With America gaining significant economic growth in the 19th and 20th centuries, its popularity among other nations of the world increased dramatically. There was a wave of immigrants entering the country during that period and especially after the Great wars when there were disturbances in the European countries many people left their homeland and entered United States in search of better jobs and a more prosperous future. But not everyone left their country because there was an economic disaster, several left because for political reasons too.
And like all other people who had to abandon their countries for different reasons, immigrants in Willa Cather's My Antonia too faced some significant problems such as prejudice and cultural clash and most of all entering the American workforce was anything but easy for them and not to mention the language barrier which turned every problem into a gigantic one (2). There are some who would describe their experience as wonderful but most of them would have some heart-wrenching stories to relate about their immigration.
The racism was the biggest problem followed by religious conflicts, which made many immigrants regret their decision of moving to the U.S. Since Americans in those were not really used to the idea of foreigners entering their country and taking over their jobs, they openly resented the immigrants and they were blamed for many of the nations problems. In Willa Cather's book, My Antonia, we come across similar story of hardships faced by immigrants yet it is told in a different manner. While the story does talk about the problems faced by immigrants, it has been told in a refreshingly different style that gives a surreal quality to the immigrant experience in the United States. Instead of focusing only on problems, the author has talked about many other things such as freshness and beauty of unfamiliar land and people, the coming together of people of different nationalities who all had just one dream i.e. To make it big in this land of opportunities. The narrator is Jim Burden who is looking back at his life in Nebraska and pays tribute to the heroics spirit of immigrants who despite all odds, decided to stay and make their dream come true in the U.S.
My antonia... is not only the best done by Miss Cather, but also one of the best that any American has ever done, east or west, early or late. It is simple; it is honest; it is intelligent; it is moving. The means that appear in it are means perfectly adapted to its end. Its people are unquestionably real." (Sell, 1919)
My Antonia' by Willa Cather, is a simple story of a young man growing up in Nebraska and how he falls in love with a warm passionate country girl, Antonia. In My Antonia, the author has talked about the protagonist's life in Nebraska where he grew up with a love for simple things and was surrounded by beautiful places and warm people. This book talks about immigrants and their indomitable spirit. Cather was interested in exploring something that many other writers left undiscovered i.e. The heroism and the spirit of immigrants that kept them going despite numerous problems (9). The author has always been interested in this side of the immigrant experience. Bennett (1961) notes: "Willa Cather often stated that one of her deepest interests was the life of the foreign immigrant in America, and it is no secret that it was the struggle for adjustment of these people in their new country that formed the basis for all her most significant and enduring work."
Being autobiographical in nature, the book is closely connected with actual experiences of Cather's life. Like the girl Antonia in the novel, Cather herself was daughter of Bohemian immigrants who worked as hired girl in factories and mines. Similarly the people she describes as her neighbors in the novel were actually the kind of people she grew up with. Bennett adds, "The countryside, in particular the countryside around Red Cloud, Willa's childhood home, was an intellectual melting pot of Bohemian, Russian, German, French, Swedish and Norwegian first-generation immigrant pioneers, to which were added the cultures of New England and the Cathers' own gracious Virginia. The pioneers who came to seek their fortune on the inhospitable new land -- some to perish in the attempt from sheer loneliness, like gentle Bohemian Papa Shimerda of My antonia --were by no means the hard-riding, gun-toting adventurers of the Western films. Musicians, botanists, world-traveled linguists and frustrated painters were Willa's childhood neighbors" (p. xiii)
Though the narrator in the book is a male figure. He is essentially talking about the life of Cather from the eyes of someone else. Author focuses on the beauty and freshness of Nebraska along with the problems faced by immigrants (5). Reliving the past, Jim Burden, recaptures the beauty of his childhood in Nebraska and writes, "I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep." (Page 15)
Jim's purpose of coming to Nebraska is different from that of Antonia and thus for him it mean "into the empty darkness" (4). For Antonia's family, the same journey means entering in the New World. They see it as a fulfillment of their dream while Jims views the whole episode as a burden (3). But despite its focus on some dark realities of immigrant experience, My Antonia presents a refreshingly different view as she also includes positive aspects of coming to the U.S. And coming closer to people from different countries. She beautifully captures the great American dream that all immigrants came with.
All the time she say "America big country; much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls." My papa, he cry for leave his old friends what make music with him. He love very much the man what play the long horn like this' -- she indicated a slide trombone. 'They go to school together and are friends from boys. But my mama, she want Ambrosch for be rich, with many cattle.'" (90)
People coming to the U.S. were scared of the unfamiliar land, of unfamiliar culture and of an alien society. They were in awe of its size but at the same time, its magnificent landscape only frightened the new immigrants who despite their indomitable spirit were initially shaken by the new land and its strange culture. As Jim writes about Nebraska:
There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.... I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man's jurisdiction.... Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be. (7)
This was a place that could take one's identity away as the author realized upon entering the country. Cather remembers how she felt about the Great Divide when she came to Nebraska at the age of nine: "I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything-- it was a kind of erasure of personality.... [although] I had heard my father say you had to show grit in a new country... I thought I should go under" (Kingdom of Art 448; qtd. In O'Brien 63"
Antonia in herself represents the entire immigrant population. Her spirit and her love for life reflect the indomitable spirit of those who came to the United States to succeed and tried their best despite numerous problems and initial failures.. Her brave spirit and undying passion for life are the attributes are what lend beauty to the immigrant narrative in this book. "Antonia... lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true... She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting... She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races... all the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races." (p. 229)
Her introduction to Jim Burden also describes something important about the immigrants and their language problems. "Once when he sat…