stout argues that Cather’s ethnic characters (or lack thereof) reflect the popular, discriminatory views of her time, and extracts evidence from both the novel and the author’s personal life to buttress this claim. Stout’s criticism inspired my own interpretation-- that Cather’s treatment of what Stout refers to as “ethnic other[s]” (whether Bohemian, German, Italian, Jewish, African-American, or Native American) largely depends upon that group’s usefulness or inconvenience to the early 1900s white majority (467).
At first glance, it seems that Cather casts a favorable light on the novel’s Bohemian and Scandinavian immigrants. Particularly, the Bohemians are Cather’s foreign population of choice-- as is evidenced by the heroine Ántonia’s Czech heritage-- and at first, it seems logical to attribute her favoritism to her own childhood encounters with a Bohemian family that lived nearby. While these real-life immigrants certainly provided inspiration for the Shimerdas, critics would be remiss to ignore that Cather’s praise of Bohemians (rather than Germans, for instance) crucially reflects the cultural attitudes of early 1900s America. Narrator Jim’s starry-eyed admiration of his neighbors hinges upon their national identity; had the Shimerdas sported a different racial or...

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... but also in accounts of Cather’s professional life, which Stout supplies in her essay. As this essay has indicated, Bohemians and Scandinavians were only tolerated as far as they were deemed beneficial, Italians and Jews were villainized as sources of economic competition and criminal activity, blacks were commodified for the purposes of entertainment and labor, and Native Americans were disregarded and uprooted for American greed. Minorities were viewed as expendable resources, the animate bricks-- cemented together with the blood of their exterminated peoples-- that comprised the pyramid of the American Dream and made success an achievable ideal for white Americans. This legacy of minority maltreatment lingers in modern-day America, and will not diminish until white Americans view “ethnic other[s]” as their equals in intelligence, in virtues, and in overall worth.

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